An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind Summary and Analysis of Part One: The Wild Blue Yonder, 1


Jamison begins Part One with a memory of watching jets overhead at her elementary school. At the time, Jamison and her family are living in Washington, and she is going to school near Andrews Air Force Base, where her father works. At first, it seems as though this experience will be a routine one, as jets flew over the school many times a day. Though seeing jets overhead is expected, they have not lost their magic in Jamison’s eyes, who takes any opportunity to stare into the skies. Because of this impulse, Jamison is already looking when the plane flies in low, barely missing the children in the elementary school, and crashes into woods surrounding the school. The pilot dies on impact. Days after the crash, it becomes clear that the young pilot knew he could save his own life by bailing out of the plane. Doing so would have risked that the unaccompanied plane crash into the elementary school and harm countless children. The young pilot becomes a hero, “transformed into a scorchingly vivid, completely impossible ideal for what was meant by the concept of duty” (13).

Jamison moves into a discussion of her family—a secure unit of five that sticks together through the many moves demanded of a military family. She describes her childhood as one full of adventure, love, and security, which created “a solid base of warmth, friendship, and confidence” (14). She foreshadows her future struggle with mental illness, writing that these memories would become “an extremely powerful amulet, a potent and positive countervailing force against future unhappiness” (14). In these early years, Jamison’s father is a large and positive influence: “ebullient, funny, curious about almost everything, and able to describe with delight and originality the beauties and phenomena of the natural world” (15). Not only does he teach a young Jamison the beauty of scientific inquiry, but he also shows her early on what it is to be manic and highly functioning, and with that, the pleasure, beauty, and exuberance that comes with milder forms of mania. Her relationship with her father is a particularly important one. It is dictated by his moods: “When times were good and his moods were at high tide, his infectious enthusiasm would touch everything. Music would fill the house, wonderful new pieces of jewelry would appear… and we’d all settle into our listening mode, for we knew that soon we would be hearing a very great deal about whatever new enthusiasm had taken him over” (15).

Both of Jamison’s parents strongly encourage her academic interests in literature, poetry, science, and medicine. They know how to distinguish between phases and passions, while being supportive of both. Jamison recounts an amusing memory of a phase in which she was determined to have a sloth as a pet. Instead of simply denying this request, Jamison’s father has her compile a report on the sloth and its viability as a pet, complete with practical information about the animal and a series of poems on the import sloths have in her own life. Medicine is a passion in young Jamison’s life that could never have been considered a phase. She is absolutely supported in this interest by her parents, who buy her a dissection kit and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy for her 12th birthday. She works as a candy striper at the hospital at Andrews Air Force Base. Between supplies gathered at the hospital and her at dissection kit at home, Jamison spends her free time conducting mini-experiments on the ping pong table in the basement. She arrives at the hospital early and leaves late, full of questions about every aspect of being a doctor. In one instance, the doctors allow her to attend part of an autopsy. A young Jamison finds this experience “extraordinary and horrifying,” and distracts herself from her negative reactions by asking a ceaseless stream of questions on the procedure. While at first, the questions are a means to distracting herself, Jamison comes to find that curiosity “became a compelling force in its own right” (21).

It is through being a candy striper that Jamison has her first experience with the mentally ill. When she is fifteen, she attends a group outing to St. Elizabeths, a federal psychiatric hospital in DC. The hospital’s lovely grounds were at odds with the “dreadful reality of the sights and sounds and smells of insanity” (23). The experience is a terrifying one. When she asks a nurse how she protects herself from the mentally ill, the nurse responds that medication controls most of the patients but that “now and again, it became necessary to ‘hose them down’” (23). Jamison cannot begin to imagine a person so out of control that they would need to be hosed down, and imagining one brings her fear. Worse still is her visit to one of the women’s day rooms. She describes standing still in the middle of the room, “looking around me at the bizarre clothes, the odd mannerisms, the agitated pacing, strange laughter, and occasional heartbreaking screams” (23). She approaches a woman who stands braiding and unbraiding her hair and asks her why she is in the hospital. The woman responds that when she was a child, her parents put a pinball machine in her head: “the red balls told her when she should laugh, the blue ones when she should be silent and keep away from other people; the green balls told her that she should start multiplying by three” (24). Jamison is struck by the terror in the room, and, worse than the terror, the apparent pain in the eyes of each woman.

