Laughter helps author cope with mental illness


On the second page of Josh Greenfield’s novel, Dr. Rubin turns to Jordan Finneman, a college student who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and says, “‘That’s what will make you well... humor cuts through the knot.’”

The idea of working through problems with laughter is not only explored throughout Mr. Greenfield’s aptly titled first novel, Cutting Through the Knot, it’s his philosophy.

Mr. Greenfield, 48, was born in Riverdale. He played in the South Riverdale Baseball League — majors and minors. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Riverdale Temple. He was, as he says, “a Riverdale boy.”

At 22 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then called manic depression. Later, he developed a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Yet he did not and will not let those conditions stop him.

He graduated from Cornell University. He earned two master’s degrees — one in English and one in history — from Hunter College. He’s a dissertation away from a doctorate in English from Fordham University and is working on a screenplay and a second novel.

Meanwhile, he gives occasional talks on his semi-autobiographical first novel.

What Jordan goes through in Cutting Through the Knot is based on Mr. Greenfield’s own experiences with mental illness. After being diagnosed with both bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorders, the character is treated by a psychiatrist. When his psychiatrist leaves for vacation in Japan, Jordan stops taking his medication, is hospitalized, escapes, is hospitalized and escapes again — this time to the other side of the country. In the darkest cave of mental illness, he climbs out by learning to laugh at himself.

The novel is written in a conversational style, as if Mr. Greenfield were sitting you down to tell you a story about how low you have to sink before you can finally see some light.

“I’m not afraid to be up front about the fact that I went through a dark place and I’m at a better place now,” he said in a recent interview.
Laughter is what helped Mr. Greenfield, who said he is “trying to tell a very dark story in a lighthearted way.”

For years, he’s shown up for amateur night at downtown comedy clubs, where, he said, he tries to talk about serious issues like his mental illness or losing job after job, all with a tinge of laughter.

“It was a long process to come to this point where I have this degree of openness,” he said.

Mr. Greenfield, who hopes to tear down the silence surrounding mental illness, will be at the Westbury, N.Y. Borders bookstore on Saturday, Jan. 8, and the New York University Bookstore in early February.