this is my second time around, after many years, and i still find this books exceptional. first of all, kate millett writes beautifully. this woman's...morethis is my second time around, after many years, and i still find this books exceptional. first of all, kate millett writes beautifully. this woman's had many careers -- artist, activist, feminist theorist, writer -- but if her talents resided only in putting words in sequence and saying amazing things with them, she should still be qualified as a genius.
this book oozes pain. if you cannot deal with pain, you should not read it, otherwise you'll find it long, verbose, overwritten, or self-indulgent. autobiographical writing about pain is possibly self-indulgent by definition: the writer indulges one's own distress enough to put it down on paper and present it to everyone's eye to contemplate, hopefully with sympathy. it's hard to be detached, ironic, funny, or lithe if you write about horror. it's hard to convey the sense of "being over it" (isn't this what we require of those who talk about their suffering, a sort of heroic self-transcendence?). kate millett has all the reasons in the world not to be over it. it is thanks to that fact that she isn't anywhere near over it that those who have experienced her selfsame pain can read this and find themselves home. kate millett provides a home for a category of people who feel so dispossessed and persecuted, they think they are never entitled to a home ever again.
in more than 300 thickly printed pages, kate millett describes what happened to her when her next-of-kins decided she was bipolar (they didn't mind about the depression, only about the mania) and had her hospitalized. the devastation millett, by then an accomplished and famous writer and artist, not to mention a university professor, felt at this sudden loss of autonomy and personhood is heartbreaking. her world crumbled. when you are labeled with "certifiable" (as in by a doctor) insanity, anything you say will be used against you. it is perhaps the most insidious and unfightable form of invalidation. it erodes, not only your standing in the world, but also your faith in others and yourself.
to express this horrible experience of pervasive hostility millett needs lots of words. the words are beautiful and on many occasions one finds they say things one would be hard-pressed to find the words for. she makes you want to grab your pencil and underline. she makes you want to memorize.
what strikes me most upon this second reading is the way in which millett produces verbal magic in the dark. in a way, she is writing in a lightless room, hoping that what she feels under her hands are in fact a blank sheet and a pen full of ink. she writes from a place in which her words have stopped making sounds. she is crazy, after all. why should her protestations, her anguish, her pain be taken as anything other than the rantings of a madwoman? her faith in words and readership is miraculous. she is as tough as nails.
the writing is rich, slow, yet urgent. she writes like her life depends on it, yet at the same time she dwells on sensations, more often than not, perhaps surprisingly, delicious sensation of pleasure. hands, the land, the dirt, art, colors, wine, food, bodies. she is not shy. all the pleasure is sexual and all of it is on the page. the pleasure demands to be written even more than the pain, because it is so precarious yet so miraculous, so terribly precious, so inexplicably life-giving. trust those who have been killed again and again (forced thorazine and straight-jackets will do that to you as surely as guns and knives) to know the pleasures of the skin, the eye, of simple survival.
she also depicts an intensely paranoid world. anyone around her, at any time, could pick up the phone and tell her family that she's gone down the deep end again. her inner fights with her (much justified and realistic) paranoia are one of the most powerfully disturbing moments of this book, especially when the objects of this pervasive, soul-destroying suspicion are lesbian lovers on a reclaimed piece of land on which a feminist art colony is being built. these are not the people who will call the man. these are the people who call the man. if these people call the man, nowhere is safe.
i hope my students will like this. i hope they will appreciate how hard it is to put together beautiful, meaningful language out of forced silencing, and indulge in the pleasure of millett's words as much as i did.(less)
just re-read this for class. maybe i'll post a a review later. for now, though, i raised my four-star rating to five. the ways in which KRJ thinks abo...morejust re-read this for class. maybe i'll post a a review later. for now, though, i raised my four-star rating to five. the ways in which KRJ thinks about mental illness are not always congenial with mine, but this is a brave, beautifully written, and still very powerful book, many such memoirs later.
