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Resilience: Jessie and Glenn Close on mental illness and stigma

sisters_portraitIt's ironic. Their last name is Close, yet these sisters were anything but in childhood. They spent their formative years in a sprawling 400-room hotel in Switzerland as part of the MRA, a cult-like movement to which their parents belonged. As they grew up their lives separated: Glenn became a famous actress while Jessie lived a much darker life -- single mother, alcoholic and struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness.

Jessie has written about her life in a harrowing and raw memoir entitled Resilience. And it's clear she is resilient. At fifty, her bipolar disorder was finally diagnosed and treated. Glenn was busy building her career and knew little of Jessie's deep pain and emotional tumult. It wasn't until a family gathering in 2004 when Jessie told Glenn about the voice in her head repeating again and again that she had to kill herself that the full gravity of Jessie's life was apparent. I asked Jessie how Glenn reacted to this startling revelation. "Glenn put her arms around me, told me how much she loved me and that she would help. She's so loving, empathetic and non-judgmental."

In this special issue of Stanford Medicine magazine on relationships, we thought we'd explore the bond between these two women -- a bond weathered by time and tragedy yet bound by love. While Glenn intervened earlier to help her sister, she told me that she found out the true depths of what Jessie had been through in her life when she read the galleys of her sister's book. "I was absolutely pulverized about how easily she could not have been here," she told me during the interview above.

Today, Glenn, Jessie and Jessie's son, Calen Pick, who is living with schizophrenia, are striving to lessen stigma for the mentally ill. They hope to broaden the conversation about what it means to live with a brain disorder. Bring Change 2 Mind, a national organization founded by Glenn, is the centerpiece of their efforts to challenge the notion of mental illness as a personal failing.

Jessie now leads a contented life in Montana and says "...these last few years, I am the luckiest woman alive." Advocate, author and grandmother, she's hoping that science will lead the way to significant breakthroughs unleashing the secrets of why the brain goes awry.

Glenn, meanwhile, just finished a critically acclaimed return to the London stage with a reprise of her starring role in the musical Sunset Boulevard and has several films coming out in 2016. As far as using her megawatt star power to address the stigma of mental illness, I asked her exactly what she hoped to accomplish."I want to stir an open conversation about mental illness so we talk about it like any other chronic illness," she told me. "I come from a family where we had no vocabulary for mental illness. One in four people are diagnosed with [one] at some point in their lives, so why the hell don't we talk about it?" A very good question.

Previously: Ties that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationships"Brains are unmentionable": A father reflects on reactions to daughter's mental illness and Medicine X explores the relationship between mental and physical health: "I don’t usually talk about this"
Photo by Timothy White

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