Having Half the Fun

Jenny Diski

  • An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
    Picador, 220 pp, £15.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 330 34650 4
  • Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison
    Free Press, 250 pp, £19.95, December 1994, ISBN 0 02 916030 8
  • Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Medness by Lauren Slater
    Hamish Hamilton, 199 pp, £16.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 241 13638 5

Once, the mad were exhibited at Bedlam for the fascination of Sunday tourists; ooh’ed and ahh’ed at as examples of how the human mind can distort the civilised and rational behaviour which was supposed to be its very particular accomplishment. Lately, they are more freely available between the covers of books, described and philosophised over by neurologists, psychiatrists and therapists who, besides seeking to cure them, wish to illuminate the meaning of their mad patients for the general – as in normal – public. We are offered the chance to marvel at the way minds warp, and to feel that there is some telling connection between the warped mind and its supposed original state of sanity. There is anxiety, too, mixed with a little excitement, at the indistinct boundaries between madness and sanity, and perhaps a degree of envy, with the suspicion that the mad, agonised though they may be, are having a more interesting, or at least more significant, time of it.

It’s not hard to imagine a near-future when the neurobiologists will have identified the physiological bases for all the major mental disorders, but I doubt that, even then, we will think of them in the same way we think of physical illness. Afflictions like multiple sclerosis or osteo-arthritis do not carry the same weight of apparent meaning as manic depression and schizophrenia, for all that discrepant genes may turn out to be equally implicated in all of them. People don’t read case-studies of diabetes in the hope of gaining some insight into the nature of man’s relationship with the world, even though extreme physical illness and pain may be quite as tumultuous and alienating to the individual as mental disturbance.

Madness has always been modish: Shakespeare dramatised it; the Romantics romanticised it; the Surrealists painted it; the Existentialists philosophised with it. It is, as Lévi-Strauss said of totemic animals, good to think with – unless you are mad, of course. Then you are thought about, and so far as treatment goes, at the mercy of whatever school of belief or current trend you happen to fall in with. In the past, you might have been hosed down with icy water, had parts of your brain excised or been cut loose and sent off to the margins of society. Now, you might be given drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, paint, drama, group conversation, a strict one-on-one analysis – or be cut loose and sent off to the margins of society. You might also, if Kay Redfield Jamison and Lauren Slater’s books are any indication of present trends, choose either to become a creative artist or, if the muse doesn’t speak, train as a clinical psychologist. Nowadays, it seems, you can be a success or a failure as a mad person. As if mental disarray wasn’t enough to cope with, there are career decisions to think about.

Neither Jamison nor Slater is writing about mild neuroses: their books concern major debilitating, life-destroying mental afflictions – manic depression in Jamison’s case, schizophrenia and severe personality disorders in Slater’s. And both write about their specialties in the context of their own experience of mental illness. Jamison’s is the most overtly autobiographical, being a straightforward description of her manic depression and its management throughout her student and working life. She is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and clinical director for the Dana Consortium on the Genetic Basis of Manic-Depressive Illness. She subscribes to the current view of bipolar illness: that there is almost certainly a genetic predisposition, and that it must be managed throughout the course of the patient’s life with drugs, preferably lithium.

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