THE LIVING DEAD by John Willis  Berry Jr.


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A posthumously published memoir written in the 1960s by a mentally ill African-American man who grew up in Mississippi during the Great Depression and later migrated to Michigan and Ohio.

Readers may want to start with this book’s afterword, which offers the late author’s granddaughter’s explanation that “He was sick, and he was delusional. He committed horrible crimes. And he believed that he was the Messiah. And help was not available to him as a poor black man.” Berry begins his story by recounting his first year in school, around 1930, during which he was frequently teased and bullied by both white and black children: “I had light-colored skin, like that of my mother, and it was this factor that opened a new door to another hell of color for me,” he writes. Quickly, he moves his memoir forward to when he was 11, lying down under a tree, contemplating the multitude of injustices in the world: “So I just lay there thinking until I thought I fell asleep, but was to realize later that I had died instead, and saw that I was in the midst of a world of water, which was moving back and forth.” What follows are many other sometimes-poetic, often rambling pages describing his travels through water, sky, and time; then Berry “returns” home after what feels like many years, confused and disoriented. The author offers no explanation for this passage of time, and from this point on, Berry says that he’s convinced he’s both dead and alive. However, there’s a disarming lucidity to his prose when he depicts his later life in Detroit. He marries, has children, and holds down three jobs at once—until he attempts to kill his wife. However, other than the facts of his marriage and his children, it’s impossible for readers to know which parts of the memoir are true and which are purely delusions. Overall, it’s a dark and disturbing, if difficult-to-follow, journey through the mind of a man who was both kind and dangerous and who suffered a lifetime of untreated illness.

An unusual remembrance that presents the experience of mental illness from the inside.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-976463-75-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: CreateSpace
Program: Kirkus Indie
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by Nora Nita Bates