Monday, February 22, 2010

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

By Kay Redfield Jamison
New York, Vintage Books, 1995
Week 8 Memoir
I sat down to read An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Manners on Saturday morning and finished it early Sunday afternoon. It was a quiet weekend, and the book was extremely well written. Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor at John Hopkins Medical School and the world’s leading expert in Bipolar disorder. She prefers to call it Manic Depression; she also speaks of madness, a term that people often object to. She has the unique opportunity to look at the disorder from the perspective of a trained expert but also from the perspective of a sufferer.

In this memoir, she lays bare her life for all the world to see and thus opens a window to those who study mental illness and those who suffer from it. In the fifteen years since she wrote this book, much progress has been made in the study of mood disorders, and her influence has been profound. She ends the book by saying that were she to choose her life’s course, she would not choose her unmedicated self, but because of her disorder, her life has been richer, more colorful, and more productive than the lives of many of the people that she knows.

It isn’t an easy read, but Jamison is an extremely good writer, and her writing skill makes the unbearable more bearable. She has written several books about creativity and the madness that often comes with giftedness. The reader can really relate to her amazing intelligence, creativity and zest for life as she fights to keep her life together. Her scientific training, combined with a literary gift, makes this book a poignant witness to the power of the human will.

As I was seeking another review to point readers to, it became abundantly clear that this memoir is seminal in the study of bipolar disorder as well as other mood disorders. Her name comes up again and again in discussions of other memoirs and books about mental illness. When she opened up her life for study, she enabled the discussion of mental illness to enter the mainstream—a huge comfort to people whose families have genetic histories that include mood disorders.

Other books she has written include:
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament(1996)
Exuberance: The Passion for Life (2005)
Nothing was the Same (2009)
The first two are books about genius and mental illness; the last is a memoir of her marriage.

Although An Unquiet Mind probably will not be on everyone’s reading list, it is an intense look at what drives the human spirit.

Radio interview of Kay Redfield Jamison

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