An Unquiet Mind, a review.

***Spoiler Warning in case there is anyone left in the bipolar community that has not yet read Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison***

It’s hard to review a memoir. It’s not the same as reviewing a how-to or history book. I try to remember (and don’t always succeed) that you should attack a person’s ideas, not the person themselves. Why would I want to attack this author (or her ideas)? Bear with me, and I’ll tell you.

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison is perhaps one of the most widely promoted memoirs of bipolar disorder in existence. I am not drawing that from any statistic, but it is my experience when I am haunting reviews of mental illness lit on Amazon plus my time spent lurking on bipolar support forums. Time and time again I see someone say, “Well X book is okay and all, but the best book is AUM.” And someone will reply to that with “Totally agree. This is THE book on bipolar everyone must read.” So, to figure out why that was, I bought and read, ‘An Unquiet Mind’ by Kay Redfield Jamison.

I have to tell you, I do not at all agree that this is THE must-read book or the best book that I’ve read about a person dealing with mental illness. An Unquiet Mind is one of the few books (along with Prozac Nation) that I have thrown across a room due to sheer outrage while I was reading it.

Everyone says the book is really well-written. I’ll grant that it is. With her education and the people she had help edit her book, I would hope so. But is a well-written book my only criteria for enjoying or evaluating an author’s work? Certainly not.

This woman enjoys a level of privilege I find hard to fully grasp. How many people do you personally know who could afford to buy and care for a horse while they are in graduate school? I can’t help but think of the thrift and poverty I was living in around the same time she was gallivanting about Scotland. I don’t recognize or empathize with her world and the stratosphere she lives in due to the protective qualities of being from a moneyed family. But that is not something a person has control over when they are born. I am not blaming her for it, but I am noting it, because privilege makes a huge difference in quality of life whether you have mental illness or not in terms of the care you can afford, as well the distractions you can buy.

She talks about her purchase of a horse as a ‘bipolar shopping spree’ induced by mania. You can look at something like that and say, ‘Wow, bipolar made you buy a horse! Yikes. How horrible! Break out the meds right away and control that episode!” But now try saying that your bipolar mania induced you to buy a double-shot latte, and most folks would have trouble declaring that a sign of unmanaged mental illness. But apparently buying a horse was not just an impulse to soothe her inner child’s desire, but actually the result of a chemical imbalance in her brain. Sorry Kay, I just don’t buy it.

In the beginning of the book, Jamison is a career-driven woman, determined to be a tenured professor. She flows seemingly from highschool to college without any time-off period to find herself, presumably, because the allure of doctorhood is her overriding passion at the time. But it is during this time, when her world is all about education and learning and teaching and practicing, that she has her first major bipolar disorder breakdown.

From then on her story is one of a person trying to reconcile taking lithium, when it clearly makes her feel like crap, even as she sings the praises of how it ‘gentles’ her. The path of accepting her diagnosis involves learning to pathologize and medicalize all her past behaviors by looking at them through her nifty-new bipolar goggles.

On page 97 she recites her “Rules for the Gracious Acceptance of Lithium Into Your Life” and I think it was there that I flicked the book like a Frisbee across the living room in total disgust. Or it may have been on page 102 when Kay wrote: “I had, and have, no tolerance for those individuals, especially psychiatrists and psychologists—who oppose medications for mental illness…I also believe that, with rare exceptions, it is malpractice to treat it without medication.”

Well, I have something to say to you Kay Redfield Jamison author of Unquiet Mind and steadfast promeds advocate. I consider the unasked-for treatment of my bipolar symptoms with psychiatric medication to be medical malpractice. The treatments you espouse so enthusiastically did nothing but poison me. When I first read your opinion in your book I wondered for a few seconds if it wasn’t possible to sue you somehow for influencing my psychiatrist and caregivers to ‘treat’ me with your horrible lithium.

I also find that you wimped out of the full scope of bipolar treatment. You took the lithium but you never took the brain damaging antipsychotics even though you admit you were ‘floridly manic’. You are missing out on the full ‘bipolar treatment experience’, doc. You don’t know what it’s like to be that patient whom you told,  “You’ve been given a shot of Haldol. Everything is going to be alright.” It didn’t turn out to be all right did it?

