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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This Fragile Life
A Mother's Story of a Bipolar Son
By Charlotte Pierce-Baker
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Charlotte Pierce-Baker
All rights reserved.
early and middle years
MARK WAS A GORGEOUS NEWBORN. Everyone thought so: our friends, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles — even our next-door neighbors. He was a C-section baby and had not one wrinkle on his smooth brown body. Only a frown creased his brow, as if he had a premonition of his future. Mark was a quiet, amiable baby, easily amused that winter of 1971. My husband and I loved to exchange Mark stories at the end of a day. "You'll never guess what he did today!" I would say. Small baby miracles, cooing or reaching for dangling earrings, comprised our love-struck conversations during Mark's first year. Friends who had not yet started families took delight in the development of our son. During Mark's early years, my days were dedicated only to him; I was a stay-at-home mom. If I close my eyes and conjure up that time, I can still see Mark's broad, toothless grin as I nuzzled his tummy with kisses while changing his diaper. His belly laughs, when he was really tickled, made me smile at the sound of sheer joy. Since Houston was a university professor with a flexible schedule, he and I took turns with Mark's diaper changes and stroller walks. In fact, Mark delighted in his father's bathing rituals. There were continuous splashes and giggles amidst Houston's imitated animal sounds, which accompanied his fantasy stories at bath time.
Toward the end of his first year, our wonderful, happy baby, for no apparent reason, began to have night terrors. Out of a deep sleep he would begin to whimper, then cry and scream with his eyes wide open. Running into his room with Houston at my heels, I realized that Mark was still asleep but in severe distress. With trial and error, we found that gently calling his name and rocking him under bright lights soothed him into wakefulness. We learned to wait for the big smile to overtake his face, and then all was right again. Mark seemed to have no memory of the previous shattering moments; he was quick to be comforted. When we mentioned this to our pediatrician, he assured us that many babies had these random unaccounted-for occurrences. I told myself that Mark was having delayed separation anxiety because he'd had to leave the security of the womb. A silly explanation, but it appeased me.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, his birthplace, Mark continued his mostly easygoing babyhood. Charlottesville is a small town with an exquisitely beautiful university campus nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Nevertheless, in the early 1970s, this idyllic southern town remained predominately white. Friends and family suggested that opportunities for a growing African American child would be greater elsewhere, but Houston and I decided to remain a few more years where we were. We were content.
Then an unexpected incident happened when Mark was almost three. He was refused admission to a highly recommended daycare center. By telephone, the daycare center director told me there was "definitely a vacancy" for our son at her facility in town, adding, "We certainly need more boys!" I made an appointment for the next day.
When Mark and I arrived at the daycare center, it was naptime. The director peered through the screen door, looked me over, and then told me I was mistaken about having an appointment. In a clipped, pseudo-businesslike tone, she said there were no vacancies, that enrollment for the fall was complete. "But yesterday you told me you needed more boys," I said. I asked her to let us in since she had not opened the door in any gesture of welcome. Grudgingly, she complied.
Children were getting out their blankets and sleeping bags, and Mark began to wiggle excitedly when he saw the other children. Looking around the room filled entirely with white children, I asked her, "By the way, do you have any black children enrolled?"
At my inquiry, the director began to blink uncomfortably and replied in a whispered voice, "It's not me, you understand. I have no problem. It's what my other mothers would say if I let you in."
I felt like I had been slapped. I quickly replied, "It is your problem." Livid, trying to make my way to the door, stumbling over cots and sleeping bags, I pulled Mark away from the toys and preschoolers, saying sternly, "We have to go now."
Not wanting to leave, Mark began to scream like a headstrong toddler torn away from fun. "No, no, no!" he yelled, tears streaming.
The director put out her hands to console him; I snatched Mark out of her reach and with clenched teeth warned, "Do not touch my son!"
I barely made it out the door before tears blinded me. Mark continued to sniffle while we were in the car, and I promised we would find another playgroup. "This one is already full of children, sweetheart," I explained. "No more can get in." I cried quietly all the way home.
Houston and I were devastated. Mark could not possibly understand racial differences and their complications; we wondered why children, so early, had to suffer the problems of grown-ups. We made phone calls to neighbors and other parents to report the preschool encounter. They were appalled that race discrimination could happen in a university community. But a few days later, I overheard a departmental secretary at the university whisper loudly to another worker, "There are daycare centers for blacks in town." We reported the incident to local newspapers, but nothing came of it except a few embarrassed phone calls from other daycare centers offering to welcome our son.
Much later, when Mark became ill with bipolar disorder, his identity as an African American man would become the focus of his self-doubt, alienation, and, ultimately, his paranoia. At the time of the daycare incident, our family knew nothing about what the future would bring; we hoped he would never face this kind of prejudice again.
