Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness & Recovery by Arnold Thomas Fanning #readingirelandmonth23

Arnold Thomas Fanning first experienced depression during adolescence, following the death of his mother. Ten years later, just as his career as a playwright was coming to fruition, Fanning found himself overwhelmed by mania and delusions. What followed was a decade of madness, where he was in and out of hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, often suicidal, increasingly in trouble with the law and eventually completely disconnected and homeless on the street of London.  

Mind on Fire is a memoir of those years and it is searingly honest and beautifully written. As his memory of these lost years is patchy, to say the least, Fanning has recreated his experiences from medical and police records and interviews with people who knew him at that time. The book is then written in the present tense, taking the reader along on this painful journey from illness to recovery.

The book opens with a bravura seven-page passage written in the second person, which depicts Fanning at his worst, where a breakdown in Heathrow airport leads to arrest.

…you charge through Heathrow two days after Christmas, it is imperative that you get on a flight now, the tsunami has struck in Sumatra and you need to go and volunteer there…and another idea comes to you, as urgently as the last…you can join the British Army as a chaplain…and then of course another obvious idea strikes you…you can fly to Israel and convert to Judaism and join the Israeli Defence Forces…you have no identification whatsoever, it is all lost…and the people around you are finding it hard to keep up with all your ideas…

Following this, the narrative returns to the first signs of Fanning’s illness, when, just as his writing career is taking off, he was suffering from mood swings, fluctuating energy levels and ongoing depression. A breakdown at a writing retreat in Northern Ireland, leads to his first hospitalisation and so begins a cycle of diagnosis, treatment and tentative attempts at recovery, some with more success than others. For a brief time, he moves to America and things seem to improve. He lives in New York with his partner Jennifer, but despite her support and the support of her family, he continues to unravel. He hits rock bottom when he ends up homeless in London and is again admitted to hospital.

‘I’d like to do some volunteer work with the YMCA,’ I tell the nurses…They tell me that this is a good idea, but suggest I wait until I’m better. ‘I want to learn another language, too,’ I go on, full of plans now. ‘I’m getting bored on the ward. And I want to move to Malta.’

He finally returns to Ireland and through the support of friends and family, his own commitment to himself and to his art, he starts on the slow road to recovery.

At times, this is a very difficult read. Fanning doesn’t spare himself or look away from his own difficult behaviour. A section where he tries several times to throw himself in front of a train makes for tough reading. The death of his mother from cancer when he was a teenager and the manner in which this harrowing experience was handled by his father comes across as something of a driver for what followed.  Many of the interactions between Fanning and his emotionally remote father are as heart-breaking as they are honest.

I go downstairs and sit on the arm of his armchair, where he sits by the fire in the living room.

‘I need a hug’, is the first thing I say.

If he feels anger and fear over my treatment of him, he does not show it; rather, he puts his arm around me and hugs me.

‘I don’t feel well,’ I go on, and I begin to cry.

‘Ah, fella,’ he says kindly.

The book is also a blunt exploration of the difficulty of diagnosis and the balancing of medication. That Fanning’s return to health takes so long speaks to the slow labour involved by both medical practitioners and patient to facilitate any kind of recovery.

As an account of a mind in turmoil, Mind on Fire is painfully intense. The remarkably vivid present-tense narrative gives some understanding of the consciousness of someone living with severe mental illness but it is also a hopeful book, exploring how creativity, friendship and art can help to put a fractured mind back together. Highly recommended.

Bookish Beck has also reviewed Mind on Fire when it was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize in 2019 and you can read her review here.

Ireland Month Irish Literature

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

15 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I seem to remember this being shortlisted for the Wellcome a few years ago—the reviews I read of it then made it sound a bit dry, but that dialogue with his dad is just lovely.


  2. I remember being so impressed by clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, published in 1995, in which she writes about being bipolar. This sounds even more powerful. Jamison talks about the blunt instrument of lithium which drains her world of all colour. Is Fanning’s treatment an improvement on that?


  3. Books about the mind fascinate me, even when they are hard to read. The title of this reminds me of “Brain on Fire”, although I haven’t read that one yet.
    One of the things these books always make me think of are all the people out there who can’t get the help they need.


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