Some part of Jamison’s psyche connects with these women and their experience. As she grows, she slowly awakens to “the reality of what it meant to be an intense, somewhat mercurial girl in an extremely traditional and military world” (27). In girlhood, Jamison is forced to contend with the suppressive force that is Navy Cotillion. It is where the hierarchical nature of military society is reinforced, and within that hierarchy, the outranking of girls by boys. Jamison pushes back against this learning, refusing to submit to certain parts of the ritual that she finds unnecessary, as shown in her refusal to learn how to properly curtsy. This causes her to be punished not only by her cotillion teacher, but also her father who is upset that she would be so rude. Although Jamison rejects certain aspects of this world, she is strongly drawn to the world of tradition. She finds a sense of security in a world where “expectations were clear and excuses were few,” a society “that genuinely believed in fair play, honor, physical courage, and a willingness to die for one’s country” (28). The life Jamison lives in these years does not prepare her for what is to come. Everything changes when her father retires from the Air Force and relocates the family to California. There, her world begins to fall apart.

The world the Jamisons enter in California is different from any Jamison has ever known. She describes her new classmates as rich and aloof, children of executives in the film industry. She feels “totally adrift,” and misses all that she left behind in Washington: “a life that had been filled with good friends, family closeness, great quantities of warmth and laughter, traditions I knew and lived, and a city that was home” (31). Most shocking, however, was the shedding of the conservative military lifestyle that dictated her life and behavior for as long as she could remember. Eventually, Jamison adjusts to this new world and comes to view her remaining experiences in high school as a particular sort of education. Not only is she challenged in the classroom, she learns a lot about the world of the rich, and new experiences encourage her to grow in new ways. Furthermore, many of her classmates “had a familiarity with sex that was extensive enough to provide me with a very interesting groundwork” (32). Her boyfriend at the time, a college student at UCLA, provided her with the rest. Jamison describes a time of great infatuation. Still, she regrets losing the past. Her brother goes away to college and her relationship with her sister worsens. Her parents’ relationship worsens, and her father's moods now dip as severely as they once soared, “and the blackness of his depressions filled the air as pervasively as music did in his better periods” (34). Jamison sees a darkness to which she had never been fully exposed in Washington, one where her father would fall victim to depression and fits of violent rage. Soon, he develops a drinking problem.

The chapter ends with Jamison’s first attack of manic-depressive illness. “Once the siege began,” she writes, “I lost my mind rather rapidly” (36). Jamison describes mania as a time in which she “raced about like a crazed weasel,” living in a world that “was filled with pleasure and promise” (36). Mania causes Jamison to feel great, “really great” (36). She feels invincible, unstoppable, clear-minded, and brilliant. Others in her life notice her heightened energy and manic behavior and tell her to slow down but to no avail. Although they were “considerably impressed by how exhausting it was to be around my enthusiastic ramblings,” Jamison only slows when she is forced to, when her mania “came to a grinding halt” (37). When depression comes, it causes the bottom “to fall out of my life and mind” (37). Her mind does not work as well as it once has, nothing makes sense in class and reading becomes a torturous chore. As a child, Jamison learned to rely on her brain to be her constant companion throughout a tumultuous experience. Now, she could no longer rely on her most constant companion. This loss brings her to thoughts of death: “Life’s run was only a short and meaningless one, why live?” (37). Her strict, duty-led upbringing did not prepare Jamison adequately for this challenge. She was raised to believe that personal challenges were just that—personal—and she makes herself deal with this primary episode all on her own. Looking back, Jamison remarks that she is surprised she survived at all, but that survival was not without psychological damage and severe aging of her soul.


Jamison begins this chapter with a vivid memory of emotional trauma—her first interaction with death and sacrifice. The death of the young pilot is transformative for a young Jamison, for whom the concept of duty will come to reign supreme. This death prepares Jamison in some ways for the future loss of her mind. Jamison is taught early on that along with the awe and wonder with which she regards the sky comes, “also and always,” death (13). The love of the skies that Jamison has inherited from her father, now tinged with the knowledge of death, foreshadows the relationship with her father to come. Of her father, who was a meteorologist and pilot for the Air Force, she writes: “both his mind and his soul ended up being in the skies” (11). Also bipolar, Jamison inherited his illness on top of his love for the skies. Furthermore, she inherited his temperament, as she notes in this passage, “Like my father, I looked up rather more than I looked out” (11).

Just as childhood provides the basis for all of our lives and dictates many of the ways that we learn how to navigate within and cope with the world, Jamison recounts her childhood as a happy one that provided her with protection in the struggle to come. Her childhood also helped lay the groundwork for her future professional pursuits. We see absolute support of her academic interests from both her family and the doctors at the hospital where she worked as a candy striper. The doctors at the hospital take a young Jamison seriously, and as she looks back on her childhood she commends the fact that they “never tried to discourage me from becoming a doctor, even though it was an era that breathed, if woman, be a nurse” (21). Jamison’s gender in relation to both her psychological struggles and future career is a recurring theme of the memoir, and her story is influenced both by men who believe in her despite her gender, and those who don’t. These early memories provide her with a strong self-confidence that fights against the discouraging influences of a sexist society and industry. As she notes, “An ardent temperament makes one very vulnerable to dreamkillers, and I was more lucky than I knew in having been brought up around enthusiasts, and lovers of enthusiasts” (26). In this chapter, Jamison also learns an important mechanism for coping that will come to be very important later in her life. She learns she can rely on her curiosity to give her the strength to handle situations she would not have been able to handle solely emotionally, as “curiosity, and the scientific side of my mind, generated enough distance and structure to allow me to manage, deflect, reflect and move on” (21). This duality of the self—between being an emotional and an analytical creature—helps Jamison cope with manic-depressive illness later on in her life.

Throughout this chapter, Jamison makes many allusions to other literary and scientific works. Notably, she uses children’s characters in order to make sense of the character of her father in Washington, comparing him to Mary Poppins in one instance and the Pied Piper in another. Jamison spends a significant time painting a vivid image of who her father is, and lets us in on the methods by which she comes to terms with his wild and unpredictable nature. By comparing him to famous characters in children's’ literature, Jamison also notes the youthful nature of his mania. As her father aged, he also aged out of these comparisons, becoming a darker human beholden to more negative moods. Her father’s changing moods lay the groundwork for the fundamental change Jamison will soon go through, a change that is as much about growing up as it is about anything else. This change is foreshadowed at the end of this chapter: “By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, it became clear that my energies and enthusiasms could be exhausting to the people around me, and after long weeks of flying high and sleeping little, my thinking would take a downward turn towards the really dark and brooding side of life” (35).

Jamison’s first interaction with insanity is an important one. It is notable that although she was exposed to medicine early, her first interaction with mental illness does not occur through a clinical lens, but a human one. Meeting the mentally ill women and experiencing the mental hospital through their eyes causes Jamison to consider their personal pain. This causes something to stir within her, and we see her future illness foreshadowed: “Some part of me instinctively reached out, and in an odd way understood this pain, never imagining that I would someday look in the mirror and see their sadness and insanity in my own eyes” (25). Although Jamison soon learns the clinical context of her mental illness, it is as an emotional being that she first goes mad. The human girl that loses her mind has none of the clinical control of nurses in the mental hospital—she is inseparable from these women who terrify her so.

Finally, Jamison describes a military life as one in which romance and discipline conflict. The militaristic conflict between romance and discipline can be seen as a proxy of the larger conflict Jamison faces between her emotional state and clinical thinking. This conflict can be compared to the conflict raging within Jamison’s own mind. It is a “complicated world of excitement, stultification, fast life, and sudden death”; “civilized, gracious, elitist, and singularly intolerant of personal weakness” (29). The primary set of characteristics of the militaristic life can be compared to the characteristics of mental illness: exciting, dangerous, and glorious. The second set of characteristics of a militaristic lifestyle, by contrast, can be compared to the clinical objectivity of scientific pursuits. Again we see that the structures of Jamison’s youth lend meaning on her future struggles with mental illness.