This is different fare for what I’d normally share on here. I think that Manic is a worthwhile read, though, and I found my reaction to the book to be complicated. I’m not trying to be an “advocate” or an “ally” with this post, and I won’t speak for others, but this book made me confront some of my own biases and gave me a little better insight into loved ones with mental illness. For that, I think it’s worth it to read, to share, and to discuss.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading Manic is a good way to try to understand bipolar disorder from the perspective of someone suffering from the illness. There is a lot of dark and troubling subject matter–there’s sexual assault, domestic violence, several suicide attempts. It’s also shockingly funny at many points. Terri Cheney seems very self-aware about her illness, and that awareness seems to have taken decades to develop. I think it’s an empowering and reassuring story for those who suffer from, or love someone with, bipolar disorder. No matter how dark things get, one can always eventually find normal, at least briefly, and it’s a fight worth waging. The book is also a churning, disorienting experience, sliding between episodes of mania and depression, hopping between anecdotes, disconnected from chronology.
At the same time, all memoirs walk a thin path between being intimately revealing or becoming seemingly narcissistic. I think a lot of how any memoir is perceived comes down to the reader’s own preconceived biases and preconceptions, so I would certainly not want to accuse any memoirist of being self-absorbed. Still, I must confess that the narrative leaned that way in my perspective.
Part of it’s the nature of the disease. Depressions, with a deep hopeless pain that clouds out everything else. Manias, with compulsive, irrational, selfish excesses. To recount the life and genuine emotions of a manic-depressive involves more than a little bit of self-absorption. The illness seems to make one’s tortured self the center of everything.
Part of it, though, is that the narrative reads a little like the author wishes to convince the reader of how she should be absolved for her own sins. I find it hard to forgive someone for atrocious actions against others, even if those actions are due to an illness. That’s something in me, and I’m not saying it’s right, but it makes it difficult for me to fully sympathize. I often felt more for the others in the story that she hurt, directly or indirectly. Of course, when she was in deep depressions, or when others hurt her, I didn’t seek out a reason to blame her for what happened–where I could be “on her side,” I was. I suppose it’s just part of my own framework for seeing the world, as someone who is not manic-depressive but who has loved ones suffering from bipolar disorder.
I also was left wondering more about Cheney’s relationship with her mother. So much time is spent on her father, but her mother, who seems to have been the more supportive force, is virtually absent. I would have liked to understand her relationship with her mother. I understand that memoir is not strictly autobiography, that we aren’t meant to see every aspect of the author’s life, but I suspect that her mother might have had a more critical role in her coping with her illness. (The acknowledgments conclude, “To my beautiful and courageous mother, who has lived through everything I’ve written about and then some, and loved me nonetheless. And to my father, for everything.”) In fact, there are other tiny elements, threads left unpicked, that suggested to me that a considerable amount of her relationships were excised to emphasize her isolation. It’s probably authentic that she often felt alone, removed, disconnected, unsupported. But–and I have no firm evidence to support this–I do imagine that she probably always had more support than she let on.
In general, Cheney seems to have had a fairly privileged life. She had, it seems, loving and supportive parents, though she may have been a child of divorce (I don’t think this is ever addressed). She had a great education and a great career. She had a lot of money to blow through in her manic states. She could take ample time off work. Her illness nearly destroyed her many times, but she had more of a social and financial safety net than many sufferers of severe, chronic mental illness possess. I would not wish that her life was rougher, but she has lived such an apparent life of privilege that I found it difficult to relate at times. This is significant and an insightful reminder in and of itself, of course: mental illness can consume anyone, can ruin anything, regardless of one’s status. Mental illness doesn’t care about class.
I think I’ve learned things from reading–sometimes specific things, like the significance of controlling weight and eating for some with the illness, but also in a broader way, in considering how I view the illness, where my own biases still lie, and how I interact with and think about people with mental illness.
In short, Manic is easy to read but challenging to process.