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Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s son was 25-years old the night his bipolar disorder truly began to manifest itself to his family. At the time, Mark was pursuing a postgraduate degree in film, living in California with his fiancée and, from the perspective of his attentive and supportive parents living across the country, he was leading a relatively normal and stable life. Nothing could have prepared them for Mark’s unhinged emotional outbursts, the uncertain highs and the violent lows, calls from jail, pleas for money, drug relapses and continuous disputes about how to live and not live that followed his desperate cri de coeur. With Mark’s first psychotic episode, Pierce-Baker’s education about mental health truly began.

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults. While African Americans are at the same risk for bipolar disorder as others, most never receive a diagnosis and are, therefore, not treated.

Providing insight into a largely misunderstood and untreated mental disorder, This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son (Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press; June 2012; $24.95) traces the evolution of Mark’s illness and tells of a loving African American family’s struggle to confront it. Pierce-Baker and her husband, both academics, provided Mark with emotional support, the best education possible and the freedom to choose his own path in life. Looking back, she admits to mistaking signs of mental illness for normal teenage behavior and revisits these moments, an uncharacteristically violent tantrum over a family rule, an unrecognizable Mark screaming profanities during a car trip, with fierce candidness and new clarity. Interspersed with his mother’s thoughtful and retrospective narration, Mark’s own poems and journal entries provide vivid and visceral details of the illness and explore his evolution from a drugged, dirty and desperately alone man to one who finds stability, support, and, eventually, love in an Atlanta rehab center.

Weaving together mental illness, race, family and a mother’s love for her son, This Fragile Life tells of an arduous and ultimately uplifting journey toward understanding, recovery and regaining order in the face of mental illness.

About the author:

Charlotte Pierce-Baker is an award-winning professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University, a board member of the George West Mental Health Foundation/Skyland Trail in Atlanta, GA, and the author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. She resides in Nashville with her husband.


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