Sometime in 2007, fellow Biblioasis writer Mike Barnes sent me, in manuscript, an essay he’d just written called “Two Rooms”, asking for my response. From the first paragraph, I found it electrifying, astonishing, and (remarkably) strangely beautiful despite its harrowing subject matter. It described his hospitalization, in his early twenties, following a bizarre self-mutilation, and what came after: misdiagnosis, two years of failed drug trials, electroshock treatments, a staff meeting that nearly saw him transferred to a long term care facility; then months of near-coma resulting from a prescription dosage error. “Two Rooms” was the genesis of The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis (Biblioasis, 2008), a series of four interlocking personal essays that probe the impact of mental illness on a life over a period of thirty years.
The Lily Pond is a one-of-a-kind book. It is so much more than a book about mental illness; it could hardly be further from a self-help book or a popular-style “recovery memoir”. There is not a buzz-word to be found in it, not a single stereotype or oversimplification, not a second’s pandering to the voyeuristic impulse of a public hungry for sensational true stories. No sermonizing, no self-congratulation. Instead, with humbling honesty, and bringing a formidable intelligence to bear on the subject, Barnes gives us a rare inside look at mental illness and its treatments, interweaving autobiography with reflections on paintings, literary works, myth, metaphor, and scientific lore. His interest is in the psyche’s resources for healing and in the universals of the human condition as filtered through the particulars of his life experience. His book is, perhaps more than anything, a work of philosophy and a testament to human resilience and creativity.
One of the things I love in The Lily Pond is the voice in which the essays unfold: measured and sober, meditative, freeassociative, often mesmerizing, yet enlivened by unexpected turns of the imagination (think Oliver Sacks, think W. G. Sebald.) It’s a book that digs deep and wakens wonder – a deep-sea dive of a book, able to pull me in again and again to surface each time with an enriched appreciation of the things that matter in life.