i'm not going to research this, but i think this was one of the first candid memoirs of mental disorder coming from someone famous/mainstream in the US and published by a major publisher. it was especially noteworthy because the author was (is) a mental health professional, a teaching and practicing clinician who had written what was probably the most authoritative textbook on bipolar disorder at the time (maybe it still is). that this woman who had climbed so high in a world of men would come out and say candidly that she had the very disorder she was considered an expert at treating was fairly shocking. bipolar people were and are not supposed to be able to think critically about their disorder (or much of anything), much less to treat it in others. i am not going to research this but i think this book became a bestseller.
although not herself a psychiatrist (her degree is in psychology), KRJ is a professor of psychiatry and her narrative of madness hinges on the unquestioned premise that bipolar disorder is a biological illness (she doesn't like the word "bipolar disorder," which had already been introduced in the DSM at the time of the book's writing, and prefers to refer to the condition as manic-depressive illness). this means that she embraces what is now referred to as the medical model of (this, at least) mental illness, according to which (this) mental illness is due solely to genetic factors which are responsible for a certain kind of malfunctioning of the brain. humbly, and wisely, KRJ sticks closely to her own disorder, never generalizing about mental illness in general.
this biological narrative is the backbone of the book. it allows KRJ to exonerate herself and her history for the terrible lows she experienced and believe that if it weren't for her illness she would perfectly fine.
this is incredibly complicated. it hits the core of the concept of illness in general, and identity, and, also, the fraught field of disability studies. if i am blind, am i perfectly fine except for the fact of being blind? do disabilities attach to the body in ways that leave the self intact?
i am not even sure that KRJ would agree with my pushing her premises to this conclusion. she definitely does not feel intact. her illness as she describes it affects her life so profoundly, i am not sure she feels that she is entirely separate from it. yet, a certain separateness between the self and the illness is a consequence, it seems to me, of an extreme view of the medical model and of certain conceptions of disability.
needless to say, i don't find the medical model convincing. for one, there is to this day no hard evidence of any kind that mental illness is biologically based. there is some anecdotal evidence based on heredity, brain scans, and the sometime effectiveness of drugs, but just about all of the above can be explained in other ways, too. more damningly, there is the fact that mentally "ill" people have lively and rich inner lives that we can explain away through biology only by denying some of the most fundamental tenets of humanness. according to a strong medical model, distorted thoughts, hallucinations, obsessions, phobias and dreams are all the result of misfiring neurons and have no significance at all. as such, they don't lend themselves to more then the 15 mins conversation required to decide what drug treatment to adopt.
the reality is that drug treatment decisions are so arbitrary and themselves anecdotal, there is no single drug that is guaranteed to solve a particular mental disorder, the way, say, antibiotics are guaranteed (well, less and less) to cure infection or insulin to keep diabetics alive.
it seems at the very least perplexing to me that some thought patterns should be granted credibility and some shouldn't. if you rule out the meaningfulness of the bizarre thoughts of a schizophrenic, why should i lend credence, say, to the thought process that leads you to such ruling out? what makes your thoughts more valid than those of a schizophrenic?
so this was always my reservation with respect to this book. having just reread it, though, and seen its impact on my students, i have come to appreciate its complexity and value. first of all, it is remarkably and even outrageously candid. this woman's courage in risking her professional standing to tell an extremely uncomfortable truth about mental illness deserves great admiration. i believe that this book has done much to remove some of the stigma that attaches to mental illness.
secondly, it is written passionately and lyrically, and some passages (especially in the last part) are deeply moving. this is a woman who knows pain, despair, and abject suicidality, and if you know them too you will find in her a fellow traveler and a beacon of hope.
what i like best, though, lies at the meta-level. when pain hits us harder than we can bear it, we desperately need a narrative that makes sense of it and, in doing so, allows us to survive. in Unquiet Mind KRJ may or may not be telling something informative about bipolar disorder, but she is certainly giving us the narrative she created for herself in order to survive the intolerable pain she was experiencing and even thrive in spite of it. This seems to me of tremendous value. If even one person found in this book a story that helped her carry on and succeed in putting together a satisfactory life, the book would be worth its ink in gold.
