A memoir that recalls a gifted but troubled youth’s first love in the brutal setting of a psychiatric ward.
McBride (Hawks on Hawks, 2013, etc.) follows his past biographies of Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Howard Hawks, and Frank Capra with this unsparing account of a mental and spiritual breakdown he suffered as an hard-driving, highly devout Catholic senior at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee in the mid-1960s. At his nadir, he says that he was broken almost beyond repair. But he was saved, he writes, by an even more troubled but remarkable fellow inmate—a half-Irish, half-Menominee woman named Kathy Wolf. His love for her made him whole, he says. Eventually, McBride recovered and took early steps in a highly successful career as an American film historian, screenwriter, and film professor at San Francisco State University. However, he felt a certain ambivalence about the erratic Wolf and let her slip out of his life, even as she sank lower. At its core, this novelistic memoir acknowledges McBride’s debt to Wolf, who, as she later told him, gave him not just her body, but her soul. McBride is a masterful writer who’s very much at home with profanity-laden dialogue, although his quoted conversations with Wolf and others from a half-century ago seem more like screenwriting than recollection. In addition to his sympathetic rendering of Wolf, his highly detailed recollections of sexual repression and the abuse that he says he suffered during his strict Catholic education will resonate with readers who’ve had similar experiences. His narrative also shows a way forward for readers who’ve been touched by mental collapse.
A very good memoir, and with the right cast, its movie version would be even better.