Atria Books (2011), $25
By Jessica Friedel, NAMI communications intern
The Dark Side of Innocence is not your typical coming of age story. A prequel to her first novel, Manic, Terri Cheney recounts her childhood growing up with an undiagnosed and untreated case of bipolar disorder. Looking back, it is clear that Cheney demonstrated all the symptoms of bipolar disorder, but at the time she was just seen as a “problem child” by her parents. Her life seemed perfect to those around her. Consistently at the top of her class and head of the cheerleading squad, Cheney was a poster child for success. But in reality, she was constantly at the mercy of a powerful inner force which she called “The Black Beast.” She went to bed every night not knowing if she would be able to get out of bed in the morning. At any instant “The Black Beast” could take over her thoughts and emotions, making her childhood unpredictable and dangerous.
The story is difficult, but Cheney’s masterful style and writing make the read easy. Cheney skillfully takes her reader on a journey into the mind of child with bipolar disorder. She vividly exhibits her innermost thoughts to show how seemingly insignificant situations could push her to the most extreme measures. Not having the right color paper for her homework was the catalyst for her first suicide attempt when she was 7 years old.
The novel is a jarring, brutal look at what it was like growing up in a time when mental illness was eschewed by the medical field and a taboo topic of conversation. Readers can feel Cheney’s desperation to avoid “The Black Beast” by any means necessary. In high school she began drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in the morning just to get through the school day. This eventually led to another suicide attempt in the form of a nearly fatal car crash.
Cheney’s stories reveal the harsh realities of bipolar disorder. Although her experiences are riveting and disturbing, her writing is captivating and passionate. Her story is one of survival and hope that attempts to open the world’s eyes to the cold reality of growing up with a mental illness.