A Woman Under the Influence

Mary MacLane's spectacular moods first fueled, then failed her

I, Madman, 1989

There comes a time when the way you are is not just the way you are, but also the way you might die. There arrives at that time a word for what you said or hoped was indescribable, a diagnosis for your lure. Always there were moods you had that others did not, moods that were your organizing principle. Now they become your undoing. You weren't wrong to think nobody else was like you. Not many people are. Almost nobody would want to be, and that's where—in your wilding moments—you were wrong. I was.

The numbers could also be wrong. If not, and if you're an adult in America, there is a two to five percent chance you have what is now called bipolar affective disorder (and I want B.A.D., an acronym that feels somehow bratty but also courteous, like a warning, to catch on). If you write for a living, multiply that chance by ten. Of course, you (or I) don't write only for a living, but also to live; you (well, I) believe writing is both a reason to keep doing so and the effect of doing it singularly. Then comes a time when writing is just another symptom.

Records of the human condition are often kept by its least reliable narrators. Consider the case study conducted by the American psychologist Nancy Andreasen and compiled in her 2005 book, The Creating Brain, for which she chose 15 authors from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, class of ’74. As the connections between one’s creativity and one’s psychiatric history, or diagnosis, began to light up, Andreasen’s group grew to 30; so did the control group. Over the next fifteen years of follow-up studies, two of the Iowa writers committed suicide. Nobody in the control group died.

In 1983, the psychologist Kay Jamison, herself bipolar, surveyed 47 British artists and writers and found that 38 percent had sought treatment for mood disorders — a percentage about 30 times the national average. Writers, according to writers, were suffering at a higher rate of breakdown, while among them poets had it worst of all: Half of those surveyed had been hospitalized for depression and/or mania. Poets, decided Jamison, had the most “creative fire.” At first, this seems a suspiciously convenient thing for poets to believe: It's better to burn, burn, burn than to pay the heating bill.

Still, there are few other explanations for the survival of poetry, which must feel like rubbing together sticks while other writers use barbecue lighters, blowtorches, barrels and barrels of oil. The poet, always having to prove she's not dead, must be more concerned with breaths and heartbeats and flickers of viscera than any other writer, and so, more than any other writer, it's the poet who remains our most stubbornly libidinal subject, at odds with the fleshless world, embodying at least one early, Freudian notion of bipolarity.

Whether a person is bipolar before being named as such is for structuralists to contest. After the diagnosis, certain erraticisms do cohere. Certain flaws get excused. Six close friends say they’d “always known it.” All we actually “know” is what studies say, and what studies say is that manic depression (as it was once known, and is still better described) gets diagnosed later in life than depression, in part because it's often misdiagnosed as the latter. For women, the first episode is typically depressive; for men, manic. Whether or not that divide collapses when gender norms do, doctors agree the first episode tends to occur before 25, and is easily confused with, well, being under 25.

Two years before Jamison’s study, Francesca Woodman, who is now considered a seminal proto-Cindy Sherman  photographer but was then just 22 and mostly unknown, jumped from a Lower East Side loft window to her death. It was a shock, not a surprise. In her system a switch had gotten stuck. Betsy Byrne, her best friend, wrote in 2011 that Woodman’s “ultimate conflict” was between a “strict American puritanical work ethic” (depression, surely) and a “pure Roman delight in life’s sybaritic pleasures” (sounds awfully like hypomania). In Marya Hornbacher’s 2008 memoir, Madness, Hornbacher recalls days of work so intense her friends resented her, then a night she drove 600 miles on a whim. Robert Lowell, self-lacerating after a 1959 manic attack, blamed himself for “all the Baudelairean vices, plus … stupidity.” Woodman, too, excoriated herself. “[Francesca] bounced from extremes,” wrote Byrne, “living very regimented in control or very recklessly out of control, and she berated herself mercilessly for the latter. I always thought that Francesca secretly longed for the conventional, a life of plain old day-in-and-day-out sameness and security — forget about the art, the constant self-doubt, loneliness, insecurity and obsessiveness inherent in the process that can overtake the life.”

Longing, unlike desire, conceals the need for dissatisfaction. What you long for you definitively can’t have. When what’s longed for is “sanity” or “conventionality” or “adulthood,” the mad one longs mostly, I think, to reassure herself that these “responsible” choices are not ones she can — nor can be expected to — make. “All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children… I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life,” said Anne Sexton, whose damnedest looked a lot like dancing the “Dying Swan” in a backyard filled not with balloons but with bottles, and who nonetheless had babies with someone named Alfred. “But,” she added, “one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”

You will be interested to know that nightmares happen overnight, and so too — so often — does the axis-bending turn in bipolarity. Woodman had early-onset, untenable extremes; she went out like a match.  More commonly, it’s as the early 20s turn to the late 20s that certain, amplified tendencies become wildly unlike delight. For most of us, when a time comes, it comes then.

