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A Memoir

Angelhead by Greg Bottoms
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"My brother saw the face of God. You never recover from a trauma like that."

So begins Angelhead, a taut, powerful memoir of the madness and crime that rips a family apart.

"I didn't see God, of course, but I saw my brother seeing God; I saw how petrified he was, how convinced."

Set in Tidewater, Virginia, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Angelhead documents the violent, drug-addled, schizophrenic descent of the author's brother, Michael. Commencing with Michael's first psychotic break at age 14 -- high on acid, seeing God in his suburban bedroom window -- through a series of petty crimes, bizarre disappearances, and suicide attempts to the shocking crime that landed him in the psychiatric wing of a maximum security prison, Angelhead enables us to witness firsthand, as never before, the fragmenting of a mind and a family.

"I knew, still know, that he saw, in some form, His or Her or Its face."

Bottoms shows, in pitch-perfect prose and with great empathy and dramatic tension, the psychological decline of his brother as he becomes obsessed first with heavy metal music, martial arts, and the occult, and then with the more bizarre aspects of Christianity. We not only see the effects Michael's odd and increasingly violent behavior has on the people around him, but also come to understand how the author, now a successful writer and journalist, used the power of language and storytelling both to save himself and to forgive his brother. With the fast pace and seamless structure of the best crime writing and the moral sophistication and depth of our finest literature, Angelhead will challenge what we know about mental illness and its impact on us all. It is a brilliant work of unusual intensity.

"In his room he was having his first of many psychotic breaks. It came in the form of crippling guilt, ruthless introspection. He was Jesus being scolded by an angry Father. He wore sin, all sin, heavy as lead shackles. God made him look at himself and he was a stone with a minuscule heart."
Crown/Archetype; March 2002
ISBN 9780676806540
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Title: Angelhead
Author: Greg Bottoms
Michael's plan was simple. He was going to burn our father alive before the demons completely overtook his soul. He believed our father would kill our mother by strangling her one night in bed; he had seen this in a vision given to him in a dream by a mysterious force named Utok the Angel, who didn't have a body but was instead pure energy and translucent, a wave of colorless movement speeding about in his room.

The same angel, in a different dream, told Michael that the bug in his head, a tiny metal transistor, had been planted by his father and was to keep Michael from interfering, to always know his whereabouts in the house. His father was the origin of all the voices. His father had made Michael a prisoner. Michael had finally been given full disclosure from the other world, the real world of dreams. All the tricks, all the lies, all the pain he had suffered and nightmares he had endured, were radiating from the center of his father's head. The whole cancer thing was an obvious ploy, more tricks, a way of getting Michael to drop his defenses in what had become a silent war.

Kill that motherfucker, Utok had said. It's the only way.

His father was flooding the world with demons, so no matter where Michael went, the forces of evil could squeeze through window frames and up through vents and along corridors, always shadowing him, always oppressing him. His father controlled the sewer systems and the radio towers and the satellite dishes in space. He controlled the demons and the demons controlled the world and that made our dying father the true nemesis of God, the Antichrist. That had been the message in the window when he was fourteen, only he hadn't known enough scripture then to read it correctly. The demons would always find Michael as long as his father was alive, acting sick, acting innocent, scooting around in his underwear with that ridiculous chemo tube stuck in his side.

Michael waited in the garage, smoking--he had to smoke in the garage now that his father was dying of lung cancer; further reason to hate him--until 4:30 A.M. He had set an alarm on a small digital clock that sat on a work-bench. Then he put out his cigarette and began to pray. The voices were becoming clear; but soon, if it all worked out, they would vanish forever with his father; vanish into oblivion with all evil. There would be light, a new world. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

First he went upstairs, to my younger brother's room, which was locked. He lifted the smoke alarm off the small hook on the wall and put it in his coat pocket. On the stairs, coming down, he tried to be quiet, but some of the boards squeaked under his weight. My father heard him, but his stalking was normal. My father wheezed at night, couldn't sleep in certain positions because of the fluid that stayed in his lungs. He ignored the noise.

Michael went to the hall adjacent the living room. The smoke detector there wouldn't pop off the wall like the one upstairs, so he twisted the white cover until it broke off, then ripped the wires out, putting it all in his pocket. He took both detectors and threw one in the kitchen trash can and one in the bathroom trash can.

Now he went back to the garage. The good voices, the ones from God, were telling him what to do. The bad voices, those radiating from my dying father's head, were trying to trick him into stopping now while he still could, before anyone was hurt, before anyone was dead. They were saying bullshit things like his family loved him and that what was wrong was wrong with him. He knew he was right. The message was through an angel, from God himself. He wouldn't be tricked, not this time. He knew what he had to do, knew he had to kill his family to be free and to set them free. To murder was to free the soul from its cage, from pain and hopelessness, a noble, godly deed. In his mind he was doing my family a favor. They would never be lonely or afraid or worried again. They would never fight or yell or cry or sit quietly and gloomily in that somber house. They would know only love and God's grace and forgiveness. They would go to heaven, maybe even my father, too, if God found it in his heart to forgive him. They would lose their bodies and live forever.

Picking up the gas can, he headed back into the house. It was now ten after five. At the bottom of the stairs, in front of my parents' room, he poured a pool of gasoline on the floor. He held the can close to the ground to quiet the splash. He lit a wooden match on his zipper, tossed it into the pool of gasoline, and watched the rising breath of flames. Heat radiated in concentric circles past him. He waited a few seconds to make sure it closed off the doorway in fire, then headed back to the garage.

In the garage he dumped the rest of the gasoline around, splashing it on the floor and up over his shoes, over sporting equipment and gardening tools and coolers and fold-up lawn chairs. Putting his cigarettes in his pocket and making sure he had more matches, he got my mother's old bike, a blue three-speed from Sears with a baby seat. He opened the big garage door, lit another match on his zipper, and tossed it into the gas. The entire garage, because of the open door and the slight breeze, went up in an inferno instantly, lighting up the night a white-yellow.

Michael rode off into the dark morning, with his clock radio and Bible in the baby seat of the bike, his orange cigarette ember a single point of light along the road away from the house.

He felt better already. It had been the right thing to do, the only thing to do. He had left the gas can, with his fingerprints all over it, tipped over in the driveway, the burned matches on the hardwood floor, smoke detectors covered in more fingerprints in trashcans in the house, wires and batteries from the alarms in the pockets of his coat. He went to the end of our road, about a mile away, and sat at the edge of the black river, where wooden fishing boats were tied to pilings, floating on their own dark reflections He prayed, pulling hard on his third, then his fourth cigarette He waited for the blue souls of my family to go flying past, toward the safe, bright stars.

From the Hardcover edition.
  • News
Finding the meaning in his message - Sydney Morning Herald
Fri, 26 Nov 2010 05:07:40 -0800
Sydney Morning HeraldFinding the meaning in his messageSydney Morning HeraldIt's based in on a book called Angelhead, by ...