Kay Redfield Jamison, William Styron and the True Stories of Mental Illness

Kay Redfield Jamison
Kay Redfield Jamison. Photo by hocolobrary, Flickr

Journalist Mary Pilon is a former reporter for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and the author of 2015’s The Monopolists, the best-selling book about the origins of the board game Monopoly . She’s just announced her next book, The Kevin Show (Bloomsbury, publish date TBD), about a manic depressive Olympic sailor who believes he is the star of ‘The Kevin Show’—hearing and speaking to the voice of the Director, who tells him what to do in the ongoing TV movie of his life. Given her latest project, we’ve asked her to share some of her early book research and recommendations on mental health.

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There have been countless depictions of mental health in fiction, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Yet much of the genre, fiction or nonfiction, can be droll, repetitive and lacking in dimension and often just downright depressing. The good news is that some incredible gems of nonfiction can be found, as well. Most people can think of the bestsellers, most notably Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, both of which were adapted into distinctive and successful films, but there’s no need to stop there.

For those interested in learning more about manic depression and its relationship to creativity, the work of Kay Redfield Jamison is a must, particularly Touched With Fire. Jamison, a MacArthur fellow and psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who also suffers from manic depression herself, elegantly weaves her own battle with the disorder with scientific research and cultural understandings of it. Jamison’s book connects our increasing understanding of genetics and its role in illness, the “gap that frequently exists between public appearance and private despair,” and the narrative structures often contained within manic highs. Manic depression, Jamison writes, is an illness that “ecompasses the extremes of human experience,” making her writing fascinating for those who are suffering from it, or examining it from the outside:

For individuals who live with moods that change often and intensely, life is a tempestuous experience. The manic-depressive, or cyclothymic, temperament, carries with it the capacity to react strongly and quickly; it is, in a biological sense, an alert and excitable system. It responds to the world with a wide range of emotional, perceptual, intellectual, behavioral, and energy exchanges, and it creates around itself both the possibilities and chaos afforded by altered experiences and fluctuating tempos. In a sense depression is a view of the world through a glass darkly, and mania is a shattered pattern of views seen through a prism or kaleidoscope: often brilliant but generally fractured. Where depression questions, ruminates, and is tentative, mania answers with vigor and certainty.

Touched With Fire also includes some astonishing graphics, including Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic output by month (his lackluster Februarys and booming Augusts serving as harsh examples of how seasons can impact temperament), as well as the family trees of Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, a tragic cartography of suicides, alcoholism and depression. Jamison’s other works, An Unquiet Mind and Exuberance are great companion pieces, too. The former delves more into her personal battle with manic depression, the latter into the personalities who are only the “up” in bipolar disorder, such as Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Winston Churchill. Fans of Oliver Sacks and authors who can marry the technical with the eloquent will find themselves enraptured by Jamison’s work.

Similarly, William Styron’s Darkness Visible is a powerful meditation on madness that may offer poetic solace to those suffering from depression. Styron, a novelist who died in 2006, notes that “the weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.” Like Jamison, he incorporates art into our understanding of the mind, however futile the exercise may be, as it is just that—an attempt. “To most of those who have experienced,” Styron said, “the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression, hence the frustrated sense of inadequacy found in the work of even the greatest artists.”

For those looking for an even more accessible, and at times humorous take on manic depression, the graphic novel Marbles by Ellen Forney is funny, sad, witty and unflinchingly honest about her experience with manic depression. A Seattle-based cartoonist, Forney worries that the same medication that allows her to harness her mental illness will stifle her creativity (and the career it fuels).  Her visuals—a lump of blanket on a couch, the yogi with a monster over her stretched arm, a six-armed multitasker—provide apt metaphors.

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Mental health power siblings Joel and Ian Gold provide cultural context in Suspicious Minds of how forces around us, be they on television, radio, film or politics, influence different types of madness. Joel Gold discusses when a patient arrived under his care at Bellevue Hospital claiming that he thought he was being filmed and his life was being broadcast worldwide, akin to the 1998 film “The Truman Show.” The Golds trace the historical roots of such delusions, starting with Ancient Egypt toward today’s world of selfie-happy social media:

When the people you deal with in your working life are severely mentally ill, that becomes the norm. Mental illness is the cosmic background radiation of front-line psychiatry; stars are exploding, comets are whizzing by, meteors are smashing into planets all around you, every day. If you haven’t worked in such a context, it’s hard to appreciate just how much this can alter your perspective— but if you read the portraits of patients placed throughout this book, you may start to get the feel of life in a psychiatric emergency room and on a psychiatric unit.

An intriguing view from the other side of the  couch can be found in Irvin D. Yalom’s Love’s Executioner. Yalom, a longtime existential psychotherapist at Stanford University, offers the stories of 10 different patients coping with everything from grief, infidelity, obesity, depression and everything in-between, as well as how he became aware of whether or not his own emotional reaction to their stories (a phenomenon in psychological parlance known as countertransference) was impacting their treatment.

“I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy,” Yalom writes. “The inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.”

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