Friday, April 26, 2013

Memoir Writers Who Influenced Me

Unquiet Mind, Can of Madness, Darkness Visible, Best Awful, Girl Interrupted

It's hard to compare writers on the trouble of mental illness. They each approach the giant bubble from a different perspective - some broadly, some narrowly, some eloquently, and some in a plain vernacular. Here are five I read who had enough effect on me that I underlined their words or commented on their style. None of the books I read are technical manuals, but rather are memoirs or stories.

The Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison, is probably the signature book on the subject of manic depression. This memoir is written with emotional and intellectual breadth, clarity, and sensitivity. Her story is a compelling one of the psychiatrist affected with the disease she treats. I was riveted by her tale. She gives a complete picture, from the manic highs where: "The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones," to the depths of depression where: "I went to the eighth floor of the stairwell of the UCLA Hospital and, repeatedly, only just resisted throwing myself off the ledge." So much has been written about this wonderful book that I can add little more other than to say I treasure it and thumb through it often. Jamison is the benchmark against which I measure my own work.

A Can of Madness, by Jason Pegler, published by Chipmunka in the UK, is an uneven work, awkward, clumsy, rambling, sounding often like a drugged-up young person off to a rave. Maybe the young afflicted with Bipolar Disorder is the target audience. It didn't appeal to me. The writer formed his own publishing company to print his work and other works by people with mental illness. Pegler has become a known spokesperson in England on the issue of mental health and is to be commended for his efforts. He is not, however, a compelling writer and his book is uneven and full of strange transitions, but there are moments that flash with a brilliance that comes to those with mania as in this passage which begins oddly but becomes frighteningly real:

"Anyway back at the ranch. In a confused paradise, I basically rearranged all of Felix's books, while putting anything that was black in the bath and throwing anything that was white down the stairs; among other things, I also fixed the cat a fried breakfast and threw all my CDs around the flat (because I thought they were flying saucers that acted as boomerangs). I was also becoming more and more confused as my thoughts became racier. I thought the flat was turning into Noah's Ark and I was Noah so I set about my business...I left the bath water running, made a bridge down the stairs, throwing everything I could find down it, completely trashed my room and started painting Felix's carpet blue."

Pegler does a good job describing the manic state in plain terms, but doesn't give a good accounting of the depressive cycle. For that we have to look at another writer, a truly great one.

Darkness Visible, A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is a book to read many times. Styron writes beautifully of the pain and anguish of depression. No one, I believe, has expressed the feelings better. He begins with a haunting remembrance of his visit to Paris:

"It reappeared, however, that October night when I passed the gray stone façade in a drizzle, and the recollection of my arrival so many years before started flooding back, causing me to feel that I had come fatally full circle. I recall saying to myself that when I left Paris for New York the next morning it would be a matter of forever. I was shaken by the certainty with which I accepted the idea that I would never see France again, just as I would never recapture a lucidity that was slipping away from me with terrifying speed."

Styron's style is spare, but eloquent. He is able to penetrate to the core of the emotions centered around the troublesome bubble of mental illness. He goes on to record:

"Loss in all of its manifestations is the touchstone of depression - in the progress of the disease and most likely, in its origin. At a later date I would gradually be persuaded that devastating loss in childhood figured as a probable genesis of my own disorder; meanwhile as I monitored my retrograde condition, I felt loss at every hand. The loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom, and my own sense of self had all but disappeared, along with any self-reliance."

Styron's words were an inspiration to me because of his ability to plumb the depths of his feelings and return to express them with so much power. Others that I have read are not equal to this, but they offer different delights, crazy people doing crazy manic stuff with some occasions of wonderful description.

Carrie Fisher has explored this subject in several best sellers. Her character Susan Vale, whom we take as a thinly veiled version of the author herself, is very manic. Susan calls herself bipolar, but we don't get to see much of the polar opposite. Mostly it's the manic personality that gets the play. Susan shops till she drops, gets tattoos on a whim, runs off to Mexico with any willing stud, and takes prodigious amounts of drugs. I read her for that side of the pole occasionally finding a pearl or two of poetic writing. Take for example this quote from the Best Awful:

"Maybe Dr. Mishkin wouldn't notice her ecstatic state too much, somehow not notice that everywhere she went, all light was absorbed directly into her, with no chance to escape. She was barely able to sit still, squirming with sunshine, this chaos of pleasure bubbling up in her rendering her barely able to see. So intent was she on these inner workings that she wouldn't be surprised if her eyes glowed, if every word she uttered pulsed with a knowing, phosphorous glow. Everything outside her looked electric, friendly, and coated with silvery zinc."

Carrie Fisher can mine the celebrity end of the mental health genre better than anyone else. The writing is slick, penetrates deep enough to be interesting, but not so deep as to be utterly disturbing. For that I turn to a writer whose descriptions of the mental hospital struck far too true to me.

Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen is a story of being eighteen years old and sent to a psychiatric hospital for two years. Her descriptions of the experience reminded me of my own at Yale New Haven Hospital. The layout of the rooms, the locked doors at the end of the hall, the nurse's station midway down the corridor, and the doors across the hall from the nurse's station where the shock therapy and ice baths were, was same as the place I was sent. Are all psychiatric wards the same? She describes similar events. I remembered the poor patients who went into those shock therapy and ice bath rooms screaming and came out zombies. The feelings of being in such a place sends shivers down my spine. Kaysen records feelings of apprehension, anxiety, and fear at being locked away in this institution all too similar to my own.

She, however, recounts a different mental condition that intrigued me. Her obsessive thought about velocity and viscosity was nothing like anything I had ever experienced. I did not fixate on my tongue, its components: the tip, the smooth part, the back, the bumpy part, the sides, and the scratchy part. What is the scratchy part of a tongue? Her thought foci were totally different from mine, but as she said, "my mind could go in such loops and often does." The mind of a mentally ill person can obsess on one thing or another, returning to it again and again never letting it go. For Kaysen it was her tongue. For me it was circular thought in general. I would not obsess on one thing, but would circle through thought after thought, always coming back to some particular origin, exhausted after a round about journey through thousands of permutations of possibility. I would spend hours in this hopeless spinning of thought, which never resolved itself.

Kaysen states that those who end up with these kinds of flaws have what she calls "Stigmatography." This is a curious non-word not found in the dictionary, but I like it. I think she is meaning we are in the topography of stigma, lost forever. I hope we the mentally ill can find our way out. Writing, I believe, is one way of finding a passage.

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