when KRJ wrote Unquiet Mind the capacity of lithium to stabilize mood had just been ascertained. since then, lithium has been proven to be also very dangerous, so if you read this and your (uninformed) psychiatrist puts you on a gigantic lithium regimen, read up on the internet what lithium can do to your body. there are a number of people who have lost kidney function to the miraculous curative powers of lithium. on the other hand, maybe lithium works for you in small amounts, or other drugs do, and that's great. or maybe you are one of those people who prefer to live their bipolar lives medication-free, and if so more power to you (and the best of luck: you are going to to need a lot of resources to keep out of a very coercive pro-medication mental health system).
i have my own personal narrative of mental illness and it works for me. i think it's the right one and i am quite wedded to it. it is based on the so-called trauma model of mental pain and tends to be quite wary of the medical model. at the same time, i appreciate the well-being psychodrugs have brought to countless people, just as i appreciate the well-being people derive from: love, friendship, therapy, good food, yoga, exercise, comfort, compassion, and immoderate amount of chocolate.
there is no magic bullet when it comes to inner pain. we do well to keep this in mind at all times. (less)
i've read this book twice now, something i basically never do, and i can't get over what a rewarding read this is. it's simply a beautiful, beautiful...morei've read this book twice now, something i basically never do, and i can't get over what a rewarding read this is. it's simply a beautiful, beautiful book. annie rogers writes about her year of internship as a young psychology ph.d. candidate in a school for disturbed children. the story centers around her therapeutic work with ben, a five year old boy with a horrendously traumatic past. as annie does therapy with ben (who's utterly charming and adorable), her own traumatic past is dramatically triggered by her own therapist's abandonment. at the same time, immersing herself in ben's story brings her own painful and buried story to the surface in a way that is so distressing to her that she needs to be hospitalized again and therefore interrupt her treatment of ben. before she resumes seeing ben, she starts seeing a new psychoanalyst whose compassion, openness, love, and skill enable her to face her pain and find the courage to finish her work with the little boy.
there is much that moves in this book. rogers presents the therapeutic relationship -- hers with ben, blumenfeld's with her -- as a profound experience of tender love and genuine, compassionate sharing. she describes it as a process in which, by necessity, both the therapist and the patient heal, ideally in cooperation with each other. the way in which she allows ben to enter and affect her life -- and blumenfeld does the same with her -- seems to me so exemplary of how psychological healing should be conducted that it would be impossible for me now to to have therapy with anyone who wouldn't hold the same profound commitment to his or her patients. we have professionalized the mental health field way too much. we have forgotten that no one can heal except in true relationships between flesh-and-blood people who put everything at stake to achieve authentic intimacy.
intimacy, it seems, is much frowned upon in our culture. i know this because the love and tenderness that pass between annie and ben (though surprisingly not the love and tenderness that pass between blumenfeld and annie) were received by my students with much skepticism if not outright disapproval. how dare annie get so close to ben! how dare she think about him in her off hours, "bring her work home!" i found this painful. how did we become a people that finds closeness so inappropriate? has genuine and unguarded closeness always been perceived as so terribly threatening, or is this a recent development? i don't know! it is certainly not threatening to my italian mind and heart, and it was not threatening to most of the students in the class who were brought up on other cultures. is then fear of intimacy something that belongs deep at the heart of american culture? and if so, when did this start, how did this happen?
these are not new issues. i feel that everything i read gets commented on in this light. yet, gee, therapy is something meant to get people better. we have invented therapy precisely to heal the wounds caused by cruelty and coldness. why have we allowed therapy to become a quickie between a quivering patient and a "professionally" detached professional?
i recommend this to everyone except people who are in dissatisfying therapeutic relationships, because it will make you feel awful, and, let's face it, therapists like annie rogers and sam blumenfeld are not easy to find and, once you find them, almost impossible to afford. :-((less)
if i were feeling more articulate i'd say something more than just WOW. maureen seaton knows how to write, baby. if you've read her poetry you already...moreif i were feeling more articulate i'd say something more than just WOW. maureen seaton knows how to write, baby. if you've read her poetry you already knew that, but now you know she can wield prose, too, and make it wickedly funny, too. this should be a story of pain (alcohol, the search for self, coming out later in life, suicide of loved ones, poverty, divorce) but seaton makes it all fluffy and foamy with maraschino cherries on top, and you forget to feel the pain. in fact, you have the impression she didn't feel any pain -- not at the time, not in writing it -- which is of course impossible, but there you have it. it might be a letdown for some, because some of us take the (many) dark parts of life very seriously, and like to see them described with twice as much seriousness. we take comfort in serious pain. we feel less alone. but seaton says in the intro that this book was a present to her daughters on the 30th year of her sobriety, so it figures: who would want to give a "poignant" story of pain to one's daughters, however triumphant at the end? (note: this is not triumphant at the end or anywhere else: it's just funny).
