Psychosis Fuels First Book by Zack McDermott '08

Young Alum's Candid Memoir About Mental Illness Released to Strong Early Reviews
Zach McDermott

Zack McDermott '08 was a 26-year-old public defender in New York City when he suddenly lost his grip on reality.

October 13, 2017

Zack McDermott was 26 when he suffered his first major psychotic break, complete with hallucinations and the belief that he was on a television show about his life.

The 2008 University of Virginia School of Law graduate was a public defender in New York City at the time.

Eight years later, McDermott has written a book about his experiences and his road to recovery. “Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and A Mother’s Love,” published in late September by Little, Brown and Company, is receiving early rave reviews.

McDermott’s writing turn has garnered praise from publications such as Kirkus and HuffPost — the latter of which put his candid autobiography on its list of “Books That Can Save Your Life.”

In addition to the great buzz, the book was recently optioned by actor Channing Tatum’s production company for development as a TV series.

Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, McDermott witnessed crime and poverty routinely in his hometown. These experiences, along with his schoolteacher mother’s love for the “troubled kids” in the community, influenced McDermott’s interest in public defense.

McDermott’s uncle was schizophrenic who was sent to the state mental hospital in Topeka the day McDermott was born. Genetic propensity for the disease is one of many factors that can contribute to the cause of schizophrenia.  

In the memoir, McDermott describes the sudden plunge into life with bipolar disorder. Often finding humor in the harrowing, McDermott details the severity of his manic episodes, which sometimes led to hospitalizations against his will.

Throughout the process, he had the unwavering support of his mother, Cindy Cisneros-McGilvrey — the “Bird” of the book’s title.

McDermott recently answered some questions about the book and his life, which has become that of an in-demand author.

His two best friends from UVA Law, Elliot Klass ’08 and Mike Keenan ’08, often serve as editors of his work. They were influential as he wrote “Gorilla and the Bird,” he said.

What inspired you to write this memoir?

I was already writing before this happened. And when something like this happens, I mean, when you’re a writer and something like this happens, you have your subject, you know?

I want to comment on what I hope people take away from the book. I hope we can spark/contribute to a badly needed conversation about mental health in this country. I hope the book can further the dialogue about badly needed criminal justice reform in the U.S. I hope the book can be a voice and advocate for the 1 in 4 black males who are or will be incarcerated in this country at some point in their lives. I hope the book can help some people rethink their views of the necessity of draconian sentences and rehabilitating those that run afoul of the law. I hope the book can push a few people to understand that gangbangers have mothers too. And that they live and breathe, and bleed and die, just like the rest of us. Most importantly, I hope the book can contribute to a conversation that argues that there is no “rest of us” with respect to the “normal” and the “mentally ill.” I am normal. I have a job — a cool one. And friends. I am also, quite literally, a raving lunatic sometimes. I am psychotic in the literal and sometimes figurative sense of the word. Sometimes I am crazy. Most often, I am lucid. But when I’m not lucid, I sometimes do bad things. I hurt people with my behavior. I don’t mean to.

How did you manage your condition with the demands of being a lawyer, specifically in the world of public defense?

I think public defenders do the Lord’s work. Politically, I haven’t found a group of people I am more aligned with. I was not great at it, though. And that is one thing that contributed to my anxiety while I was there. In many ways, if you are a bad public defender, you are a good prosecutor. If you are losing for your team, then you are winning for the other team. Unfortunately, it is a zero-sum game most of the time in this system. I felt like if I wasn’t an expert or one of the best, was I doing more harm than good? And I was comfortable when I was handling lower-level cases. They become somewhat formulaic, and I knew what I was doing. I could argue a misdemeanor plea with my eyes closed. But when you get to these cases where you are dealing with years in prison, not months or weeks… That pressure added to my anxiety after spending some time confined in a psych ward. I totally get the PTSD that you can end up with just after being locked up for a week or so. I think every 24 hours behind bars inflicts a horrible level of — I wish I could think of a less dramatic word than “torture,” but it is torturous.

Once the sentences started getting like years, even if I knew what I was doing, I was always second-guessing myself, and I was having panic attacks. Like if I screw this up, this man or woman is going to spend a term of years of their life in prison because of me. That’s a terrible pressure to have, because no matter how good you are, you can still lose. My skill level never matched my passion for the cause. I always would have been feeling guilty for not having done more for my client, no matter how hard I fought. Because what’s enough? You are doing triages. All of these bodies coming in, and you treat the most serious first. This guy’s facing 25 to life, he’s up first. You have to be able to detach yourself from the human suffering you are witnessing and get numb to it. And I didn’t like getting numb to it. You’ve got to be tough, and you have to care. But you have to manage how much you care.   

What are some insights you can share about your mom? Do you have an anecdote you can tell?

I had another manic episode, the first one in five years, this past summer. My mom was in Atlanta at the time — my sister had just had a newborn — and I was in Wichita. We were shooting some documentary-style stuff for another project I am working on for some promotional footage for “Gorilla and the Bird.” I got the impression, after three or four nights of bad sleep and working 15-hour days, that I was auditioning to play myself in the TV adaptation of “Gorilla and the Bird.” While I was under this impression — it was the “Truman Show” thing again (a reference to his book’s inciting incident, in which he had the delusion he was on a TV show) — I met up with my actual camera crew, and they were rolling, so we have a producer and two shooters filming me.