* * *

In 1917, at age 36, Mary MacLane published the better and less read of her two memoirs, I, Mary MacLane. It had been a while. A decade and a half earlier, when she was 18 and unknown to her home town of Butte, Montana, let alone the world, she wrote a memoir in which nothing happens outside her febrile, arguably vile, indisputably brilliant mind. Published in 1902, when she was 21, The Story of Mary MacLane  was the phenomenon a century forgot.

This year, republished and restored to its original name, I Await The Devil’s Coming feels both proto- and anti-confessional: MacLane invented female self-expressionism, with its radicalized ego and racing nerve, and yet, faced with the nadiristic, nth-degree prospect of Marie Calloway's first book, What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life, I am sure she'd say “put on some fucking syntax.” (If you sold 100,000 copies of your diary in one month, you too would be a boss — and I do mean one hundred thousand copies. Of an unknown girl's diary. In one month. In 1902. Anyone still want to talk about Cat Marnell's book deal?)

I, Mary MacLane didn't change the game. Fifteen years of fame and infamy and reactive detachment, of moves to Manhattan and back to Butte, had amounted to near career suicide. MacLane had been writing her second book for several years, allegedly since her late 20s. Now she was in her middle 30s. In 1917, that was considerably older than it is in 2013. Her feminism, intellectual fervor, and active bisexuality were neither suppressed nor about to be socially accepted; she was still called the “wild woman of Butte.” And yet the older a wild woman gets, the more she's left to roam alone. Then as now, then as before, it’s wild girls who get all the good outrage.

“The egotism of youth is merciless, measureless, endlessly vulnerable,” writes MacLane from her “Neat Blue Chair” (her capitalization of certain signifiers is capricious, but the inconsistency works: that cocky “Me” separates ego from a self who knows better). “I have got by that stage of egotism. But I've entered on another wilder, more lawless — farther-seeing if less bevisioned.”

MacLane, with her weary clear-grey eyes, sees not only farther, but deeper, too. She can imagine the world almost well enough to empathize with its women in ways she could not when, as an 18-year-old #radfem, she considered herself infinitely more human than the mere persons around her. At 36 she doesn't think of herself any less, only differently. This diary of her days “may or it mayn't show also a type, a universal Eve-old woman,” she disclaims. “If it is so it is not my purport. I sing only the Ego and the individual.”

Later, there is an updated “About Me” page that makes my ribs feel like wishbones, and is worth quoting in one long breath:

"I am Mary MacLane: of no importance to the wide bright
world and dearly and damnably important to Me.
Face to face I look at Me with some hatred, with despair
and with great intentness.
I put Me in a crucible of my own making and set it in the
Caming trivial Inferno of my mind. And I assay thus:
I am rare — I am in some ways exquisite.
I am pagan within and without.
I am vain and shallow and false.
I’m like a leopard and I’m like a poet and I’m like a religieuse
and I’m like an outlaw.
I am strong, individual in my falseness: wavering, faint,
fanciful in my truth.
I am eternally self-conscious but sincere in it.
I am ultra-modern, very old-fashioned: savagely incongruous.
I am young, but not very young.
I am wistful — I am infamous.
In brief, I am a human being."

Compare this perfect self-elegy with the recursive boasting of I Await the Devil's Coming, in which MacLane declares herself a thief, a philosopher, a beauty, a fool, a woman from the age of 12, and above all, a genius. Not just any genius, either. She is by turns “a peculiar, rare genius,” “a genius in [her] own right,” and “a genius more than any genius who has ever lived.” The word “genius” is used 46 times in I Await.

In I, Mary MacLane the word “genius” occurs in one turn of phrase, used just twice. “There is no Cleverness in this I write,” she says (the capital C implying not clever, which is elsewhere uncapitalized and used differently, but something like pretentious). “There is writing skill and my dead-feeling genius.” Two hundred pages earlier, she'd ended said elegy with: “I am presciently and analytically egotistic, with some arresting dead-feeling genius. And were I not so tensely tiredly sane I would say that I am mad.”

At 36 it is too late to say she's mad, anyway. Were MacLane alive in the ‘70s or the ‘90s or now, it would have been said by her psychiatrists at 19 or at 21 or certainly by 27, when she had left cities and begun to keep diaries again. But in 1917, in Butte, Montana, much of the grandeur had gone from her madness, and the delusion from her genius, and maybe there was no genius without the delusion. But what a delusion! To claim the fatherly crown, whether deserved or not, is a radical and astounding act, and it happened a hundred and ten years before, say, Sheila Heti's “female genius” debate. There had never been as defiantly of-herself a heroine, or, as MacLane said in I Await, a not-heroine.

