Lately, the relatives haven't been as shy about admitting that little problem grandma had was alcoholism, or that no, grandpa wasn't just a little off - he had bipolar bad enough to require shock treatments, and you remember when your cousin kind of hid out for a while during college? Bipolar.

Not sure how you're supposed to respond to that. My relatives, thankfully, aren't the kind who stare at you until you say something pithy; they're zooming off to another subject, racing to brag about another relative's accomplishment to bring you back to earth, or below. Meanwhile you've stuck that crazy dna nugget in your head to mull over in the shower later, trying to deconstruct fractured memories to put back together into a new, truer, reality. Later, into the shower you go and it's still crazy: how do you piece together odd, incongruous dinner party conversations from twenty years ago with this new information?

At the AWP writer's convention, I happened to hear Marya Hornbacher talk at the "laughing at sickness" seminar (that's not the official professional-sounding title, but you get the idea). I'd read "Wasted," her book chronicling her experience with eating disorders - getting down to 52 pounds shows the extreme of her experience - and it stopped my dabbling with the same match and gasoline, just like that. Getting into those thoughts, even vicariously through written words on a page, was enough. When you can't fit into your fat pants, you remember reading about her throwing up toast at nine years old, her teeth outline showing through her cheeks and the thought of going to extremes dissipates. Who'd want to recreate what she lived through? You can learn moderation by her account of complete lack of it.

When returning home, I bought "Madness," as she seemed so approachable and just simply cute at the talk - the brightest star on the panel by far. All the other sickness ladies brought dolls, talked about the cancer bitch, and generally made fun of their diseases while sounding like one of your old out-of-touch high school teachers while explaining the consequences of necking with boys. No, Ms. Hornbacher was interesting, young, and read her excerpt she was talking to a friend. Moreover, she answered all the crazy girls' questions (the audience was filled with her fans, some of them not far from their own 52-pound nightmare from what I could tell) with genuine, humorous compassion.

That's how I came to "Madness:" for the author, not the subject. With all the family birthday party confessions lately, however, the timing seems perfect. Or is it that when you have your mind on something you are like a magnet, noticing these things more? Either way, I wouldn't wish this disease on anyone. I started to feel bipolar, understanding the craziness of it, at about page 200, and unlike my relatives, was treated simply by taking a break. (And not reading right before I went to sleep, duh.)

Now, rather than looking kind of oddly at my relatives who have been outed and have lived through this, I have such a deep respect for what they've survived. Us normal people have it so easy. We take no meds to straighten us out that then for no reason stop working, our obstacles are due mostly to our decisions rather than our dna, and the psych ward isn't a possibility in our future except in dumb, probably inappropriate jokes.

People ask why read? Who does that anymore? To me, the best books take you somewhere new, some other place with a whole new you that you get to be in the process. Not saying going crazy is a preferred destination, but if you're going to do it - this kind of smart, sweet, fascinating writer is the one you want as a tourguide. Compassion and deference for your "crazy" relatives is a great benefit, too, don't you think?