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Image: Paul Gaugin, The Wave, 1888 (PD)

In the last few years Australian publishing has seen an increasing body of work by writers looking to illustrate what it is to live with an unruly mind. Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance addresses her history with disordered eating, Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped charts her post-natal depression, and Jenny Valentish’s Woman of Substances reports on the treatment of her own addiction in a misogynistic health system. In The Rapids (NewSouth Books), writer and critic Sam Twyford-Moore charts the history of bipolar disorder – a chronic mental illness characterised by strong changes in mood and energy, from depressive periods to manic or hypomanic episodes – from its diagnostic history, to portrayals in culture including literature and film, to present-day examples including in celebrities through digital media. There are, of course, two sides to manic depression (as Twyford-Moore prefers to refer to bipolar); while recent education and awareness campaigns around mental health have broadened the public’s understanding of depression, the upswings of mania remain largely misunderstood. The Rapids, then, seeks to correct this: not only as an exploration of ‘ways of looking at mania’ in cultural settings, but also a broader philosophical discussion around the ethics of mental illness. 

Mania, Twyford-Moore writes, is a public disease: ‘A private disease must be quietly endured on hospital beds and at home, whereas a public disease cannot be suppressed. It often spills onto the streets.’ The most interesting of portraits in this collection explore the ways we have come to see mania in the most public forum of all: online. The book opens with the story of Jason Russell, whose highly public breakdown at the height of his Kony 2012 campaign was published by the tabloid website TMZ; initially laughed at, and subsequently interrogated around the world. ‘For the manic depressive,’ Twyford-Moore writes, ‘once public, and in crisis, there is no option for self-control.’ 

While awareness campaigns have broadened the public’s understanding of depression, the upswings of mania remain largely misunderstood.

And of course there is Kanye West, whose mental health remains the subject of endless public debate – much of it incredibly harmful and irresponsible – and whose mania (which remained speculative until only recently) is live-streamed through his Twitter account for the rest of us to pick at like seagulls. From the outset, Twyford-Moore aims not to project or speculate, but to weave in his own experiences with mania with a dry self-deprecation: 

I do not claim to know the mental states of anyone I write about other than myself and, even then, I hardly know what’s going on in my mind. I do not speak for others. I barely speak for myself.

Twyford-Moore is a studious cultural critic across a breadth of forms, but this dark comedy prevents The Rapids from becoming overly bookish. From Saul Bellow to Paul Thomas Anderson, Twyford-Moore sees himself reflected, and in doing so addresses what it is to be manic. In throwing the spotlight back on the ways in which mania is seen in culture he confronts how we as humans treat each other. 

Where The Rapids succeeds most is in attempting to disentangle the burden of mania from its perceived advantages of creative output and endless energy. Twyford-Moore looks often to Carrie Fisher, the late actress who spoke often of her experience with bipolar, and includes this quote from the Author’s Note of Fisher’s memoir Wishful Drinking to capture the blame that society can throw with careless abandon:

One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls… At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina, and a lot more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

In this way, The Rapids often shifts between memoir and advocacy; ‘The history of the psychiatrically ill,’ he writes, ‘has been one of a dispossession of voice.’ The chapter ‘A short tour through the cultural history of manic depression’ looks deeply at the seminal work of Jay Redfield Jamison, whose books Manic Depressive Illness and Unquiet Mind have brought greater clarity to the disorder. Redfield Jamison, as both a psychologist and a sufferer of bipolar herself, has made a great contribution to our understanding of mania, and Twyford-Moore acknowledges her writing not only as an important addition to the world of medicine, but also as an incredible act of power: ‘Part of living with manic depression means fighting for its legitimacy’.

Where The Rapids succeeds most is in attempting to disentangle the burden of mania from its perceived advantages of creative output and endless energy.

