Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of five previous books of award-winning nonfiction: the New York Times bestselling Sing for Your Life, What Do Women Want?, The Other Side of Desire, In the Land of Magic Soldiers, and God of the Rodeo. His writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, Mother Jones, Talk, and the New York Times Book Review.
After his brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Bergner set out to understand the thinking behind modern psychiatry, discovering that many medications that have been commonly prescribed for the past 40 years have some harmful implications. He brings readers on a journey, from the stories of those diagnosed with mental illness to the top neuroscientist labs today – questioning why we are still so far behind in understanding the way the mind works, and how this affects modern treatment options.
In The Mind and the Moon, Bergner pushes readers to seek a deeper engagement with ourselves and one another—and how to find a better path toward caring for our minds. The book has received fantastic praise already, from People Magazine, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times and George Packer, who calls The Mind and the Moon a “troubling, exhilarating work of science and high art.”
His website is danielbergner.com
I recently interviewed Daniel Bergner, and he shared his story with me.
How has bipolar disorder touched your life?
My younger brother was diagnosed as severely bipolar when we were in our early twenties. This was the inspiration for The Mind and the Moon. It’s by far my most personal book. His diagnosis, which he rejects, and his journey in life raised profound questions for both of us.
How was your family dynamic impacted by mental illness?
Our family was forever changed by my brother’s diagnosis and by his triumphant struggle to get beyond the terms and treatments of mainstream, medically-oriented psychiatry. Our parents were terrified that my brother might take his own life; they desperately wanted him to stay on his medication. But he couldn’t. He’s a musician. The medication caused his hands to tremor and left him feeling, in his words, like he had “a blanket on my brain.” The Mind and the Moon is not anti-psychiatry. It’s not a takedown. It’s not a sermon against medication; that would be pure arrogance. Psychiatric medication has helped countless people. But by telling personal, intimate stories, the book does question our society’s prevailing ideas about how best to understand and heal our psyches.
What was your experience like writing your book? Did you learn more about your family?
I thought about our family at a depth I’d never come close to before. I thought a lot about how, within many families, each person has a separate sense of family reality. It was as if my brother and I had fundamentally different parents. And this family lesson was relevant to my exploration of psychiatry, my exploration of its frequent failure, I think, to really enter into our private worlds, to engage with our private perceptions, our selves. The rush to treat and subdue symptoms overwhelms the need to engage with who we are.
What do you feel you’ve learned about mental illness throughout your journey?
That our conditions simply do not define us. Besides my brother, the other main character in my book, Caroline, is nothing less than magical in how she thinks, in the way she connects with people, in the movement she now leads. Yet the voices she hears almost constantly, and the medications she was once prescribed, a pileup of antipsychotic and mood-stabilizing pills, could easily cause us to think she is beyond hope. In fact, she gives me hope, and I think every reader will feel the same.
What advice would you give to someone newly diagnosed with mental illness?
Maybe just to insist on being really seen, really heard. To remember, even as you accept guidance, that the way you understand yourself matters more than anyone else’s understanding.
The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of Carrie Cantwell or this website. The information and opinions on this site are for educational purposes only. This site should not be seen as a substitute for an official diagnosis or for professional health care.