Jeannie Vanaso’s The Glass Eye is a beguiling book. Its first sentence is “The night before he died I promised my dad I’d write a book for him.”
Vanasco’s father died in 2002 when she was eighteen. She has been writing this book ever since. The book we have now is the fulfillment of her promise, 15 years late.
The book is many things. It begins as an expression of her love for her father and becomes a description of her irrationally strong grief over his death.
Her father was 61 when she was born. He had four daughters from his first marriage. One of his daughters, named Jeanne but pronounced the same as her own name, died in a car accident at the age of sixteen.
Vanasco’s father named her after her dead half-sister – a” necronym” she calls it – and the book becomes a story of her search for what her half-sister was like.
On top of these two narratives, and driving them forward, is the story of Vanasco’s own mental illness. She was diagnosed with profound bipolar disorder and had psychotic episodes where she heard voices and had hallucinations. She also drank heavily, which didn’t help the situation. She had several stints in mental hospitals.
The book’s title comes from the fact that when she was young her father, who had many health problems, lost his left eye to a rare disease and wore a glass eye (it was actually plastic, she says, but prefers the more romantic term). In her psychotic episodes she often believed that she had lost her eyeballs.
The book circles around facts and builds associations and connections that don’t really exist, in the same way that a person who is mentally ill feels that everything is an omen or a sign. I have dealt with mental illness myself, and her constant refrain that everything is a “metaphor” really struck home.
By describing her obsessive struggle to find out more about her half-sister and detailing her intense grief for her father, Vanasco presents one of the closest descriptions I have read of what irrational thinking feels like from the inside.
She consciously hightens this irrational effect by foregrounding her idolization of her father while at the same time itemizing but dismissing his shortcomings. The effect, calculated I’m sure, is that the reader begins to doubt Vanasco’s view of reality.
What the book becomes in the end is a meditation on storytelling itself. Vanasco worked on variations of the book for years in various writers workshops and keeps wondering if she is telling the truth or fitting her story into a convenient “narrative arc.”
The result is a beautifully “literary” work that tells truths unashamedly. The publicity material compares Vanasco to Maggie Nelson, a writer I love, who also turns life into art. Vanasco has finally given her father the book she promised him, but it is more than she originally planned. “I promised him a book,” Vanasco writes, “but not this book.”
The Glass Eye: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco, Tin House, 280pp