I'm posting today about "Bipolar Bear," a memoir by my friend Carl Davis--a man whom many of you know from his presence as an artist and architect in Los Angeles. As you'll see, it is not an easy read, but one that I found insightful and rewarding. Because his story is so very personal and revealing, I sought and received his blessing before making my thoughts public:
BIPOLAR BARE, by Carlton Davis
A Book Review
Well, no. This is not a “book review”—more of a simple appreciation of a book written by a friend. So caveat emptor! “Bipolar Bare” is part chronicle of the progress of devastating illness, part exacting self-examination and therapy, part harrowing personal story of the long and painful path to recovery from a history of addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex—and pretty much everything else a person can get addicted to.
“Carl”—let’s put him in quotes at first because he is the hero/victim/villain of a story that bleeds over from fact to fiction, from realism into the realm of hallucination and fantasy—is an accomplished artist and an architect, though he struggles mightily with commitment to those callings. Obsessed with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, he leads us through the story of his life, from parental abuse and childhood trauma to a years-long struggle with alternating periods of mania and profound depression. His book is a courageous saga of pitiless self-revelation—hence the “bare” of the title. It’s the naked truth. “Warts and all” would be to put it mildly. His narrative takes him—and his reader—through uncountable, ever descending levels of chaos on the path to hell. It is only towards the end that he reveals what has been a long-buried secret, perhaps even to himself: an origin story of brutal, multiple rape of the young Carl by a pair of teenage bullies.
Much of the book is devoted to his attempts to identify and come to terms with his wayward parents and the early emotional damage of the abandonment he sees to be the cause of his troubled life as an adult, unable to regulate or make sense of the events that lead him to frequent thoughts of suicide, and to the attempt that brings him finally to the hospital where much of his remembering takes place. But is the case? It is only when a psychiatrist (she writes the forward to the book) persuades him that the real trouble lies in his bipolar illness—essentially a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be remedied by medications—that he can see an end to the various states of hell he has been living through.
Central to Carl’s narrative technique is “Carlotta”—his Virgil, his alter ego, his muse, his nurse, his dominatrix tormentor, whore and angel, anima to his animus—a creature of fantasy who habitually appears from, inexplicably, and disappears into the nearest bathroom. She is differently—outrageously—costumed for each of her appearances. Alternately she berates him, accuses him, coddles him, and taunts him with her shameless sexuality. Like Carl she is sexually uninhibited, promiscuous, polyamorous. Her crass sexual adventures, like Carl’s, are often violent, self-gratifying, and without emotional commitment, let alone love. Aside from her cheeky and disparaging insights into the nature of his problems—she is, after all, nothing more than a wraith, an extension of himself—she is the welcome source of comic relief, bawdy, ironical, sarcastic, and a much needed corrective to Carl’s not infrequent descents into maudlin self-doubt and self-pity.
That said, Carl’s writing can be powerful, if not overwhelming. Many pages and episodes in his story are vividly and compellingly told. To read of his tawdry exploits in the streets of San Francisco and its bathhouses, for example, is to be transported there in ways that are at once enticing and revolting, but always distressingly convincing. There are many such moments in the book where we are shocked, astounded, provoked to anger, terror, and sometimes sheer disgust. Then comes a moment of extraordinary clarity and acceptance to rescue us. Only if I’m (unwillingly!) to put on my critic’s hat will I complain about lengthy passages where the author’s woes are examined to distraction, testing the reader’s sympathy to the limits. Carl’s obsessive self-examination and self-destructiveness can work against him. As one reader, I was distracted by his constant harping on the themes of parental abuse and the blame he freely and frequently casts, no matter the justification, on what were inarguably cruelly neglectful parents.
My favorite pages, I’ll admit, were those where the author was able to distance himself from the emotional turmoil, as he does in the many extraordinary drawings that counterpoint the verbal narrative. They reveal not only the troubling aspects of his psyche but also his compelling talent as an artist. He finds that same healthy distance, too, in the last pages of his book, where he finds in meditation and medication both a provisional resolution to the illness that has long plagued him. A meditator myself, it pleased me that he found in dedication to this practice a means to establish the kind of distance I’m referring to. It is a medium through which he can observe his pain with honesty but also with non-attachment, tempering its ability to possess and define him. Above all, after reading Carl’s life story, I am heartily relieved to see him able to return to some semblance of “normality”—though, as he tells me in personal correspondence, he suspects that this is something he will never find. He sees madness of some kind as the fate of every artist.
He may be right. Or not. But after so much turmoil, I can only wish him happiness.
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