People who don’t suffer bipolar disorder themselves might occasionally catch glimpses of someone else’s spiral. It’s like rubbernecking at the aftermath of a car crash and wondering how it happened, or if anyone died. Details are usually missing and the trajectory from mania to depression is not often reliably chronicled. Charita Cole Brown fills in many such details in her straightforward memoir, “Defying The Verdict: My Bipolar Life.” She offers her perspective as a woman of color and a fundamentalist Christian.
Brown starts with her initial institutionalization in college and then jumps back to her origins. The brightest and most spirited of seven children in a black, conservative Catholic family of modest means in Baltimore, she was academically gifted and theatrical. She seemed highly strung—much like her maternal grandmother who also spent time in a mental institution.
When Brown investigates her family tree, she reveals the influence of American racial history on her genetic profile. From the mid-1800s, tight-knit black communities intermarried in order to protect their free status, which “incubat[ed] certain strains of DNA.” In her family’s case, this yielded a susceptibility to clinical depression and bipolar disorder. (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” charts similar legacies. Lacks’ cervical cells were harvested in the 1950s without her knowledge and became one of the most important tools in modern medicine. Meanwhile, her children and grandchildren inherited multiple genetic conditions and the impact of harsh social consequences.)
Brown writes with remarkable clarity and insight about her rollercoaster of mania and depression, her common struggle to manage effective drug treatment, shame, suffering and resilience. Her painstaking journey to independence and connection on her terms involves finding her holy grail of medicine, therapy, piety and love. Further, to find acceptance in her community, she has to overcome the fact that mental illness holds a “greater stigma among African Americans and fundamentalist Christians.” Her compelling determination to not just survive, but to flourish prevails. I think families of those who suffer from bipolar disorder—especially fundamentalist Christians and people of color, who Brown says have traditionally dismissed mental illness as weakness, God’s disapproval or sin—will find her forthright account credible and mind-changing. (Kate Burns)
Defying The Verdict: My Bipolar Life
By Charita Cole Brown
Curbside Splendor, 272 pages, $15.95