anyway, i don't feel alone. i find pleasure in poignant stories of pain, too (check out my bookshelves!), but don't feel any of the darkness belittled in this brilliant little book. i find it elevated to humor and dazzling, life-giving language.(less)
this book knocked me for six (this, i'm told, is a cricket-based metaphor. the only other cricket-related sentence i know is "the sound of willow on l...morethis book knocked me for six (this, i'm told, is a cricket-based metaphor. the only other cricket-related sentence i know is "the sound of willow on leather," which english expats like simon use with a quiver in their voices. this has absolutely nothing to do with this review). lucy grealy writes about her experience with a severely crippling childhood cancer which, besides putting her through years of chemo and radiation therapy with accompanying nausea, pain, terror, ill-being, baldness, and missed classes, also ended up the chopping off of a good chunk of her face. she was 9. it is not clear to me how happy her childhood had been till then. maybe it's not clear to her, either. but it is abundantly clear that the narrator of this memoir had an excruciatingly painful life at least starting at the age of nine till when she died of a drug overdose at 39 (while i don't doubt that she had moments of relief and even happiness, very few of these moments make their appearance in this memoir, and when they do they are a set up for further, more devastating falls).
the genius of this book is not the cancer narrative per se, but the narrative of a childhood trauma so powerful that it empties a soul from inside out and cuts away those tenuous, undefinable, yet essential resources that allow one to navigate life and find solace and comfort in the company of others and especially oneself. grealy's deepest disability is emotional.
since lucy grealy has a fabulous way with words and with feelings and sees really deep inside her pain, she depicts her cancer in the context of a family life marred by great emotional abstinence and isolation. adults are not good to lucy. the doctor who gives her her weekly injections of chemotherapy is always on the phone (yes, he gives her chemo while talking on the phone to someone else) and relates to her as if she were an orange instead of a child. they don't even exchange a word. for three years.
mom and dad, though obviously devoted to their children (if i remember correctly there are six of them, and lucy is a twin), fail to connect with lucy's pain either because they cannot deal with their own pain or because they are too ashamed and embarrassed (i.e. cannot deal with their own pain). by willing lucy's pain away and castigating her (gently but firmly) for complaining when she suffers, lucy's mother puts little lucy in a space in which pain is shameful and a sign of weakness. the adult author knows all too well that denying pain its devastation proliferates it and makes it fester, yet she can only look at the damage that was done and report on it. there is no transcendence in grealy's life.
a lot is made of peers' teasing (i can't imagine such horrible and relentless teasing happening when/where i was a child; ostracizing, gawking, and isolating, sure, but teasing like that? i don't think so. did i grow up in fairyland?), while hardly any mention is made of siblings. where are lucy's siblings, where is her twin while she walks to school among jeerings and attacks?
controversy arose when ann patchett published a memoir of her friendship with grealy. apparently patchett wasn't very kind to grealy's family. suellen grealy, lucy's older sister, felt moved to put out an angry article in defense of her family, her mother in particular. my review of this book has nothing to do with the reality of grealy's family, her siblings, her parents. it has to do only with the story the narrator of Autobiography of a Face tells us. she chooses to leave out her siblings and to depict her parents as emotionally unavailable. this has nothing to do with the reality of these things. nothing. anyone who misses this distinction does the grealy family the injustice suellen laments in her article.
having said this, i also want to say that, within the story, the traumatic impact of lucy's cancer is exponentially magnified by the bad emotional handling she gets from parents and doctors. in this sense, this is a tremendous testimony to the power of context in the genesis of devastating trauma.(less)