I’ll be blunt. A Million Things by Emily Spurr will break your heart. But know the following: even as you lie on your kitchen floor shattered and ugly crying into a dish towel after reading this remarkable book, you will be better for it. We all need a reminder that we aren’t alone, even if we are lonely. To know that animals are just like any other family member worthy of respect and care, that parents can hurt and leave us, and that judging neighbors harshly can prevent us from forming the most meaningful of relationships.
I waited for this to come out on Audible because I was hesitant to read it, and knew I’d stop picking it up if I had a hard copy. I knew it would hit too close to home. Mentally ill mom. Check. Becoming an adult when you aren’t even a teenager yet. Check. Being left alone way too young. Check. Having your closest family member be a pet. Check. Based on those similarities alone, I didn’t think I could get through this given the heavy subject matter. But I found it was actually good for me to read something that shows the complicated upbringing of a girl, because I haven’t seen much of that or felt any connection with a female protagonist in this way. And y’all know I read a lot. We have so many coming of age stories about boys (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies). And if the story Is about a girl, it’s always about how her heart is broken over a boy, or she has an eating disorder, or how she’s in love with her middle aged teacher. This here is no YA book. This was more like Room, where the perspective of a vulnerable but resilient child going through very adult trauma tells their story. We need more books like this, about children with imperfect parents, and how they survive the unimaginable. Know that this is a hard read, but a good one. Content warnings include suicide, hoarding, and mental illness, and child and animal physical injury.
Big spoiler: I clearly loved the book so I feel like I need to explain my rating. The reason I gave this four stars instead of five was because of the graphic part involving the description of Splinter’s injuries at the end. It actually made me feel a bit sick. It didn’t add anything to the story and was overkill. I didn’t think the same was true for the way Rae must cover up the smell of her mother’s corpse, as that served a purpose in showing the reader how she was trying to maintain appearances and save the only home she’d ever known.
I found this memoir after looking at the NYT Bestsellers list. I went into it not knowing who Bobby Hall aka Young Sinatra aka Bobby Tarantino aka Sir Robert was. But I had heard of Logic, who rapped on Sam Smith track I liked a few years back. I remember thinking “wow, he really elevated that song”. But that was it. As much as I was into hip hop and rap growing up in the Bronx, that doesn’t remain true today. I fell out of step with it because of all the auto-tuning that turned my stomach and hurt my ears. Before I moved out of the borough, the only radio station anyone listened to was Hot 97. Now that I don’t, it’s mostly classical, rock, and experimental. As for rap, I listen to the same people I did as a child: Biggie, Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop, The Fugees, Method Man, Salt n’ Pepa, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Nas, DMX (RIP), and Eminem. I don’t watch MTV, BET, or listen to the radio. Life changes you, and my patience for shows that were designed to bring down artists was depleted which meant I wasn’t hearing new music. Once I was in Bronx Science, my focus shifted. Not to say that happens to everyone who goes to nerd schools, but it did for me. I discovered other types of interests and music, and realized I loved classical because I could actually play it.
So, my reasons for not knowing Bobby Hall were because of me, not because he’s not talented, which he absolutely is. I legit thought he was a British rapper because he was on that Smith track. How wrong I was. He is the very definition of a red-blooded ‘Merican. Mixed race. From Maryland. Inspired by pop culture. Eats Taco Bell. Now that I’ve read his memoir and heard his music, I’m reminded of those rappers I loved so much that were able to spit a verse without all the garbage filtered in the track. What a breath of fresh air. Good music is good music, and he makes it.
I’ll be blunt. This Bright Future is a masterpiece. This will be made into a movie, no question. A modern coming of age story, it was like Catcher in the Rye with music, witches, sex, and a big splash of crack. At its core, this memoir is about a kind and overlooked soul who, through pure grit and determination, navigated to an existence where he is now safe, loved, and counted. Raised in poverty with a mentally ill, alcoholic, PCP-using white mother, an absent drug-addicted black father, and a system that failed him, ThisBright Future is the quintessential success story of an outcast named Bobby Hall. What’s scary is that the childhood Hall had is not unique. Yes, the specific situations he was put in may be, but child abuse like this is prevalent. I’ve been that person whose had to carry a child away from their screaming drug addicted parents. I hate it. I see it a lot, and it’s awful and traumatic every time. What is special is that Bobby Hall didn’t become what raised him. Instead, he became Logic. There are kids living in horrific conditions they don’t realize are horrific, so they repeat the cycle. Despite the chaos and having the odds stacked against him, the same is not true for Hall, which can show a hopeless kid struggling today that they can do the same. Hard work, courage, perseverance, the kindness of others, and a good sense of humor helped Hall carve a path to what he was meant to do and be where he was meant to be. Because our boy can rap, write, create, and uplift. And how lucky we are to be able to live and see this. How tiring it is to see people born with a silver spoon just make it in the industry so they can have gold ones. So many people work hard and are never acknowledged for it, and it’s nice to see it happen for once to someone who came from humble beginnings.
As tragic as this memoir was, I would be lying if I didn’t say it was also hilarious. Especially the chapter about his mother’s religiosity. I was literally laughing out loud in public. Hall’s stories about his parents, siblings, acquaintances are all shared with a care and sensitivity that demonstrates how much he doesn’t want to hurt anyone by disclosing to us how much they hurt him. This is an inherently good person who has empathy even for those who don’t appreciate or deserve it. As a result of his upbringing and his ability to withstand so much abuse by having hope, and yes, a logical outlook, the dust settled and what emerged from the wreckage was PTSD and anxiety. You can’t blame him. So, if you struggle too, you will absolutely feel a connection to this story. And know that it’ll be okay.
