Our guest-blogger today is Jennifer Anne Moses, author of the new novel The Book of Joshua, a novel that portrays the challenges of mental illness. (Content warning: this post contains references to self-harm and suicide.)
Danny Greenberg was my first boyfriend. Our summer romance occurred when we were both seventeen and students at the same college-prep summer school. Danny was handsome, clean-cut, sweet on me. In August, he returned to his home in L.A. A year later, both of us enrolled in colleges on the east coast, we embarked on a friendship that would last only a few more years, during which Danny became oversensitive, depressed, and paranoid, convinced that only by taking on the world’s pain would the world’s sufferings abate.
He was, at times, obsessed with me. Just before I flew to London for my college “junior year abroad” he crossed the English Channel from France, where he himself was spending his junior year, to find me. How he did it I still don’t know, but there he was, waiting for me outside the cell-like room of my dorm in southeast London.
Then the shit got real. Back on the east coast and torn by psychoses, he committed what he later called “a blood sacrifice,” and, while staying at a YMCA in New York, poked out his own eye with—was it a wire hanger? A fireplace implement? A letter opener? I’m not sure I ever knew.
He survived his wounds and even graduated from college—in his case, Princeton. Afterwards, he moved back home, to Los Angeles, and did what he did. Grad school. A serious girlfriend. Social work. Through the world of Jewish communal philanthropy, our mothers were friends, and now and then Mom would call me with an update. But by then I was too busy having babies to notice much of anything outside my own home. Then I was thirty-six, with two two-year-olds and a hyperactive six-year-old, and Mom called to say: “Are you sitting down?” After I assured her that I was indeed sitting down, she said: “Danny Greenberg killed himself. He lit himself on fire in front of his parents’ house in Los Angeles.” Up until her own death, many years later, from cancer, Danny’s mother called me every year on Danny’s birthday. I always theorized that she wanted to talk to me, especially, because I had known him, if only briefly, before he was ravaged by the beasts of mental illness.
His story gripped me—because here was an unusually sunny boy, a popular and gifted and beloved boy, who, even before he struck that match, had been destroyed by a cancer so much worse than cancer, because cancer merely destroys the body, whereas mental illness destroys you, claiming your personality and mind and soul as its own. I wrote a short story called “This Danny of His, This Most Beloved,” that was vaguely sort of kind of about my Danny. I didn’t think it was that good a story, though. I was surprised when it was published.
Years later, I started writing about a Danny-like figure again, only in this case, the protagonist of the book that eventually became The Book of Joshua, would have hope. In real life, Danny’s parents had long since endowed a program called “Daniel’s Place,” hoping to give to others who suffer from mental illness the light and love that their own beloved son wasn’t able to find.
is a multigenre author whose many books include Tales from My Closet, Visiting Hours, and Bagels and Grits. Her journalism and essays have appeared frequently in Time magazine, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications.