Sisters

A conversation with Jessie and Glenn Close

Their family name was ironic, as they were hardly close growing up. Jessie and Glenn Close and their two siblings were raised oddly and chaotically, living for a while scattered about in an isolated, 400-room hotel in Switzerland. One of their lives is quite familiar: Glenn launched a stage and screen career, becoming a huge star who garnered accolades and awards along the way. Jessie, the baby of the family, lived a much darker life — single mother, battling alcoholism and struggling with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Sadly, she also spent part of a lifetime looking for love in all the wrong places.   

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Resilience is the title of Jessie’s harrowing tale of what it’s like to live with a mental illness and recover. It’s also an apt description of the relationship between these two women, a bond weathered by time and tragedy yet bound by love.

Glenn has put her star power on the line and founded a national organization — Bring Change 2 Mind — to challenge the notion of mental illness as a personal failing. Together with Calen Pick, Jessie’s son who is living with schizophrenia, the Close sisters hope to dispel the portrait of the mentally ill as dangerous, unpredictable, irresponsible or incompetent. They aim to start a larger conversation. As Glenn says, “One in four people are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, so why in the hell don’t we talk about it?” A great question. So why don’t we?

Glenn and Jessie spoke with the magazine’s executive editor, Paul Costello.

Costello: Can you talk about your relationship as sisters? How is it meaningful?

JC: Well, Glenn gave me my life back. When I told her in 2004 about the voice in my head going over and over and over that I should kill myself, she put her arms around me, told me how much she loved me and that she would help. I really don’t think I could have told anybody else. She’s so loving, empathetic and nonjudgmental. She’s a fabulous, lovely woman.

GC: I don’t know why but I always felt like I was Jessie’s custodian. We were brought up in a cult, basically, broken apart as a family, and we weren’t given the tools of how to take care of each other. But there was something about Jess that always moved me. She was so original, magical and funny. I found out the depths of what she’d been though in her life when I first read the galleys of her book. I was absolutely pulverized about how easily she could not have been here.

Costello: Glenn, you recently wrote a powerful article and it opened by saying, “I come from a family that had no vocabulary for mental illness.” Most families don’t have that vocabulary. How do we change that?

GC: I think it’s by getting stories out. It takes courage. You have to have members of your family as courageous as Jessie and Calen to talk about what they’ve experienced. I know it’s a big, huge step as it’s hard enough for people within families not to be stigmatized. I don’t know what will be the actual tipping point to really challenge stigma except the hope that people will be honest in their own families and start a conversation so they can get the help they need.

JC: In writing my book, I wanted to put a human face on mental illness. I was hoping that if someone is living with bipolar disorder and they recognize themselves they would get some help. A story I like to share is about my son Calen. When he started dating his now-wife, Meg, she told her parents she was dating a young man who lived with schizophrenia, and they were horrified. I asked Meg, “What changed their minds?” She said, “They met him.”

Costello: Jessie, why did it take so long for your mental illness to be diagnosed?

JC: I was just considered wild and irresponsible. I don’t think it even occurred to anyone that I needed help. That’s the shame. People need to wake up to the behavior of their family members. When Calen was sick and the word schizophrenia was thrown around, I couldn’t even hear that word without literally bursting into tears. If you have a family member who you’re worried about, take the time to sit down and learn about mental illness. If you thought a family member had cancer, you wouldn’t hesitate to make them go to a doctor. Mental illness is just as prevalent as cancer. It’s a bad deal for our society to be so blindfolded to this problem.

Costello: Are you hopeful that the knowledge we gain from discoveries about the brain will lessen the stigma against the mentally ill?

GC: Absolutely. I hope so. The more people understand that it’s a part of the human condition because we are so delicately wired, the better. Our brains are just a phenomenon of nature. More often than not, there are things that can go awry. The more we can understand that a having a mental illness is not aberrant with being a human being, then hopefully it will change perceptions.

Costello: Jessie, how did stigma impact your life?

JC: When my youngest and only daughter was 10, I was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was afraid that if my daughter’s friends’ parents found out that I lived with a mental illness they would not let their daughters play with mine. I had no comforting words — not only from larger society, but from anybody — telling me, “It’s OK. It’s just an illness. You can handle it. You can recover.” I tried to hide it.

GC: I recently did an interview and spoke about my mild depression. It was tough. It gave me an inkling of how courageous Jessie and Calen are to talk about the most scary diagnosis of all, schizophrenia. The mere word, schizophrenia, is stigmatized.

Costello: Are there some heroes that you think are really challenging the misconceptions?

GC: I think it really helps when you have someone like the New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall talking about his mental illness. It’s very powerful, as in his profession, football, you’re supposed to be invincible. It really does help to have someone who is considered one of our great athletic heroes come out and say, “I have this illness, and I am getting help.” I hope more people do that.

Costello: Glenn, what’s Hollywood’s role in perpetuating myths about mental illness?

GC: Hollywood is always looking for antagonists in its storytelling. And, unfortunately, somebody who is considered mentally ill can be made into a scary antagonist. It’s the easiest path to put a gun or, as in Fatal Attraction, a knife in somebody’s hand. I hope there will be fewer of those films, as they just perpetuate stigma in a terrible way. There are good examples, though. Claire Danes’ character on Homeland is living with bipolar disorder. Films have made heroes of people dealing with mental illness. We just need more.

Costello: Since you have been involved in mental health, do you look at roles you might consider differently now?

GC: Absolutely. I’ve turned down parts I thought irresponsible. I don’t want to perpetuate the really dangerous stigma around mental illness in the work I do.

Costello: What do you each personally hope to accomplish in the area of mental illness?

GC: I want to stir an open conversation about mental illness so we talk about it like we do any other chronic illness. Calen, Jess and I went to Washington and talked to legislators about mental illness. I know we think, “Oh, Washington is so broken.” But those of us who care deeply about certain issues, you show up, and it can make a difference. Calen’s story about how he fought so hard to get well made a difference in our conversations in Washington. Telling his story was just so effective because it’s authentic.

JC: I was untreated for my mental illness for most of my life, but these last few years, I am the luckiest woman alive. I am making up for lost time. I hope that the programs of Bring Change 2 Mind will change some minds. I hope that children grow up knowing that mental illness is simply an illness. I hope that if somebody in high school is feeling suicidal, they will talk to somebody about it. I hope that science will give us breakthroughs and we will find better treatments and possible cures.

Sisters

In these 1:2:1 podcasts, Glenn and Jessie Close talk about their quest to bring attention to mental health. Glenn's is the first podcast below and Jessie's is the second.

Paul Costello is the School of Medicine's chief communications officer. Email him at paul.costello@stanford.edu.

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