Intimate with madness, pioneering psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison learned to fear emotional excess. So she avoided passion and tried to hold love at bay. “Then,” she writes in her new memoir, Nothing Was the Same, “I met a man who upended my cautious stance toward life…. He prodded my resistance with grace and undermined my wariness with laughter.”
Jamison succumbed, and we follow suit. This is a finely told midlife love story, a romance as elegant as it is doomed. Before tragedy strikes, though, what a couple she and her husband, Richard Wyatt, made! We’re in the salutary presence of scientific royalty here—professional giants of mental health, all the more imposing for having overcome their own personal afflictions.
The 63-year-old Jamison, a psychologist specializing in manic-depressive illness and now co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, movingly described her own struggles with the disease in her 1995 memoir, An Unquiet Mind. She co-authored the leading academic textbook on manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder) and has written well-received books on exuberance, suicide, and the link between mood disorders and creativity.
Wyatt was no slouch either. An expert on schizophrenia, he served as chief of the neuropsychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1972 until his death in 2002. The couple traveled in elite circles, counting as friends Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, and Robert C. Gallo, the co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS.
To reach this pinnacle, Wyatt had to overcome a severe learning disorder that made reading and writing difficult. He also survived a diagnosis, at age 33, of stage IVB Hodgkin’s disease. As for Jamison, she had attempted suicide before regular doses of lithium finally reined in her mood disorder.
Some early conflicts notwithstanding, theirs was, in Jamison’s telling, a profoundly happy union. “His reserve was seductive,” she writes, “as was his intelligence…. He was catnip to women yet, savingly, largely oblivious to that fact.” Both partners had been married before, and Wyatt had three children with his first wife; citing privacy, Jamison elides those relationships.
Whatever their past entanglements, these two nudged each other in directions each needed to go. Jamison penetrated Wyatt’s reserve, urging him toward warmth. Wyatt persuaded Jamison to go public with her mood disorder. “Life was fun together,” Jamison writes simply and believably.
Their idyll, like most, could not last. The second decade of their nearly 20-year relationship (they married in 1994) was marred by Wyatt’s illnesses, which Jamison attributes to the aggressive radiation treatments he received for his Hodgkin’s disease. He would suffer, successively, from heart disease, lymphoma, and lung cancer. Throughout his ordeal, Wyatt received no-holds-barred medical care, including promising experimental treatments developed by a cadre of scientist friends—treatments which, Jamison estimates, granted her husband an extra year of life. It was much more than most cancer patients in the United States could hope for. It was also not nearly enough.
Jamison writes well, but her narrative choices can be puzzling. We start the book knowing its outcome. After the prologue, a chapter entitled “The Pleasure of His Company” whisks us straight to Wyatt’s hospital deathbed. The narrative then jumps around in time—reflecting, perhaps, the nonlinear workings of memory—before settling down to a more or less chronological recounting of Wyatt’s illnesses and their aftermath.
The memoir closes with Jamison’s struggle to cope with Wyatt’s death, and the message she seeks to impart: grief, however profound, is distinct from depression (though the former can certainly slide all too easily into the latter). “There is a sanity to grief, in its just proportion of emotion to cause, that madness does not have,” she writes. Wyatt’s death may have killed Jamison’s dreams about their future, but it did not derail her ability to dream.
Still, the recovery process was slow. “Life had to return inchmeal,” Jamison reports. “My heart could open up only small territories at a time.” Writing this memoir was her path back from grief, her way through it—and, finally, a means “to hold on to love.”
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. She previously reviewed September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years on AARP The Magazine Online.