Friday, December 18, 2009

Talking the Walk (9)

Title and Total

The Lily Pond
has a lengthy subtitle: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. Back in the summer, Chapters-Indigo told my publisher, Dan Wells, that it would place the book on one of its coveted “power tables”–a coup for a small press–if we changed the subtitle to feature “bipolar disorder” prominently. I was loath to cost Dan possible sales, but I argued strenuously against this, outlining many reasons in a marathon midnight email, which I’ll shorten drastically here. Besides liking the alliteration of all those murmuring “M’s,” I had reasons for each word. Madness, for example. While “bipolar disorder” may be a workable shorthand for a medical condition, or conditions, in general I prefer the old-fashioned word “madness,” which can mean craziness, illness, but also wildness, fiery creative passion, overmastering love or obsession. It has more scope, more texture...more humanity. In its wider allusiveness it is more accurate. Memory, myth, metamorphosis–I have my own rationale for each of them. And I convinced Dan. But not Chapters-Indigo. I doubt if you win many battles with a large chain. At best, you state your case and then the line goes dead. They still ordered a small number of copies. These can be found, thin spines out, in Health and Wellness, under Mood Disorders or Depression.

These questions about the book’s title are related to the questions I have been asked by readers and interviewers about the book’s reflections, at points, about such things as great paintings, star constellations, ancient myths, and common animals like frogs. The questioners have sometimes seemed to regard these as poetic digressions, depatures from the book’s core of mental breakdowns, psychiatric treatment, poverty and other turmoil, and slow recovery. I have two things to say in answer, answers that haven’t always come readily on the telephone or in a radio studio, in response to questions that have sometimes sounded sympathetically curious, but sometimes impatient or hostile: 1) I wrote this book, first, long before I thought of publishing it, to better understand events that had been dogging me for most of my life. The stakes, for me, couldn’t have been higher. So I had no time, no room, for any line that didn’t help to illuminate for me some corner of the subject. 2) Second, why is it that people think you’re talking straight when you talk of shock treatments or tears in a psychiatrist’s office–as I also do in the book–but raise their eyebrows when you speak of how you perceive the world, how your mind, in illness and in health, processes it? It demeans the mentally ill, as it demeans anyone, to say: Tell us about your heart, but not about your mind. It not only dumbs down the person, and the problem, but it makes plain a paradox that still bedevils our understanding of mental illness. We will allow in the heart–How do you feel? is heard routinely; but we still prefer to leave the mind out of mental illness–How do you think? is a rare question. And that is strange. Because if you go crazy with your whole self–mind, heart, body, all of you–then arriving at any sort of understanding of that going crazy must involve your whole self also. You go mad with who and what you are, and aren’t; you recover, if you do and to the extent that you do, with the same totality.

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