“Manic: A Memoir” by Terri Cheney is a wild novelistic trip through dramatic Hollywood events by a woman we envision to be a fabulous blonde, a hapless Marilyn Monroe. When you go to YouTube and look for video of her, you find a bony red-head with an ear-to-ear mouth that has a little gap in the front top teeth. Hardly any makeup, a politician’s suit and scarf, and a lawyer’s demeanor. Privileged, she had a Corvette given her at age sixteen (now a Porsche -- she got the message: “you are what your drive.”) and graduated from Vassar, where she was an English major, before law school in LA and employment in the entertainment biz. (Big names mentioned here. The kind whose cases require battalions of lawyers.)
Her writing is sensational, but very workshop -- meaning things like socko first lines for each chapter: “I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to Santa Fe to kill myself.” It’s skillful. She works “closely” with her agent and publisher -- that means she’s writing to sell. And it worked. “The Dark Side of Innocence” is a childhood version of the biopolar dilemma, her second book. I’ll look for it. She and her publisher, William Morrow, are working ALL the publicity venues: social internet, book tours, interviews, vids. conferences, and short pieces about pop subjects. (Insanity is very popular). She seems to be a kind of Joan Didion Lite with overtones of Joyce Carol Oates. (I can hear Tim snorting now. He hates this thing of explaining one writer by invoking another. SHE says she’s into Austen and Fitzgerald. Very trendy.)
It appears that even though her writing implies out-of-control movie-star bad behavior, the kind of excessiveness we as a culture perversely define as privilege and genius, she is in her daily life usually quite circumspect and puts a lot of energy into local groups that work hard to educate and reform the managing of people struggling with manic-depression. She gets kids with manic-depression to write as therapy
Her background in law must be helpful and she herself considers it essential preparation for being a writer, though she does not write in a straight narrative line -- each chapter in “Manic” is a stand-alone piece, some of which were written without any relationship to each other at different times. She points out that this fits with being manic-depressive, a term she prefers to bipolar. She feels that being politically correct is a way to dodge the real issues. I agree.
I found it interesting that she was from New England. When I did my ministerial internship in Hartford, Connecticut, the social worker whose home I stayed in (with twenty cats, which I thought was a good thing) took me out to the local cemetery to show me the graves of young men who, like her son, had struggled with manic-depression and schizophrenia. But her son persisted against the odds and finally got his mood-swings under control. (Until then he bought a racy red sportscar every spring and headed over the horizon, obliging his mother to track him down and return the car, which he couldn’t afford.) Clearly this is a phenomenon that is related to the environment, that is organic as much as emotional, and that can be deadly.
But it’s so dramatic and the manic phase is so productive and enticing that people get pulled into the glamour of it all and pretty soon they are enabling -- maybe even marrying these jet-propelled characters. The down side comes hard. That’s when you need a good lawyer.
But not every irresponsible immature character is manic-depressive, though it makes a good defense, an excuse really. Of course it is hoped that the organic functional origins of this burn-high/burn-low brain will be found soon. It seems not to have anything to do with intelligence per se, though it interferes with judgment. This author was forced into therapy (not a prob in LA) and then into a spa-type hospital. Finally electroconvulsive shock treatment that after eight sessions threw her into suicide again and that turned out to be have been supervised by a doc arrested for very bad behavior. She lost a lot of memory.
We might not even read this stuff if it weren’t so entwined with class, education, achievement, sexiness, fine clothes and all the other cultural markers of success that have persisted since Victorian England. (They don’t call it “Victoria’s Secret” for nothing.) Going manic at Esalen, “mixed state” at Big Sur -- soooo exciting. Although no one I know except therapists from Saskatoon ever goes to Esalen anymore. There are some good thoughts in here, though the book is FAR from being either an medical account of the problem or a checklist of what to do about it. One is this “mixed-state” business: it turns out that "bipolar" is not just a euphemism but also a distortion of a range of states along a continuum.
Another interesting and cultural point is that the author’s first line of defense was being “beautiful.” Everything is beautiful at the ballet, right? Maintain that facade of lovely manners, perfect grooming, and elegant house -- in a society that judges by appearance, “faultlessness” and “perfection,” and what she describes as an obsession with high-end flowers -- and few will challenge what’s under it. But we all know about the wormy corruption at the heart of fame and fortune. The crowd loves it.
If I were this woman’s psychoanalyst I would go straight for her parents, to whom she dedicates the book. Her mother instructs her that a lady never scratches an itch and her father sets her up for electroshock conditioning to treat what is the most out-of-control bulimia I have ever heard described. (Her mother never kept enough food on hand so she ate her way through the spice rack.) In college (Vassar, remember) she rumbled the garbage dropboxes, reinforced by the risk and repellence. Therapists would be very interested in her first months and years of life with two such narcissistic over-controllers. Such extreme people get built into an infant’s brain. Cheney seems to have no consciousness of these forces. She’s a pill-popper with sex on the side. Maybe she’s saving the psych stuff for a later book.
This is a fast and exciting read, like the incidents it describes. I don’t trust this woman. She hasn’t gotten to the bottom of it yet. But there are lots of video interviews of her on YouTube and they’re pretty interesting. See for yourself.