Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture

Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture

Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture

Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture


Manic behavior holds an undeniable fascination in American culture today. It fuels the plots of best-selling novels and the imagery of MTV videos, is acknowledged as the driving force for successful entrepreneurs like Ted Turner, and is celebrated as the source of the creativity of artists like Vincent Van Gogh and movie stars like Robin Williams. Bipolar Expeditions seeks to understand mania's appeal and how it weighs on the lives of Americans diagnosed with manic depression.

Anthropologist Emily Martin guides us into the fascinating and sometimes disturbing worlds of mental-health support groups, mood charts, psychiatric rounds, the pharmaceutical industry, and psychotropic drugs. Charting how these worlds intersect with the wider popular culture, she reveals how people living under the description of bipolar disorder are often denied the status of being fully human, even while contemporary America exhibits a powerful affinity for manic behavior. Mania, Martin shows, has come to be regarded as a distant frontier that invites exploration because it seems to offer fame and profits to pioneers, while depression is imagined as something that should be eliminated altogether with the help of drugs.

Bipolar Expeditions argues that mania and depression have a cultural life outside the confines of diagnosis, that the experiences of people living with bipolar disorder belong fully to the human condition, and that even the most so-called rational everyday practices are intertwined with irrational ones. Martin's own experience with bipolar disorder informs her analysis and lends a personal perspective to this complex story.


Studies are outcomes rather than realized objectives.
They are intellectual footprints, not blueprints.

—Herbert Fingarette, The Self in Transformation

I have done ethnographic projects before, but none has tapped into my personal experience as deeply as this one did. While I was writing my last book, I experienced a break with reality. Most writers are probably familiar with the self-doubt that plagues the mind while one is hammering out a draft of something new. That kind of self-doubt was a familiar feeling to me too. But this time something different happened: whenever I tried to write, I felt a sinister figure, a cold gray gargoyle, perched tenaciously on my shoulder, looking at what I was writing on the computer screen, and muttering a devastatingly negative commentary about what it read there. Obscene and inescapable, the creature knew me intimately and did not wish me well. This might sound like a parody of academic anxiety, but the experience was anything but funny. I felt trapped, frightened, and out of control. I didn't know whether or not I was going mad, but I did suspect this was not just another episode in the periodic depressions for which I was taking antidepressants. in the weeks that followed, the psychiatrist I consulted concluded that the antidepressants I was taking (prescribed by another psychiatrist) had exacerbated my true underlying mental state—manic depression—which had darkly flowered to the point of psychosis.

A couple of years later, in 1996, I was spending a semester at the Humanities Research Institute in Irvine, California, when I saw an announcement in the local paper for weekly meetings of “manic depression support groups” held at several locations in Orange County. As I began to attend these groups, I realized I might be at the start of a new ethnography. I had already been surprised to find, during my last fieldwork project, that authors of books and magazines for businesspeople . . .

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