Madness: A Bipolar Life

by Marya Hornbacher

I was 23, the same age as Marya Hornbacher, when her first book, the eating disorder memoir WASTED, was published. I devoured the book, simultaneously struck by envy (how could someone my age write with such authority and emotional authenticity?) and admiration at her courage to write so openly about such a deeply personal and painful topic as her own decade-long battle with anorexia and bulimia. WASTED has stayed with me since its publication, and I have often found myself wondering whatever happened to that promising young author, who, with the exception of a 2005 novel, has been silent for the past decade.

Now I know.

In MADNESS: A Bipolar Life, Hornbacher candidly and often brutally describes her life before and after the publication of her first book. At that time, she, her friends, family and therapists all believed that, with the conquering of her eating disorder, she would finally also have control over her chaotic and at times out-of-control life. Little did they know, however, that Hornbacher was in the grip of a much larger mental illness, one that had been overlooked since her childhood.

Even as a preschooler, Hornbacher rarely slept, waking her parents at all hours of the night demanding to play. Her ambition and seemingly inexhaustible energy actually served her well during her school years, enabling the high-achieving young author to accomplish far more than anyone could have thought possible. But almost no one knew that Hornbacher was already using alcohol and drugs to manage her manic episodes, engaging in sex in exchange for drugs, and trying desperately to exert power over her out-of-control body by cutting herself and developing a soon-to-be life-threatening eating disorder.

Only after one of those cutting episodes resulted in a near-fatal loss of blood, only after the publication of WASTED, only after she had already alienated many of her friends, acquaintances and colleagues did Hornbacher finally receive the diagnosis that would redefine her life. Hornbacher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive disease).

Giving a name to her condition was only the first step in a long and painful process, however. Hornbacher's alcoholism sabotaged her doctors' attempts to control her bipolar disorder; therapists brought in to control her resurgent anorexia misdiagnosed her and prescribed harmful anti-depressants; her own high-achieving personality constantly undermined her will to manage her disease. Soon her bipolar disorder threatens not only her one mature romantic relationship but even her own life. In the end, though, a compassionate husband, supportive friends and, most importantly, a personal, conscious decision to re-imagine her own life allow Hornbacher to strike a cautiously hopeful tone at the end of the book.

MADNESS is, at times, a nearly exhausting memoir to read. Written in Hornbacher's breathless, rapid-fire style, the prose occasionally seems to echo her manic episodes, as ideas and details come flying off the page a mile a minute. In addition, it can be emotionally draining to spend so much space locked in another person's troubled head --- but, as in this case, it can also be fascinating to read an intelligent, compelling exploration of a life defined by forces largely outside one's control. What's most remarkable, especially in light of my own musings about "what happened" to this eminently talented young author, is that she was able to accomplish so much even when wracked by such a debilitating disease, including writing much of this memoir in between a series of hospitalizations over the past several years. In that light, MADNESS is not only a much-needed exploration of an often-overlooked disease; it is, for this particular writer, a triumph.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011

Madness: A Bipolar Life
by Marya Hornbacher

  • Publication Date: April 9, 2008
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 299 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0618754458
  • ISBN-13: 9780618754458