Twyford-Moore does not shy away from the restricted ability to censor, despite seeing and recognising the hurt that goes with it, speaking of the ‘murky ongoing questions of ethics for those who encounter manic depression’. Mania, he writes, ‘is humiliating’. This moves both ways, like waves moving with and against the tide. Twyford-Moore points deliberately towards incidents within his own episodes of mania – breaking and entering, driving dangerously, thoughts of grandiosity, acts of aggression and rage towards those around him – these are presented not without regret, but also as a call and response in the ways his own mania has been seen, to those who answer these cries for help and those who ignore the illness behind the actions. I am reminded of a meme that keeps being shared among my peers online:

The importance of this validity can be found time and time again in our attitudes towards these public acts of mania. Twyford-Moore cites an incident in 2015 where Andrew Johns was removed from the Nine Network’s coverage of the NRL after a woman came forward alleging that the former Newcastle Knights captain had harassed her in an airport. Johns, reportedly heavily intoxicated at the time, has publicly spoken of his bipolar since 2007. Twyford-Moore writes:

What I wanted to say on the night the news broke was something about what it means in practical terms for someone who grapples with mania: if I drink, I drink a lot. If I want to have sex, I want to have sex a lot. If I get angry, I get really fucking mad. If I get sad, I can’t get out of bed. If I get happy, I may very well end up stealing your car and driving it across state lines.

Twyford-Moore does not shy away from the ‘murky ongoing questions of ethics for those who encounter manic depression’.

Twyford-Moore appears to deliberately draw upon a polarising example of the effects of mania to further tease out the ethics of its results, and the ways in which the public portray it, in all its messy morality. In publishing and discussing acts of mania without adherence to guidelines for responsible reportage of mental illness, the media perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and incite harm. Like Kanye West’s tweets or his recent political ​decisions, Johns’ actions on the night in question require more analysis than tabloid media allows for. ‘Psychological illnesses of this kind’, Twyford-Moore writes, ‘are hard to explain, hard to excuse, hard to parse, just plain hardcore.’

The height of mania, Twyford-Moore writes, is an amplification of the senses; ‘Noises, smells and the general presence of others are enough to set you off.’ This speaks to the form of The Rapids: short, sharp paragraphs in a collage, an homage to Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation – besides which, he writes, ‘this is how my mind works most of the time’. But it also carries meaning to the reader: first as a signifier to the author’s state of mind, but also to Twyford-Moore’s capacity to consume. At first glance it may seem a distraction, but in reading further it becomes clear that there is a voraciousness to the way in which Twyford-Moore appreciates all forms of culture, from the literary and cinematic to the popular. ‘Music seeps into your ears with more clarity and assumed meaning’, he writes. ‘So there were soundtracks to my manias – songs which I would listen to over and over again – which I believed spoke directly to me. It’s like being a teenager again.’

It’s a sentiment that also feels true of Twyford-Moore’s devouring of the work of film director Paul Thomas Anderson, of poet Robert Lowell, and of writer and actor Spalding Gray, all of whom are interwoven throughout The Rapids. Their work, as well as their relationship to mania, ebb and flow, as does Twyford-Moore’s own.

Towards the end of The Rapids Twyford-Moore speaks of the tattoo he got during his second sustained manic episode. The image, described as ‘A definition of now’ by the Amsterdam design collective metahaven, appears in a noughts-and-crosses pattern where LOL and SOS are overlaid across each other. It remains perpetually unclear which is more prominent. In the words of Carrie Fisher’s most quoted line: ‘If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that’s unacceptable.’ But as Twyford-Moore writes, every episode has its clean-up: ‘A reckoning with this self, and what one has done, must take place to get things back in order, and it’s very hard not to fall into a depression when surveying the damage.’ LOL/SOS might just be the perfect image for manic depression.

The Rapids is an important cultural history of a mental illness misunderstood and often misrepresented, and an incredibly necessary book about mental health. It is also a compelling work of cultural criticism, with a particularly pioneering view of celebrity culture in a digital age. The Rapids is the story of a writer making sense of mania, the world, and mania within the world. It is innovative, intelligent and sensitive; an important work of criticism, and a critical work of importance.

The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania is available now at Readings.