Further in, she has the gall to blame the man’s mania on his lack of lithium. I am not joking. Page 107 “Neither the resident nor I needed to see the results of the lithium blood level that had been drawn during his admission to the emergency room. There would be no lithium in his blood. The result had been mania.”

I mean give me a break, ‘doctor’. How you can be so unscientific as to posit this man’s psychotic episode as the result of a lack of lithium,  (and not some other kind of trigger, like, I don’t know, maybe… stress?)  This is kind of like how a headache is the result of not having aspirin in your blood, right? Sure. Makes perfect, logical, scientific sense Kay. No. Not really.

I don’t consider you an authority on bipolar or mental illness or it’s treatments. You are certainly not an expert on my suffering nor the treatments I used to cure it. You’ve spent your whole post graduate life informing others of what mental illness is and how it’s supposed to be treated. Blissfully unaware that your preferred treatment drove me to within an inch of taking my own life. Yes, you read that correctly. Lithium made me want to kill myself—because of how awful it was.

You’ve made claims that are (still) not substantiated by current science (Page 190 “The fact that manic-depressive illness is a genetic disease…”) For all that time spent in academia, spouting about mental illness, you have done nothing, absolutely nothing to advance the real understanding of its causes or possible cures. A whole career spent in an ivory tower fixated with this unshakable belief in manic depression as a genetic disorder and nothing at all to show for it. As a former bipolar sufferer, you do not speak for me and you never shall. If I ever get the chance to tell you this to your face, I will.

Another thing that offends me comes from the back of her book, on the cover, where she is described as having the dual perspective of the “healer and the healed”. In her own book, in her own words, she states that to this day she suffers, even though she is on the ‘proper’ drugs for the condition. And nowhere in her book does she claim to have healed anyone else, much less herself.

At every turn in her illness and career there is a family member or someone with a Dr. before his name to attend to her. How she praises psychotherapy and her support network. Must be nice Doc.

When Kay feels like hurting herself, she gets babysat in her home by a ‘colleague’ instead of doing time at the local psych ward. It’s like she floats over the heads of people who really (I mean really) suffer from bipolar disorder. When she finally does try to off herself, she’s already in a safety contract with friends and relatives and she ODs and leaves the phone right in the next room.

Of course you can probably guess at what happens then. Someone calls, and she is all slurred-voiced and nodding out, and naturally 911 is called promptly and she is saved from herself. For most of us getting admitted to an ER for an OD it’s a guaranteed stay at the psych ward for assessment. But she gets to recover from her attempt in the comfort of home, surrounded by concerned experts, as opposed to acute patients.  She didn’t have to socialize with the sick proles as befits everyone else that goes inpatient for a suicide attempt. She got special treatment—because she is Dr. Jamison.

In her Acknowledgments section, she gives thanks to no less than twenty-eight M.D.s or PhDs. Unfortunately, the medical and psychiatric profession does not know how to heal from mental illness and despite being surrounded by all those highly educated people, Dr. Jamison clearly does not know what I know about how the mind works and how it can be truly healed. It’s almost as if she is too close to the tree to gaze upon the forest that I see when it comes to mental illness and the nature of the mind.

If my tone sounds a little annoyed, it’s because of how many people keep saying how truly wonderful and amazing her book is. While I do not begrudge the woman her remarkable academic achievements (which are many), and I do agree that she can turn a phrase, I can’t see why this book is so highly acclaimed. Maybe someone will explain to me the appeal.

In the final analysis, I find myself in that small bracket of people who do not think that Unquiet Mind is an omg amazing five star must-read book on bipolar. It’s an okay book. Definitely worth a read. But other than at one time experiencing the symptoms of the disorder, I find that I have very little common ground with the author.

About Jane

Ms. Alexander. author, activist, artist
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15 Responses to An Unquiet Mind, a review.

  1. Trudie says:

    Your article, even though you may have found another solution to bipolar illness, sounds just too much like sour grapes.
    A lot of research is showing that there is a high incidence of bipolar that is genetically linked. A huge study in England is certainly going to have an interesting outcome with respect to genetics and bipolar.
    It sounds like you are mad at Kay, why be mad she is only writing from her experience.
    As you said you can’t blame a person for privilege, and she has the right to state her opinions.
    A brilliant Madness by Patty Duke, is another accurate depiction of bipolar.
    The word is still out on the cure for bipolar illness, what works for some will not work for everyone, just as in any other illness.
    We are all expected to be our own ‘expert’ patients.

