NOT SINCE MAYA ANGELOU’S I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has an autobiography chronicled an African-American woman’s journey from trauma to joyousness as boldly and vividly as Monica A. Coleman’s Bipolar Faith. Coleman — a professor of theology and African-American religions at the Claremont School of Theology and an ordained elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church — delves into her history of mental illness, depression, and rape, and shares the profound beauty of her faith in God. Along the way, she reveals the pervasiveness of racism in the United States and demonstrates its impact on black people from their earliest years. Here, Coleman discusses her “memoir of madness,” the processes of healing, and a faith that liberates.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: In the past, you’ve written about your experiences with depression and rape in a less personal, memoiristic mode. Why did you decide to write this kind of book?
MONICA A. COLEMAN: [Laughs.] It’s not as intentional as it sounds. I wanted to tell my story as a creative, nonfiction writer. I couldn’t find a story like mine anywhere. In the book, I talk about being in these bookstores and looking for other people who experienced what I experienced. I was looking for a language in which to talk about it — a language for myself, a language for my family, for my friends. I read Prozac Nation, Unholy Ghost, The Beast, Willow Weep for Me — and remember, these were the early 2000s — and I was reading these books, and I would say, “Oh, yes, this is great!” But something was missing. They were all white, and none of them were bipolar. I couldn’t find my experience, or the experience of anyone I knew.
So, like Toni Morrison said, I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I was writing the book I needed and the one I hoped would be meaningful for other people who have these experiences — that are distinctly American and have the complexities of race and class and culture and faith.
Was it then cathartic for you to write?
No, it was hard. [Laughs.] I mean the writing enterprise is hard, as you know, and this is version 292 or something. As I tried to write about it, I was thinking that the people that I was writing about would be reading this. It really helped me to see that there are no heroes and there are no villains; no good guys and bad guys. They were people doing what they could with what they had. It was personally and spiritually empowering to have enough distance and to look at people in a more holistic way than I did when I was living it.
In the first couple of chapters, you speak very candidly about how you felt as a girl growing up with an abusive father. Was there ever a point where you felt this was too much laundry to air?
No. I mean, I thought about it. But because my father has passed, I’m sure that makes a difference. In fact, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But I’ve written stuff that he’s hated before and we worked it out. I didn’t feel trepidation about it.
I had this friend who said, “There’s no fear.” That I couldn’t be afraid when I wrote. And also, most of my family, we’ve worked these things out. There’s been therapy and conversation and healing, and I really did try to present as whole a picture as I could. These are things that they did that were not helpful, were hurtful and terrifying, and then there were really great things that emerged from it, too. But this is where they came from, and everybody’s trying to do better than they got.
While this book certainly has subject matter for adults, it’s such an edifying work for young readers.
I find that really moving. I didn’t really think about that. What I thought about was this: I wanted to make it a combination of three genres. I wanted it to be what we call a “memoir of madness,” like Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. I also wanted it to be a spiritual autobiography — my journey with God, losing faith and finding faith again. And I also wanted it to read like a black girl’s coming-of-age story. This was my black Wonder Years.
I was this teenager who read voraciously, and it means something when you can see yourself or some part of yourself in literature. I’ve seen a part of myself in stories that weren’t about black people. I found myself in Beloved. I found myself all over the place as a reader. So I do want other people to know, other teenagers to know: you’re going through all of these things — you’re going to school and you’re running track and you’re coming home — but you have this internal life.
Skipping ahead, you write about a chance meeting with Angela Davis that influenced your decision to go into ministry. At that time you were in college, you were deep into studies of black history and literature and culture …
Well, yeah, my parents did that. They always had a parallel curriculum for me. There was the Coleman summer reading program that my dad created for me. I had just turned five, and I had read the kid biographies of Mary McLeod Bethune and George Washington Carver, and I had very distinct ideas about them and racial politics. Our bookshelves were filled with African-American history and literature, and when I went to the library, that’s what I would read along with Judy Blume. I would read everything — so that was part of my growing up. In college, I found out that I could major in it! And it was the way literature came across to me that captivated me, whether it was flying Africans or the Pentecostal community, I read and I believed in the world and what was happening. And I still do. So I think I had this political edge, and this literary edge, and this religious craving — that was the foundation.
