Tue 30 Oct 2007
…i got to see you speak, live, in person, yesterday.
you, who married Canada’s most flamboyant Prime Minister when you were only a 22 year old kid. you, who left him seven or eight years later and ran off – more or less, because we all know life is never quite as it appears in the papers – with the Rolling Stones. you, who had a son die, almost ten years back but the weekend still fresh in my mind, one of those jarring moments where tragedy comes to nest visibly in the golden houses of the land and icons are made vulnerable and exposed in the awful, unstoppable glare. you who have been in and out of the public eye intermittently since, partly for charity work that builds wells in Africa and partly for hospitalization in mental institutions.
you’ve lived quite a life, Maggie.
and you spoke about all of it yesterday, all of it wrapped up in a flowing, gracious narrative punctuated with some real humour and some rueful moments that i’m not sure i believe (c’mon, you really regret the Stones? dude.) and some heartbreaking moments of aloneness and grief – a few of which hit closer to my own raw spots than i’m comfortable experiencing in public and thus my eyes burned and i blinked furiously…i think my table-mates must have thought i found you awfully moving – and you spoke the words aloud that seldom get articulated at these fancy society-plate luncheons (except when they’re run by the Canadian Mental Health Association, of course): bipolar. mental illness.
Margaret, you’re cool. in kind of a froufy, earnest, endearing, slightly entropic way, yet with the poise that comes with thirty+ years of playing the political game and the press and the spotlight, the poise that comes of a lifetime of living in circles where you know the right fork to use. your father, a Scots immigrant, was a federal cabinet minister in your childhood. you were 18 and vacationing in Tahiti when you met the then-Minister of Justice, who was twenty-nine years your senior and – in my humble and entirely irrelevant opinion – dashing as old hell. your life has been one of privilege. easy? no. you have my respect, both for all you’ve weathered and survived, and most especially for standing up and owning your mental health struggles, openly and without shame, without hesitation. this tour you’re doing, and the attendant media blitz – all aimed at deconstructing the stigma and silencing and marginalization of mental illness – is really powerful work, and i actually think you’ll make a difference. your name still carries weight in this nation…and in many ways the self-image of the nation is still in part what your once-upon-a-husband made it. people will turn out to see you, even if just to verify whether you really do seem as kooky as they’ve privately thought for years. and you’ll hold your head high and speak with dignity about bipolar and about choosing sanity, choosing life over suicide, choosing to accept diagnosis and move forward from there. and that matters, a lot. and i applaud you.
but Margaret, seriously, did you really manage to talk for an entire hour on the theme of mental illness not just in your own life but in general, and appeal to your audience for greater understanding and acceptance, and not once acknowledge the dramatic ways that poverty intersects with mental health issues in an overwhelming percentage of people? did you really emphasize how lucky we are to live in Canada while people in Africa are poor, at an event intended to raise awareness of the single greatest common denominator among Canada’s homeless population? did you really just tell a $75 a plate luncheon crowd that your life turned around when someone in Ottawa, at a party, told you they had a job for you and how that job helped you find meaning again? i celebrate that, for you personally, and i realize that a former first lady working for $11 an hour after taxes had to be a bit of a life adjustment, to be sure…i get that, i really do. but did it, erm, occur to you that $11 an hour after taxes for helping new diplomats to Ottawa settle in and find just the right grocery store or drycleaners or whatnot isn’t necessarily the kind of job that the average person with a mental illness has fall into his or her lap every day? that actually most of us – whatever our mental states – don’t get offered jobs at parties at all, alas, just to keep us busy and fulfilled? i don’t mean to nitpick at you, Margaret…i really don’t. but you know, you left me heartsick there. because i think you just reinforced one terrible ancient pillar of stigma, however good your intentions; a pillar with a whole throng of tenacious roots in our societal pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps epistemologies. and that pillar is marked “those lazy fuckers just need to go get jobs”.
you have five children, Margaret. if you’d needed to raise them on that $11 an hour salary while struggling with your mental illness, you might have felt differently about the job. if you’d even been able to find one that well-paid in the first place. and if you’d been able to keep it.
you said you hated 24 Sussex Drive because you were trapped with a staff, unable to do simple things like cook for your family, or have any real privacy. and i sympathize, because as pleasant as the fantasy of never having to clean my friggin’ kitchen again may be, i cherish the sanctuary that is my home. and i wouldn’t want a staff, not really. but i can tell you that i’d prefer a staff trained to do my beck and call and clean up after me and my offspring to a staff struggling to find a shelter bed for me and said offspring on a winter night. and i don’t imagine there’s much privacy there, either.
Margaret, these things are not your fault, by any means, and i know that. nor do i fault you for your privilege, nor for any part of the life you’ve led. but if this banner is one you’re going to take up for the long haul, and i hope it is, then it is incumbent on you to take a good, hard look at the population for whom you’re speaking and advocating, in all its diversity. and to speak for all, not just those whose privilege mirrors your own, or who have resources on which to fall when they stumble. because an advocate and a stigma-battler is a teacher, first and foremost. and if you teach Canadian society only to love and accept the mentally ill who are like you, polished and financially secure, then i worry about what further stigma will be heaped on the heads of those left behind, those “undeserving” who do not only need our acceptance and respect but also, sometimes, our tax dollars and our goodwill and a sense of belonging to the mosaic of this society that may not be able to come from a job but is still their human right, under the Charter that ol’ Pierre worked so hard for.