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The ever-growing number of books in the autobiographical genre testifies at least to two goals in writing this particular kind of literature: one is the therapeutic effect of writing, with the writers sharing (meaningful) thoughts on meaningful events in their lives, and two, the self-complacent "been-there-done-that" type of writing, where names and facts are scrambled in a rather exhibitionistic style. Melanie Cane’s memoir Poisoned Love is not a book that will take the today’s reader totally by surprise with its subject matter, and, it seems, this is not its goal either. It falls, however, into the first group of memoir writing: Cane tries to reconstruct clearly painful memories from her life as she suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), committed a crime by poisoning her boyfriend, spent weeks in a mental institution and then years in psychoanalysis. The memoir is quietly celebratory in tone, since Cane writes from the perspective of one who has overcome successfully BPD and has moved on in her life.
As Cane points out in an interview with PageOneLit.com, she started the book as a purely therapeutic exercise trying to figure out what has happened to her and to the people who mattered to her in the aftermath of the crime. Few years later, the kind of personal writing grew more urgent, demanding an audience, as Cane remembered. The choice to formalize it and to make it public is not seen as a didactic warning to the reader, but as reminiscences on the deviances of the human nature under the influence of BPD and the possibility of recuperation.
Cane’s family history is an important signal, if not an explication of her own destiny: her father suffers from severe bipolar disorder and exposes Melanie and the rest of the family members to alternating bouts of grandiosity and mania. As Cane makes clear, she totally adores him, yet she has serious problems separating herself from her father’s violent ego. The divorce of her parents and the fact that her mother is a stable, sane influence, the following studies in medicine at prestigious institutions, and the specialization in psychiatry do not bring the necessary satisfaction for Cane; quite on the contrary, her father’s death and the inability to deal with it effectively are the dangerous triggers which set her into a destructive mode.
A relationship with another young psychiatrist, Luke, seems to be a welcome breakthrough in a period when Cane needs reassurance. From a brief euphoria her relationship with Luke turns into pathological despair and fear of being abandoned (again). Luke, on the other hand, also has daemons of his own, and he tries to protect his own space in a relationship in which Cane doesn’t perceive boundaries. As she says in her interview later,
The first fight was a turning point because it went right to the heart of both or our deepest and most troubling/pathological interpersonal issues. Mine was that I needed to feel loved, wanted and taken care of a 100% of the time. This clashed with his, which was that he needed space, time to work on himself by himself and not feel beholden to anyone. This fight signaled the first reenactment of our individual pathological dynamics with our mentally ill parent (mine with my father, his with his mother) and set the stage for the destructive, but familiar trajectory our relationship would take. (www.PageOneLit.com)
Naturally, the relationship turns into a war and Cane makes the desperate decision to poison Luke by administering the drug "Prolixin," in order to keep him in the house, away from work, from bothersome patients and friends. In her mind, if she can possess "totally" Luke, especially if he is ill, he will be able to reciprocate her love and stay with her forever.
Needless to say, Cane’s imaginary scenario falls through and, luckily for Luke and for her, she is hospitalized and undergoes psychiatric treatment. The path to the understanding and clarity which Cane reaches is a long and winding one as is the usual case when the crime glosses over deep psychological issues. Therefore, Cane has to deal with these issues before she reaches the realization that life has to be lived differently and, most importantly, that she is able to do it and start anew not by forgetting the past, but by reconciling with it.
Poisoned Love reminded me of reading some years ago another best-seller in the genre, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind (1995). Written by an authority in the field of bipolar disorder, it also honestly captures the mental despair that ruins not just the life of the sufferer, but the lives of the people around. With no recipe for success and no placebo effect sought, both Jameson and Cane show that there is only one way how to approach this topic in writing, and it definitely hurts.
© 2009 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.