Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True (HarperCollins, 1998) is a gut-wrenching tome, now the subject of a recent six-part HBO mini-series from 2020. I encourage readers to spend time with the novel before watching the series, however, to experience the power of this immense story, beautifully written, with a narrative tension that does not waver.
The novel begins on an afternoon in 1990, when the protagonist Dominick Birdsey’s twin brother Thomas, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, severs his hand in the Three Rivers Public Library in Connecticut as a sacrifice to God to spare lives during the Gulf War. Dominick is in the midst of his own struggles, having quit his teaching job after his infant daughter died and his marriage ended; nonetheless he seeks to advocate for his twin, a promise he had made to his mother on her deathbed.
Once Thomas is committed to the state hospital, the story shifts back to their college years as Dominick ruminates on how he pushed Thomas away by refusing to room with him, leaving Thomas alone and helpless with his emerging mental illness. Lamb describes Dominick’s feeling of survivor guilt in painful detail as a backdrop to Dominick’s subsequent attempts to help alleviate his brother’s illness, narrated through meetings with Thomas’s social worker Dr. Patel at the state hospital. These meetings become a platform of self-reflection for Dominick, who begins to peel apart his family history like an onion, beginning with revelations about the monstrous behavior of his Italian immigrant grandfather that Dominick reads in his grandfather’s diary.
Dominick then begins to reflect on his own “tough guy” persona, developed in tandem with the rage of his stepfather Ray, in contrast to his sweet and gentle brother, his mother’s favorite, the one who fell ill but always held his mother’s attention. Dominick’s grandfather’s observation: “The world is made of stairs; there are those who go up and those who go down” (p. 542) is accurate - when Thomas is released to a group home, he ends up dead a day later, while at the same time Dominick begins to rebuild his own life along a path of redemption.