SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Brilliant Madness

Nov. 30, 2009

A psychotherapist once informed me that it took a certain talent to develop schizophrenia and that I didn't possess it, as I had a solid mind. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. But it got me thinking about how one might learn to actually blow one's own mind, expand it out of its accustomed boxes, bust out of what one perceives as real and imaginary. Learning to do this might be the door that opened to madness or brilliance.

I've always been fascinated by how the mind works, and how it fails us. The best book I ever read on mania was Kay Redfield Jamison's soul-searching, gripping memoir, An Unquiet Mind, which captivated me so much I literally did not put it down from the moment I got it home until I turned the the final page. It took all of one bitterly cold night under the covers under a small, dim lamp in my room with a slanted floor in Ithaca to devour it.

Jamison's story is particularly remarkable because she wrote it both from the standpoint of a professional -- she's a clinical psychologist -- and as a sufferer of mania, doing what no psychologist or psychiatrist before her had done, coming out of the closet as a sufferer of bipolar disease. Jamison, an expert on the subject, is currently a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and her autobiography set a standard that I don't think has been matched since An Unquiet Mind was published in 1995.

Jamison's ability to detail with uncanny precision the workings of her manic mind and to pose questions and logic concerning her experiences with equal precision captivated me. There would be no question at the end of this reading about the profound effect of mental illness on the sufferer as well as others in her life. Like alcoholism, the disease affects everyone who comes in touch with it.

This fact is made stunningly clear in the opening pages of Hurry Down Sunshine, A Father's Story of Love and Madness by Michael Greenberg. A columnist for The Times Literary Supplement, Greenberg was forced to come to grips with his 15-year old daughter's psychotic break in the summer of 1996 -- Sally unraveled while walking down a street in Greenwich Village and continued unraveling in a psychiatric ward -- an event that deeply shook up Sally's mother and step-mother, among others, and transformed Greenberg's life and Sally's.

While it's Jamison's ability to see herself that mesmerizes the reader in her autobiography, it's the combination of Greenberg's desire to love his daughter back to normal and his ability to embrace both the ways he is united to and separated from Sally by her madness that gives this book its unique beauty and power. It's as if Greenberg believes his own ability to perceive Sally exactly as she is might be the magic wand that reels her in from madness.

Madness isn't beautiful. It causes pain and hardship. Jamison's account of ruining relationships with her outbursts, and Greenberg's description of Sally on a rampage in his apartment, set loose by her instability like an automated alien, are chilling and disturbing.

Jamison found a route out of madness through medication, therapy and self-knowledge, and Greenberg found a way to cope by charting his daughter's descent and return with raw accuracy and honesty. Both journeys took extraordinary courage and both stories acquire a kind of luminosity in the telling.

Like journalists in a no man's land, these writers pass along their insights as they toe the edge. It may be the very danger they encounter in the act of telling that endows their perceptions with such rare and heart-wrenching brilliance.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rare Gifts of Our Mothers

Nov. 6, 2009

Ruth Reichl's memoir, Not Becoming My Mother(2009) is above all an ode to defiance, that much maligned virtue, especially when it is attributed to women. Reichl, an award-winning journalist, food critic and author of several critically acclaimed memoirs, has written a beautiful and heart-wrenching elegy, taking the reader through the diary notes and letters left behind by her mother. These messages left in a box and uncovered at what would have been Miriam Brudno's 100th birthday, it turns out, hold the woman's true self and legacy.

Not Becoming My Mother opens on an upbeat note with Reichl recounting zany "Mim tales" out of her childhood, stories about her mother's culinary mishaps and failed attempts to be a typical mother. Miriam was a disastrous cook and totally uninterested in housekeeping, something that constantly frazzled her own mother who expected her to excel at these.

Like many women of the generation of the 1940s in which she grew up, Miriam was stymied by convention -- marriage and motherhood. An intellectual, she aspired to become a doctor, but relinquished her dream, giving in to her mother's expectations to marry, settle down and have children. She did taste independence in her early 20s, when she ventured into the business of opening a bookstore, an opportunity that allowed her to befriend important writers and intellectuals of her day. But, as a wife and mother, Miriam felt burdened, with no outlets for creativity, and became overwhelmed first with boredom, then depression.

Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother: A Memoir (2007), includes portraits of many family members besides Gordon's mother, and many of these are dark and unflattering. Her primary focus is her mother's religious life and her friendship with a few Catholic priests. In younger years, despite polio, Gordon's mother, Anna Gagliano, a deeply devout Catholic and also an alcoholic, managed to be the family breadwinner making a living as a legal secretary, but at 90, in a nursing home, her mind gone, she is the epitome of decrepit old age, with its stench and embarrassment. Gordon compares the scene in a nursing home to a Bonnard painting, but it is evident that she is repulsed by what her mother has become. Gordon, who teaches at Barnard College, has written nonfiction, but is perhaps best known for her first novel, Final Payments (1979), and her best-seller, Men and Angels (1985).

Reichl's account, which focuses almost exclusively on her mother, is rare as it is about a woman who finds herself in old age, that time of life so often associated with waste and decay and so often discounted by our culture. Miriam endured a bad first marriage that ended quickly with divorce; suffered through years in her relationship to a harsh, demanding yet charismatic and talented mother; bore two children whom she taught to be self-sufficient despite her own feelings of insecurity and failure; and finally, survived the loss of her faithful husband of many years. But it is only after finding herself alone, at the end of her life, that Miriam saw who she was and felt free enough to become herself, embracing her independence.

Miriam's gift to her children was defiance -- that surge of the instinct rebelling against obstacles it deems unnecessary -- and a profound belief in the importance of a strong work ethic. She encouraged her children by negative example -- "This is what I don't want you to become," she seemed to say over and over.

Miriam's story is sad and not so uncommon, but it is ultimately hopeful. It's final message -- that one can transform at any age -- is refreshing and important, particularly in our youth-driven culture.