The “curse” of mental illness is explored in a new documentary about Mariel Hemingway, the actor granddaughter of Ernest, and her authority is beyond doubt.
It’s no secret that the Hemingway family is heaving with mental illness, but it’s never easy to untangle the depression from the drink-soaked fame to explain the suicides that plagued the writer’s family on the order of a mental illness bloodbath.
“Running From Crazy,” from the two-time Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple, doesn’t pander to gossip. The camera follows Mariel Hemingway as she embraces sanity and her wellness regime and the great outdoors, speaking publicly about mental illness and working out with her partner.
As she takes you into her world, you might wish you shared Mariel’s passion for healthy living. You might just envy her charmed life–right up until you view some remarkable family footage, mostly of her sister Margaux, the model who committed suicide in 1996, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway.
In 1928 the writer’s father shot himself in the head at home. Ernest, who was on his way back to his Key West home, returned to Oak Park, Ill., for the funeral while finishing “A Farewell to Arms.”
In the documentary, a portrait of family dysfunction comes together through his granddaughter. Mariel’s parents were big drinkers and brawlers. She believes her father Jack had sexually abused Margaux and her other older sister Joan, who’s been institutionalized with manic depression for long stretches of her adult life.
Joan (a k a Muffet), in the 1970s a ski bum in Ketchum, Idaho, where her Papa Hemingway had settled the family, claims an acid trip at 16 gave her manic-depression. Whatever had tipped the balance for her, the ordeal of childhood sexual abuse has a very higher association with adult psychosis.
For generations suicide has been the deadliest Hemingway disorder, seven in all going that way. The great man’s feeling was that mankind itself was hard-wired. “Forget your personal tragedy,” he growled at F. Scott Fitzgerald. “We’re all bitched from the start.”
True enough, tens of millions of less remarkable families struggle. More than one in four Americans ages 18 and older—some 65 million in all—has a diagnosable disorder, suicide being the terminal stop for about 37,000 Americans a year. More than 90 percent of these individuals, in turn, have a mental illness diagnosis.
So, it seems, for most families, it’s never just one thing.
Is Fame Insane?
Mariel’s father, Jack, blamed the Hemingway curse on fame, but madness isn’t picky about which families it chooses to visit. Her sister Muffet may be a Hemingway, but she’s just one of some 2.4 million very ordinary Americans that has a diagnosis of bipolar manic depression in any given year. An equal number has schizophrenia.
Nor are the ones who go mad necessarily the ones who took more drugs. In my own family, my sister Austine (diagnosis of schizophrenia) tripped a few times, but it was nothing to compare with her younger brother’s misadventures.
All those sisters and the mishmash of mental illnesses and substance abuse reminds me of my own family. Which is odd because we all had an occasion to meet in real life a few years ago. Not to name drop or blow my own trumpet, but it was in March of 2009 and I had my four sisters there with me for an awards ceremony given by the Hemingway family.
I chatted for ten minutes with Patrick—Mariel’s uncle, Ernest’s son, a sweet man, genuinely cheerful and friendly–but I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to have Papa Hemingway as his papa. All that macho self-confidence can cut both ways.
Did the fear-courage theme that defined the classic Hemingway hero, and the writer himself, somehow consume sons Jack and Patrick? Did Jack somehow consume his daughters?
Did their father, the literary master, take his own life 33 years after his own Dad did, and some 35 years before his granddaughter would, for reasons we’ll ever be able to fathom?
The message from “Running From Crazy” lies in the importance of taking care of oneself when we are powerless over family dysfunction, of which we know much.
Like his brother and father, Patrick had undergone electro shock therapy after suffering a mental breakdown in 1947.
When we me four years ago, I could see that Patrick was his father’s son, yet without any of the alpha male machismo that defined the literary giant.
We didn’t talk about mental illness that spring day in Boston at the JFK Libary and Museum. We were too busy laughing it up, joking, calling each other “namesake.”
And then, like us, in a flash, the Hemingways were gone.