Piece of Mind

  • Review
By – February 22, 2016

Piece of Mind is a breezy read with a com­pas­sion­ate heart. Michelle Adel­man’s debut nov­el intro­duces a hero­ine whose fail­ings, grief, and dis­abil­i­ty have become the back­ground music of her life, but who nonethe­less grows stronger because of her scars.

Lucy suf­fers from a trau­mat­ic brain injury, which affects her exec­u­tive func­tion­ing: her orga­ni­za­tion­al skills, time man­age­ment and impulse con­trol are basi­cal­ly non-exis­tent. She often rat­tles off her per­ceived short­com­ings by way of intro­duc­tion, yet balks at the term dis­abled.”

Lucy’s fam­i­ly dynam­ic pro­vides dra­ma when the poet­ic telling of her con­di­tion falls short. Each mem­ber is ill-equipped to deal with each oth­er’s needs — even Lucy’s father, who helps keep her on track day-to-day. He’s con­vinced that Lucy can do any­thing a nor­mal” woman can do, but his expec­ta­tions haven’t inspired Lucy in the way that he might have hoped. Instead of feel­ing empow­ered, she both rejects help that might come from embrac­ing her lim­i­ta­tions and rejects her own abil­i­ty to func­tion nor­mal­ly. She’s caught in a lim­bo of ambivalence.

The author hits her stride when she deals with the small attempts and fail­ures of Lucy’s fam­i­ly. Her father might have the best of inten­tions but when he tries to help Lucy he’s play­ing out a fan­ta­sy of his own suc­cess as a par­ent. Meet­ing her actu­al needs would reflect too painful­ly on his short­com­ings and loss­es. How­ev­er, her father is an essen­tial part of Lucy’s life, both as a friend and a care­giv­er. Adel­man explores this con­di­tion­al love, and the way it’s exac­er­bat­ed by delu­sion, which can be so sub­tly dam­ag­ing with­in the con­text of a par­ent-child relationship.

Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from her own sis­ter, Adel­man avoids con­de­scend­ing to her char­ac­ters and, as a result, is over­ly cau­tious in her writ­ing. It’s hard to real­ly wor­ry about Lucy’s safe­ty or well-being, just as it’s hard to ful­ly root for her suc­cess. Riski­er pas­sages — like the odd and beau­ti­ful open­ing chap­ter in which Lucy describes incur­ring her injury, con­nect­ing the inci­dent to own­er­ship of her soul and Tu B’Sh­vat — are infre­quent. In that first chap­ter, read­ers become Lucy, some­thing that’s often miss­ing despite the first-per­son nar­ra­tive. Lucy’s altered per­cep­tions form the back­bone of her expe­ri­ences — it almost does­n’t mat­ter what’s clin­i­cal­ly abnor­mal about her brain. So it’s dis­ap­point­ing to search Piece of Mind for what it feels like to be Lucy and encounter most­ly lit­er­al, symp­to­matic expe­ri­ences instead.

Lucy is strongest and most com­plex when her adult strug­gles are con­trast­ed against her child­like need for care. As the nor­mal” peo­ple around her suf­fer break­downs, admit to loss, and reveal that they’re as inad­e­quate as Lucy thinks her­self to be, Adel­man points out that the tri­umphant iso­la­tion of self-suf­fi­cien­cy isn’t such a great thing, after all.

Piece of Minds straight­for­ward style should make it appeal­ing to a wide vari­ety of read­ers. The choice to include exam­ples of Lucy’s sketch­es, and the nov­el­’s gloss over her sex­u­al expe­ri­ences, will extend its appeal to an even younger audi­ence. Fans of Mark Had­don’s The Curi­ous Inci­dent of the Dog in the Night­time or even R.J Pala­cio’s Won­der will be inter­est­ed, and read­ers sim­ply look­ing for a sto­ry about grow­ing into the self that’s wait­ing for you will be equal­ly rewarded.

