Book Review: My Name Was Susan O’Malley
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A melancholic yet healing reflection on mishandling mental illness and still coming out on the other side
Looney, disturbed, psychotic, deranged: these were only a few of the horrendous labels for “people like” Susan O’Malley suffering from depression. In My Name Was Susan O’Malley Michael J. Nercessian sets out to honor those women – and men – of the twentieth century, born too early to experience a more advanced world where mental illness could be treated properly and with dignity.
Nercessian paints a beautifully melancholic and wistful portrait of all of the individuals tortured by their loved one’s mental illness. Although depression was once considered a permanent stain on a life, he tests whether or not that stain can be removed through time and self-reflection.
Tom and Margaret have been married for forty years, but the dark cloud that has always loomed over their lives is growing heavier and closer. When Patrick O’Malley arrives at their doorstep unexpectedly, he brings with him this cloud—the painful memory of his sister, Susan—and it finally hangs right overhead in plain view.
Through memories of Tom’s and Margaret’s, we find out that Susan O’Malley was Margaret’s best friend and Tom’s girlfriend. It was the 1970s. They were young and in love, and studying in a Massachusetts college town. The three of them, along with Margaret’s boyfriend, Liam, were inseparable. Their lives might have gone in a completely different direction if not for Susan’s sadness and unusual behavior. As her depression deepened, Tom and Margaret were made to deal with her pain in their own ways, and it inevitably marred their own lives and beings.
It at first appears that Patrick pays them a visit because he wants closure. He wants to see if he can complete an incomplete picture of his sister who was always older and an enigmatic figure to him.
However, Tom and Margaret begin to wonder if there is more bubbling under the surface than Patrick is letting on. What else has he come for and what more does he know about his sister?
They begin to retrace their past separately in order to find out if there is something they missed, something more they could have done. Nercessian twists our hearts through Mags and Tom’s reminiscences on the times before their age settled in, before the scent of their youth was snuffed out through tragedy.
The author splays out these characters, all of their insecurities and regrets, through stream of conscious thoughts, and we get inside the heads of two individuals who are unaware that all this time they have been seeking healing and forgiveness from their past.
Nercessian has us questioning if this visit by Patrick will bring Tom and Margaret closer, or if they will remain the same distant couple…or worse. Will they manage to let go of the past? Of the memory of Susan and what happened to her? He is so skilled at creating characters vulnerable and real that we can feel their pain and deeply-set regret.
As resigned as they might seem in the beginning of the story, Nercessian manages to chip away at their exterior and reveals the rawness they have long buried deep inside. My Name is Susan O’Malley is a deceptively simple story of two people who do what many of us do: pretend that everything is okay, when it very much is not. We settle into what is safe, because it seems easier than facing our darkness. Nercessian understands our true nature of wanting to be heard and understood, even if it seems as if we are content with where we are.
I’d recommend this novel to anyone looking to traverse through the pain and loss that Nercessian’s characters do. My Name Was Susan O’Malley is a story constructed on such a solid foundation—the universal struggle of loving someone with a mental illness—that even if we cannot identify with Tom and Margaret’s story in particular, it still resonates and leaves us feeling something real.
It is a truly satisfying journey, but you must be willing to lean into Tom and Mag’s thought processes with an open mind and heart. Nercessian offers these characters up to us with such a nonjudgmental approach that he paves the way for us to embrace their every flaw and, hopefully, still forgive them in the end.
Genre: Literary Fiction / Family Life Fiction
Print Length: 228 pages
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