by Merri Lisa Johnson
Seal Press, 2010
Review by Beth T. Cholette, Ph.D. on Nov 16th 2010
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a lifelong pattern of instability characterized by disturbances in the area of self, emotion, behavior, and relationships. In her new memoir, college professor Merri Lisa Johnson provides readers with a chance to vicariously experience the rollercoaster ride of someone living with BPD. Johnson creates this effect through her staccato writing style, which includes short paragraphs of her own text interspersed with quotes from poems and song lyrics, citations from major works in both psychology and the self-help and the self-help literature, various relevant definitions, and graphic black slashes (likely representing self-injury, often a feature of this disorder). Although somewhat disjointed and disorganized (Johnson does not always proceed chronologically), this method certainly does provide an accurate portrayal of the borderline personality.
Johnson begins her story by sharing her empathy for another woman whose breakdown was national news: Lisa Lopes, the singer for the mid-1990s girl group TLC. Lopes made headlines when she burned down the house of her then-boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons player Andre Risen; in April 2002, she was tragically killed in a car accident in Honduras. This is not the only time that Johnson feels kinship towards a celebrity (she later discusses her reaction to the death of Princess Diana), yet it appears that for years, she stumbled through her life wondering what was wrong with her and feeling as if she was all alone.
For the majority of Tourniquet, much of the confusion, panic, and chaos in Johnson’s life centers around her affair with a married co-worker, Emily. Johnson clearly recognizes this relationship as being CO-DEPENDENT (she often capitalizes words or phrases for emphasis). She is able to see herself as enmeshed with Emily and neurotically attached to her, yet she is unable to perceive a way to break free from this self-destructive path. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Johnson finally makes the connection that her symptoms are consistent with BPD. Not only does this help her to view her relationship with Emily in a new light, but also she is able to better understand her behavior in subsequent relationships--including a brief fling with one of her students--in terms of this diagnosis.
At this point, the book shifts, and Johnson starts to delve into her family background. She has already mentioned how her father left her mother--alluding to her mother’s careless, selfish behavior--and how she grew up with a series of stepmothers. Now, she focuses more on her two younger sisters, who had the misfortunate to be raised by their negligent mother after Johnson and her father left the household. In what feels like a bit of a departure from the rest of the book, Johnson launches into a somewhat clinical discussion of BPD, using this as a springboard to reveal that her sisters both share this diagnosis; she goes on to describe how the disorder has manifested itself slightly different for each sibling.
Johnson ends her book rather abruptly: in one chapter, she is in the midst of detailing her efforts to free herself from Emily, and in the next, she is settled down with a new spouse, with no indication whatsoever of how she made the transition from Point A to Point B. Although Johnson clearly makes the point that even in a stable relationship, she will always struggle with the instability that comes with being borderline, unlike her sisters, she seems to have learned how to live with her diagnosis--I think her readers would have liked to have known more about how she reached this point of resolution. Overall, Johnson’s story is definitely an engrossing one. This book is likely to be particularly of interest to those living with BPD, but it may also appeal to general readers who would like a glimpse into this disorienting, disorganized disorder.
© 2010 Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.