When a mother listens to the beats of her own heart, where angst, fear and fortitude compete, and then beautifully weaves emotion into a story about her ongoing journey to support a bipolar son, then you know something significant has happened in African American literature. At least I did, when I read Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s insightful memoir, This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son (Lawrence Hill Books, 2012).
But what I didn’t know is why Pierce-Baker would “go there” again. I mean, she has already, once before, “gone there,” when she mined personal pain to write about trauma and black women’s narratives of rape. Yet, when I reflect on a line from her son’s poetry, which is what knits the narrative together, I understand. Her son Mark writes: “When mom is gone nothing is right and everything is wrong/A joke is not a joke, and the birds don’t sing their song.” The power of this book for me is that a mother has created a literary space for her son, a black man living with mental illness, to sing about being a father, a husband, a solid citizen, and yet struggling. Mark’s wrangles with his struggles are revealed in poetic opening lines like these:
“In the padded room of my heart/ A madman suffers.”
“Street vendors here do not sell soft pretzels/They trade toxic pebbles for pocket change until there is just lint left.”
“I will love you until God dies.”
This book is as much about a black man in America, as it is about a black man dealing with bipolar disorder, as it is about a mother, a family, learning to cope and ultimately to understand.
This Fragile Life is a must read. Listen to the interview, and you’ll see why?