Dedicated to Research and Reflection in Formative Spirituality




About Us Programs Staff Links Contact Us



Mourning, Not Melancholy:

A Review of Nothing Was the Same:  A Memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison

nothign was the sameIt 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.  Grief, given to all, is a generative and human thing.  It provides a path, albeit a broken one, by which those who grieve can find their way.  Still, it is grief’s fugitive nature that one does not know at the start that such a path exists.  I knew madness well, but I understood little of grief, and I was not always certain which was grief and which was madness.  Grief, as it transpires, has its own territory. (p.5)

Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of its Mood Disorders Center, is a renowned expert in the study of manic-depressive illness and the author of several books on the topic, including the co-authorship of the standard medical text on the illness: Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression and a memoir of her own struggle with the illness: An Unquiet Mind.  As her honorary professorship in English at The University of St. Andrews attests, she is also a lucid and elegant writer.

     In her earlier memoir An Unquiet Mind, Jamison unflinchingly portrayed her life and death struggle with manic-depressive illness.  The effect on the reader of this, at once deeply personal yet clinically exacting portrayal of a most gifted yet difficult life, is to re-appraise the deepest meaning of “sanity” in its most distinctively human meaning.  Jamison’s illness truly buffets her about, threatening her very survival.  And yet, with the help of excellent treatment, She plumbs the depths of her uniqueness as a person, a uniqueness of which her illness and her response to that illness is an essentially constitutive part.  Adrian van Kaam points out that our limits are the outline of our call. In Jamison’s life and work we see how her call develops in significant part from her response to this life threatening illness.  It becomes for her not merely an affliction that victimizes her but a summons to touch her own deepest capacities for life and for service to others.

     In Nothing Was the Same Jamison continues the story of the deepening realization of her unfolding life direction, the unique “way” of her life, this time through her attentive and wakeful going through of the territory marked out by the grief aroused by the dying and death of her beloved husband of twenty years, Richard Jed Wyatt, M.D., the Chief of the Neuropsychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health.  This, as the earlier memoir, is striking in its honesty, its realism and lack of sentimentality, its challenging insights into the worlds of medicine and neuropsychiatry, and its powerfully communicated substrata of transcendence.  As her earlier work challenges the reader to reappraise the true meaning of sanity, so this memoir draws the reader into the transcendent dimensions of relationship and grief .

     Although in retrospect we learn of the earlier years of their lives together, for the most part the memoir treats in detail Jamison’s experience of the final years of her married life, following the diagnosis of Richard’s terminal lymphoma, and of the time of mourning immediately following his death.  What emerges is a very personal description of a time of fear and sadness, but also of profound life, love, and gratitude.  As Jamison at once lives in anticipation of the death of her beloved “husband, colleague and friend,” she seems to experience so much more acutely the beauty, challenge and awesomeness of the Universe and of their and her place in it.  As she describes the peace and beauty of what she knows to be their last Christmas together, the words of the poet Douglass Dunn come to her mind.

Sad?  Yes. But it was beautiful also.

There was a stillness in the world.  Time was out.  (p. 101)

     The depth and intimacy of their final months together become a preparation for the navigation of the grief that will follow, and Jamison’s continuing life and participation in the life of the world and cosmos after his death. In the late autumn preceding that last Christmas together, Kay and Richard turned their interest to the Leonid meteor shower.  At 4:30 am the two of them drive to Rock Creek Park in Washington to observe what is promised to be “the most spectacular sky event of the twenty first century.”  It does not disappoint.

How perfect this is, I thought.  How perfect it is that we have this, that we are watching this astonishing beauty together.  How perfect that Richard is alive to see it.  It is a gift for Richard’s grace. . . . Richard talked quietly but passionately about the shooting stars as they rained down over Rock Creek Park.  How beautiful they were, he said, how transient.  Then he talked about young American soldiers, watching under an Afghan sky.  Some would see the Leonids, some would be spotting targets for bombs, and some would be seeing the bombs burst.  But, Richard wondered, what would Bin Laden see as he was being hunted down?  Did he share the same awe for glowing dust and raining stars?  (pp. 99-100)

This is a couple whose deeply personal lives, even in the most difficult and painful of times, are mindfully connected to the realities of the larger world.  There is a place in our consciousness, Adrian van Kaam calls it the transconscious, where the “local” and the “global” are not separated but united.  Kay and Richard’s life together and their commitment to their work on behalf of others reflect openness and participation in the larger human and cosmic world.  It is this dimension of their relationship that will show the way for Jamison to navigate the “territory” of grief after Richard’s death.

