In her compelling new memoir, The Dark Side of Innocence, best-selling author Terri Cheney explores the navigation of her childhood and teenage years. ABILITY’s Molly Mackin spoke with Cheney about her book, her inspiration, and her continuing journey with bipolar disorder.
Molly Mackin: I really loved your book and its unique voice. Where did you grow up?
Terri Cheney: Thank you! I’m from Ontario, California. There’s no reason you should know it except it has a big airport. I tried to get away from it as soon as possible. It’s all right, it’s just very suburban. It was primarily middle-class and upper-middle class. I’m sure it had its pockets of lower-middle-class, but I never saw them.
Mackin: In the memoir, it’s clear you were an extremely smart kid. I’m curious as to how you developed so much knowledge at such a young age.
Cheney: The difference between me and many of my friends was that I went to a Catholic school that was very advanced. I realize now, looking back on it, that the nuns were very encouraging there, but they were also very strict. As far back as I can remember. I was reading quite advanced things. My vocabulary was always a little advanced and my teachers were great. They would just let me go read. I actually didn’t have to do the schoolwork. I had several teachers who allowed things that.
Mackin: I remember reading about that in the book and feeling really envious.
Cheney: I had to read Walden Pond, by Henry David Thoreau. That was horrible.
Mackin: What were your preferred reading selections, growing up?
Cheney: I went into a Jane Austen phase in around fifth or sixth grade. I loved everything about that time and the society of manners and the way that everything seemed to be laid out according to etiquette and rules. I found that so comfortable. It seemed so dissimilar to behaviors in the ’60s and ’70s, when there were no rules left and everything became chaos. I liked the idea that there was once a well-mannered society.
Mackin: Did you ever place yourself there, in your imagination? In the world of Jane Austen?
Cheney: All the time.
Mackin: Do you think there would be room for someone who was confronting something like bipolar disease in that society?
Cheney: What an interesting question! I think so, because there have always been a lot of bipolar artists and creative types throughout the centuries, so there must have been room for them. But I think they would have been looked on as eccentric rule-breakers and outside the norm.
Mackin: I think a lot of people wish or imagine they are somewhere else, without giving much thought to what the difficulties of their situation might be.
Cheney: You know what? The other place I really want ed to be was 1920s Paris. I wanted to be an expatriate. I would have fit in there. I would have been perfect there.
Mackin: Because everyone was miserable!
Cheney: (laughs) Yeah.
Mackin: And drank a lot.
Cheney: Mm-hmm. Or wanted to be outside the norm.
Mackin: Did you read much from that era of writing?
Cheney: I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald and Austen were huge influences on me. I loved the “social observation” style: writers who sat back and watched society and how it worked, and took it apart like an instrument. And I loved the weird rhythm of Fitzgerald’s writing. I could read his work all day. It was so soothing. He could express things so beautifully. His work gave me hope for the world.
Muckin: Do you consider yourself an artist
Cheney: Now I do. It took me a while, though. I’ve joined two writing groups, and I go every week, religiously. I think it’s important to have those communities. In creating the art, you’re alone. But in sharing the art and having an audience, you’re never alone.
When you’re bipolar you’re alone a lot. I think that lends itself to being creative. You’re alone a lot in your own head. You’re feeling different than the rest of the world. I think a lot of artists feel they’re strange or different or unusual in some way.
Mackin: Do you have any groups in which you can talk freely about bipolar disorder?
Cheney: I actually facilitate a group at UCLA every week, on Tuesdays. It’s nominally a twelve-step group, but it’s really for anybody who’s interested in mental health recovery. It’s a wonderful place to hear people talk about their experiences. The humor is very black and edgy, as you can imagine, but it’s nice to be able to go in and talk about what’s going on and have other people around you who understand.
Mackin: In the book, you write about having “episodes,” or long periods in which you wouldn’t get out of bed. Do you still have episodes?
Cheney: I didn’t for quite a long time, although for about 10 years I’d have bouts of depression. I wasn’t suicidal, and the bouts wouldn’t last as long as they used to, and I wouldn’t really get manic. But then, strangely enough, this past year I had a really bad bout of mania and depression-it just happened out of the blue.
