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Professor Bannett’s Poetry Depicts Growing Up with Mentally Ill Mom

“I want people to know that mental illness is not someone having a bad day, or a bad week, but a chronic disease that surely causes as much suffering as a serious physical illness -- on both the afflicted and their loved ones.” So says City Tech’s Nina Bannett, author of Lithium Witness (Finishing Line Press, 2011), a poetry chapbook that chronicles her life growing up with a mother who suffered from bi-polar disorder, formerly called manic depression.

Four years old when her mother was initially diagnosed, Bannett explores what it’s like to be the young child of someone who lives in her own fluctuating reality and also what it was like growing up surrounded by both mental illness and the strongest bonds of love. Her poems take the reader through a 30-year-long painful cycle of separations and reunions, depicting an unbreakable mother-daughter relationship tested by anxiety, illness and ultimately, death.

The 26 poems communicate the psychological, medical, and financial impact of mental illness as well as Bannett’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s unexpected death in 2004 from undiagnosed colon cancer. Lithium Witness addresses the themes of mental illness, mother-daughter relationships, and the woman as artist.

According to poet Kate Falvey, Bannett’s City Tech colleague and an editorial member of the Bellevue Literary Review, “Spare, precise, exquisitely made, these poems unfold like strange origami shapes, disclosing in each tuck and fold, the primal, often anguished love of a bereft daughter for her mentally ill mother.”

Bannett, who grew up in Flushing, Queens, and now lives with her husband in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has been chairperson of City Tech’s English department since 2009. She began teaching full-time at the College in 2003, after previously serving as a part-time adjunct professor for six years. Her academic area of specialty is 19th and 20th century American Women’s fiction, and she has published articles on the work of Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stoddard and Anzia Yezierska.

Bannett’s parents divorced when she was a teenager, and she continued to live with her mother in the years that followed while seeing her father on the weekends. Winning a full academic scholarship to attend Queens College/CUNY enabled Bannett to live at home and care for her mother while earning an undergraduate degree in English. She went on for her master’s and PhD degrees at The CUNY Graduate Center.

“I was an only child and needed to stay at home to try to provide the emotional support my mother needed,” explains Bannett, who says Lithium Witness is meant to be “a tribute to my mother and a way to keep her in my life.”

She proudly notes that she is the third generation in her family to graduate from Queens College. Her mother graduated in 1965, her father in 1961, and her grandmother in 1984.

It’s not surprising that Bannett chose to become a college professor. “For me, school has always been a source of great stability,” she relates. “It was a refuge from my mother’s mood swings, which would evolve over months, and often culminate in hospitalizations.  It was a place that accepted me and that my mother accepted for me.”

Her experiences with her mother have informed her teaching. “When students have revealed their personal problems to me, my own sense of empathy (which I write about in the poem aptly titled ‘Empathy’) has helped me be sensitive to their needs,” she explains.

Bannett’s urge to write about her mother was triggered by the older woman’s death, “to remember the small moments and significant crises we had shared.” She hopes readers of the poems will come away with more compassion for individuals with mental disorders and help effect a change, in general, in how people view mental illness.

At first, Bannett wrote the poems for herself, but as time went on, she began to see the value of sharing them with others. It was when she read “The Rose Tattoo,” a poem in the collection, to a City Tech literature class, that she realized she wanted to publish a collection of work about her mother.

“Occasionally, my mother would talk about wanting to write a book about her life, but for lots of reasons, this eluded her,” she explains. “Lithium Witness is not the book she would have written, but it is one I think she would be proud of.”

And, no doubt Bannett’s mother, Rochelle, a talented fine artist, would have been delighted that one of her watercolors graces the cover of her daughter’s book.


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