Toward the end of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison attempts to look back on her story of a life with manic-depressive disease, and to sum up. She has already been eloquent about the damage done to herself and others during her mania, and the unrelenting dreary gloom of her depressive phases. “Still,” she says, “the seductiveness of these unbridled and intense moods is powerful; and the ancient dialogue between reason and the senses is almost always more interestingly and passionately resolved in favor of the senses.” In a way, she puts her finger on one source of the appeal of this memoir: whatever else it might be, manic depressive disease is dramatic. And drama makes a good story.
I don’t mean to imply that there is anything sensationalistic or superficial about An Unquiet Mind. Jamison is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychiatry, as well as being “coauthor of the standard text on manic-depressive illness.” She makes it clear how ambivalent she felt about publicly discussing her own illness, for both personal and professional reasons. (Interestingly, she was concerned that “by speaking publicly or writing about such intensely private aspects of my life, I will return to them one day and find them bleached of meaning and feeling.” As if exposure, or use, would drain the meaning from such memories: I think it might.)
But surely by now many of us know someone who is manic-depressive, or “bipolar” as the new term has it. (Jamison objects to the either/or implication of that title, pointing to the more common “caldronous” confusion between the manic and depressive states.) Though there are obviously many, many forms and degrees of the illness, Jamison’s memoir must make readers more empathetic to those who suffer from it. She spends considerable space, for instance, on the question of complying with the medication, and helps to explain why patients sometimes go off their meds. She is also frank about the benefits that she feels she’s reaped from being a manic-depressive: “I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely, loved more, and been more loved…. appreciated [death] — and life — more…” But she is also frank, especially in the beginning of the book, about the damage done to herself and to her relationships. Her suicide attempt was serious. And as she points out, “the road from suicide to life is cold and colder and colder still…”
We read memoir in part to gain vicarious experience. Yet there’s a paradox here: the experiences you’d think we’d want would be the positive ones like love and comfort and beauty. So what is effective in a memoir? The dark stuff, on the whole. Many authors of memoirs seem to understand this and as I’ve pointed out, that’s what’s catchy. Jamison’s elegant balancing act initiates us into a little bit of the darkness with sympathy rather than voyeurism.