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Reading about depression and manic depression is not simple or easy, especially for those whose lives have been touched by the devastation these disorders often bring.  Many of us choose to avoid topics that are controversial or painful to deal with.  Yet, there is something to be said for those willing to delve into complicated issues.  After all, becoming more aware is the first step to managing or accepting the most difficult struggles we face in life.  Professor of Mood Disorders and sufferer of manic depressive illness, Kay Redfield Jamison, spends much of her time learning, growing, and helping others face challenges they encounter due to mental health problems.  Her non-fiction text, Touched with Fire, is a well-written, intricately detailed  analysis and explanation about the emotional  and physical struggles faced by some of the most famous artists in history. In an intimate manner, Jamison conveys accounts of the lives, mental illnesses, addictions, and genealogies of a number of artists including Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway, and Vincent van Gogh.

Through the thorough examination of artists’ famous writings, diary entries, family trees, and personal writings from those close to those she discusses, Jamison dissects the history of disease.  The outcome gives a definition for mental illness with a focus on manic depression, descriptions of the misery, talents, and imagination experienced by the unfortunate victims of the disease, and examples showing repetitive experiences with mental illness among family members.

For those suffering from mental health issues, the text can be both disturbing and comforting.  Knowing that many of the world’s greatest artists suffered from debilitating conditions, yet were able to contribute immortal novels, poems, paintings, and symphonies to the world provides a sense of hope and belonging.  The idea that, “There is a greatly increased rate of depression, manic depressive illness, and suicide in eminent writers and artists,” implies that creativity may be a special talent of those living with mental illness (102).  Still, the charts, and quotations included in the text to back up Jamison’s ideas are admittedly unsettling.  It is sad to read that a person can be productive and well-liked, but they are never able to escape the demons inside.

Anyone loving or living with a person coping with a mental disorder often finds the emotions and experiences of friends and loved ones difficult to handle and impossible to comprehend.  Jamison clarifies what it means to feel something one cannot control with real-world insights from poetry to biographical details.  In doing so, the author provides information outsiders might not realize about the implications of mental illness.  As opposed to reading medical diagnoses, the text demonstrates people, circumstances, and feelings. While all the examples are telling, included in the text is a suicide note written by American artist Ralph Barton, explaining the plights of his life and why he can no longer bear to go on living:

“Everyone who has known me and who hears of this will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it.  Practically all of these hypotheses will be dramatic-and completely wrong.  Any sane doctor knows that the reasons for suicide are invariably psychopathological.  Difficulties in life merely precipitate the event-and the true suicide type manufactures his own difficulties.  I have had few real difficulties.  I have had, on the contrary, an exceptionally glamorous life-as lives go.  And I have had more than my share of affection and appreciation.  The most charming, intelligent, and important people I have known have liked me-and the list of my enemies is flattering to me.  I have always had excellent health.  But, since my early childhood, I have suffered with a melancholia, which, in the past five years, has begun to show definite symptoms of manic depressive insanity.  It has prevented me getting anything like the full value out of my talents, and, for the past three years, has made work a torture to do at all.  It has made it impossible for me to enjoy the simple pleasures in life that seem to get other people through.  I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself.  In doing so, I am very much afraid I have spread a good deal of unhappiness among the people who have loved me(42).”

Barton’s heartbreaking letter exhibits things most people evade or fail to understand about the mentally ill.  Despite increasing awareness, there is still a need for empathy among much of the world’s population. This book is an eye-opening contribution to society, supplying vital details of the lives of the revered that carry over to the lives of the millions enduring similar situations.

Touched with Fire illuminates and inspires.  It isn’t just an account of the lives of those with mental disorders, the words and accounts defend lives that are often times stigmatized and harshly judged.  If more people cared about the experiences of others and how they could help improve them, the world would be a more livable place.  Revealing the inner thoughts and emotions of one group of unlucky people is a good start.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

For more information:


An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon