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.