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While You Were Out by Meg Kissinger
Memoir

While You Were Out

by Meg Kissinger

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Quick take

An equal parts moving and dark-humored evocation of mental illness and the ways it can root itself into a family tree.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SuburbanDrama

    Suburban drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NoQuotationMarks

    No quotation marks

Synopsis

Growing up in the 1960s in the suburbs of Chicago, Meg Kissinger’s family seemed to live a charmed life. With eight kids and two loving parents, the Kissingers radiated a warm, boisterous energy. Whether they were spending summer days on the shores of Lake Michigan, barreling down the ski slopes, or navigating the trials of their Catholic school, the Kissingers always knew how to live large and play hard.

But behind closed doors, a harsher reality was unfolding—a heavily medicated mother hospitalized for anxiety and depression, a manic father prone to violence, and children in the throes of bipolar disorder and depression, two of whom would take their own lives. Through it all, the Kissingers faced the world with their signature dark humor and the unspoken family rule: never talk about it.

While You Were Out begins as the personal story of one family’s struggles then opens outward, as Kissinger details how childhood tragedy catalyzed a journalism career focused on exposing our country’s flawed mental health care. Combining the intimacy of memoir with the rigor of investigative reporting, the book explores the consequences of shame, the havoc of botched public policy, and the hope offered by new treatment strategies.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes that depict suicide and child abuse.

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Get an early look from the first pages of While You Were Out.
While You Were Out

I

The Tiger Pit

When we were little, my sister Patty and I liked to pretend that ferocious tigers lurked in the space between our twin beds, just waiting to rip us to shreds. They stalked us at night with their razor-sharp fangs, growling and snorting and licking their chops. Dip a toe or a finger down too low and . . . SNAP! . . . they’d chomp it off clean to the bone. We’d bounce from one bed to the next, shrieking as we flew through the air.

Pipe down, you two, or I’ll come in there and beat you to a bloody pulp! my mother would yell from her bedroom down the hall.

The invisible tigers scared us. Our mother did not.

Watch this, I’d whisper to Patty as I leaned over the side of my bed and slowly wiggled my fingers down into the pit. She’d poke her curly little head over the side of her bed and stare into the big black hole, nervously wheezing as she waited for one of the tigers to take the bait. I’d squeeze my eyes shut, imagining the hungry beasts skulking toward us, the smell of their musky fur filling my nostrils, and feel the thumping of my heart in the middle of my throat.

I said, “Pipe down!” my mother would call out, weaker this time.

We knew that she didn’t have the energy to beat us, much less into any bloody pulp.

My mother, Jean Kissinger, an erstwhile debutante with a genius IQ, now spent her days rubbing ointment on babies’ blistered bottoms, wiping snot off our faces, plastering our cowlicks with her spit, and dripping warm medicine into our oozing, infected ear canals. She stuffed our lunch bags with peanut-butter-and-potato-chip sandwiches as she helped us conjugate Latin verbs, folded laundry while she quizzed us on our multiplication tables, and typed our term papers between bouncing a baby on her lap and ironing our uniform blouses. Her own mother was dead and she had no sisters, so it fell to my mother to raise her eight children more or less by herself while my father was out of town most of the week on business.

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Why I love it

There’s something about a book that completely entrances you, making the rest of the world fall away for the time you’re reading it. With Meg Kissinger’s memoir While You Were Out, that’s exactly what happened to me. I read this powerful story in one sitting, cover to cover, and barely felt the time pass.

While You Were Out tells the story of the Kissinger family: one rarely rooted in physical location, but always in each other. Kissinger expertly brings her family members to life—you can feel the chaotic energy of her large family bursting from the page. Whether in the suburbs of Chicago or Connecticut, the eight Kissinger children and their parents seemed, from the outside, to live in a state of constant excitement and contentment. Secretly, though, they lived surrounded by unspoken alcoholism, suicide, and hospitalizations. Through the ups and downs of growing up in the throes of mental illness, Meg’s signature humor still shines through, making you feel a part of her family, as if you’re hearing this story be told across a kitchen table. Later, Kissinger’s childhood experiences led her into a journalism career, which gave her a platform to confront her past and dig deep into the issues of the United States’ mental health care.

While You Were Out is both an intimate story and daring exposé of where public policy has failed our most vulnerable. And while often gut-wrenching, Kissinger’s beautiful writing and journalistic flair make it a singular and important read.

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Member ratings (1,707)

  • Patricia L.

    Waterdown, ON

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️I don’t usually read memoirs but this was worth the read! It was an interesting glimpse into mental health in the 80s and 90s. It’s also eye opening to see that maybe very little has changed

  • Denise M.

    North Easton, MA

    5⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ While this was a truly heartbreaking story about a family who endured so much tragedy, I’m so glad the author chose to share. The more people talk about mental health the better!

  • Melissa V.

    Burbank, IL

    Love the awareness brought to mental health. Although the story took place over the 70’s, 80’s 90’s, it show how far we’ve come but how much more there is still to do to overcome the negative stigma

  • Tracy R.

    Saint Paul, MN

    You’re drawn into a family filled with trauma, and the most difficult parts of the book regard depression, anxiety, severe mental illness, and suicide. The author is frank about her family’s struggles

  • Stephanie W.

    West Chester, PA

    This memoir took me by surprise. I commend the author for her bravery in sharing the dark details of her family’s history. I admire all the work she’s done in support of the mental health Community.

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