This Fragile Life: A Mother's Story of a Bipolar Son

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Charlotte Pierce-Baker did everything right when raising her son, providing not only emotional support but the best education possible. At age twenty-five, he was pursuing a postgraduate degree and seemingly in control of his life. She never imagined her high-achieving son would wind up handcuffed, dirty, and in jail.

            The moving story of an African American family facing the challenge of bipolar disorder, This Fragile Life provides insight into mental disorders as well as family dynamics. Pierce-Baker traces the evolution of her son’s illness and, in looking back, realizes she mistook warning signs for typical child and teen behavior. Hospitalizations, calls in the night, alcohol and drug relapses, pleas for money, and continuous disputes, her son’s journey was long, arduous, and almost fatal. This Fragile Life weaves a fascinating story of mental illness, race, family, the drive of African Americans to succeed, and a mother’s love for her son.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This Fragile Life is an extraordinary book. . . . compelling, piercing, and informative.” —Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of An Unquiet Mind


"[An] eloquent dialogue of mother and son, poetry and prose, sickness and healing,  fury and acceptance, fear and hope, life and death, and, foremost, author and reader." —Cathy N. Davidson, author of Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

"With brilliance and tremendous courage, Charlotte Pierce-Baker travels where no other autobiography about mental illness has gone before in terms of discussing issues of a family shattered by the bipolar disorder of their son: race, fear, love, loss and healing. This Fragile Life is a testament to a family forced to cope with mental illness, a unique journey and an emotional triumph. Every family affected with mental illness should read [this] magnificent book." —Andy Behrman, author of Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania

"Vigorously written, brave, and candid . . . a deeply moving, instructive account of embattled lives and loves striving for order in the face of a heartbreaking mental illness." —Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison and The Life of Langston Hughes

“An important book not to be missed by anyone interested in parenting, mental health, memoir, or African American social history. With this second memoir, Pierce-Baker again distinguishes herself as a writer fiercely capable of writing trauma transcended.” —Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone, award-winning songwriter, and essayist

"Illuminating and brilliant, with poetry and prose, mother and son lay bare the ravages of bipolar disorder and the journey toward growth and understanding. A touching, lyrical memoir."  —Jewell Parker Rhodes, award-winning author of Voodoo Dreams and Douglass' Women

“Charlotte Pierce-Baker has cleared the way for an earnest conversation about mental illness and addiction in the private lives of African Americans. This Fragile Life is a compelling read about a mother's love and determination, a father's compassion and support, and a son's road to recovery and wholeness.” —T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French, Vanderbilt University

"A dark narrative brightened by a devoted mother’s commitment and resilience in the face of an only child’s strange and terrible illness."  —Kirkus Reviews 

Kirkus Reviews
An African-American mother's frank account of coping with an adult son with bipolar disorder. Pierce-Baker (Women's and Gender Studies/Vanderbilt Univ.; Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape, 1998), who acknowledges that she was naïve about her son Mark's teenage behavioral issues, received a brutal education in bipolar disorder when he was in his 20s. At age 23 he went completely and frighteningly out of control on a family trip. She and her husband were disturbed by his rage and later by his evasions and constant requests for money, but they had no idea he was suffering from mental illness or that he had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. When he became paranoid, insisting that extraterrestrials were watching him, they arranged for a psychiatric evaluation. He received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and from then on his life took a steep downward turn. He dropped out of graduate school, his young marriage fell apart and his psychotic rages landed him in jail more than once. To tell her son's story, Pierce-Baker draws on her own journal of that time, on what she learned from her research and, most surprisingly, on her son's writings, including his poetry. It is a disheartening tale of trying to maintain contact with Mark, of bailing him out of jail and of searching desperately for treatment centers that would accept him. A stay at a center offering a 12-step program for alcoholics was a bad match, but he tried another center, worked seriously at rehabilitation and met the woman he would marry. A happy ending is not on offer, however, for Pierce-Baker is realistic about her son's needs and his chances of a fulfilling life. A dark narrative brightened by a devoted mother's commitment and resilience in the face of an only child's strange and terrible illness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781613741085
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 989,003
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of Washington, DC, Charlotte Pierce-Baker is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape.

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