In I, Mary MacLane, the older, sadder “I” sees herself as a — not the — subject. She sees also the world. And yet — she can never quite reach it. The wider and brighter it becomes, the further she recedes, lapsing day after day into silent, solitary routines performed in plain black dresses. Today in her diary she is “oddly joyous.” Tomorrow all seems “a nasty life.” But always she dresses the same, as if exerting magisterial authority and control over moods she, at 19, described as “alternating periods of hope and despair,” of hunger for life and flirtation with death. Now her highs are “the flashing burning sparkling mad magic of being alive” and her lows “the cold and restless terror” accompanied by thoughts of death, of “death and destruction,” of “death and death and death everywhere.”

Here it is either that MacLane exaggerates her moods, or that her moods have grown huge and ungraspable, leaving her powerless to exaggerate her mind. Or, if not powerless, daily less desirous of what she'd most admired: strength. “I might say I prefer strength to weakness or weakness to strength,” she writes, nearing the end. “Neither would be true. What I prefer is a hellish hovering, an endless torturing Tenterhook between the two.” And then: “One reason it will be pleasant to be dead: I can then no longer Waver.”

* * *

The doctors tell B.A.D. girls to keep a “mood diary.” They use words like “document,” and “familiarize,” and “monitor.” And “manage.” I sigh: Do I have to? Isn’t this just, like, Twitter? And also impossible? (Ellen Forney in her graphic memoir of bipolarity, Marbles: “How could I keep track of my mind, with my own mind?” She almost doesn’t.) But slowly I learn to follow self-reportage like a script, eschewing a prescription, getting better by pretending to be more here, less here. I’m 25 and 26 and some days I’m fine, “asymptomatic.” Then I’m 27 and those days are fewer, then farther apart, and I dread the day after which no more days are fine.

In I, Mary MacLane, she writes to God and you know a time has come. There's no more externalized bipolarity than MacLane turning to heaven from the depths of a death-mood, just as, fifteen years earlier, she waited for the Devil on a high.

In that moment, when he finally arrives:

It feels as if sparks of fire and ice crystals ran riot in my veins with my blood; as if a thousand pinpoints pierced my flesh, and every other point a point of pleasure, and every other point a point of pain; as if my heart were laid to rest in a bed of velvet and cotton-wool but kept awake by sweet violin arias; as if milk and honey and the blossoms of the cherry flowed into my stomach and then vanished utterly; as if strange, beautiful worlds lay spread out before my eyes, alternately in dazzling light and complete darkness with chaotic rapidity...

This is genius but not mad, only the extremest poesis of manic lust. Even mild upswings make me feel invincible enough to love whoever can hurt me the most, and so, in the summer, I ride on the back of a motorcycle down Mulholland Drive. In the fall I climb onto the unprotected ledge of a hotel looming over the West Side Highway. Come winter I don't fuck with condoms, and by spring I’m forgetting not to say I love you.

But I’m older, a little. The light is less dazzling, only too bright, and the darkness doesn't rest. I stop counting fine days. I can act. As long as nobody asks if I’m okay, I’m okay, and at the same time, it can't be that bad, because who has ever accused me of being a poet.

When I am asked, I list exigent concerns: work, money, sanity. I don’t say the real fear is never again feeling love so high I’m sure nobody has ever felt it, or ever will. Now I am sure of nothing, not even Nothing.

“The passion-edged mood is burnt out,” wrote MacLane when her grey days began outnumbering, irreversibly, the violet and pink and blue days. “Gone, gone, gone.”

It is true some nights that when all the champagne turns to ash in my throat I think, flickeringly, I’ll never taste happiness again.

And I do not think it’s safe to walk home.

“As long as your creative fires burn, you are propelled forward,” opined the New York Times on Woodman’s life and death. This was in 2011, when a faintly soap-operatic documentary about her and her family, The Woodmans, came out. The movie prompted a significant revival of interest in Woodman, and of concern-trolling: “But if you are consuming yourself in the process, what is left when the fire begins to sputter?”

There are ways MacLane martyred herself on that artistic pyre. There is also a way in which, if the diary she wrote at 18 invented her life, the one she published at 36 tried to save it. It was her “mood diary,” only no doctor told her to keep it. Still, she could not be her own doctor and her own teacher, her own lover, her own sister, her own companion. Even at her clearest, Mary MacLane could not seem to find anyone with a humanness equal to hers, or to try.

But she knew they were out there, or, better yet, under there. “I'd like,” she wrote, “with breathless eagerness — to read the analyzed being just beneath my skin. Everybody — every human being — is wildly Real: radiant and desolate.”

That Mary MacLane could be wildly, really, truly of-herself, even while psychically divided against herself, makes her my personal genius. That she lived so long and only for-herself left her a solitary, middle-aged corpse in a Chicago rooming house, August 1929, cause of death unknown, or known only to those who've read her, and who are themselves a little too radiant, or too desolate, some days.