Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples (A Review)

What parent can imagine living through the horrors of a child’s battle with bipolar disorder ending in suicide several years after diagnosis and attempted treatment?  Likely no one’s imagination works at this level.

Madeline Sharples, author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother's Memoir of Living with Her Son's Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, has lived this nightmare.  And amazingly, she and her family survived this traumatic period.

Sharples’ memoir chronicles her elder son, Paul’s descent into the terrors of bipolar disorder and his eventual suicide.

In writing her story, Sharples addresses issues faced not only by her family but also by many other families.  In so doing, she offers insight into her own experience and provides a frank and open discussion of some of her most painful moments.  In her own words, she tells us:

My goal in writing this book is to tell my story in the most truthful and real terms possible.  Otherwise it won’t be of any use to anyone – including me.

Sharples has done exactly that by sharing an account which includes a mix of advice, education about bipolar disorder, a desire to remove the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and similar mental illnesses, and hope for families living with similar tragedies.  She digs deep into her own story to share her belief that each victim in such a tragedy has choices:  a choice to move on, a choice to take care of him- or herself, and a choice to be the best husband, wife, father, mother, child possible.

Because of Sharples’ gift of descriptive detail, her reader learns a great deal about Paul from infancy.  The reader meets a precocious, piano playing, curly-headed and happy toddler, and several photographs underscoring this part of Paul’s life are included.  Later photos share a Paul who is happily smiling whether alone or with a relative.  These photos connect the reader to Paul in a visual way, allowing you to watch Paul grow and thrive.

Growing into adolescence, Paul showed an innate ability to connect with children, experienced continued successes with the piano, and developed a knack for repairing computers.  All the goodness of this son shines through. If not for these details about Paul highlighting the goodness in him, Leaving the Hall Light On could only be classified as an angry and furious assault by a distraught mother who is not only heartbroken but also confused and hurt by Paul’s choices.

Madeline Sharples began writing her journey with Paul through poetry.  Not always a fan of poetry, this reviewer became intrigued by the author’s poems and appreciated an exposure to poetry that actually spoke to the heart.  Perhaps that is because the reviewer is a mother.  Yet one realizes in her poetry as well as her memoir narrative Sharples has shared her journey using raw, intense emotion coupled with truth and love.  Her story is alive and beats with a heart torn asunder and yet healing.

Although difficult to read at times, I found myself unable to put this book down.  Others have mentioned needing to step away and come back.  I felt drawn into a relationship with Paul, his parents and his younger brother Ben, as if I were a good friend standing in the shadows as this nightmare played out.  This is due in part to Sharples’ unique style of writing – comfortable, conversational, and filled with truth and emotion.  I wanted to be there for them all.  I needed to know where this journey took them.

As the stepmother of a young woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder and complicated by attention deficit hyperactive disorder, perhaps my fascination was also rooted in the continuing search by our family for answers.  Madeline Sharples provided some answers for us, and for this reason alone I highly recommend this book to families in similar situations.

Because of her unique use of narrative and poetry and her treatment in this family's story of not only her own emotional trauma but also that of her husband and their son Ben, I recommend this as a memoir worth reading as a unique example of superior memoir writing.

Madeline Sharples has shown those of us writing memoir the way to successful story telling based in truth written from the heart.

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Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicidewas released in a hardback edition in 2011 and has just been released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.

She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.

Madeline’s articles appear regularly in the Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, Aging Bodies, and Open to Hope. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room and is currently writing a novel.  Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.

Madeline and her husband of forty plus years live in Manhattan Beach, California, a small beach community south of Los Angeles. Her younger son Ben lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife Marissa.