    • Jane says:

      I do have a sour grape. I find it remarkable that someone who has been involved with mental health and herself born the same issue that she writes about, that in all this time it has not yet occurred to her that maybe she is researching in the wrong direction. She’s been dealing with BP since the 60s or 70s. I got my Dx in the late 80s. I was told that bipolar was (probably) genetic back then. And that ‘they’ (meaning some scientists somewhere), were going to prove this as a fact, sooner or later. Well that was some twenty years ago. She wrote in 1995 in AUM that bipolar was genetic and that had not been proven at that time. Since then (fifteen years), we have decoded the human genome and yet still no promised proof of bipolar as a genetic disorder.

      I recently watched KRJ talk during a episode of Charlie Rose and one of her colleagues flat out admitted that ‘they’ (the scientists) are not even remotely close to proving even how depression is genetic or how genes interact with the formation of neurons on the brain. How many more years or decades until psychiatrists stop looking at genes and back in the brain where the research belongs? I am willing to bet you that they will never, ever prove that manic depression is genetic.

      People who talk about bipolar love to say “There is a genetic factor, a hereditary element to this disorder” Yeah. So what? What the heck does that even mean? It doesn’t mean anything scientific about bipolar has been understood at all. The day they can prove what genes I inherited from my mother that made us both artists will be the day I believe they may know something about the genetics.

      I have another sour grape with her, which is her insistence that bipolar disorder be looked for in younger and younger people so that they can get on ‘treatment’ lest they suffer like she did. This attitude is partially what has led to the current over-diagnosing of bipolar disorder and our current ‘epidemic’ of child bipolar. All for what? Treatment means drugs unless you are well off enough to get therapy, which is where the real healing takes place. Not stoned under the influence of neuroleptics during a time in their life when they should be encouraged to learn to cope with mood swings and stress. She is part of the current problem and not the solution. The science she is behind has proven absolutely nothing of significant value or meaning her entire career. She is probably going to die in old age without having her pet theory of bipolar proven in her lifetime. (if ever).

      Personally, I am getting tired of hearing how we are all different. No kidding we are different. But we all have the same kind of brain structures. It is my understanding, my observation and my experience, that the way our minds are ordered has to do with what gets programmed into it starting from birth.

      There are traditions which have had an understanding of human suffering before anyone ever dreamed of the DSM, and their theories are just as sound today as they were four thousand years ago when they were invented. We suffer because of our ego. We suffer because our mind has wants and dreams and fears and compulsions and neuroses and conflicts and if we were ever to allow all that mental crap to drop away, we would apprehend peace in our minds and freedom from racing thoughts, grandiosity, self-hate, all of it. But our culture is so fast and so sick with the need to always be doing something or being productive or beating to someone else’s drum, that people do not notice that their programming is getting corrupted until its too late and they start falling apart.

      Mental anguish and suffering is not at all a mystery to me. Nor do I need a genetic model to explain how we suffer and how we can rid ourselves of it. She is studying the tree of genes looking for a weak, broken or defective protein strand to ‘blame’ for causing depression or mania, when mental illness (or wellness) is based on the whole forest of mind-body-social-stress and being. It’s just bad science. Hopeless I’d say. We need a new paradigm for treating mental illness because the drugs don’t cure anything.

  2. Rossa Forbes says:

    Your review is absolutely brilliant. Have you posted it on Amazon, because doing so would make a lot of people sit up and take notice. You’ve nailed her hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is no sin were it not for the fact that she and the PhD and MD cohort she cloaks herself in, have done serious damage to other people’s lives.

    • Jane says:

      Hello Rossa, and thank you very much. I had not posted it on amazon yet, although I am thinking about it.

      • Rossa Forbes says:

        Jane – Please consider posting it. Your view will sure liven things up a little. BTW – I just ordered your book and will eventually get around to posting a review on Amazon. I’m also doing a post on your review on my blog and will link to yours.

