Creative Writing at The New School

By Sara-Kate Astrove

gorilla and the birdWhen Zack McDermott came back to his old New School class, he was holding his new book, Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love (Little Brown). Recently optioned by Channing Tatum to be made into a TV series, the book has received rave reviews in Kirkus, NPR, and CNN. It began as a personal essay McDermott wrote in Susan Shapiro's “Writing for NYC Newspapers, Magazines and the Web” course (known by her students as “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long”) and published in Gawker.

McDermott was 26 and in his first year as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in New York City when he first lost it. He woke up convinced that he was being filmed for a Truman Show-style TV pilot. He thought people on the streets in his East Village neighborhood were extras, production crew, and supporting characters.

"I walked out of my apartment on the corner of St. Mark's and Avenue A, and I knew we were rolling," he writes in the book. "The people on the sidewalk were actors. I couldn't believe how well they'd cast Generic Old Man on Park Bench."

After running through traffic, disrupting a soccer game by shouting obscenities in a Scottish accent, sprinting naked across the field, and entering a rap battle, McDermott found himself crying on a subway platform. Two NYPD officers arrested him and sent him to Bellevue Hospital's psych ward.

Gorilla and the Bird chronicles McDermott's bipolar disorder and the extraordinary ways his single mom, Cindy, helped him survive it. Cindy was a schoolteacher who overcame domestic abuse and poverty and raised three kids on her own. She nicknamed McDermott Gorilla, due to his hairy body and grumpy attitude, while he called her the Bird, "because of her tendency to move her head in these choppy semicircles when her feathers are ruffled."

With the help of medication and a caring psychiatrist, McDermott learned to manage his bipolar disorder. "This disease, my condition, it's not a mystery to me," said McDermott during his recent visit to Shapiro’s class. "It's actually pretty simple. My maintenance procedure is to get enough sleep; don't party too hard. If you feel like you're going to an unsafe or dangerous place, take the proper medication and get some rest. Bipolar is something I have, not something I had.”

Recently, McDermott experienced his first manic episode in six years. He was in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas with family, shooting footage for a forthcoming documentary project to complement his book. According to McDermott, "A great deal of the episode was caught on tape. I thought I was auditioning for the role of myself, in the TV series based on the book. That's psychosis. It took me a couple of months until I felt totally safe, sane and straight again."

McDermott's ultimate aim with his book is to help normalize mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of Americans—44 million individuals—grapple with psychiatric disorders each year.

"I hope we can erase the distinction between normal and crazy," McDermott explained. "I'm normal in some ways. I have friends, I have a really cool job. But I'm also quite literally a raving lunatic sometimes. And that's kind of okay."

When asked if it was painful to revisit his darkest moments for his memoir, the now 34-year-old replied, "There were a million difficult things about writing this book, but recounting it wasn't. The hard part was living it."

zack mcdermott

Zack McDermott visits Susan Shapiro's "Writing for NYC Newspapers, Magazines and the Web" course at The New School

Sara-Kate Astrove received her MFA from The New School’s Creative Writing Program. Her work, published under “anonymous” and “S.K.” has appeared in Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook,Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, and Yahoo.

About The Author


Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.