"Center of the Universe"

September 13, 2009 6:04:23 AM PDT
About one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Nancy Bachrach, author of "The Center of the Universe," joined us with the details behind her memoir on family dynamic changes once someone becomes ill. No one could make your story up. Your first book, THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, is a memoir full of dark humor about your mother, and you've been compared to David Sedaris. When did you realize you had enough material for a book?


One reviewer said you "put the FUN back in dysfunctional." But it doesn't sound like it was much fun at the time. What made you realize that your mother was, how shall I put it, "certifiable?"

When I was about ten, my mother proclaimed that she was "the center of the universe." We were in our old Chevy, and she was twirling her hands in dainty arcs -- to demonstrate the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. Her medical history read like the chapter headings of an old psychiatric manual, and eventually she was diagnosed as bipolar.

...When she was up, she was a twister who could turn Providence into Oz. And when she crashed, she was the wind shear beneath my wings.

How did you keep your sense of humor intact?

After enough time, and enough therapy, things that were absurd can seem ridiculous...even laughable. Thurber described humor as "chaos in retrospect."

This is a story with an almost unbelievable twist (or two). When your mother was in her fifties, she was in a freak accident that changed everything.

My mother spent the night on my father's boat, the aptly-named "Mr. Fix It," and the generator leaked carbon monoxide. She was found in a coma and taken to a little seaside hospital where the staff was so inexperienced that her chart said she was in a "COMMA." She wasn't expected to survive, but she did. When she got home, her behavior was like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. She was bizarre, robotic. She was fascinated with the garbage disposal and kept trying to stick her hand in it. She'd get dressed by putting on a dozen pair of pantyhose...and nothing else. She was disoriented and couldn't remember who I was. Within two weeks she didn't know who she was. This sounds crazy, and it was, but it was a different kind of crazy - her breakdown was neurological, not psychological.

One doctor told you "hope would be counter-productive." How do you cope with that kind of prognosis?

You have to hope that it's wrong...and it was. Hope is never counter-productive. My mother overcame what her neurologist called "permanent and irreversible brain damage." Within a year, she got up out of her wheelchair, cast off her adult Pampers and came home...a completely different woman. And here's the most remarkable part: the carbon monoxide corrected her bipolar disorder, and now my mother is as stable as the beat of a metronome. (I should tell anyone who's watching not to try this remedy at home!)

How did your mother react when she read your memoir?

The pen is a blunt instrument, and I allowed myself to write things I'd never said aloud, certainly not to my mother. I was writing for myself, not for publication. But she found a draft, and it was quite a conversation-starter. Her first comment, characteristically, was "You'll never have better material." She encouraged me to publish it. The day it was released, she went to her local bookstore and announced she was there to sign copies.

How did the book change your relationship with your mother? It was cathartic for both of us. I'd always treated my mother like she was contagious, like she was a virus I might catch. But writing the book helped me understand that she was the victim, not I...and it righted a relationship that had been awry for a lifetime. My mother said I should call the book Love Story.

THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE will make you laugh out loud...and cry. One reviewer wrote: "By the time the book ends, love has conquered chaos, tenderness flows like a healing balm and the mother's insistence that she is 'the center of the universe' doesn't seem so crazy after all."

For more information, visit www.nancybachrach.com.