An equal parts moving and dark-humored evocation of mental illness and the ways it can root itself into a family tree.
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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.
While You Were Out
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.
Why I love it
BOTM Editorial Team
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.
Member ratings (971)
Perkasie , PA
Heartbreaking and at times achingly hard to turn the pages. However, the author pens an incredible memoir that leaves room for hope. A must read for anyone who has a family history of mental illness.
Well-written and informative memoir about mental illness and suicide. It was difficult for me to read because my son was a victim of mental illness and suicide. The author is tells it like it is. Sad.
Hope Mills , NC
This was emotional. It talked about a family that dealt with mental illness. They lost two siblings with mental illness. There were six siblings left and one of them, Meg, came out told their story.
Heartbreaking. Sibling guilt never goes away but it does get easier over time. I grew up in the same time and place as the author. There was so much that I could relate to. Her work is incredible.
This is a book we all need to read. It’s heartbreaking and funny. She is honest and openly writes about her family and their struggles. The lack of mental health care still major issue today.