Mackin: Do you take any medication?
Cheney: I take, all told, about 25 pills a day, for differ ent conditions. It’s a lot to keep track of
Mackin: What other conditions do you take pills for?
Cheney: I had colon surgery years ago. I have to take medication for that. A lot of people with bipolar disor der have trouble with their thyroid, or with depres sion, and have sleep issues, so I take medications for all of those issues.
Mackin: You take sleeping pills?
Cheney: I take different kinds of sleeping agents, which don’t really work that well. I don’t tend to sleep very much. My doctor says it’s part of the bipolar disorder. I sleep in cycles, through the night. Last night, I slept about three to four hours, but it’s interrupted. I wake up and fall asleep and wake up again.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to sleep eight hours straight. I get so jealous when people complain. “I L only had seven hours last night.” (laughs) I can’t believe it!
Mackin: Sleep is so weird.
Cheney: I know! I keep thinking there must be all of these dreams that have backlogged from my not sleep ing. Then again, maybe those dreams have expressed themselves in my work. I think dreams mean some thing. My dreams used to be easily interpreted. They’d be very literal. It was helpful.
Mackin: You started each chapter of your book with a poem-the first chapters with poems you wrote at your youngest, and continuing up until poems you wrote when you’d ended high school. Most of them were very dark for such a young person.
Cheney: I know. When I went home and found all of the poems in my mother’s cupboard, I was so shocked by how a child could think that much about death and despair. I don’t think I ever wrote a happy poem.
Mackin: Are your parents still alive?
Cheney: My mother’s still alive. She’s 84. My father died in 1997.
Mackin: Did you ever ask them, from an adult perspective, about what they went through during your childhood?
Cheney: I never got to ask my father, and my mother denies having known anything was wrong. She always says a couple of things: that she worked all the time, so she wasn’t home a lot, and that my grades were good. I had gotten all these awards and honors. I was always scholastically overachieving, and so she said she never knew anything was wrong.
It doesn’t surprise me. Think about it. That would be a very hard thing for her to admit: “Yes, I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t get you help.” I’m not surprised she says she never saw anything wrong.
Mackin: You write that the closest person to you was your father, but you also say he was only really home in the evenings.
Cheney: Right. And he just adored my poetry. The fact that I was writing about death didn’t seem to faze him in I the least. Maybe he thought poetry was supposed to be M that way.
Mackin: Maybe he was a closeted Emily Dickinson fan.
Cheney: (laughs) Somehow I doubt it.
Mackin: You describe him as someone who really encouraged your scholastic calling.
Cheney: He loved my awards more than I did. He just adored that stuff. If he were alive today, he’d be here on the couch just glowing at the fact that my book is coming out. Perhaps he was a frustrated writer himself, but I never got that sense from him. He was a frustrated something. He really enjoyed watching me get the attention that maybe he never got.
Mackin: Was he conventionally educated?
Cheney: He went to the University of Chicago for a couple of years, before the war. He never finished college, but he was off-the-chart smart. He read all the time.
Mackin: Even in your childhood?
Cheney: Especially in my childhood. First thing in the morning, no matter how early it was, I’d get out of bed and go run and get into bed with him and he’d read a story. He was never too busy to read to me.
Mackin: You attended Vassar College, which was where I went to school, as well. In the book you describe real ly wanting to be a Vassar girl. That was different from my experience.
Cheney: You didn’t want to be a Vassar girl? You’re kidding me.
Mackin: I didn’t even know what a Vassar girl was.
Cheney: Well, you didn’t grow up with old movies, and old books. I liked old books. In the old books, a Vassar girl was this iconic thing.
Mackin: I read J.D. Salinger, and also The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I remember Vassar girls mentioned in those, but I never had that connection.
Cheney: But once you got into the school, weren’t you completely blown away by it?
Mackin: I actually dropped out.
Cheney: Oh, shame on you! They would have loved you there. I have never seen any place so beautiful in my life. It has a music to it. The most gorgeous campus, all wooded and planted with flowers-different flowers for the seasons.
Mackin: I went there because I fell in love with the campus.
