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Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

By Reeve Lindbergh
Sunday, September 6, 2009

NOTHING WAS THE SAME

By Kay Redfield Jamison

Knopf. 208 pp. $25

"It has been said that grief is a kind of madness. I disagree. There is a sanity to grief, in its just proportion of emotion to cause, that madness does not have." So writes Kay Redfield Jamison, the clinical psychologist whose widely acclaimed 1995 memoir, "An Unquiet Mind," revealed her lifelong struggle with manic-depressive illness. "Nothing Was the Same" is the story of her marriage to the late Dr. Richard Wyatt, a man who overcame severe childhood dyslexia to become a leader in schizophrenia research. With the blend of straightforward frankness and poetic eloquence for which her earlier book drew praise, Jamison describes the almost 20 years of their life together as a love affair that encompassed not only their shared work, colleagues, family and friends, but also her mental illness and the cancer that ultimately claimed his life in 2002.

One thing that makes this book especially compelling is its quiet matter-of-factness in the face of personal catastrophe. This is not lack of feeling. On the contrary, Jamison periodically offers a brief, chilling glimpse of her sufferings with bipolar disorder, once writing to her husband: "There are moments when you provide a minute of sweetness and belief, and then the blackness comes again. I shall be done for one of these times. No matter what I do, this illness will always bring me to my knees." And her account of Wyatt's battle with cancer will be very familiar to anyone who has traveled the same painful path, the harrowing roller-coaster ride from diagnosis to treatment to remission to re-evaluation to further, damning diagnosis, and on to the final days of a beloved life. Every step carries emotion -- shock, dread, hope, joy, despair -- and Jamison portrays each of these with piercing clarity.

Still, the overall tone of her recounting is even, spare and thoughtfully analytical, avoiding grimness and offering some leavening lighter touches, like Wyatt's affectionate characterization of Jamison's manic-depressive mind: "a delicate ecosystem, a pond of subtle alkalinities, which was kept alive through a finely honed mix of lithium and love and sleep, or, as he imagined it, 'water grasses and dragonflies, and a snail or two to tidy up.' "

Here were two people eminently qualified to evaluate and treat illness, she as a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he as chief of neuropsychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health. All of their combined expertise could not protect them from their own pathology or from mortality, but the life they shared gave both of them the strength they needed to meet the unavoidable. At the same time they gave one another what was, in the circumstances, a rare and bountiful measure of joy.

It is startling to learn of Jamison's discovery that her husband secretly kept a syringe and a vial of antipsychotic medication in his office at their home, in case her mania got out of control. He told her, "Medicine is imperfect," and then, "Love is imperfect." It is delightful, on the other hand, to read that he filled her bathtub with lilacs and roses when they stayed together in a hotel in Rome. Wyatt often told her that she provided quietness and constancy in his life, despite her illness. He wrote to her, "Your stillness is a sanctuary." She, who had written a book about the chaotic anguish of her "madness," was amazed.

The great gift Jamison offers here, beyond her honesty and the beauty of her writing, is perspective: a clear-eyed view of illness and death, sanity and insanity, love and grief. As she writes, she often invokes the words of scientists, philosophers, novelists and poets, from Sigmund Freud to Graham Greene to Edna St. Vincent Millay. The excerpts are well chosen, but the voice that rings truest is her own, with its disciplined mix of openness and restraint. Once again, Jamison seems to be telling the truth, no matter how difficult it may be, in a way that avoids self-pity and inspires courage. To write the truth with such passion and grace is remarkable enough. To do this in loving memory of a partner is tribute indeed.

Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, most recently, "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

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