Incline Village, Nev., writer Gayle Brandeis has won acclaim for her book, “The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide,” for its raw portrayal of the her mother, Arlene, of her struggles with delusions and of the impact she had on Brandeis and her family. Her mother died in 2009; for the next few years Brandeis planned to write her story, but it was only when she moved to Tahoe in 2014 that the words started to flow.
Brandeis came to Tahoe with her husband Michael and her child Asher, who was born shortly before Arlene died, from Southern California to become a professor at Sierra Nevada College.
“We immediately fell in love with it. I landed in the right place. I’ve connected with a community of women writers, all dear to my heart and important to me as I went through the intense process of writing this book. It caught fire when I came here,” said Brandeis.
The match for that fire was a women’s writing retreat she attended in Virginia City, Nev. There, away from home and alone in a hotel room, she watched a documentary film that her mother had been working on before her death, entitled “The Art of Misdiagnosis.” The film was her mom’s somewhat delusional attack on the medical system for its failure to diagnosis her family with a variety of illnesses.
“It was a really intense experience watching it. It was then I decided I needed to weave the film into the book,” said Brandeis.
Her mother’s film became one of the three methods Brandeis used to tell the story. The other two were her diary written in the critical months before and after her mother’s death and her letters written to her mother after she passed away. The result is a powerful, unflinching story of mental illness and the challenges of family. It’s also a page turner that I read in just a few sittings.
“Being here in Tahoe, the majesty of the place and being somewhere fresh and exciting, led me to want to take a creative and emotional risk. In memoir, we have to look critically at ourselves, to look at the pain in our lives. We all have our skeletons in the closet. I finally felt ready to address my life. I wanted to write about her right after her death,” said Brandeis. “It was too soon and too hard. I just wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until I was here a year that I felt ready to write the most difficult scenes.”
“Writing has always been the center of my life. I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was 9,” she said, adding that it was just 20 pages, but was bound by a supportive teacher who put it in the school library. “I was a shy kid, but more brave when I was writing. It was a channel for self-expression, but also a way to connect to people.”
“As a kid I would write letters to the president. It made me feel as a child that I had a voice, that I could make a difference,” said Brandeis.
In her last semester in college, Brandeis became pregnant. After her son was born, she wrote whenever she could, eventually becoming published in journals and anthologies. After her daughter was born in 1993, her mother started exhibiting bizarre delusional behavior, including proclaiming paranoid untruths about her father.
“Novels started pouring out of me. It was so confusing facing a suddenly delusional mother. I couldn’t process that. So, I started writing stories about mothers and daughters,” she said.
She wrote drafts of three novels, but realized she didn’t really know how to revise, so she went back to Antioch University to learn more about her craft. Her first published novel, “The Book of Dead Birds,” was the result of her new-found revision skills. Next up was “Self Storage,” which revolves around auctions at self-storage facilities, followed by “Delta Girls,” which is set in the Sacramento Delta.
While writing has been her life since she was age 4, she has more recently discovered a calling for teaching, especially at Sierra Nevada College.
“I’ve come to really love teaching. I wasn’t sure if I could do it because I’m a shy, quiet person. I’ve learned to push through that. I find it gratifying helping people raise and hone their voice and seeing that growth over time has been satisfying and inspiring,” she said.