Kay Redfield Jamison

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 annotations associated with Jamison, Kay Redfield

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Biography


Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire is “a study of genius, mania, and character” of American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977).  It is meant to be neither an autobiography nor a critical study of Lowell’s literary output, but a study of an artist and his lifelong battle with Bipolar I Disorder, and an appreciation of how his art and illness were inseparably linked. The author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is a distinguished psychologist who has been quite open about her own struggles with the same disease, and whose lifework consists of exploring the link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity.     

Eschewing a purely chronological approach, Jamison divides her work into sections entitled “Origins,” “Illness,” “Character,” “Illness and Art,” and “Mortality.” In the first, she traces the history of mental illness within the poet’s illustrious Boston family.  We learn that Lowell’s great-great-grandmother was institutionalized at McLean Asylum for the Insane, which was to be the site of several of the poet’s own hospitalizations.  “Illness” is a clinical case study in prodromal childhood symptoms that progress to full-blown manic episodes. We follow the progress made by 20th century psychiatry from psychotherapy and ECT to Thorazine, and, finally, with the introduction of Lithium, to the possibility of prophylaxis against recurrences.
Later, in “Illness and Art,” Jamison brings her thoughts about creativity and art to full fruition by discussing what her research reveals about writers and artists.    

Appendices include diagnostic criteria for Bipolar Disorder, and an explanation of how Lowell’s psychiatric and medical records were made available by his daughter for the benefit of this volume.  

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An Unquiet Mind

Jamison, Kay Redfield

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


The author, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is an authority on manic depressive illness. With this powerful, well-written memoir she "came out of the closet," publicly declaring that she herself had suffered from manic depressive illness for years. Jamison describes the manifestations of her illness, her initial denial and resistance to treatment with medication, attempted suicide, and her struggle to maintain an active professional and satisfying personal life.The author was "intensely emotional as a child," (p.4) and in high school first experienced "a light lovely tincture of true mania" (p.37) during which she felt marvelous, but following which she was unable to concentrate or comprehend, felt exhausted, preoccupied with death, and frightened. (pp. 36-40) Interested in medicine as an adolescent, she pursued her goal in spite of mood swings and periods of mental paralysis. Jamison completed graduate work in clinical psychology; shortly after obtaining a faculty appointment "I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a medication that I would, in a few year’s time, be strongly encouraging others to take [lithium]." (p. 4)Jamison eventually, through strong support from friends and colleagues, excellent psychiatric care, and her own acceptance of illness, has been able to reach a state of relative equilibrium--tolerable levels of medication (fewer side effects) and dampened mood swings. But she makes clear that she must stay on lithium and remain vigilant.

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In this tightly organized study of the relationship between creativity and manic-depressive disease and its variants, the author asks and attempts to address some interesting questions. Is there sufficient evidence in the histories of well-known artists and their families to demonstrate a genetic linking of creativity and depressive disorders? Are there phases in classic bipolar cycles that are particularly conducive to bursts of, or sustained, creative productivity? Does treatment (be it chemical or psychotherapeutic) of his or her psychiatric symptoms blunt the ability of the artist to work successfully?

In an attempt to answer these and other intriguing questions, Jamison explores in some detail the personal, family and creative histories of writers long suspected of being depressed with or without alcohol or having periods of mania. She opens by defining for the novice the parameters of the disorders in question, examines some of her subjects' family history of "madness," and discusses evidence for relationships among the waxing and waning of depressive disorders and creative productivity.

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