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A review of An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Biology 202
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

This quicksilver illness:

Moods, Stigma, and Creativity

A review of An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

Alexis B. Webb

Kay Jamison is one of the faces of manic depression (or in more sterile terms, bipolar disorder). She is currently the face of one of the renowned researchers of manic depression and topics relating to the disease, ranging from suicide to creativity. She is a tenured professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, author of a best-selling memoir and one of the standard medical texts on the subject. She has also been the face of madness and despair, a mercurial young woman whose life became controlled by moods, a sufferer of "this quicksilver illness." Her memoir An Unquiet Mind is an honest and moving account of someone living with the disease. What is unique about Jamison is that regardless of her scientific understanding of her mental illness, she has the ability to convey depression and mania with lyrical poignancy.

In An Unquiet Mind Jamison provides the reader with her personal history, drawing from a range of stylish literary quotes and journal like accounts to weave the compelling story of her illness. Raised in a military family with a history of mental illness, though not one of discussing such problems, Jamison first dealt with intense moods during high school. These experiences escalated during her undergraduate years and by the time Jamison entered her mid-twenties manic depression had taken over her life. The memoir leads the reader through dizzying upward spirals, only to bring them crashing back down, mirroring Jamison's own cycles of moods. In the end some solace is reached through therapy, medication (lithium), and what Jamison views as an overarching theme in her story, love. Her survival was in part in the hands of others, her family, her doctor, husbands and lovers, and Jamison acknowledges this.

It is important to consider a life like Kay Jamison's when thinking about the questions of this course: does brain equal behavior? Hers was a life that revolved around moods that controlled her behavior and how she functioned in the world around her. The moods were the result of an illness that affects many individuals (1). If the brain is indeed the cause of the "sickness" of moods, then can it be argued that moods are created biologically? As mental illnesses, like manic depression, are further understood, society is moving intellectually away from seeing them as anything other than organic. Scientific research of mental illness receives more funding now than it ever has (2). Jamison's story points to this yet again. For her, moods are wrapped up in biology, her genetics, images of her brain from an MRI or PET scan.

I find the idea of leading a life of "moods" to be intriguing, how the ups and downs that one goes through can spin so far out of control, at the mercy of a witches' brew of neurotransmitters. Jamison has felt extremes that most of the population will never reach: euphoric, albeit manic, highs to be followed by black, pit of despair, lows. These responses are part of her self. She, in fact, would not trade her illness for a smoother ride: "I have seen the breadth and depth and width of my mind and heart and seen how frail they both are, and how ultimately unknowable they both are." If moods are a part of behavior as an integral part of self, they must then have some equal in the brain, chemically or structurally. In Jamison's case, as in the case of many others, their lives are ruled by moods and this is a genetic disposition. The connection of mental illness to biology has been an important development in the struggle for advocacy for the mentally ill. Disease is organic; illness is solid, not figurative.

Jamison has made her disease her life's work, though not without hardship. Stigma remains part of the life of the mentally ill; the words "crazy" and "nut" still are very much a part of the vernacular. Jamison's has dealt with stigma firsthand from those she told of her illness. One colleague, after hearing of her manic depression and attempted suicide, confessed his "deep disappointment" in her. She has been told by a physician "you have manic depression, you shouldn't have children." Jamison talks about her qualms and reasons behind "coming out" as manic-depressive. As a clinician she risked the removal of privileges due to her illness, as a professional she risked critique of her research and writing. Yet An Unquiet Mind has become one of the strongest points in Jamison's advocacy work for those with manic depression (3). By providing a voice for so many that are often misdiagnosed, Jamison's life can provide a beacon of understanding.

Jamison wonders if the genetic understanding of the disease will lead to a more sterile world, as early detection and treatment will allow for fewer sufferers. For her, being able to create hinges in part on the fact that she has this illness. In fact, one of Jamison's earlier works, Touched with Fire, asserts a connection between manic depression and the artistic temperament. This poses an interesting question: is mania part of the creative process, can depression lead to epiphany? Jamison mentions increased productivity during her hypomanias: late nights of work, new projects, new ideas spinning and whirring. But were these necessary for her to be successful, to get tenure? It seems certain that being creative was and is a key part of Kay Jamison. I think that she would feel she had not lived life to its full potential if she did not suffer from manic depression. Is this a fair statement? I am sure that many readers who have been touched by the disease in some way or another would disagree with Jamison. I am sure than many would concur with her statement.

Kay Jamison's memoir offers up many topics for discussion; this paper is just a jumping off point (4). An Unquiet Mind gives readers many things to think and understand about living with manic depression; similar to how Jamison describes one of her manias: "ideas are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones."

WWW Sources

1)NIMH Mental Illness Statistics

2)NIMH Mental Illness Research Goals for 2000-2001

3)National Alliance for the Mentally Ill , NAMI presented Kay Jamison with an award for her advocacy work for manic depression.

4)Skeptics's Dictionary, An interesting review of An Unquiet Mind by Robert Todd Carroll.


armond v's picture

seroquel meds

Is it good?

Serendip Visitor's picture


Excellent review.

My disorder was obvious to some people, yet my awareness/recovery started long after much damage happened.

Serendip Visitor's picture


"though not one of discussing such problems" - would sound better as: though not one to discuss such problems.

For her, being able to create hinges in part on the fact that she has this illness.

Huh?!? This sentence makes no sense. An idea: Read your writings aloud to yourself, then you can tell if they are don't make sense. Thanks

Serendip Visitor's picture

be quiet...

Maybe you need a healthier dose of this illness...I understood the sentence just fine! It is the substance of the paper that matters, the letter grade and red ink crucifixion is the teacher's job.

Anyway, I personally am thankful for the message.

balachandra menon's picture

the mind has a physical

the mind has a physical model.if medication is matter and if medication can reset the troubled mind, matter must in all probability be the precursor of mind after million years of evolution.materialist philosophy as against the idealistic ,now seems to have an edge.being a patient myself for 30 years this is the factor that stands out for is history.hail marx.........gbc menon

Stephan's picture

Dr. Jamison, for the past

Dr. Jamison, for the past two years+, has helped me in ways I could never begin to describe; to help me undertand my illness. I can not thank her enough for the sharing of her experiences.
Thank You