After experiencing daycare discrimination, I decided to set up playdates in our home for some of the children of other mothers associated with the university. They had also faced similar daycare problems. Four of us formed a playgroup. We exchanged days and rotated on and off as babysitters so that each of us would have time alone for errands, knowing our children were cared for.
Shortly thereafter, Houston and I left Charlottesville for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mark was three and a half. In an urban center, we hoped there would be a better choice of schools for Mark and a range of playmates in mixed-race neighborhoods. Houston accepted a professorship in the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, and I enrolled in graduate school at Temple University. The three of us settled into our row house just west of the center of town. The only difficulty Mark seemed to have was learning to walk in sneakers on concrete. In Charlottesville, he had preferred bare feet; the house was surrounded by grass.
We had lived in Philadelphia for about a year when Mark began to sleepwalk. Still asleep, with no distress and with his eyes open, he would walk right by us, saying he was "going bowling" or "going to visit my friend." His wanderings led us to put an inside security lock on the front door, lest we lose our child to the night. Since no how-to manual accompanies birthing and child rearing, we were always observant as our son grew and changed. Within the year, the nighttime walking ceased as abruptly as it began.
As a toddler, Mark loved gazing at clouds, finding meaning in their shapes. He was carefree, a watcher absorbing his surroundings. Mark was an inquisitive child with early and charming idiosyncrasies. He was, as his father still refers to the young Mark, a "honey of a child." He sensed the emotions of others. He had an unusual ability to discern the intricacies of personality. He knew whom he liked and whom he did not. On one occasion, much to our embarrassment, he told a dinner guest to his face, "I don't like you. I really don't like you." There was silence all around.
Later, I explained that if he ever felt that way again, he should tell me in private because "those words can make someone feel very bad." In that instance, however, Mark was on target; we later discovered that the man he did not like was someone who, indeed, could not be trusted. Even today, as an adult, I have confidence in Mark's measure of a man or woman. He was not wrong then, and he is seldom wrong now.
As Houston and I settled into Philadelphia, we found what we hoped would be the ideal prekindergarten for Mark; it was a version of today's charter school. It was a liberal 1970s project, boasting in its brochure a comfortable mixture of white and black children from various neighborhoods in Philadelphia. It was located in the university neighborhood near Houston's new workplace, so delivering Mark to school in the mornings would be easy. The profile of the preschool fit our idea of the perfect place for our son to continue his early learning.
We soon realized, however, that most of the black children in the center were scholarship kids, sponsored by city organizations. Most of the white children lived near the University of Pennsylvania in a middle-class area and were not on scholarship. On one particular afternoon, as I helped Mark pack up his belongings, his teacher, who was African American, casually informed me that Mark was the only black child in the preschool class whose parents were professionally employed. I wondered about the intent of her utterance. Days later, in an uncomfortable parent-teacher conference, she informed me that Mark was a "disturbance to the learning environment. He is too talkative. He answers too many of my questions. He doesn't give others a chance," she explained in her overly articulated English.
In her opinion, Mark had been privileged in his learning, and he set the bar too high for the classroom. Her solution was to have Mark sit quietly in the corner, and he did so repeatedly, a signal to the other children that he had misbehaved. I was furious at her silencing of our son. I started dropping in unannounced to see how Mark was being treated. During one such visit, I witnessed three of his classmates marching the stairs to a childish chant, "Mark is a bad boy. Mark is a bad boy." They pointed at him and giggled. Neither the children nor the teacher knew I was watching. Perhaps this teacher felt we were "slumming" by enrolling our black child in the center. In fact, we were trying to find a place of comfort for Mark where he would learn about both worlds in which he lived.
Soon after, out of the blue, Mark came home begging for a haircut. "But you don't need a haircut," I chimed. "Your hair is easy for you to brush just the way it is." Mark's hair formed a circle of soft curls about his face. I asked the teacher at school about his repeated request for us to cut his hair. His teacher, of a darker complexion than either Mark or me, and with hot-combed and tightly styled hair, told me that the other boys (meaning the other black boys) had clearly defined parts in their hair, and Mark did not. The teacher thought that Mark's hair did not fit in with the styles of the other boys, and she had somehow persuaded Mark that it was wrong to wear his hair curly and long. Now he wanted to be like the other children. I was dumbstruck by the teacher's rigidity. I had no answer for this woman in whose care I had placed our son.
At that moment, I resolved to find another place for Mark. This proved difficult. In other prekindergarten classrooms we tried, teachers suggested Mark would be even more ostracized entering a school group late, and, furthermore, Mark did not want to leave his new friends at the center. Unhappily, we kept our son where he was, and we took him to a black barber for a very short haircut. Every morning, he and I brushed his hair, trying to create a decisive part. Mark, as it turned out, had not matched the liberal school's profile of a black kid from the surrounding, low-income neighborhood. He was, seemingly, too different even for a preschool that claimed to enroll a mixture of racial groups.
