Books: Coming out of the shadows

Monday, January 21, 2013 at 12:11am
By Maria Browning

Charlotte Pierce-Baker, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Vanderbilt University, begins the first chapter of This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son by noting that her son Mark was “a gorgeous newborn.” This might seem a bland way to begin a memoir about mental illness: what mother doesn’t find her newborn gorgeous? But that observation conveys the happy innocence of any parent before a terrible illness befalls her child, an innocence that, as Pierce-Baker explains, can make it difficult to grasp what is happening even as the signs of illness become increasingly clear.

Clues of something amiss that appeared in Mark’s teen years were dismissed by Pierce-Baker and her husband, Houston Baker (also a Vanderbilt professor), as ordinary adolescent acting out. After Mark, born in 1971, had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Los Angeles to attend the USC film school, they began to see his erratic behavior as pathological. In the years that followed, there were disappearances, violent episodes, substance abuse, arrests, and long spells of residential treatment for Mark. He also married twice and became a father. Throughout much of this time he wrote poetry, which Pierce-Baker includes in her memoir, thereby giving Mark a voice in the story. But This Fragile Life is very much Pierce-Baker’s own story, a highly personal account of a mother slowly coming to accept that her son’s life will always be constrained and challenged by mental illness, even as he remains the son she so loved as a beautiful newborn.

This Fragile Life is not Pierce-Baker’s first exploration in print of her private struggles. In Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (1999), she writes in detail about the 1981 invasion of the family’s Philadelphia home by two armed men. The entire family, including 10-year-old Mark, was held captive at gunpoint, and Pierce-Baker was raped repeatedly. In both books, she writes with frankness and insight, allowing readers to make a connection between her experience and their own. Prior to a public reading at Vanderbilt on Jan. 17, she answered questions from Chapter 16 by email;


In both Surviving the Silence and This Fragile Life, you write about traumatic experiences that must have been difficult to revisit. Did you discover things during the writing that surprised you? Did the act of writing transform your understanding of your experience?

As I wrote — over the years — I learned more about myself and about our son. When I had an insight from my time with my therapist, or from insights from books or articles I read, I tried to bring new knowledge into my understanding of violence and illness, and the seeming randomness of both. As I grew in knowledge about the illness and our son’s challenges, some recalled incidents were extremely difficult to process. When our family history became too difficult to “re-live,” or if knowing the history from only my perspective compromised my vow to temporal truthfulness and personal integrity, I left that part out of the manuscript. I did not try to squeeze the reality of our son’s story of illness into some overarching narrative in order to make me feel better or wiser about the past or the present, or the forever illness of our son. 


In the book, you describe some trouble Mark had as a child with night terrors. Do you think now that those incidents might have been very early signs of illness in his case? What is your general view of the risks versus rewards of evaluating young children and teens for potential psychological problems?

I do not think Mark’s night terrors were early signs of his illness. I tell the story of his growing years to indicate he was an ordinary baby and toddler. I tell what I consider “my” truths so that parents will, hopefully, understand that they should not rush for medicines or hastily diagnose what seems unusual. In the end, it may be simply an ordinary child’s behavior. I do not believe in medicating young ones unless the symptoms are so severe that there is no other option. Children have sleepless nights; they are often “hyper”; they sometimes have “night terrors.” I believe we should allow our children to be children. I am not a physician so I cannot speak to the medical side of the issues. My chronicle of our parenting of Mark is meant only to suggest that the days and lives of parents always bring the unexpected and unexplained. It is perhaps better to project as many possible good futures as we can for our children and to read incessantly about caring for them. When we are blindsided by horrific and unfortunate realities (as in our son’s first psychotic break), we are compelled to seek answers, and we do not discount the past. That is the inevitable and impossible parental dilemma. I am still working to be a better mother. 


You include quite a few of Mark’s poems in the book, and it’s clear that his writing has been essential to him throughout his life. Do you think there should be a greater emphasis on creativity in school curricula, if only because that kind of expression seems to promote psychological well-being?

We did not push Mark to become a writer — or to become creative in any way. He found his own sense of fulfillment and has always felt that writing and expressing himself — such as performing on stage — were desirable outlets. Our literary backgrounds were merely backdrops to his personal propensities. We have all enjoyed the sharing of writing. I do believe that creativity of many stamps is important in the school curricula. I am appalled that activities such as band, individual music lessons, drama, debate, and much more have been expunged from public-school curricula. Creative outlets promote self-worth.


Looking back, what help do you wish had been available for your family that wasn’t? What, if anything, would have made it possible to see the signs of Mark’s illness sooner? What support could have made things easier for you and your husband?

Looking back, I would have wanted available information. In 1996, no one in our circle of friends was willing to say, “Yes, I know this disorder. My family member is suffering with it. This is who you should call immediately.” We needed other parents/caregivers as supports. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) helped tremendously, but there were no ordinary, understanding people (for example, in the neighborhood) to talk with or to cry with. Today, I think we are beginning to come out of the shadows and out of our dark corners to talk openly with one another about mental illness. Shame/stigma/secrecy create silence. Silence can maim and kill. Knowing other sufferers would have helped tremendously. 


How do you think gender, race, and class shaped the evolution of Mark’s illness and treatment? What would have been different for him if he’d been white or female or the child of working-class parents?

Bipolar disorder crosses boundaries of race/class/nationality/gender/sexuality/ethnicity/ability. Bipolar disorder is global. As with any complication of “differences,” bipolar disorder often abutted Mark’s issues with his categorization as “African-American.” When Mark was compelled by his life situation to reside in public housing with his family, he suffered huge absence. There was a palpable lack, not only of dignified acknowledgment and respect, but also of treatment options. His resume is full of degrees from prestigious institutions, and he is gifted. However, to medical and health-care observers (and potential employers), he was nothing but a black guy living in public housing. He was, possibly, thought to be lethal. When Mark was jailed, he knew that if he had been other than African-American, he might have received attentive medical scrutiny. He might have received effective and immediate medical diagnosis and treatment. Since my husband and I are above middle class in our work lives, “class” has worked to our advantage. We have been able to afford hospitalizations, rehabilitation and recovery programs for Mark. We shall never stint on these for our son. But there are class, race and economic issues that constitute barriers to effective mental health programming in the U.S. I believe our society must find better ways to provide information, treatment and care to those who are not privileged. No one should have to suffer mental illness without treatment or succor.

For more local book coverage, as well as a longer version of this interview, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.