Interview: Zack McDermott

Zack McDermott was a young, successful public defender for the Legal Aid Society of New York City when he awoke one morning convinced that he was being filmed Truman Show–style for a TV pilot. His debut book, Gorilla and the Bird, catalogues his freefall into bipolar-induced psychosis and the relationship that saved him.

We spoke to Zack about his captivating story, how society could better understand mental illness, and the books that have shaped him.   

You said in an interview with London’s The Times that your mental illness was the best thing that happened to you. Can you unpack what you mean by that?

I get to write books for a living and I owe no small part of that station to bipolar disorder. Beyond that, I have seen and howled at the dark side of the moon and it was every bit as interesting as it was terrifying. All of that is neat but it’s not why I’m most grateful to bipolar disorder.

I am grateful to bipolar disorder because I get to tell people about it. It’s no longer shocking to me how many strangers on airplanes have a son, brother, father, ex- or current spouse or lover that has in some way been affected by mental illness. People are often guarded with their stories, but once I tell them that I have spent more than a month and a half of my life in locked psychiatric wards, their stories spill out of them. They want to talk. They want someone to hear how their loved one has suffered and how they have in turn suffered alongside their loved one. I want people to have permission to do so more openly.


Your memoir chronicles how your mother, who you refer to has ‘the bird’, helped you get through your mental illness. How do you think your mother had the ability to care for you so well?

I don’t think she had the ability to do anything but – that’s just who she is. My mom is a Bird to many people. This isn’t in the book: when I was in high school, a young man stayed over at our house a few nights in a row. My mom was not even aware he’d been sleeping in the basement until my brother snuck that little nugget in on the way into mass. While she did chastise my brother for unilaterally deciding it would be okay to house a stowaway without telling anyone, soon she learned that the young man was living in an abusive home, that he was scared to go back, and that no one cared if he did. Freddie lived with us for a few weeks until he was arrested for skipping school. My mom was afraid that as a result of the arrest he’d have to go back to an abusive environment. She adopted him.

It didn’t turn out great. He emptied out her checking account a few times. She still didn’t kick him out of the house. So, like I said, that’s who she is. I kind of took it for granted that, of course she’d be at the psych ward every minute of every visiting opportunity, even though I was the only person who ever had a visitor. It wasn’t really until I wrote this book and saw other people’s reactions to how she handled my situation that I realised how exceptionally unique was her ability to love unconditionally and to also be unconditionally available for her children (and other people’s children). The woman is fairly remarkable.


You’ve said that as society, we know very well the symptoms of a cold, but not so mental illness. How do you think we could develop a better understanding of what mental illness is, and how to look out for it?

I think this is so simple: teach it in schools. Start early. “Kids, you know how a runny nose, cough, fever, or headache means you have a cold or the flu? Well, once you hit your mid-20s you might have some friends or family members who all of a sudden start behaving oddly.  They might stop sleeping, they might start saying things that are out of character for them – especially things that might sound arrogant.  They might be happy one minute and sobbing the next. They might have sudden bursts of creative energy that seem brilliant to them but sound like nonsense to you. They might start drinking or using drugs (more heavily than usually). They may have trouble sleeping. They may sleep with people they normally wouldn’t. These are all symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.” Something like that. Show them a video of someone in the throes of a manic episode. Explain what depression is. It could be covered in an afternoon.


You said in an interview with LA Review of Books that practising law wasn’t conducive to self-care. Was that a difficult revelation to arrive at? Was that a liberating thought?


It was no secret to me that working as a public defender – representing indigent people accused of crimes – was going to exact an emotional toll. If you don’t know that going in, you probably should have researched your job better. And if you aren’t deeply troubled by witnessing men and women (almost exclusively non-white) forced into state-sanctioned bondage, levied for the most trivial of “criminal” offenses (e.g. loitering in the park after sundown, possessing a little dope, sleeping on the subway, shoplifting food or detergent), well, a public defender you are not.

Certainly I was not the first public defender to go to a psych ward, nor the last. And I did feel like a deserter when I left. But not as much as I felt like a fraud while I was there. I was unable (or maybe unwilling) to perform my job at a level approaching my full potential. I couldn’t take the pressure of someone potentially serving prison time because I wasn’t good enough at my job.

And maybe this is selfish, but I’m a writer, not a lawyer. Doesn’t matter that I’m good at arguing. That was the liberating part.   


Do you have habits or practices to maintain your wellbeing?

I have some to maintain and some to destroy. On the maintain side: sleep enough, write enough, workout, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much pot, respect your condition. On the destroy side: do the opposite.


What books are currently on your night-stand?

Kent Russell’s I’m Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son (for the third time)

Everything Here is Beautiful Mira T. Lee (will finish on plane)

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (next)

Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (flight home)

Always: A stack of uncracked New Yorkers. Good cartoons


When do you like to read?

Planes and trains but not automobiles.


Have any particular books shaped you in the past few years?

Kent Russell’s I’m Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son. Kent is such a brilliant writer.  Someone I read and just say, I can’t do that. And that’s okay. He’s such a weirdo, he’s hilarious, and he can just flat out write a fuck you sentence. Formidable.

Steve Toltz, Australian treasure, has been my man since I discovered him in 2009. I’ve gifted A Fraction of the Whole to no fewer than ten people and I have two copies on my bookshelf right now – one for me, one ready for the next friend who doesn’t yet know they need some Stevie T in their life. I used to type out paragraphs from AFOTW when I couldn’t write. If you’re going to learn to play the guitar, might as well try to get a few Hendrix riffs down.    

And I can’t wait for Kiese Laymon’s new memoir Heavy: An American Memoir.