After almost a year of deeply unsatisfying reading, it was a real pleasure to complete “Hammerhead84” by Brett Hartman. My main regret is that I did not read this book sooner. I intuited correctly that this book would appeal to me on several levels, the first being that it is a touching memoir of mental illness and an examination of psychology/psychiatry—both of which interest me. The fact that much of the story takes place in my hometown of Auburn, Alabama added a much-appreciated personal touch to the narrative and reading experience. Last but certainly not least is the redemptive reality of Hartman’s long struggle to get and stay “sane” after the most tumultuous period of his young life.
The book touches on so many topics of mental health and illness that it would be unfair to try to recite them all here in a simple review. Suffice it to say that I walked away with a renewed appreciation for what both patients and caregivers experience during involuntary commitments to mental health wards and hospitals. Everyone involved struggles, and Hartman does a fair job of showing both sides of the story; the people in charge of restraining severely ill patients and those patients being restrained (largely by a brute society that does not attempt to understand them on a personal level). “Hammerhead84” (read the book to decipher the title!) functions as both a personal contribution to the mental health field and a therapeutic validation of a man’s dilemma of losing and (much, much later) finding himself once again.
Throughout Hartman’s chronicle I found myself wrapped up emotionally as he describes in detail how harrowing a mental breakdown and “recovery” can be. (The scary part is that the word “recovery” is so misleading; there is never a true “recovery” for Hartman, as he continually doubts the validity of the progress he makes.) I won’t reveal the precipitating event that propelled him to question his sanity and his identity; you will discover the traumatic incident in the first few pages. You will understand his feelings of guilt and legal reparation, but you will not expect the emotional upheaval that quickly takes their place. During a few sections you might feel you are reading fiction; the memoir includes flashbacks and internal dialogues that quietly add a surreal quality to the story. The injustices and humiliations Hartman endured only add to this feeling. You must step back from the story and remind yourself that all this really happened to another human being.
The thing is it was not hard to relate to Hartman at all. At all times he comes across as a completely rational person who just happens to be experiencing technical difficulties upstairs. At no point during the reading of this book did I feel like I couldn’t trust his account of what happened, or that he was adding spin to the pages. I liked him and pitied him and almost cried for him while also knowing that his story does have a pretty happy “ending.” Knowing beforehand that he has gone on to live a successfully “normal” life (as for “normal,” I shouldn’t have to mention that it doesn’t really exist) did not impede my ability to see his struggle as wholly genuine and profound. Hartman does not write in a nonchalant manner, as if he is trying to mechanically report something that happened to him in his earlier years. Writing with the benefit of his present healthy state of mind, he somehow managed to bring me right into the trenches with him. He wrote so convincingly that at times I thought we might not get to the other side.
The fact that “we” indeed find brighter days makes the rollercoaster ride worthwhile. It’s exhausting reading but I had a great guide to take me down the trail. His refusal to lay back and take things quietly reinforces the subtitle of his book: “a memoir of persistence.” By the end of the book Hartman has completed his college education and has decided to pursue a career in psychology, a life decision that seems to imply that he has accepted his past in the stronghold of psychiatric illness. He does not rebel against what has made him, he makes it his career! By remaining “wary of the forces of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry,” and noting that “the most compelling problem as I see it is the widespread practice of instantly drugging psychotic symptoms as soon as they emerge,” (Hartman 317), he urges people, especially those in authority, to look further for the individual lost in the cloud of mental illness. He suggests that it is not okay to see a fellow human as merely a “number” and not worthy of the time and attention that medication so clearly has made obsolete.
Brett Hartman has struggled and he has persisted. He most certainly has authored a book that will persist in my mind for a long while. I highly recommend that you take this journey.
About Brett Hartman (via Goodreads.com)