     Never far below the surface in their life together was the reality of Kay’s manic-depressive illness.  Jamison’s reflections are filled with reminiscences of all the ways that Wyatt’s wisdom, experience and most of all love and attentive care had been the source of her well-being for the years of their marriage.  On Valentine’s Day less than four months before his death, Richard takes Kay out to a local restaurant.

     It was a serious and sad evening.  It was the only time we discussed what would happen to me after he died, and it was obvious that he had given a great deal of thought to what he would say.  He started by telling me how much he loved me and how happy I had made him.  He said he wished he could say that he would be keeping an eye out for me once he was gone but, as I knew, he didn’t believe in such things.  He did believe in the lasting influence of love.  You have good friends, family, and colleagues, he said.  You have a good doctor and work that is important.  You will have to take care of yourself.  You will have to take your medication and get your sleep.  No one will be around to remind you.  It was as though he had rehearsed the speech and did not know what to say next.

     But what will I do without you?” I asked him.  “What will I do?”

     Richard came over to my side of the table and put his arms around me.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “But you will be all right.”  (p. 102)  

     The final section of the memoir is a reflection on the days of Richard’s dying and of the weeks that follow.  One of the most striking aspects of Jamison’s experience in this acutely lonely and painful time is her exquisite attunement to the movements of her own “unquiet mind.”  In Contemplative Psychology, Hans de Wit recognizes two basic elements of the great spiritual traditions, what he calls “the awareness and conceptual strategies.”  Through her life-long struggle with manic-depressive illness, Jamison had become an adept practitioner of the awareness strategy, and the concluding chapters of the memoir become a primer in this practice.

But my struggles with manic-depressive illness had taught me more than I knew.  I had a facility with extreme emotions and knew better than I would have liked how fast a mood can shift.  I assumed suffering to be an integral part of life.  My disease and my temperament, so beholden to each other, had taught me from the time I was young that contradictory and shifting moods were as real and meaningful as more settled, consistent ones.  I had no expectation that calm was anything but a transient state.  I knew, as well as I could know anything, that confusion and darkness inhabit lands next to light-filled and quiet ones.  (p. 179)

Immediately following Richard’s death, Jamison is acutely aware of the possibility of the arising of mania in her, a mania that could well be followed, following the days of the funeral and burial, by a falling into depression.  Anyone who has gone through the experience of the death and funeral of a loved one, followed by the ensuing days of absence, may recognize these tendencies.  Here, Jamison’s personal reflections become a universal call to proper vigilance and a careful response to the occurrence of shifting moods in such critical moments of life.  Grief, Jamison testifies, “is not a disease; it is necessary.” (p. 181)

     The experience of grief, for Jamison, teaches her that “to move forward I would have to imagine a life without Richard. . . . Reconstituting Richard and our relationship would mean reconstituting myself.” (p. 196) In The Transcendent Self, Adrian van Kaam speaks of the transition moments of life as transcendence crises.  The outcome of such a crisis is a new current form of life.  For Jamison the new current form of life has to be a life at once without Richard while, to some degree, one still pervaded by his presence.  Her way of imagining this new life was to write this memoir.

It is in our nature to want to hold on to love; it is grief’s blessing that we come to know that there are limits to our ability to do so.  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.  It would be about love and what love had brought, about death and what death had taken.  I would write that love continues, and that grief teaches .

I poured my heart into my writing, and when I walked on the beach at Big Sur Richard was with me there.  He was with me in the quietening of my mind.  Richard was with me in Big Sur, and he would be with me when I left Big Sur.  It would not be the journey we had reckoned on, but it was what we had.  We both were inclined to look yonder.  (pp. 202-3)

Copyright © 2007 [Resources in Spiritual Formation].

All rights reserved.

Last updated: 11/24/10.