by Danielle Ofri
Review of “Nothing was the Same” by Kay Redfield Jamison
The inner faces of the book cover of “Nothing was the Same” are imprinted with some of the letters between Kay Redfield Jamison and her husband Richard Wyatt. These letters—one typed on Dallas hotel stationery, another scrawled on UCLA progress-note paper—offer primary-source data of what the book sets out to describe—the intense love between two passionate, intelligent people. In some ways, these letters are the most gripping parts of the book, because we see the love in true “show don’t tell” style.
“Nothing was the Same” recounts the marriage between Jamison—a psychologist specializing in bipolar disorder—and Wyatt—a psychiatrist-researcher focused on schizophrenia. To fully understand the backdrop of the book, though, one needs to have read Jamison’s magnum opus “An Unquiet Mind.” This memoir, of her being a patient with bipolar disorder, as well as a clinician who studies and treats bipolar disorder is a remarkable journey into the belly of the beast.
In “Nothing was the Same,” Jamison refers frequently to her “madness,” how Wyatt helped keep it in check, how he steadied her during her mood swings. But the mere telling of this pales in emotional force compared to the frighteningly palpable experiences rendered in “An Unquiet Mind.”
Similarly, the telling of the passionate love between Jamison and Wyatt is nowhere near as resonant an experience as the reading of the epistolary yearnings that literally bookend this memoir.
Wyatt was diagnosed with advanced, metastatic Hodgkin’s Disease at age 33, ten years before he married Jamison. In the early 1970s, this was a universally fatal disease, but Wyatt underwent experimental treatment with massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy. His disease was cured—“a secular miracle,” Wyatt termed it.
During the thirty years that followed his treatment, the insidious effects of the treatment, especially the radiation, became apparent. First Wyatt developed severe radiation-associated coronary disease. Then it was an aggressive lymphoma. Another secular miracle of medical science transpired, and Wyatt recovered. Six months later, though, lung cancer developed—bilateral, metastatic, inoperable.
“Nothing was the Same” chronicles Wyatt’s death, and Jamison’s emotional struggles before, during, and after. Many people have written about the pain of loss, but what is unique here is Jamison’s probing into the effect of grief on the mind, and the insights it sheds on mental illness. This, to me, was the most intriguing part of the book.
Jamison rightfully worries about losing her mind, about grief pushing her into mania and collapsing her already strained life. Many have said that “grief is a type of madness.” As a now-veteran denizen of both worlds, Jamison disagrees. “There is a sanity to grief,” she writes. “Grief…is a generative and human thing.”
“When I knew grief, I knew in an odd way and for the first time how very sick I had been when mad. It was the difference between a confused mind and a delirious one, between agonal sadness and a knife across the carotid.”
Jamison’s pain, as she wrestles with the loss of her friend, lover, mentor, and avid supporter, is palpable. While this book will be appreciated by a wide audience, it will resonate most with those who have lost a loved one, who understand on a visceral level that after such a loss, nothing is ever the same.
(from The Lancet)