20 May 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

There are some books that fill you with hope. There are some books that devastate you. That are some books that ring so true to your own experience that you have a hard time figure out how to talk about them.

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES was all of the above.

This is spoiler-heavy. So if you haven’t read the book, I would say: READ IT. If you work with children, READ IT. If you are a parent, READ IT. If you know someone who struggles with mental illness, READ IT. If you yourself struggle, READ IT.


I’ve mentioned before I have history with depression. When I was twelve I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I was diagnosed so young because my mother had seen the signs in me and was concerned—I wasn’t doing my schoolwork, I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t doing anything, really.

Depression and bipolar run in my family. My mother knew what to look for.

By the time I was sixteen or so—four years in—I reached a point where my medication had been tweaked enough so I could function more or less normally. I was still dull, still deadened at times, and I had pretty much no sex drive, but it was worth it. There were days, especially around age thirteen, when I was so low I thought about death. Not killing myself, mind you, but just not being alive anymore.

I remember it so clearly, because it was right around when the movie Titanic came out, and my sister had “My Heart Will Go On” play on repeat every night. Our bedrooms shared a wall. Every night I would lie awake wondering if anyone would miss me if I was gone, all the while hearing Celine Dion from the other side of the wall.

To this day, I can’t listen to that song. It takes me right back to that place.

I was nearly hospitalized when I was fifteen, when I had a pretty severe depressive episode, one so bad I couldn’t leave the house for a month.

Suffice it to say, I made it through high school, and college. By the time I was twenty I was in a place where I had learned to cope with things, and my medication was discontinued. I still monitor my moods carefully, though. Just because I am okay now doesn’t mean I might not need help again. And I’m so lucky I have a support system around me to help me realize when I do.


How does this relate to ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES?

Theodore Finch finds Violet Markey on top of their high school’s bell tower. While Finch goes there frequently to contemplate death, Violet looks ready to actually end it—and Finch talks her down.

So begins their unlikely friendship.

Violet’s grieving the death of her sister—her first bout with loss, made all the worse by the fact that her parents don’t know how to talk about it, and that she blames herself for the whole thing.

Finch is living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and he’s just entered a manic phase: The Awake, as he calls it.

Theodore Finch is the most kinetic narrator I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He’s full of life and love, bombastic and charismatic. But there is darkness lingering. He’s afraid of The Asleep. He has to fight to stay in the world.

It’s a fight he ultimately loses.

There are a million other reviews out there, talking about how beautiful the book is, how moving, how meaningful, how poignantly it handles loss and grief and survival. Those things are all true.

But what got me, what absolutely destroyed me, was how badly Finch’s family let him down. I think of my own family and I get so angry at Finch’s.

His mother is completely absent. Not physically, but emotionally. She has no idea when Finch misses school for weeks at a time. She refuses to see when he takes to living in his closet as he fights The Asleep he knows is coming. She should have been paying attention.

His father is abusive. Brutally, physically abusive. He, too, suffers from black moods. He should know better.

Finch’s older sister helps him get away with missing school. She’s too wrapped up in her own college life to look and see that what she’s doing isn’t helping him.

Finch’s younger sister is too young to know what’s what, so she gets a pass.

There were so many chances for Finch’s family to look at him, really look, and say something. Do something. But they didn’t. It was Violet’s parents who tried to help, after Violet asked them to. But it was too little, too late—and it may have scared Finch off.

Finch’s counselor at school tried to get through to him. He even hit the nail on the head, suggesting Finch was bipolar. Could he have done more? I don’t know. Maybe, but Finch’s family certainly didn’t make it easy.

And it might just be me, but it seems like there’s a lot less sympathy for boys who have emotional problems. Boys are told to “be a man,” “suck it up.” Finch was no less a man for being unable to control his brain chemistry.

I'm not trying to assign blame. Suicide is a complicated thing.

That’s why everyone should read this book.

Everyone who’s ever been depressed (or bipolar, or struggled with any mental illness, for that matter) should read it. Because it will remind you of all the bright places in the world. It will remind you that love can be real and that people care about you, even if it’s the people you find on your own. It will remind you that life is worth living.

Every parent should read it. Because parents need to know how to identify illnesses like Finch’s. Parents need to know not to be afraid to broach the topic. To remove the stigma. If my parents hadn't been aware, I would not be here today.

Everyone else should read ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, too. Because we all need to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness.

And besides: it’s a beautiful book. I stayed up until one in the morning finishing it. I kept thinking about it. Three weeks later I still think of it. A few days ago, a song came on and I got chills because it sounded like Finch was singing to me. (The song was Imagine Dragons' "Nothing Left to Say." The first line is "Who knows how long I've been awake now?")

I am so grateful to Jennifer Niven for writing ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. And I hope it helps everyone who reads it as much as it helped me.

It made me lovely.