...more intimate and personal... McDermott's Gorilla and the Bird is the earthier read — warmer, more garrulous and ingratiating. It's less interested in the history of mental illness and the culture of treatment around it, and more concerned with how his bipolar disorder affects those around him — his mother, especially ... McDermott brings an vivid and unsettling degree of intimacy to his descriptions of mania's onset ... He uses that empathy to construct a deeply compassionate portrait of his mother — a resilient woman whose love helps ground him in the real, even in moments when his reality is at its most friable ... Gorilla and the Bird looks outward, at the many interpersonal connections that bipolar disorder tests, and sometimes breaks forever.
...[McDermott] combines the brutal realities of his experiences with gallows-dwelling white trash humor... Using humor to drive home a crucial point — that a destigmatized society where people get the treatment they need would be a more cost-effective and humane one — is McDermott’s signature. He believes that speaking frankly about mental illness is crucial to improving how we treat it, and he is seizing the opportunity that interviews like this one have given him ... Even when writing about the abject conditions in psychiatric hospitals from New York to Kansas, McDermott knows the value of his voice in making the story human ...he also realizes that, like a political cartoonist or jester, it’s the ability to use humor to highlight true issues that can set a message apart.
In his own way, McDermott, too, invites the reader to relate to him and his experiences navigating mental illness (no matter how extreme), and not to take in his story as a voyeur ... The oscillation between reality and fiction that McDermott enables us to experience in the book’s opening chapter is a necessary and clever contribution to the mental health literary canon, providing greater immediacy and emotional charge to the portrayal of bipolar disorder ... It sometimes feels like McDermott is trying too hard to impress us through his cool and amicable narrator. McDermott’s chattiness, biting humor, and tender self-deprecation certainly bring a powerful voice to the broader cultural discussion around mental illness. But sometimes his irreverence feels forced... While Gorilla and the Bird may have flexed its entertainment muscles a bit too eagerly for my taste, McDermott’s accessibility as a storyteller is a radical feat for destigmatizing mental illness.