Book Review: Memoirs of a Manic Depressant
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A young woman dreams of stability and love after a life of abuse & risk-taking in this dark but forward-looking memoir
Content Warning: Depression, rape, sexual assault, suicide
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder (formerly called “manic depression”) arrives late in life for many people. How might someone experience life before diagnosis? Michelle McConnell bravely shares her experience in Memoirs of a Manic-Depressant.
To complete the formidable task of reconstructing a huge number of events, places, and people, she drew from her “dated, organized, and legible” girlhood diaries and “a stash of medical bills” that helped her accurately order her life story. The book reads like a novel, opening with the line: “I am Maddy Tanner.” McConnell changed her own name in the story, and to protect others’ identities, she changed their names, too.
The narrator, a lonely child of alcoholic parents, endures many traumas from an early age. She has no siblings, nor does she have close friends because her family moves so frequently.
Her diary, beginning at age 8, at first records mainly her stepfather’s systematic, pointed neglect. Her family has food and clothing but struggles to afford modest pleasures; for her, these luxuries include a bicycle, a video game system, guitar lessons, and new bedroom furniture. Her stepfather, rather than trying to make their situation as easy as possible, takes pleasure in dangling and then cruelly withdrawing these gifts. He is responsible for a string of dead and abandoned pets. He routinely hits her with a belt, and he is unlikely to bring her to the doctor when she has serious scrapes. He even tried to change her name, for reasons that are unclear: “Maddy” was his choice when she was already three years old, but her real name, given to her by her mother, is Leigh. In their various neighborhoods, she also faces casual violence from boys and men: she is chased, grabbed, and inappropriately offered “rides” and “company.”
The voice used by the author generally matches her age at the time of the event, though many comments are inserted for the benefit of adult readers. For example, in a diary entry dated age 11, she writes: “Mom said Grandpa must have made a lot of money from his seven weight loss clinics located throughout the Boston area. Since everyone wants to be so thin and disco glitter gorgeous, I imagine it is a lucrative business.” The first half of each sentence is easily imagined written in bubble letters in colored gel pen; the second half is for adults. This is a complicated choice in a book with such a heavy focus on emotional trauma. The reader experiences the events from the perspective of a young child dealing with immediate injuries and simultaneously from the perspective of an adult writing her memoir. The double-perspective may ultimately help readers digest difficult stories.
From a young age, the narrator senses that adults often use each other and can’t always be trusted. She reaches puberty early, and, by age 13, she is doing drugs at parties and having casual sex. By age 15, she suggests she is no longer a child and has missed out on wholesome relationships: “It is too late for me. I am too old to get a best friend.” At 16, she is raped by three boys while unconscious. (There are numerous accounts of sexual assaults and domestic violence throughout the book, as well as stories of sex work and abortion.)
That year, she’s living with a friend, working at a pizzeria, and setting a wedding date with a young man recently released from jail who is physically abusive to her and doesn’t seem to want her to get her GED. In her own mind, she is clear that she is using him to escape her parents’ town: “I don’t love him. He just is a better alternative to living in Bean.” One might find these stories of violence and loneliness challenging to read, in which case one might also imagine they were far more challenging to actually live through.
If our lives follow a grand plan or narrative arc, most of us aren’t aware of it, especially not while we are going through it. Real diaries, therefore, are usually a collection of anecdotes rather than a single large story—and this is true of this memoir presented in diary format.
In Memoirs of a Manic-Depressant, characters develop over time, and similar traumas and crises tend to repeat. However, a single big story does not emerge. A reader’s attention might be drawn to one anecdote due to their own personal interest, but it isn’t obvious that any single anecdote is meant to be more important than any other, nor does one clearly aid in interpreting another. Events are listed chronologically, rather than layered. The young narrator tends to let things go and move on.
The theme of mental illness emerges gradually. Four hundred pages in, the narrator, turning 21, makes a suicide attempt. Then her nightmares begin: aliens, alligators, werewolves. Turning 28, she graduates with an MFA in interior design, but she has not yet achieved stability. At this age, she still sometimes drinks to oblivion; she has only learned not to do so in front of certain people. At 29, still willing to experiment with just about any recreational drug, she overdoses on sleeping pills. It is then, six hundred pages into the book, that she is “finally told I am bipolar.” Treatment is slow. Medications take a long time to balance. A year or so later, “My therapist suggested I attend some group meetings.” Healing will take time.
Because of the heavy focus on McConnell’s life pre-diagnosis, this memoir doesn’t delve into specific approaches to knowingly living with bipolar disorder. It doesn’t promise that help is available; it doesn’t tell you what treatments will work. Here’s what it does: Using the author’s personal experience, it reveals patterns that may predict bipolar disorder, and it implies how traumas may affect feelings and behaviors later in life.
It takes strength, mature perspective, and journalistic attention to retell one’s life story, especially the painful moments, in such detail. McConnell says she hopes her book will inform those who may be in a position to “ask questions” and “help their loved ones who may be suffering in silence.” Though many people in her life have proven themselves untrustworthy, her act of crafting such a memoir communicates a spirit of hope.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Depression
Print Length: 704 pages
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