The following year, Houston and I visited a number of independent schools in Philadelphia and finally chose to register Mark as a kindergartner at Germantown Friends School (GFS), a primary and secondary school with impressive academic requirements and a history of fair treatment toward children of color. When we visited, we loved seeing the children display their independence and enjoy taking part in their own day-to-day decision making. We saw one little boy, about seven or eight years old, wandering around with a violin strapped across his shoulder. We asked if he was lost, and he responded, "Oh no, I just stopped to see my kindergarten teacher. I'm on my way to my violin lesson." Houston and I appreciated that the school chose to maintain its campus in the Germantown section of Philadelphia amidst a large, long-standing African American population. Learning to read, to share, and to play were the only goals of the kindergarten year at GFS, and Mark accomplished these happily. The highlight of his kindergarten year was his teacher, Mrs. Workman, who seemed to cast magic for all of her students. Mark's second African American teacher in just a few years, she was a striking and positive contrast to his preschool teacher. Mrs. Workman was calm and respectful toward Mark and all his classmates. Their opinions and preferences mattered to her.
By his third-grade year, Mark and I began having regular afternoon talks about his classes at school. I was no longer exclusively a stay-at-home mom, but I could carve out time in the middle of the day because I was a graduate student with some flexibility. Mark and I stretched out on the living-room rug, and he regaled me with stories about the kid whose "frog had the hiccups" or his teacher, who shook his hand at the end of every day. "She shook my hand, and she patted me on the back," he said once. "All because I had a good spelling test." He was delighted at the special attention. During these after-school moments, Mark and I added friendship to our mother-son relationship.
One day during one of our check-ins, I asked, "So, how was school today?"
Broadly smiling with third-grade confidence, Mark replied, "I tried out for the school talent show today."
Curious, since I had not known of a talent show, I wondered what performance our son gave. "So what did you do, sweetheart?" I asked, thinking he had recited a poem or sung a school song.
"I played the piano," he jauntily replied, chomping on a peanut butter sandwich. Puzzled by his nonchalance, I inquired further; Mark had never taken formal lessons for the piano. He explained, "You know. I played the piece you taught me." I blushed to think what I had actually taught him: "Chopsticks." He had become quite good at it. Surely, however, his rendition of "Chopsticks" was not suitable competition for his schoolmates at Germantown Friends. But Mark was afforded his fifteen minutes of fame. The next evening, he told us he had not made the second cut at tryouts; he would not be on the final program. "But that's OK," he said. "I'll try next year. Everybody couldn't make it." Many years later, this was the confident Mark I remembered during the long nights when I cried and wished for his wellness.
HOUSTON AND I HAD ALWAYS planned for Mark to spend some years in public school so that he would experience differences of race and privilege not always found in a private school setting. For Mark's middle school, we chose a public school nearby. Both Houston and I had attended public schools during childhood; we believed Mark would benefit as well. We felt confident that we had given our son a good start at Germantown Friends for his early years. We discussed with Mark the change from private to public, and after a few days of deliberation, he accepted our proposal. He already had several friends at neighborhood schools. His transition happened easily. Mark excelled in his academic subjects and earned a spot on the Junior Honor Roll his first year at Plymouth Whitemarsh Middle School. The following year, we bought a home a few blocks away, and Mark had to change schools. At Wissahickon Middle School, he trained hard at track and became what his friends called a "track star." He won medals in the 70-meter dash and the 800-meter relay. Popularity was a new experience. He seemed happy.
About this same time, the telephone became Mark's bodily extension. Track friends called, and together they spent inordinate amounts of time deciding small details, such as which runner "absolutely, positively needed to pass the baton smoothly in the next relay." Girl-calls, with Mark saying very little, became a ritual of the evening, with an appreciative increase on weekends. Preadolescence had arrived. Our long after-school talks in the living room became a thing of the past; I discovered I had been replaced by the continuously ringing telephone. Houston and I gradually became accustomed to making numerous trips to the mall, especially on Saturday evenings, and waiting for the final pick-up request at 11:00 PM, as close to mall closing as possible. When Mark later became ill with bipolar disorder, I wished for those mellow Saturday evenings of driving carpool. I wished for a son whose only transgressions were overusing the telephone or staying out beyond the curfew hour. I would have given anything to hear again the joyous, carefree laughter of Mark's middle school years.
Excerpted from This Fragile Life by Charlotte Pierce-Baker. Copyright © 2012 Charlotte Pierce-Baker. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Early and Middle Years,
Illness Made Manifest,
A Father's Return,
Madness on Vacation,
Struggling to Heal,
Looking for Work,
The Family Falters,
Alone in Philadelphia,
A Change of Plans,
Jobs, Career, and Family,
Reflections on Writing,
Atlanta Book Trip,
What People are Saying About This
"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