Review | Kay Redfield Jamison’s latest is a gift for those struggling with psychic pain

Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Fires in the Dark” is not a book for the lazy or the linear-minded. It is a cultural history of mental healing and healers, impressively researched and broad in scope. It is often fascinating and sometimes exquisite. But it can also leave you with your head spinning, wondering why you can’t keep up.

Jamison, an acclaimed author and an expert in mood disorders who teaches at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, traces rituals, practices and philosophies of healing across countries, continents and millennia. She travels back to Neanderthal caves and to the healing temples of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians; to the bucolic grounds of Scotland’s Craiglockhart War Hospital for shellshocked World War I officers; to Moscow with the “wounded healer” Paul Robeson; to Paris, as Notre Dame is restored after an almost-fatal night of flames. And then she lands on the Chesapeake Bay.

Late in the book, after a scene-setting quote from explorer Captain John Smith (of the Jamestown colony, circa 1608) “As for your feares that I will lose my selfe in these unknown large waters, or to be swallowed up in some stormie gust … there is as much danger to returne, as to proceede” — Jamison’s historical journey takes a sharp autobiographical turn. “Most of us have home waters, a bay or river, a sea, to which we return in fact or longing,” she writes; the “restless and various” Chesapeake, with the “irregularity” of its geography, “its incomprehensibility, its dotting of coves and islands,” has, since childhood, been the place where her mind has always been “at home.”

And that makes everything clear.

Fires in the Dark is not meant to be read as a memoir. But it reads best if you think of it as one: a companion volume to Jamison’s landmark book “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness” (1995)and, with its wide selection of the literary, philosophical, theological and historical voices that have shaped Jamison’s consciousness over the past 70 years, a topological map of her sometimes overflowing “restless and various” mind.

Jamison entered unknown, potentially treacherous waters when she published “An Unquiet Mind.” There was no mental health TikTok. Celebrities weren’t yet discussing their addictions. Mental illness was highly stigmatized. Even as a mental health professional — especially as a mental health professional — admitting to having manic-depressive illness (Jamison finds the term more evocative than today’s “bipolar disorder”) could very well have spelled professional disaster.

We have come a long way since then. In “Fires in the Dark,” Jamison circles back. And takes care of unfinished business.

An Unquiet Mind was, in many ways, a paean to lithium, the medication that saved Jamison’s life and restored her ability to work, think, sleep and otherwise function. Yet medication-induced healing was for her, as for many, a deeply unsatisfying thing: dreary, monochromatic and, above all, incomplete. In “Fires in the Dark,” she demonstrates how to bring the colors back in. Psychotherapy — good psychotherapy — plays a central role; it’s what allowed Jamison, once returned to “sanity” by lithium, to learn to live among those slower and divorced from the sublime, “to reconcile the glory of having reached for the stars with a more anchored, less splendid world,” as she puts it. Music does this, too, as does art, great literature — whatever can spark transcendence, religious or secular.

There’s also work — compelling and absorbing activity — to distract the mind from rumination. And there’s love; but love writ large, to include friendship, loving kindness and even the therapeutic relationship. In “An Unquiet Mind,” Jamison wrote of finding a life-renewing relationship with her doctor. In her new book, there is the high school English teacher who gave her his own copies of books by the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon and his wartime psychotherapist, W.H.R. Rivers, sensing that their “courage and determination” would lift her spirits when she was severely depressed. She describes Sassoon mentoring the shellshocked younger poet Wilfred Owen, walking and talking through the protected paths of Craiglockhart. (Owen’s psychiatrist, A.J. Brock, liked his patients to work in pairs, “acting as one another’s doctors.”) There are other individual accounts of wounded warriors and “wounded healers”: Sir William Osler, the great physician who lost his only son on the Western Front of World War I; Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps to write “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Jamison is a beautiful writer, with a vast store of knowledge. (And, though it’s not her stated purpose, an ability to make the case for why the humanities matter in a way that is deeper and more emotionally resonant than anything I’ve seen before.) Her book contains a blueprint for finding a way out of darkness — a great gift for anyone who sometimes struggles to overcome psychic pain. But it would have benefited from a clearer narrative through-line. For while there are some exquisite moments, the book’s power is undermined by problems of pacing. There’s too much accumulation of detail, too much repetition, a feeling at times that Jamison couldn’t decide which form of a phrase was the best and so, having tried out many, kept them all. And there are too many long digressions that suddenly end in hastily made conclusions.

Psychotherapy, Jamison writes, can be a means of “giving order to a chaotic personal universe.” Great editing can do that, too.

Judith Warner’s most recent book is “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School.”

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