Village Voice 04.19.2017 : Page 40

40 April 19 April 25, 2017 Robert Lowell and his daughter Harriet in 1960, the year he won the National Book Award for Life Studies Making Sense of Madness In three books over two decades, Dr. Kay Redield Jamison explores the line between genius and mental illness Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin K BY MAC MCCLELLAND for which he wrote some of the most celebrated poetry of his career during a prolonged manic episode. But Jamison, a 70-year-old clinical psy-chologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, doesn’t think having bipolar disorder is worth any amount of creativity or genius. “I really am wary of romanticiz-ing this illness,” she says when we speak over the phone for an interview. “It’s very hard, but if you get through it, you can pull out something — you can make meaning out of what you’ve been through. That doesn’t mean it’s worth it to go through it.” My opening question — whether Low-ell’s symptoms could have been better ay Red ield Jamison has written three books about bipolar disor-der: one, a memoir about her own experience with the illness; another exploring the relationship be-tween bipolar disorder and the “artistic temperament” of iconoclastic geniuses like Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. Her most recent work, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character , is devoted to the great American poet who won the Na-tional Book Critics Circle Award, two Pulitzers, and a National Book Award, the latter for a collection, Life Studies , that delved into his mental illness, and Jamison’s views are nuanced too, of managed in his youth if he had had more course. Mania is not purely psychological; understanding of his illness — put Jamison current research suggests it’s primarily a on the defensive. Her exhaustive research genetic brain disease, and a restrictive en-into the poet’s family nets a rich and heart-vironment like Lowell’s could have exac-breaking portrayal of cold New England-erbated his struggle. “I think you take a ers who couldn’t make room for any sensitive child like Lowell, who observes emotional expression. Jamison balked and expands and imagines, and put that at this idea; as she noted at various points child with somebody who’s not able to in the book during the conversation, give affection or approval, “Psychiatry just went through then that’s gonna be very a very long, unpleasant period dif icult,” says Jamison. of blaming parents for schizo-Robert Lowell, “Clearly it can make some-phrenia”; “I’m somebody who Setting the body worse, but that’s not studies this disease and I be-World on Fire what makes the illness lieve that it’s a disease”; and By Kay Redield worse in general.” Because that no matter the degree of Jamison of his parents’ coldness, kindness in a home, “that Alfred A. Knopf 532 pp. Lowell reached out to doesn’t cause mania, it doesn’t $29.95 others for companionship cause depression;” any more and comfort, people who than it would, she says cause shared his passion for the pancreatic cancer. written word and helped shape his work, There was a lot happening in our con-which he considered the “solidness and versation. It became a bit tense at times; I solace” of his life. And while Jamison as-was asking questions that might imply I didn’t believe in mental illness, or consid-serts that treatment for the illness is life-ered it less serious than “physical” illness. saving — “I have had those options [of Though I have a personal and extensive being actively bipolar or not]; I’ve gone on family history of debilitating mental ill-and off lithium and it was nothing but a ness, Jamison and I were speaking across a disaster and it nearly cost me my life” — country — and to some extent, across cul-living without treatment, with all its tural, professional, and diagnostic divides horrors, can inspire impressive art. “I — about a topic that is so complex and think he would have had very different clouded with misinformation that there art,” Jamison says about a hypothetical is almost no way for anyone, scientist or non-bipolar Lowell. After all, she says of layperson, believer or disbeliever, to talk his poetry, “It’s a lot about madness.” about it with much nuance. “I see that there’s a lot of scienti ic evi-Moreover, Jamison is something of an dence of a disproportionate rate of bipolar absolutist. After I asked her — with the illness in creative people,” says Jamison, alternate philosophies of the “mad pride” who described her personal struggle in movement and anti-psychiatry crusaders 1995’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of in mind — if there were any universe in Moods and Madness , though “I don’t go which she could be supported off meds, around saying I think that’s a great gift.” she says, “Absolutely not. This illness has a She says her dedication to writing about really high suicide rate, a really high death bipolar disorder is to “understand it. rate. You can’t mess around with it.” Describe it. Make some sense of it.” At the I believe her. I believe some psychotro-same time, “I would hope that I give some pic medications are important, just like hope by showing that people can continue polio vaccines and cholera rehydration to live well with bad illnesses. With pa-salts. I know from personal experience tients with all kinds of illnesses, not just that major depression causes major suf-mental illnesses, there’s different ways of fering, dangerous, life-threatening suffer-handling it. Some people just move on; ing. But I also believe disease can teach us other people think about perhaps the something important, however far that human condition in a different sort of view may veer into “anti-science.” “It can way, show perhaps more compassion to be meaningful, but not worth it,” Jamison others who’ve gone through different says of living with major mental illness; kinds of suffering. They write from it. Like personally, I’d prefer everything else in life, it to be both, or less people just use what black-and-white. It’s they are given in very hard for me to square different ways.” the idea that our suf-As the author of this fering de ines us with intimate portrait of Low-the notion that it ell and his symptoms — eradicating mental by turns debilitating, illness would be a severe, violent, psy-better goal. Writing chotic, and dangerous to about Jamison’s irst book, 1993’s Touched himself and those around him — Jamison With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and says her purpose was to study a man the Artistic Temperament , the late British whose work she loved and show that de-novelist Jenny Diski asked, “Would [Wil-spite how he suffered, “It isn’t all lost. And liam] Blake on lithium have been Blake?” I think Lowell would be the irst to say — I also understand why Jamison’s response and did say — the joy was the greater to my assertion is a big pause and an portion.” Whether or not it was worth it— exasperated-sounding sigh: “I see people the connections, the art, the lessons, the kill themselves and destroy other people. accolades — she says, “Just because you I don’t see anything romantic or extraordi-have suffering doesn’t mean you don’t nary about that. This is a bad illness.” have a great capacity to enjoy life as well.” VILLAGE ‘You can make meaning out of what you’ve been through’

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