Speaking of which, Hall points out several times that fans tell him how much they mean to him because they share commonalities. I now join that group by saying there were times I literally said out loud “Wtf, yes, I feel that”. Besides loving Kill Bill, our life circumstances were very similar. Examples: Not being accepted because you are mixed. Literally being asked “What are you?” is something I’ve put up with my whole life. “You aren’t black enough, you aren’t white enough, you aren’t spanish enough, how come you sound so white, how come you don’t sound like Rosie Perez, why are you so pale, why is your hair so frizzy? Do you date white or black men? Why?” Yeah. It’s so much fun.
On a personal note, I have a mentally ill black mother and a temperamental Puerto Rican father. My mother is literally crazy and is becoming a nun. Yeah. I’ve cut her off after a childhood of manipulation, degradation, neglect, and abuse. It’s been years since I’ve seen or spoken to her. How I long to have a mother I could just talk to. But like Bobby Hall, I don’t have that kind of family dynamic. And as hard it is for him to say that he doesn’t have a real family, I’m glad he did. Because people like us exist, and it hurts. And so we have to make our own families. I think the valuable lesson Hall tells is that when you become a parent it doesn’t come with a license that says you can abuse your child and expect your child to let you get away with it. To the people who say “but she’s your mother” to him, understand that cutting your own parent off is not easy, and there are reasons they don’t deserve to be in a survivor’s life. And you questioning that decision crosses a line and only makes it worse. We all know parenting is hard, even when you don’t struggle with illness and addiction. We don’t get to choose our parents, but we do get to choose boundaries so that we aren’t destroyed by them.
I liked how Hall also discussed the impact that social media has had on all of us, and how we connect and treat writers, artists, or just everyday people because we are given a virtual safety net. The internet helped make him, but it also made him a target. I was angry to hear about all the abuse he got from online trolls, how people laughed at his pain when he was physically ill, or spewed venom about him because of a VMA performance. I haven’t watched any of that MTV nonsense since Britney danced in a sheer suit on stage (which was awesome, you do you Britney). I don’t even know how long ago that was, but I do know that no awards show should lead to the type of vitriol artists experience, which means there’s an issue with the entertainment culture that only encourages it. And if you are guilty of such online abuse, you need to reconsider your words and think about the energy you’re wasting.
If you haven’t guessed it, I’m giving this five stars. I don’t think anything else I say could do this justice, so I’ll stop. Also, I don’t want to ruin anything for you because part of what’s so great about the book are the crazy stories you don’t see coming that knock you on your ass.
Dream Cast: 🎥
Bobby Hall: Bobby Hall. And if he doesn’t act, Jesse Williams.
Well, damn. The true story of the Galvin family is as mind blowing as it is tragic. Quick note: I conduct Pre-Sentence investigations for the Court. Family of origin and mental health is always a big part to research for the report. These are serious crimes I cover, and at the end of the report there is an evaluative analysis that needs to be prepared so that my sentencing recommendation is supported. And it takes a meticulous review of records, all of them confidential, to complete each report. I’ve done thousands of reports. That said, Robert Kolker puts me to shame. An excellent writer and researcher, I’m not sure anyone else could have told the story about the family on Hidden Valley Road. Patience, attention to detail, and understanding from Kolker are evident. And a wealth of material that is so organized and presented so well, it helps keep the reader stay engaged (and not confused!).
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Familyis about midcentury American family living in Colorado Springs, CO made up of twelve children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia (notably, all boys). The family became an important sample for researchers investigating a genetic origin for schizophrenia. The family matriarch is, at first, reluctant to admit there is a problem but eventually has no choice but to acknowledge that she has more than just a kooky family. The patriarch is an overachieving provider, but fairly absent figure, in the lives of the children. Both parents, and eventually their oldest son, Donald, take a liking to working with birds of prey. I couldn’t help but note the irony that the parents of schizophrenic children were also falconers. Falconry is a breaking-in of sorts, a control over another, and a way to have someone with less power than you do what you want them to do and act how you want them to act. Not so for children with one of the most difficult disorders to manage and treat. While schizophrenia manifests differently for each patient, there is often the presence of anger, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, religious obsessions, and a difficulty coping with rejection. Worse, many don’t want to take their medications. A person who is accustomed to the cooperation of a falcon has a rude awakening when it comes to a child, especially a mentally ill one. Unlike a falcon, a person with schizophrenia has their own road to travel, and your plans for him or her don’t mean sh*t. Acceptance, without the enabling of abusive behavior, is the name of the game.
On a personal note, I’ll say schizophrenia can be very scary. And not only for the person afflicted, but to those around them. I’ve seen and been at the end of extremely unhinged and paranoid behavior from probationers. And the harassment can be relentless. They already distrust the government and are convinced there is a conspiracy against them. That said, there were many times throughout this book I said “been there”. And I’m sure it was for other readers as well. It makes you realize how pervasive the disease is, and the commonalities those afflicted have. I cannot imagine what it was like for the children in the family who didn’t have the disease. How terrifying some days must have been for them. And for those young patients that suffer, there are no words.
I think most people that pick up a book of this kind know what to expect but, just in case, be warned that there are a lot of triggering events within these pages. You name it, it happened in this family. Rape, molestation, homicide, suicide, animal cruelty, and more. And there is also some enabling from the matriarch that may anger you.
That said, this is quite a story of survival and a must-read.