Post #47 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
Kay Redfield Jamison has written a stunning contemplation of grief — her own. Nothing Was the Same is a first-hand account about the loss of her husband to lung cancer. She presents all the stages in their relationship, from first meeting through final farewell to standing on her own.
Jamison does so, however, through the observant lens of a clinical psychologist who is a respected expert on bipolar disorder. Her husband, Richard J. Wyatt, was a neuropsychiatrist renowned as an expert on schizophrenia.
Writing openly about her life from a scientific perspective to help others learn from her experiences is not new to Jamison. She boldly detailed her own battle with bipolar disorder in An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, her attempted suicide in Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, her manic depression in Touched With Fire, and her joie de vivre in Exuberance: The Passion for Life.
I was riveted watching Jamison in this video:
I related closely to the experience Jamison described in Nothing Was the Same, as I, too, lost an intellectual husband who also confronted questions by “rotating the problem within his mind until a new way of looking at it emerged.” How I miss conversations with Jim Tankard! He, too, died of lung cancer. And he, too, kindly led the way to discussions that I, like Jamison, also wanted to avoid — such as, “We should talk about the funeral.”
Her reminiscences of the black humor she and her husband utilized brought back similar memories for me. One latches onto the life preserver of the macabre when it is tossed your way in order to stay afloat. Laughter or tears? They’re so closely intertwined, and Jamison points out how her husband always tried to engage her in the former.
I knew just what Jamison meant when she wrote, “I watched him lose a bit of his life every day.” and “There were terrible things to do.” I remember keenly that awful worry she confronted: “Will I ever get rid of the images at the last?” And I could definitely connect with the recurring mantra she sprinkled effectively throughout the memoir: I want my husband back.
The descriptions of visiting her husband’s grave seemed almost as if she’d been peering over my shoulder when I did the same. I also take comfort in the old trees and the stillness there when I go to talk.
Jamison uses wry humor, different from black humor, to good effect at appropriate points in the book. A box of her late husband’s possessions arrives from his office. She wrote: “A bit like Christmas, but not really.” When she prepares to visit his grave, she puts on rings that he gave her. “Thus armed,” she states, she sallies forth. I found her subtle use of nuance in such two-word phrases positively brilliant.
Jamison turned to the “consolation of language,” as did I — wringing out my feelings on paper. Memoir can be a gift at times like these, a receptacle for one’s tears. Jamison articulates it clearly: “I found my way back into life through my writing.” Her husband had encouraged her to write from her heart when she was working on An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. She paid tribute to his advice by doing so again in this book about him.
Poet William Wordsworth encouraged his wife to do the same. “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” he told her in a letter written in 1812. What a perfect guideline for memoir writers.
Jamison draws upon her training as a psychologist to assess her own grief at the same time as she is experiencing it, and to contrast it with the depression from which she suffered earlier in her life. She compares the two mood states, and determines distinct differences between them. And then she wrote: “Grief is not a disease; it is necessary.” Her observations may be of help to clinicians. “My heart broke, but it beat.”
Jamison formerly sought comfort in music, but in her grief it was poetry that consoled her. Her comment struck home: “Love is altered but remains.” “Richard was dead, but love and ideas were not.” She talks about the rituals of grief and how they function. She tells us that “grief instructs,” if we will let it. And yet ultimately she admits, “Grief was beginning to wear out its welcome.”
Different authors in various ways have dissected grief. Noteworthy first-person memoir approaches include the literary journalism of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the poetry of Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge, and the journalistic manual of Gail Sheehy’s just-published guide Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence.
What these three respected authors have in common with Kay Redfield Jamison is that all four women are highly respected professionals who lost the loves of their lives — men who were all prominent in their respective fields. And what each of these four women did so courageously and well was to share their personal accounts of watching a spouse succumb. Each one delved into her heart via four different memoir venues and held up her raw emotions for the reader to see. Their perceptions placed so lovingly on paper heighten our awareness of loss. Women writing memoirs have many styles from which to draw when penning similar recollections.
Jamison voices concern “about the damage done to the credibility of autobiographical writing by those who have written fraudulently about their lives,” and therefore supplies her editor with extensive documentation for her memoir.
Jamison has offered up slices of life in her varied books, as if sharing a reflective meal with old friends. In this particular course, she focuses on loss. And she does so with the precision of a master chef delivering a dish with gourmet eloquence, topped by her uncanny eye for details. In writing, as in cooking, it’s all in the presentation.
Memoir can serve several purposes for readers: (1) to learn about another person’s experience, (2) to evoke memories of similar events in one’s own life, and (3) to delve into the pot of our shared common humanity and find touchstones of universal occurrences. I found all three in Nothing Was the Same, and my heart goes out to Kay Redfield Jamison.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas.