Instability in Six Colors (Rachel Kallem Whitman)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

For the last few years, Rachel Kallem Whitman’s blog posts have been educating readers about living with a bipolar diagnosis. By turns, she chronicles her own experiences, urges greater understanding of others living with similar conditions, and advocates for changes in attitudes toward mental health. Kallem Whitman’s posts range from informative to impassioned, and from quirkily comedic to outrage, but they are never dull. Now, many of these pieces are gathered together in her first book, Instability in Six Colors.

While the book is divided into five sections –“hypomania,” “mania,” “psychosis,” “depression,” and “existing”– such organization is pretty much cat herding since by their very nature the pieces in these sections frequently cross paths and often intertwine. Perhaps the best introduction to Instability in Six Colors and the territory that Kallem Whitman is attempting to cover is in her essay “Mania Center Stage: Myself as the Understudy,” not encountered until page 159 of the book.

If you want to grossly simplify it, bipolar disorder is all about alternating moods. Except these moods, or emotional states, are extremely heightened versions of the feelings most of us experience every day. My cycling emotional states were classified as hypomania (the fun Rachel who I think everyone adores), mania (the high energy, do-it-all Rachel who doesn’t notice the quizzical looks), psychosis (the Rachel who is torn apart by terror that no one else can see or understand), and depression (the Rachel who can’t bear it any longer). (p. 159)

As this excerpt suggests, the book is grounded in the author’s personal experiences. Though the book roughly corresponds to her cycling emotional states, Kallem Whitman’s strength is not in her organizational skills but in her ability to render her experiences palpable to others. When in her hypomanic stage she feels that she transcends her ordinary self to the point that she does not want to return to it.

Everything has energy when my manic parade comes to town, strewing confetti and unleashing music in the air and happiness in every heart that comes along to see me perform in my very own show. I am the most brilliant performer that has ever lived. My ideas are lanterns full of colored lights that others can gaze upon with fondness, envy, or awe as they witness my maddening wonder but are reminded that they are only spectators. They are the neurotypical audience invited to my circus and I entertain and scintillate with my sharp wit and abody that oozes sexual energy. (p. 24)

On the other hand, during her episodes of depression:

All my little sad thoughts are piled high, making an immense pyramid of nothing. I feel hollow, but my head is heavy. I lack worth, value, meaning. My head throbs with dismal deprivation. I ache from the core of my dusty heart. Each sob swirls my valves’ debris like a snow globe built with blood. When I am this sad, I feel it in my body, I see it all around me, I taste bitterness in my mouth, and nothing sounds like it should. (p. 184)

Because the book, like Kallem Whitman’s bi-polar condition, tends to cycle back on itself rather than forming a linear narrative, a reader can dip into the book at almost any point to begin reading – and, as one might guess, there is a variety of topics related to living as a person with a bipolar diagnosis for her to take on. Among these are weight gain, anorexia, and societal attitudes towards women’s weight; balancing the need for medications with the sense of dullness and lack of focus that they bring; manic partying and alcoholism; and suicidal thoughts as a component of depression.

In describing her own experiences, Kallem Whitman is very forthright in her opinions and in her stance towards being identified as bi-polar.

Many mental health narratives hash out how illness can make one stronger, how, in a way, illness is a gift because it can increase one’s capacity for compassion, or how mental illness has provided a profound sense of purpose when it comes to educational and professional goals. How illness makes us better. I think these perspectives are incredibly important, but nuh-uh, that ain’t me. (p. 212)

A few pages later she adds, “being a writer is part of my identity, having bipolar is not.” Time after time, Kallem Whitman argues that while she will never be cured of her bi-polar condition and that it has taken a lifetime to learn how to live with and control it, it is something totally separate from who she is as a person. Such opposition to claiming disability with its strong emphasis on individualism, while common in the public at large, tends to run up against much of the current attitude in disability studies. It also puts her in an interesting position with respect to one of the few pieces that discuss others who have been considered bi-polar, “World Bi-polar Day: Why Do We Care So Much About Vincent Van Gogh.”

In this piece, Kallem Whitman throws down a challenge: “I want to confront the bipolar community as to why the ill and dysfunctional van Gogh is revered as our bipolar poster child. He seems like a bad choice.” (p. 247) Her objection, aside from the fact that a man was chosen, is that choosing van Gogh furthers the idea of overcoming. She argues that a person with a disability need not have done anything spectacular or exceptional to be respected and treated as a valuable human being. It’s a valid point. Our society’s emphasis on overcoming by featuring disabled individuals who have climbed mountains or jumped from airplanes as role models puts the responsibility for accommodating disability on the individual rather than on communal and societal efforts.

What is curious, though, is that most of Instability in Six Colors sports a very individualistic attitude, one that culminates near the end of the book in Kallem Whitman’s description of everything she has overcome to achieve her doctorate degree. She is quite proud of what she has accomplished–and rightfully so–but bashing van Gogh a few pages later on the basis that doing so promotes an attitude of overcoming seems rather disingenuous.

The one person to whom Kallem Whitman does give great credit is her husband, Spencer. Not only does the book open with an excerpt from their wedding vows, but in post after post he shows up as the Watson to her Holmes, pulling her back when she has gone over the brink, providing a stabilizing counterpart to her forays into brilliance and despair. This approach provides support for the proposition that, whatever one’s individual capabilities and despite American leanings toward bootstrap philosophy, no one with a diagnosis of bi-polar personality can go it alone.

In an effort to get a first book noticed and distinguished from others like it, authors frequently need to take some risks. For Instability in Six Colors, the risk is in the title and the way that the book tries to actualize it. Kallem Whitman does this through making each of the chapter titles a different color and by highlighting many of the phrases in her introduction in these same six colors, as in this example:

All this rapture rips me right open. I just can’t keep the k a l e i d o s c o p e in and I find
markers and pens and I decorate my pale arms and soft stomach, my freckled face and longlegs, and my pink chest that is absolutely pleading.
I’m covered in colors.
I turn into canvas. (p. 8)

Perhaps it is because I lack synesthesia, but I find this gimmicky and distracting, particularly when read electronically. I wish that she had simply trusted her own writing and let her talent with words do the work for her. It would have been enough. In fairness, though, it is possible that for someone who experiences states comparable to those Whitman is describing, this addition of color might resonate.

It is difficult to read Instability in Six Colors without being mesmerized by the nearly surreal experiences Kallem Whitman endures. Few other books provide such vivid windows into what it is like to live a bi-polar life so quickly and within such short snatches. Despite the merit of individual essays or poems, though, what is most effective about the book is the way that the totality of the pieces overwhelm one in the way that standing back and looking at Guernica might. It is a sensation that one needn’t love colored fonts nor disclaim a disability identity to appreciate.

Title: Instability in Six Colors
Author: Rachel Kallem Whitman
Publisher: One Idea Press
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen served as Wordgathering Editor-in-Chief from 2007 to 2019. He is an editor, with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Along with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, he also edited an anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both books from Cinco Puntos Press).