In 2008, Terri Cheney published an honest and moving memoir, MANIC, about her life with bipolar disorder. In her introduction to THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE, she notes that one of the questions she received most frequently when her first book came out was how old she was when she realized there was something wrong. Though for years she answered "sixteen," she knew that her mental illness manifested much earlier. She came to see that an exploration of her childhood bipolar disorder was an important, if difficult part of her story that needed to be told. THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE relates to readers a childhood troubled by mood swings, hypersexuality, intellectual achievement and enslavement to what she calls "the Beast."
From an early age, Cheney recalls being at the mercy of a powerful internal force. While it often spurred her to greatness in academics and social success, it also drove her to stab her older brother's hand with a fork over a typical sibling squabble, write morose poetry and contemplate suicide at seven years old. Growing up in sunny suburban southern California in the 1960s and 1970s may have seemed dreamy from the outside, but Cheney's interior life was a nightmarish roller coaster of emotions coupled with dysfunctional family dynamics.
At times, the dynamic of her whole family becomes the focal point of the story, and often it is the most interesting component of the book. The members of Cheney's family were clearly divided: her mother and brother on one side, and she and her father on the other. It is hard in her telling to discern if the tension in the house stemmed from her often erratic and dangerous behavior, or if her mental health was just a lightning rod for the problems inherent in her parents' marriage. In any case, her father's naïve support of her and her mother's bitter criticisms did nothing to help her, and in fact stalled any diagnoses or treatment that she could've received. She was often out of school for weeks at a time, in the throes of a depression her family seemed to downplay or ignore.
Still, the truth is that even in the best of situations, illnesses like childhood bipolar disorder are often ignored or misunderstood. The years of Cheney's childhood were long before America had begun a conversation about childhood disorders and conditions such as autism and ADHD, much less bipolar disorder. The cards seemed stacked against her.
Cheney's writing is smart and powerful, but she often glosses over situations that seem to scream for more information, such as her molestation by a teenage neighbor and her placement in a college poetry course at 10 years old. There remains in her prose detachment from her childhood or a hesitancy in writing about it; though understandable, it does, in the end, detract from the story.
Overall, though, THE DARK SIDE OF INNOCENCE is a gripping look at a disturbed and disturbing childhood, and Terri Cheney's honesty is compelling and commendable. Her writing is always eloquent and even elegant, despite the horrific and heartbreaking tale she tells.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 28, 2011