And so I met Angela Davis and I told her about my senior thesis — at that point it was this unformed senior thesis that I kept adjusting — and I told her I was interested in how women talked about freedom and religion in slave narratives and how different it was from what men like Frederick Douglass did. And she said to me, “You have to meet Renita Weems.”
Now Renita will say, “She just said that because I’m the only religious person she knows.” [Laughs.] And this is like 1993, ’94, so it’s a while ago. Minister was not a career option for young women then — not that there weren’t any — but if you were in church and you were a man, you could think about wanting to become a minister. If you were a woman and wanted to be in the ministerial society, then you thought about marrying into it; and that hasn’t gone away. But she saw this in me and pointed me in the right direction, which is amazing.
You’re from the Midwest and studied on the East Coast before coming to Los Angeles for the first time. In the book, you write that this was a culture shock. It’s also the time you attempted suicide. Then you left and came back. Why?
In my defense, I call that “California, Round One,” and this is “California, Round Two.” I was going to Claremont, so I was in L.A. County, but I wasn’t in Los Angeles. And my expectations were like everybody else’s — you come here to go after your dreams. Only I was chasing my academic dreams. And as I write in the book, I’m lying in my bed, kicking my feet up, listening to all the California songs like LL Cool J [sings], “I’m goin’ back to Cali, Cali, Cali …” And I was so excited, because I was going to learn about this way of thinking about God, which has made such a huge difference in my life and how I see things. And, of course, when you’re from the Midwest, California geography is just cool, right? [Laughs.]
I’m from here, so how is it you think it’s cool?
Like these mountains — Claremont is at the base of Mt. Baldy. I flew into Ontario, and you see these mountains, and you’re like, “Whoa! This is amazing!” The sunset is a different set of colors. There are geckos running around and roses growing in January; there’s sage growing between sidewalk cracks — people are spending $3 on sage in New Age bookstores in Michigan and you can just go to a parking lot here and pick it. It takes your breath away. And I thought about all the religious significance that mountains have, which was exciting to me.
What I did not realize was the commuter culture of Southern California. When you have to drive a long way to go to work or school, which people do all the time, people structure community differently. I hadn’t ever experienced that before. Even if Vanderbilt was a commuter culture, I commuted 15 minutes. It wasn’t like you lived an hour and a half away in rush hour. All the little packets about the school tell you you’re 40 miles from Los Angeles, which people think means you’re 40 minutes away. But, no, it doesn’t.
So I had this idea that I would be going to Los Angeles, that I’d be hanging out in Leimert Park, where there’s this rich Black Arts culture, and then I was like, “My ass needs to be reading!” Like, I need to be studying. It was really difficult for me, in that sense, because, despite really good, honest efforts at looking for a church and an arts community, I didn’t find it. I was far away from home, and far away from a support system, in this very beautiful place — feeling very alone.
And for me, L.A. is still a hard place to live. It’s not as hard as it was, but when I moved back to L.A., it was a difficult decision. One of my friends — the one in the book who took the knives out of my house — he was the one who said, “What is wrong with you? Why are you moving back here? You almost died here.” But I have some very, very good friendships that make the hard places softer for me. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong with L.A. — it’s just a personality match. Everyone has their happy place. L.A. is not mine. But it’s where my job is, and where the sunshine is, so that’s where I am — and I’m near a major airport, so that always helps. [Laughs.]
In exploring your own family, the book really zeroes in on systemic issues of racism and their impact on mental health in generations of African Americans. But there are still those within the community who feel there’s no connection.
