It would be hard to find a writer better suited than Kay Redfield Jamison when it comes to unraveling the tangled skein of genius and madness that made Robert Lowell one of America’s greatest poets.
A clinical psychologist by profession, Jamison has written several works devoted to bipolar disorder, including An Unquiet Mind, an account of her own experiences grappling with the disease, and Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
Kay Redfield Jamison
Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: a Study of Genius, Mania, and Character could be seen in some ways as a companion volume to Touched with Fire, a volume in which Jamison argued for the existence of a link between creativity and bipolar disorder through profiles of several famously mercurial artists, among them Lowell himself. Setting the River on Fire builds on this argument, and does so without diminishing or trivializing the rest of Lowell’s life.
Although we’ve learned a lot about bipolar disorder since Lowell’s death in 1977, much of what causes it remains a mystery. It is believed that there is a genetic component to the disease, but environmental factors may play a role, as well.
Almost three percent of the United States’ adult population is affected by bipolar disorder, and they come from all walks of life. Some, like Lowell, have been quite accomplished in their fields: star athletes, famous actors, beloved musicians, and more. Below are five memoirs by prominent people who have spoken out about their struggles with bipolar disorder.
Living with Manic Depressive Illness
Patty Duke, Gloria Hochman
Patty Duke’s 1992 memoir A Brilliant Madness was one of the first great celebrity memoirs to tackle the agony of living with bipolar disorder head-on. Duke had addressed her condition in her 1988 autobiography Call Me Anna, but it wasn’t until this groundbreaking follow-up that she really opened up about the spiraling highs and plummeting lows that had nearly destroyed her life. The violent outbursts, promiscuous sex, and multiple suicide attempts that characterized her illness were eventually quelled by medication, but rebuilding her personal and professional life didn’t happen overnight.
Suzy Favor Hamilton
By day, Suzy Favor Hamilton was a world-class athlete: a college phenomenon turned decorated Olympic runner. By night, she was “Kelly Lundy”: a high-priced Las Vegas sex worker. It wasn’t about the money, she had plenty. It was something else: a drive for intense sensations that had been unleashed when she started taking an anti-depressant. It was inevitable that her secret life would be revealed. Fast Girl is the story of how Hamilton picked up the pieces of her shattered world.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson is an undeniable musical genius, but his talents came at a price. In the mid-sixties, when the Beach Boys were at their height, Wilson suffered a complete mental breakdown, likely aggravated by chronic substance abuse, and retreated from the stage. Rumors circulated that he was suffering from schizophrenia, no doubt at least in part due to the unconventional relationship he had with his Svengaliesque psychologist Eugene Landy. With Landy gone, Wilson has resurfaced in recent years to share more about his story. One revelation among many is that Wilson was likely misdiagnosed, and that he is actually living with a form of bipolar disorder. I Am Brian Wilson is a valuable look into lost chapter in musical history.
“Star Wars” actor and author Carrie Fisher suffered from severe bipolar disorder for much of her life. Before seeking professional treatment, she self-medicated with alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs. Wishful Drinking is undiluted Fisher: hilarious, self-effacing, and most importantly of all, unflinchingly honest about her experiences with substance abuse and bipolar disorder. Fisher was comfortable with her personal demons, and felt that it was important to use her own experiences to fight psychiatric stigma. That said, she was still bemused by her status as a mental health advocate: “Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?”
You might not recognize former entertainment attorney Terri Cheney by name, but you’ve more than likely heard of her clients: people like Michael Jackson, and Quincey Jones. From a very young age, Cheney suffered from dark moods and suicidal thoughts (She made her first attempt at taking her own life at the tender age of seven.), alternating with periods of manic energy and racing thoughts. These ricocheting cycles of despair and elation grew ever more difficult to control, even as Cheney claimed to the top ranks of her profession. Eventually, she reached her breaking point but her decision to seek treatment would come with unexpected consequences of its own.