  3. Rossa Forbes says:

    Trudie – Anybody can accurately describe bi-polar, just as anybody can describe what a tooth ache feels like. There is no magic here. Where is the added value, scientifically speaking, in someone describing their binges? I get really sick and tired of people with a diagnosis of bi-polar or schizophrenia, describing their particular manifestation of their problem as if it says something medical about their so-called illness. Redfield is using her MD to state opinions as facts, and she bolsters this falsehood by surrounding herself with PhDs and other medical people who the public is supposed to trust just because they have two or three letters after their names. She is advising people that the drugs really do work, not only work for just some people. She doesn’t want people off their drugs. This makes her “old school” in that she is basing her opinions on decades old advice. There is a new, fresh breeze blowin’ through from other directions and she’s too old and set in her ways to change.

    • Jane says:

      “Redfield is using her MD to state opinions as facts, and she bolsters this falsehood by surrounding herself with PhDs and other medical people who the public is supposed to trust”

      Yes. You put your finger right on it.

  4. Stephany says:

    Well, I agree it’s Frisbee material. She is on the CABF bpkids advisory board, and because of her self-imposed status as an ‘expert’ on bipolar, she now sits on a board with conflicted criminals such as Joseph Biederman and others who took pharma money by the MILLIONS, now these ppl, her included, are pushing the pills onto the next generations–children. I think there is a second book, not sure which one it is in–where she talks about her husband keeping a syringe and antipsychotic ready in case she busted out. Seriously, she does a lot of harm pushing medications this way, and yes medicalizing all of her actions and behaviors and labeling it as mental illness and then medicating it is a grave concern esp when she is now preaching her BS to children and their parents. I thought my daughter’s nightmare would be a cautionary tale and it turns out the bipolar kid medication syndrome is alive and well in America, kids are being drugged as young as preschoolers and the FDA keeps approving antipsychotics for the kids 10 and up and then antipsychotics are being mainstreamed as antidepressants….it’s an assault on America, on the people and kids and its ran by corporate greed. Any one who has not taken time to see where these people such as Jamison come from (doctor connections, pharma money) and see how they are just promoting propaganda–and drug industry profit …should stop and ask themselves if they take meds especially–follow the money trail from manufacturer to their pill bottle in their kitchen and they will be shocked, to learn they are just a marketing target and bipolar is a hot seller and drugs for it big profit makers.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Stephany! ltns! You are such a font of interesting information about who is doing what in psychiatry. I did not know she was advising anyone about ‘bipolar kids’. I’d love to do some of this advising myself.

  5. Jane says:

    Hi Rossa, just a follow-up update. I posted my review around 9:50 am PST and within ten minutes, I garnered my first ‘unhelpful review’ vote. Pushing buttons already. That was fast!

    As an aside, thank you very much for buying my book. A review is even more generous and thanks for that in advance. I look forward to your thoughts.

  6. Rossa Forbes says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. Alas, it won’t be until late Feb. as I had it shipped for pick-up in the States. I would think that there aren’t too many memoirs from the perspective of a child caught up in the “system,” so I will promote it at every chance I get.

  7. Max Spencer says:

    Hi Jane and Rossa,

    Spot on!

    Thanks for saving me the energy to red another propaganda piece putout by a brainwashed sockpuppet of Big Pharma’s mind factory.

    “A lot of research is showing that there is a high incidence of bipolar that is genetically linked. A huge study in England is certainly going to have an interesting outcome with respect to genetics and bipolar.”

    Yeah yeah lol, the people doing the research are the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical complex. That’s about as interesting as the inside of an oven in Auschwitz.

    • Jane says:

      Hi there Max, and thanks for visiting.

      In all fairness to Kay, unless I see evidence to the contrary, I would not put in her the same class as ‘brainwashed sock puppet for Big Pharma’, as say, Charles Nemeroff or Joe Biederman.

      Regarding the gene study, and a sayings like: “Genetically linked” or “May be hereditary”. In my opinion, they are totally meaningless, but not because the studies are generally and generously funded by Big Pharma, but because the data or findings has no bearing at all on causes or cured. None whatsoever.

  8. Drummond says:

    Hello Jane.

    Comment redacted at poster’s request.

Comments are closed.