book 1 of 24 books in 28 days: Nothing Was the Same
I feel as if Kay Redfield Jamison has been my guide throughout the process of writing my memoir. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Professor of Psychiatry took huge professional and personal risks by writing about her life with manic-depressive illness in her 1995 An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.
In my 2008 thesis proposal, I quoted her words to steel myself to take risks:
tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the
hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide. One is what one is, and the dishonesty of
hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words, is
still exactly that: dishonest. Necessary, perhaps, but dishonest.”
I was similarly tired of hiding. But I was good at it, had spent years doing it, and so even as I wrote that proposal, including Jamison's call for honesty, I dodged the true terms of what happened to me, calling what happened "violence" (as if it happened only to chairs, for example, or only in abstraction) until the chairman of my Creative Writing department suggested in his comments that I change the term for what happened to "physical abuse." Oh. He saw right through my attempt, and I thank him for calling me on it.
Jamison knew that telling her story of mental illness might cause her to lose professional and personal credibility, might bring pain to her family. She knew that once she told the truth, she could never take it back. Her courage inspired me.
As I finish another leg of my memoir journey, I read Jamison's new (2009) book, Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir. In this book she writes about her loving marriage to Dr. Richard Wyatt, an expert on schizophrenia, his death from cancer, and her grief over the loss of her husband.
She also recalls the process of writing An Unquiet Mind and the aftermath of its publication.
Once again I find myself using Jamison's experience as a guide, checking my truth-telling process against hers.
"I knew that my account of my illness and my life would have to be explicit, or there would be no point of writing it. This meant reliving, describing, and making public a troubled and contradictory life."
Reliving, describing, making public. Check.
"I asked family, friends, and colleagues for advice. My mother and brother felt strongly that it was a bad idea to go public with my illness; they believed I had been through enough pain and that I would be personally and professionally vulnerable in unforeseen and damaging ways. My father, who himself has manic-depressive illness, encouraged me to write honestly about what I had been through. It was the courageous and right thing to do, he said, and I ought not to censor anything I wrote about him. Friends and colleagues were divided on the matter."
Asking for advice, receiving conflicting advice. Check.
"There was a sense from some that I should be embarrassed by my revelations and, when I was not, that they were embarrassed for me."
Others cringing on my behalf. Check.
"My private life was now exposed to all and sundry, and I found it hard to live with the new reality."
Blogging has given me that feeling of private life exposed, and even as I want more readers, and want to see my memoir published and read, I sometimes feel frightened of the new reality. Check.
"Some expressed resentment that I had had the advantage of financial security and supportive friends, colleagues, and family: What right did I have to complain? I could not possibly understand the real pain of mental illness."
A reaction I haven't received (yet) but have feared. Check.
"Despite the occasional criticism and second-guessing, most people were kind in ways I could not have imagined. Acts of cruelty or criticism have been far outweighed by innumerable acts of warmth and generosity. For every discomfort about the loss of privacy or fear of personal or professional reprisal, there has been a countervailing relief in the honesty."
This has been my experience from family and friends and readers of this blog. I also have felt the beginnings of the relief she describes. Check.
Jamison's new book is about much more than her other book (the section from which I've quoted makes up less than 10% of the whole) and has much else to teach me about memoir. I also want to follow her example of elegant, detailed, scene-oriented writing, a wry sense of humor, and unflinching honesty. She writes about love and grief in terms of her own experience, clinical research, and poetry with equal assurance and ease. We know her and ourselves better through her writing.