Inter­view with Michelle Adelman

with Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone

Michelle Adel­man’s debut nov­el intro­duces a hero­ine whose fail­ings, grief, and dis­abil­i­ty have become the back­ground music of her life, but who nonethe­less grows stronger because of her scars. Jew­ish Book Coun­cil chat­ted with the author about this unusu­al nov­el, Piece of Mind, its por­tray­al of the fam­i­ly dynam­ics in deal­ing with dis­abil­i­ty, and how Judaism emerged as a source of com­fort to its pro­tag­o­nist, Lucy.

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone: Your back­ground is in non­fic­tion and jour­nal­ism. How did you become inter­est­ed in writ­ing fic­tion? And how did you use those skills when you wrote this novel?

Michelle Adel­man: I start­ed work­ing in mag­a­zines, but after a cou­ple of years I dis­cov­ered that I want­ed to write more cre­ative­ly. I did an MFA in fic­tion and start­ed to write short sto­ries and then real­ized I want­ed to write a novel.

The first ele­ments of Piece of Mind came from my sis­ter, who inspired Lucy. They were root­ed in my obser­va­tions, almost in an essay­is­tic way. But I had to do a lot of research because as a fam­i­ly we nev­er real­ly talked about her trau­mat­ic brain injury. I enjoyed the research process, but also that I was­n’t con­strict­ed to facts.

NLG: Did any­thing else help clar­i­fy how you want­ed to tell this story?

MA: I start­ed writ­ing the book in third per­son. But when I switched to first per­son, a lot of my inad­ver­tent judge­ment went away. It was­n’t a con­scious shift, but it grant­ed the read­er more empathy.

NLG: Lucy’s con­di­tion is wrought by tragedy and acci­dent. Why did you want to use more of the same to move the plot forward?

MA: I think I need­ed some­thing to pro­pel Lucy into the unfamiliar.

NLG: So it had to be some­thing sudden.

MA: Yes, an acci­dent was the only way I could con­ceive of it hap­pen­ing. It was the only way to push her past what she thinks she can do. And, it helped up the drama.

NLG: Can you tell me about Lucy’s rela­tion­ship to her father? It’s lov­ing but it’s def­i­nite­ly not healthy.

MA: I want­ed the love and care to be there — the good inten­tions were impor­tant. But I also want­ed to con­vey that almost delu­sion­al qual­i­ty they’re both liv­ing in. They’ve coex­ist­ed in the same way for so long that they’ve become codependent.

NLG: They don’t seem total­ly hap­py, but they also don’t seem like they want to change.

MA: Exact­ly. It’s unclear if either of them knows there’s an issue.

NLG: Why is Lucy’s mom out of the pic­ture, too? It’s almost too much! Lucy’s father keeps her alive, and loves her, but isn’t total­ly prac­ti­cal. I felt more sad about Lucy’s long­ing for her moth­er than I did about her father’s death.

MA: I always had the moth­er out of the pic­ture, because I think it’s hard­er for fathers and daugh­ters to relate and want­ed to explore that dynam­ic. The impor­tance of a moth­er fig­ure grew as I was writ­ing. Lucy is seek­ing that mater­nal relationship.

NLG: Why is Lucy so opposed to the idea of being dis­abled”?

MA: It’s part of the way she’s lived with her dad for so long, to be con­di­tioned to think that her great­est goal is to be nor­mal.” But her devel­op­ment in the book is to under­stand that no one is nor­mal or per­fect, and that it would be much bet­ter for her if she took the world on her own terms. That refusal is a fun­da­men­tal piece of her character.

NLG: Some­thing that I love about Lucy is her inabil­i­ty to func­tion grace­ful­ly. By refus­ing or being unable to do basic tasks, she throws the farce of our habits into high relief. It’s like she can’t help but ask, what’s the point of doing it this way?”

MA: She’s almost like a time trav­el­er or some­one from anoth­er planet!

NLG: The Judaism in Piece of Mind seems to come up more strong­ly after tragedy strikes and Lucy needs comforting.

MA: I real­ized that when these char­ac­ters are deal­ing with tragedy and acci­dents, they would turn to reli­gion to help explain what’s hap­pen­ing. It made sense that Lucy would go back to her Jew­ish­ness to explain the big­ger world around her. Her father’s belief sys­tem plays a role in who he is and how he abid­ed by tra­di­tion. It grounds their whole family.

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism at The Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

Discussion Questions