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Book Review: A Hidden Madness by James T.R. Jones

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What comes to mind when your hear someone is bipolar or, to use the older term, manic-depressive? Likely not a neatly groomed man with mostly gray hair and a beard, nicely attired in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and teaching a classroom of perhaps 100 or so law students.

Meet James T.R. Jones, since 1986 a professor at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. Before joining the faculty, he worked as a Wall Street attorney and as a law clerk for a federal appellate court judge. But Jones still doesn’t hold a license to practice law in Kentucky. The application specifically asks if, within the last five years, the applicant has been diagnosed with or treated for a number of mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder or major depression. Over the last 30 years, Jones was treated continually for that condition and was hospitalized for it several times. Jones so feared the stigma of revealing his condition that he kept it a secret from virtually everyone. In fact, he didn’t disclose it to either of his wives until he was seriously considering asking them to marry him.

As he details in his memoir, A Hidden Madness, Jones now believes it is a condition that had its roots in childhood and that it was tied in with an inferiority complex he developed. Yet despite those struggles, Jones was a successful student and able to intentionally plot out and make the career moves he believed necessary to become a law professor. He tells his story chronologically and doesn’t hesitate to thank those who aided him along his way. Whether due to the academic setting or intentionally, A Hidden Madness at times takes what feels like more of an objective tone than a subjective one. This also means that while the effects are unquestionably difficult to convey, the book seems to be more detached than some other memoirs by individuals confronting mental health issues.

The fact that Jones has succeeded doesn’t mean it is or has been easy. It’s unlikely any of us not afflicted with the condition can really understand its effects. Jones tells of periods, such as after a divorce, where even with lithium therapy he struggled to fulfill his job duties. He talks of stress pushing him toward the extremes of the condition, often being “constantly hopeless” and irritable, lacking energy and being “chronological suicidal.” He recognizes that the lithium and other medication controlled the symptoms enough that he could work but still experience peaks and “horrible valleys.” Jones makes a serious observation — although unlikely meant that way — in which many of those who have attended law school may well find humor: “It is difficult to teach Decedents’ [Estates] at the best of times, let alone when severely depressed, sometimes suicidal.”

Jones’ occasional suicidal ideations may reflect the dichotomy of bipolar disorder. Jones has long had an interest in guns. Even though he and others recognized they pose a risk for someone who is suicidal, he had what he considered legitimate reasons for keeping them. “I wanted to to have them around both to show I would not use them and to have them available as the tools to end my life if I chose to do so,’” Jones writes.

Jones describes some of the effects of the disease in the private practice of law, noting there were days when he was an associate in a Jacksonville, Florida firm where he was so depressed he couldn’t put in the necessary billable hours. Yet another aspect of that depression was to ruminate over that inability, creating a vicious circle. Although A Hidden Madness touches on this, it has an inherent limitation in addressing mental health issues in the legal profession. For example, while it unquestionably has its own pressures, most law professors aren’t subject to the pressures and deadlines their job demands, many imposed by courts and clients. Moreover, academia affords the protections of tenure. In contrast, the practicing attorney faces a conundrum. If they don’t seek treatment, they may be harming their client or forced to quit practicing law. Even those who seek treatment fear disclosure because it may result in loss of clients or perhaps even opposing counsel seeking to take advantage of the condition.

About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.