Changing my Mind, by Margaret Trudeau

This was a Xmas gift memoir, which I asked Santa for and was kindly given. I am glad I read it – I think….

It will always be a slightly dicey matter for me to read about mental illness. Those who have it want (and sometimes demand) endless sympathy, love, support, understanding and forgiveness; those who live beside it mostly just want peace and an end to the drama and neediness. Compassion gets stretched thin when you live with someone with mental illness for many years. For most healthy-minded people, their  own survival instincts eventually push to the forefront….

And so I wonder how Margaret Trudeau’s family feels about this latest memoir effort of hers. I am curious about *their* take on living with someone with mental illness – though somehow doubt they’ll take pen to paper. How did they cope, what prices have they paid for her illness? Were her children worried when they chose to have children themselves? Do they worry still, watching their young ones for signs of mental illness? Or do they, as perhaps we all should, accept that mental illness is so prevalent everyone will deal with it sooner or later?

Margaret Trudeau has two previous memoirs, Beyond Reason and Consequences. Which brings me to a new topic of discussion, something I’ll call “re-memoir.” When a person writes a series of memoirs over a lifetime, they must perforce return to major life events such as marriage, the birth of children, moves, deaths, etc., in brief or expanded manner, in each new memoir. Each time they do this, they are older, and presumably have different insights and thoughts on past events. Margaret Trudeau writing about her marriage and divorce in her 60s, is a very different woman than she was in her 30s. At least she is different is some ways – and surprisingly unchanged in others.

This leads neatly to the book’s title, Changing My Mind. Why do I find this so off-putting – even disturbing? You see she can’t really change her mind, she can only work very hard to keep it from harming herself and others. With the right medications, with the right balance of a nutritious diet, enough sleep, regular exercise, etc., Margaret Trudeau can keep her dual demons of mania and depression at bay. But she isn’t “changing her mind” to “get over” or be cured of her bi-polar condition. That can never happen. It’s a permanent as the bright blue of her eyes and a good deal less lovely to look on at times.

Again, on the issue of “re-memoir” –  I found many of her musings on Pierre much more forthright than in her previous books. She didn’t pull many punches this time. He sounds quite nasty in some ways, especially in his miserly tendencies. (On a different subject, Margaret is resoundingly quiet on the subject of sex with Pierre. This stands out, as she is detailed on most other subjects you can think of. One can only hope their intimate life had its good moments. And no, it’s none of my business!!) Pierre Trudeau is dead now and can’t be harmed by her words (or any others). Only her children can be harmed by those, and on the subject of her children, Margaret Trudeau voices only the warmest love and enjoyment. I presume she now believes they are old enough to bear a little more candour on the subject of their father. Fair enough, says I.

But I still didn’t warm to the book and Margaret herself the way I might have – if I hadn’t lived with someone with mental illness myself. Because of this I have a good “bullshit detector” – and sometimes I felt that bullshit was definitely coming my way. Like me, like me, I’m really not that bad a person….in fact, I am really quite charming and fun, despite abandoning two husbands and two different sets of children….Margaret Trudeau has spent a lifetime trying to be understood and liked by the Canadian public. Her need for this is still much in evidence. The fact that I can write such a snide little comment might indicate that she hasn’t won over all of us. The problem with mental illness is that you are only supposed to feel sympathy and compassion. This overlooks the fact that the person with mental illness has what every other person has too, and that is a personality and character that you may or may not like.  Try as I might, I just don’t like Margaret Trudeau all that much. Maybe trust is a better word. I can wish her all the best, and I do. I can even feel tenderness to that impossibly slim and beautiful 19-year-old who came on the Canadian public scene so many years ago.  I just don’t want to be friends with her…or ever share a roof with a mentally ill person again.

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