I think one of the challenges is that mental health problems in our community probably look different from how they look in other communities, and many mental professionals don’t know what to look for. I talk about these lists that I check off: do you sleep or not, eat or not … All of these are symptoms, and the way they diagnose people is by an aggregate of symptoms. The way they tell grief from depression is how functional you are. So if you’re sad and you can do stuff, it’s grief. If you can’t do anything — you can’t get out of bed, you can’t get to work — then we call it depression. But a lot of people don’t have this option of not going to work. They think: I have to feed my kids, I have to pay my rent. I have to do these different things — so we keep functioning. If you’re testing someone’s mental well-being based on whether they can do things, you can look at all these black people, and especially black women, and say they’re functioning. But it doesn’t mean you’re okay.
That was my challenge. I was functioning well: I’m getting As. I’m getting scholarships. I’m in an elite school. But I wasn’t okay. How are you doing? How is your health? What are your thought processes like? Those are different questions.
In the black church, for the most part, the advice is still, “Wait on the Lord and be of good courage,” or “Pray on it.” Where in the faith community are there real conversations happening for people battling depression and mental health issues?
It’s getting better, and I’ll give you an example: I was at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland last weekend, and the day before I preached they asked me to do a workshop with the clergy and the lay leaders of the church, and they invited other clergy and Christian leaders from around the Oakland area. And I did a workshop on the top 10 things clergy should do to create the kind of church that supports people dealing with mental health challenges.
One of the things I said was, “Hey, if you’re over age 10 and you’re black, maybe you could use a therapist.” This isn’t just about clinical diagnoses, it’s about grief and going through trauma and dealing with the things that arise because life happens. When I finished with it, the pastor, who is 60, said — and there were clinical professionals there — “We’re going to have those of you who can minister and are therapists come to our church and hold group therapy for our clergy and Sunday school leaders.” The next day he then got in the pulpit and told the congregation, “This is what we’re doing. We’re going to lead the way in showing you that we need to take care of our mental health.” This — at a large black Baptist church.
As clergy, our hearts are in the right place. We care about people, people who are hurting, but don’t always know what to say or do. When things get tough, we say what we’re used to saying. We never pause and reflect, “Oh, maybe that isn’t helpful.” It’s not that it isn’t true. The Bible says: All things work together for good for those who believe in God. Yeah, it’s true, but is that helpful to say? Right now, the average church is not a safe place. It’s not a helpful place. It’s not a healing place. But it has all the ingredients to be, and we need to call on the best of our traditions that teach us how to care for people when they’re in grief.
No one prays for their sister who is having a heart attack without first thinking, “I need to take her to the hospital.” If you have a heart attack in church, they call 911. It’s not like we have no sense of modern medicine. So we have to remind people that mental health works the same way. We have to continue to talk about it, and this starts with leadership.
How do you define your ministry?
I try to teach a faith that liberates, whether I’m in the classroom or in the pulpit or blogging. I want to offer a faith that helps people feel freer. That’s how I think of my personal ministry, but I also feel I do it around social justice issues, whether it’s sexual violence or sexual health or public health. These are the issues I feel called to talk about. These are the ones I feel a particular silence around, a lot of stigma around, and I want to break that silence. I want people to know they can be authentic to the challenges they’ve had and still be faithful — that you don’t have to deny your reality to be faithful. You don’t have to deny your faith to own your experiences.
You say in your introduction that two things are worse than death: fear and sadness. How were you able to overcome these? How did you return to and stay connected with your faith?
Because it was woven into who I am. Because I grew up in the black church, there’s a part of my soul that was still connected to it even when there were good reasons to leave. Faith makes me want to hold on. And I think, “How will I give my daughter that?” I can’t give her the same faith I was given, because I don’t have that same exact faith. But she knows God. We worship. She knows spirituals, and I sing them around the house. I can start singing some, and she can finish them. We’d listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock when she was a couple weeks old. There was some kind of foundation that was pre-verbal, pre-rational. There was something I got from my family in terms of this faith foundation, which made it feel like faith was always a part of me.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is senior editor of women, media, and culture for the Los Angeles Review of Books, an author, and filmmaker. Her independent feature, Those People: A Love Story (formerly Lovers in Their Right Mind) is in development.