My mom was no less there for me this time around than any of the previous times. And she knew I wasn’t good. I called her the night before the manic episode crying, and we did our routine and made a plan. I can’t imagine what that feels like for her, just to hear me cry hard on the other line. We go through our whole routine, taking medication and writing things down.

It’s hard to pluck out an anecdote to tell you what my mom’s all about. I mean, I wrote a book. There is not just one moment in time where she was there for me, because she still is, and I can call her whenever I want. I know if I were back in the hospital, she would move into the hospital herself. I can’t say enough nice stuff about her. She is incredible. You could line up hundreds of people that could tell stories about what she has done for them.

It's clear from the book that you and your mom have a similar approach to dealing with the psychosis, and humor is a part of it.

Yeah, I mean I don’t know why we think it is all so funny, but we do. There are funny elements, for sure. Writing the book, my writing partners and I always tried to go with the funnier option.

Mental illness memoirs can get a little too dramatic. You try to paint this ordeal of your life unraveling and then your life is back together. It is just not that clean. And funny stuff happens.

Can you talk about how you’ve been able to collaborate with your fellow alums creatively?

My two best friends from UVA Law are my writing partners, Mike Keenan and Elliott Klass. I lived with Mike and his wife for six weeks, and they had tons of juices for me in the fridge. (Mike Keenan started The Juice Laundry in Charlottesville.) I would sit in his apartment, drink juice and write all day. Then he would come home and we would edit together. Elliott Klass lives in New York with me. He line-edited the book four or five times. However good it is, this book would not be 65 percent as good as it is without those two. That alone was worth the price of admission to law school, meeting those two guys. I value their friendship more than their writing, but not by much.

How was your experience here? Did you have much exposure to public interest lawyering as a student?

UVA Law is a great place. I was in the Innocence Project Clinic, and I tried a very minor case in Albemarle County Court under the tutelage of a UVA alum who is a solo practitioner there now.  I took a habeas course called Post-Conviction Remedies from Brandon Garrett, and they brought in Peter Neufeld, who was one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers. There are certainly more opportunities at UVA Law than I availed myself of, but I did clinics, mock trial and I took every criminal class I could. There were plenty, and it’s only grown from when I was there. Brandon Garrett is obviously nationally respected. I took criminal law with former Dean John C. Jeffries, and that was great. And I had current Dean Risa Goluboff for con law. I really liked her. Richard Bonnie is great, too.

Did you feel any symptoms of your mental health diagnosis as a law student?

I think there are two types of crazy, and I think I am both of them. The first one is you’re schizophrenic, you’re bipolar. And I didn’t have any indication that I was headed down that road until it absolutely thunderstruck. The second type of crazy is in terms of being a crazy kid, like getting in trouble and stuff. Let’s put it this way: I don’t think too many people that knew me in law school would have been like “that’s not Zack” [when they heard about the psychotic breaks]. I have always done crazy and reckless and unhealthy things. I was always willing to do whatever for a laugh. People that know me well have said things like, “Yeah we always knew you were crazy,” and I now have to explain that these are two different things. Maybe there is some correlation though. I got in plenty of trouble.

I am not shocked by it, but it’s not something you feel coming on for years and years. Going back and processing it — you link up your adolescence and your 20s you ask yourself, has something always been kind of wrong with me?

Did you take any creative license when writing this book, or did you stick to factual storytelling?

I did my 100 percent best to take no creative license. In my case, I tried to be particularly diligent about sticking to the facts, because I think there is a very justifiable question of “how reliable is this narrator?” when you are getting the point of view of someone who has literally lost his mind. I tried to leave out anything I wasn’t sure of. That’s why there’s a section of the book where I used my mom’s journals because there was a period of time where I was totally out to lunch and I didn’t know what was going on. But I wanted to be careful not to stretch anything for plot or readability that could then be confirmed as false, because then the whole thing could come tumbling down. I tried to be pretty airtight with the facts. I wrote all of the memories down when they were fresh.

What are you working on currently, and what is next for you?

Right now, I am writing things related to the book and its promotion. I want to do TV writing, and I want to make documentaries. I am dabbling in both right now. The book has been optioned for TV, but I can’t say much more than that right now. I do a lot of comedic journalism as well. I think my mom knew I was a writer before I did. I don’t even know how I became one, really. I read a lot, but compared to most people at UVA Law, I probably read the average amount.

Do you continue to practice law?

I am exclusively writing now, and I am no longer practicing law. I was leaving court one day, and I was on the edge of a panic or anxiety attack. I was going to walk home like I normally do, but I got on a bus. Because I was so distracted, I was nervous that I would walk directly into traffic. I got on the phone with my mom and told her I didn’t think I could do it anymore. She asked if I was going to take a leave. And I said I didn’t think I was going to back and that I didn’t have to be a lawyer. And she told me no, I didn’t have to be a lawyer.

I think that is one thing that made me not as good of a public defender as I could have otherwise been. I never had two feet in, because I always wanted to do something creative. Before writing, it was standup. I almost skipped law school to try to become a writer, but I just didn’t know how the hell you did that. I always wanted to write, and it kept me from committing myself full-bore to the public defender’s office. If you aren’t all in there, unless you have some supernatural power, you are doing a disservice to your clients. It requires all of you.

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