By Elizabeth Wade

A response to a public conversation with Charlotte Pierce-Baker at Columbia University on October 23rd.

One of the first things Charlotte Pierce-Baker made clear in her talk on November 4th was that it wasn’t going to be easy for her. Pierce-Baker, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University, is a distinguished and award-winning academic who I’m sure has given countless confident presentations in the past. Yet Pierce-Baker – and her audience – knew that this one was different. As she spoke about her recent memoir This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son, Pierce-Baker was keenly aware of her limitations. “I wrote the book, but it’s still difficult for me to read it to the public,” she admitted in her opening statement. This would not be a cold, academic lecture on a mood disorder; instead, it would unfold as a sensitive, almost therapeutic, discussion on the horrors bipolar disorder can wreak on the life of a family.

In order to talk openly about the debilitating effects of bipolar disorder and mental illness, Pierce-Baker deliberately created a gentle format: after reading a passage she would give the audience time to digest the material, pausing to ask questions and reminding the audience to “breathe.”  The intimate audience, sitting around an oval table, followed her cue. We all took a breath together, trying to absorb the weight of the piece she had just read. Despite having read the memoir at multiple book readings, Piece-Baker is not yet immunized to the emotional weight of her material, and her presentation was raw. Though it was obviously difficult for her, Pierce-Baker’s sense of duty overwhelmed her fear of sharing such personal information.  Regarding the stigma surrounding mental illness, she explained, “I have grown tired of silence.” And this was, quite possibly, the point of the evening: to attempt to break the silence. This was done haltingly, with long pauses by the author and shaky, personal questions by the audience. As Pierce-Baker told us, her goal was to start a “conversation about the conversation about mental illness.”

Pierce-Baker first became aware of her son’s illness when she received a phone call in the summer of 1996. Mark, a 25-year-old student pursuing a degree in film studies, was experiencing paranoia and, in talking to her son, Charlotte knew something was wrong. She noted that Mark felt “in touch with planets,” a statement that caught my attention because Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind, describes the author’s bipolar disorder, specifically a manic episode, in spectacular astrological terms as well:

I found myself, in that glorious illusion of high summer days, gliding, flying, now and again lurching through cloud banks and ethers, past stars, and across fields of ice crystals. Even now, I can see in my mind’s rather peculiar eye an extraordinary shattering and shifting of light; inconstant but ravishing colors laid out across miles of circling rings; and the almost imperceptible, somehow surprisingly pallid, moons of this Catherine wheel of a planet. I remember singing Fly Me to the Moon as I swept past those of Saturn, and thinking myself terribly funny.

Mark was in a similar place, yet Charlotte was dumbstruck and had no idea what to do. It is clear from both Jamison’s account and Pierce-Baker’s interpretation of her son’s behavior that a manic episode is close to impossible for a healthy person to understand. Naively, Charlotte thought Mark would only need a few weeks to recuperate, and would soon be back to normal. She underestimated the power of bipolar disorder: while the sufferer and his family would soon appreciate his return to a more balanced mood state, he would –and will-  inevitably swing back to either a manic or depressive episode. Pierce-Baker didn’t realize that Mark’s first manic episode would turn into a lifetime struggle with the disorder. She lamented, “The horror of what was happening to Mark was compounded by our ignorance of mental illness.”

Pierce-Baker emphasized how difficult bipolar disorder is to prevent and to understand. “It creeps up on you, it is very wily disorder,” she noted, making me think of it as something akin to a hairy spider lurking in the corner. Unfortunately, Mark had a dual-diagnosis of bipolar disorder and drug and alcohol dependence, in part because he had been medicating his disorder with these substances, a common occurrence with mood disorders. This double-whammy made it even more difficult for Mark to become well again.

Pierce-Baker was clear about the troubling questions she had faced while trying to support her son: How does a mother help her son who carries the bipolar I diagnosis? How much money do you give him? To how many different treatment centers do you send him? And, at the end of the day, when nothing is working, what do we do now? Pierce-Baker struggled with all of these questions, and what I most appreciated about her talk was that she did not pretend to know the answers. One of the most touching sections of her narrative regarded her changing relationship with her son. She recounted Mark returning to her home after a long period of having been missing, a habit he developed in order to protect his family and his wife from his manic episodes. As she approached him, she had a terrifying realization that she didn’t recognize her son at all. He looked “as if he had been homeless for weeks,” and she detachedly noted that there was a man in front of her, calling her “Mom.” She spoke to the nurse in the ED to figure out how she could help her son, yet the nurse had questions for Charlotte too. “Are you afraid? Are you in danger?” she asked, and as Pierce-Baker recounted this, it became clear how foreign of a concept it was to her to fear her own son. Yet she understood that there was danger involved, despite how much she loved Mark. “Before I went to sleep,” she said quietly, “for the first time ever, I locked our bedroom door.”

Pierce-Baker told us, quite intimately, that once, in preparing for a book reading, she read a section of the memoir aloud to herself and began to sob. At that point, she realized that although the book had been written, many of the topics are still too traumatic for her to recount. She hasn’t been able to read the whole book, a fact that demonstrates her relationship with the material and her son’s disease: it is still a work in progress. “Someday,” she told us, “I will read the book cover-to-cover.”

While I was shocked to hear that an author could be out of touch with her own work, as I listened to Pierce-Baker speak, it seemed appropriate. This wasn’t a fictitious account that, unattached, she could return to whenever she liked. This was a condensed narrative of her family’s battle with bipolar disorder, so striking and potent that she had to treat it delicately in order to protect herself. Charlotte seemed aware, however, that by leading this discussion, she was able to safely confront the topics of her memoir with her audience. Though surely writing the book was a healing process for her, even more recovery can come from presenting pieces of her memoir to different audiences, and in doing so, beginning a much-needed discussion about mental illness.

Betsy Wade is a sophomore at Barnard College, studying religion and psychology.