Capacity for Acceptance

How often have you read a book about a marriage that worked? “Worked” is the correct word because the marriage that Kay Redford Jamison unfolds in her heartbreaking memoir, Nothing Was the Same, is now a memory.

Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is the author of several extraordinarily books that are both moving and scholarly, a combination that is as uncommon as the spirit of the marriage she recalls in her memoir. Her works include An Unquiet Mind where she describes her own struggle with manic-depression, Night Falls Fast, a study of suicide, and Touched with Fire, an analysis of manic-depression and creativity. I’ve read them all and have benefited in more ways than one from each of them.

In Nothing Was The Same she looks back on her 20-year marriage to Richard Wright, a highly regarded research scholar on schizophrenia at the National Institute of Mental Health. When they met after both had been married before, Jamison says they hit it off at once. “We had many things in common—curiosity about the natural world, interested in the customs and love lives of our colleagues, and fascination with the ways the brain can veer off its tracks—and we made each other laugh…We were inclined to find pleasure in whatever it was we were doing.”

Their delight with one another lasted throughout their marriage and developed into a deep and lasting love. They meant a lot to one another. Jamison remarks that in all the years they had together, there was never a time that she was bored. Yet it wasn’t all so idyllic. “Nearly out the door on more than once occasion, certainly. But bored, never.”

She also comments that in other respects the two of them were really quite different, a difference that brought on laughter more than anything else. What better measure of love! Still, from the beginning their differences created some tension, but eventually “Our sensibilities and quirks evolved into something more shared and complex, more mingled.”

“Richard liked white Christmas lights, I like colored ones; Richard preferred lights to blink, I do not. Each year we put up strands of non-blinking colored lights for me and strands of blinking white lights for him.”

What I found most striking in their marriage was the way it was grounded in a total acceptance of one another. She writes, “…it is the capacity for understanding or accepting that is most important.” And later, “I had Richard, we had each other, and it was enough.” How rarely do I hear anything like that expressed or even sensed or observed in the ways one can usually detect such sentiments in a married couple.

After describing her relationship with Richard, she recounts the agonizing years when together they battled his lung cancer. And in the final section Jamison describes the profound loss she experienced after his death and the long process of grieving that she confronted head on.

Through it all she never succumbed to depression or verged on the threshold of a manic phase. Richard had taught her well, showed her what she needed to do to stay centered. “Richard had a way of giving back to me important things I had lost along the way.”

There is one more striking feature of their marriage that is a consistent theme in her memoir. It is the sense of calm and equilibrium that each of them seemed capable of bringing to one another. “Richard often told me that my acceptance of and love for him created a world of stillness and constancy that he had never known.” And she, in turn, told Richard that he created a “quiet” world for her.” This I believe is a miracle that comes to all too few marriages.

They had nearly twenty years together. They were colleagues, spouses, lovers and mentors for one another. However, Jamison makes it clear that what Richard could not teach her, indeed “no one could—was how to contend with the grief of losing him.”

The love you gave me wasn’t fresh and young,
It didn’t melt the sun or set the town aflame.
But it was warm and wise as any street,
Where hope and sorrow meet in bars without a name.
I only know that one day was a drink
And then the next was you and nothing was the same.

Stuart MacGregor