by Kay Redfield Jamison
The writer’s long struggles with depression give extra weight to her memoir on grief and the loss of her husband.
By Dinah Lenney
In the prologue to “Nothing Was the Same,” Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “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.”
Jamison should know. A professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, she has written four books on brain chemistry, among them the critically acclaimed memoir “An Unquiet Mind,” which movingly detailed her own struggle with manic depression.
Now, after the death of her husband, Dr. Richard Wyatt, she turns herself inside out again to explore what it means to grieve. This has been done before — think of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” or Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” — but here, the marriage takes a back seat to Jamison’s real preoccupation, the workings of her mind.
As a person prone to depression, the stakes are high: Can she survive such devastating loss? Her account, then, is less a memoir than a meditation on grief as necessary and inevitable, and not to be confused with mental illness.
“Nothing Was the Same” is organized in three parts. The first chronicles the author’s relationship with Wyatt — himself a leading expert in schizophrenia — whom she met in middle age, when she least expected to find a partner. The second is devoted to Wyatt’s illness, ending with his death from lung cancer in 2002. The last focuses on the effects of loss, and the author’s gradual understanding that grieving, unlike clinical depression, is ultimately life-affirming.
What’s clear throughout is that Wyatt and Jamison were more concerned about her than they were about him: Even as she documents his suffering, both husband and wife spend more time preparing her for life when he is gone.
Certainly, Wyatt was attentive. Jamison cites love letters, describes extravagant gifts and recalls days spent in each other’s company. It’s almost as though she is writing less to remember him than to remind herself that she was well-loved.
Meanwhile, they did have fun. The book is a guided tour of exclusive Washington, D.C., dinner parties and, as such, a portrait of an academically and politically privileged class. If her first memoir was a brave appeal that challenged assumptions about bipolar disorder and its treatment for a broad audience, this story seems more narrowly targeted.
It’s a credit to the warmth and intimacy of Jamison’s voice that we connect with her underlying message: Tragedy doesn’t discriminate. Despite their elite circumstances, Richard and Kay each suffered more than their share.
Having found each other, both “felt that we had been given a second chance at life: he by surviving Hodgkin’s disease some ten years earlier, and me by having lived through mania, paralyzing depressions, and what should have been a lethal suicide attempt.”
Jamison credits family, friends, colleagues, even her basset hounds for helping her through her ordeal. Most important, she acknowledges time, quoting Wyatt from a letter he wrote about the pain of loss: “I have wondered about time’s ability to heal. To me it is a moving away or a growing around the wound, nothing ever filling the void; new things diverting attention . . .”
A lover of literature, Jamison also diverts herself with language. The book is punctuated with quotations and references to favorite writers — Byron, Tennyson, Hardy, Millay, Lowell, Frost. Comforted thus, she again reminds us: “The capacity to be consoled is a consequential distinction between grief and depression.”
At moments such as these — when she reveals grief itself as healthy and healing — Jamison is at her best.
And yet, though elegantly written, “Nothing Was the Same” is not an unqualified triumph. Some sequences feel repetitive and we occasionally tire of Jamison’s self-absorption. Every so often, the book reads like a promotion for her other work, especially “An Unquiet Mind,” which she admits she’d never have written without Wyatt’s encouragement.
About this most recent effort she concludes, “To hold on to love, I had to find a way to capture and transform it. The only way I knew to do this was to write a book, this book about Richard. . . . I would write again from my heart, but this time I would write alone.”
And so, we can’t help but wonder: As insightful as it is, what sort of memoir might “Nothing Was the Same” have been with the support of her late husband? That we’ll never know only makes the question more poignant and profound.