Cheney: Same here. I chose Vassar over every other college because the daffodils were in bloom that day. And I think they were really open to eccentricity. I felt like I fit right in.
Mackin: Did you make friends there?
Cheney: Yeah. I didn’t make many friends that I kept. but I had some friends. I haven’t really stayed in touch. I did go back to one of my reunions: the twenty-fifth. I did stay in touch with some of my ex-boyfriends.
I think I really learned how to write while riding that old train from Poughkeepsie. You have to go through Peekskill, all those places. The rhythm of the wheels got into my head, and I started writing poetry to the sound of the wheels. I still hear it, sometimes, when I write-just a particular rhythm. So soothing.
Mackin: How did your mania manifest when you became an adult? Was it different than it was when you were a kid?
Cheney: A lot of recklessness, sex, and excessive spending. Those were the usual ways.
Mackin: What sort of recklessness are we talking about?
Cheney: My judgment was really impaired. I would pick up men I didn’t know and have one-night-stands. On the one hand, my condition was helpful when I was a lawyer, because I could be very energetic and charis matic and productive. I’d work for days without stop ping and churn out all of this material. That part was really good. But I didn’t have good judgment.
At one point, during a severe manic episode, I spent my entire savings. I went up the coast to a place called the Coast Ranch, in Big Sur, and I just stayed there until all my savings were gone. I had so much fun, but I came home and I had no money. I did pretty much everything a manic person would do. I was really out of control.
Also, I hurt people I loved. There’s a part in my book about a man with whom I was very much in love. I was drinking and manic and I hit him across the face. I would never in a million years do that-I just wasn’t myself. And that sort of behavior was such a sharp con trast to how I acted when I was depressed. People who had seen me one way would see me another way, and I don’t know how they made sense of who I was. I was two different people.
Mackin: Do you do the same kind of work now that you were doing then?
Cheney: The legal work? No. I don’t practice law any more. Since the time I wrote Manic, I’m pretty much living off of my writing. I hope I’ll never have to go back to practicing law. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I never liked it. It was glamorous, because I was an entertainment litigator, but it was very stressful. The deadlines would really trigger episodes.
At one point, there was an L.A. Times article written about me in which I talked about Hollywood being inherently bipolar. The speed, the pace, just the intensity of the environment. It’s very cyclical, very up-and-down, very bipolar.
I did a lot of work in music copyright and, boy, that’s a scary field. It’s very exciting, but scary.
Mackin: What are your romantic relationships like now.
Cheney: They’re complicated. I do see a couple of people, but even though they’ve known me for a long time, I don’t have a primary relationship. I find them hard. I like being alone. I’m not married and I don’t know that I ever wanted to be married. It’s just easier for me as an artist and as a person to be alone a lot. I’ve been surprised by the amount of friendships I’ve gleaned over the past years, but that “great love” for whom I’m number one is not there. I haven’t found that.
Mackin: Is it something you want?
Cheney: If I could find someone who can understand my pathology, yes. I think I’d like that.
Mackin: And the people you’re seeing now, they don’t understand your situation?
Cheney: They do understand it. They just want more than I can give them. There’s an undercurrent of frustration, at the moment, in my relationships. The most important thing in my life is maintaining my stability and nurturing my writing. Those don’t leave a whole lot of room for somebody else’s stuff. It’s really hard. But on the good side, my relationships with people are better than they’ve ever been. I think “coming out of the closet” with Manic was a huge step.
Mackin: Did people in your life know much about your bipolar disorder?
Cheney: A couple of people did. Most didn’t. I got a lot of emails after Manic, many from people with whom I had worked for years, some from people with whom I’d gone to school. They all said the same kind of thing: “We always knew there was something wrong with you, but we weren’t quite sure what it was.” I don’t think that was meant cruelly, either.
Mackin: People felt as if you had a secret?
Cheney: Exactly. I think there was a lot of relief after they knew what it was. I think it then became easier for them to be friends with me. I didn’t know what would happen as a result of Manic, and I was so scared. But the outpouring of love and compassion was extraordinary. I got hundreds of thousands of emails from all over the world. I never expected anything like that.