Her cry of sickness didn’t earn Mary Kay Letourneau the sympathy her lawyer hoped for. Not in court and - despite a core of loyal supporters - not from a skeptical public.
“Bipolar, fourpolar or nopolar,” scoffed a woman from the audience of the “Oprah Winfrey Show” last week. Having sex with a middle-school student was just plain wrong, she said.
“We have a very large state prison here,” said a man in the audience. “I wonder how many men are cryin’ ‘bipolar?”’
Yet Letourneau’s attorney, and some psychiatrists, argue that the disgraced teacher is a sick woman, not a criminal. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental condition they say caused her reckless behavior.
While her case has prompted coffee-table debates around the world - Was it love or was it rape? - her claims of mental illness have prompted a parallel debate about the power of bipolar disorder.
The disorder caused Letourneau to take “really stupid risks,” like violating probation to spend a night at the movies and shopping with the boy she is convicted of raping, her attorney, David Gehrke, said.
The disorder is the root of Letourneau’s attraction for the boy, her willingness to bear his child, and her insistence that she loves him, said the psychiatrist who evaluated Letourneau for her sentencing.
“It’s like she has a happy button and a love button and a hypersexual button in her brain and it’s being pressed,” Dr. Julie Moore said. “When it’s pressed, there is little room for self-reflection. That’s why Mary is such an inept criminal.”
The disorder, Moore said, led to the behavior that landed Letourneau back in prison to serve out her 7-1/2 year sentence, and that has police investigating additional charges.
“She met with the boy under a lamppost,” she said. “It looks like stupidity and flaunting of the law, but it’s really total preoccupation with emotion.”
Not so, countered Susan Moores, a sex-offender-treatment specialist.
“The cause of Mary’s or anybody’s sex offense is the decision to do it. The cause is not bipolar, it’s not poor impulse control; the cause is a decision to do it.”
Perhaps 3 percent of the population suffers from some form of bipolar disorder - a less judgmental term for what was long known as manic-depression, and was once confused with schizophrenia. The condition is marked by cycles of euphoric highs and depressions.
The most severe type, Bipolar I, is characterized by a “severe manic episode” that may include delusions or hallucinations.
Extreme manic behavior creates what Dr. David Dunner, director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression at the University of Washington, calls “psycho-social difficulties” - jail time, hospital commitments, divorce. In the depressive phase, suicide is not uncommon.
Bipolar II, less severe, is marked by episodes of “hypomania,” or euphoric highs that may include inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, extreme talkativeness, distractibility, racing thoughts, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities (without regard to painful consequences) and an increase in goal-directed activity or agitation, including irritability.
Bipolar II often goes undiagnosed; people afflicted come across as exceptionally productive and energetic. “These people are generally very bright and personable,” Moore said. “They can get away with it because it’s quite engaging.”
Indeed, the disorder has a strong link to creativity. Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway all fit the profile. Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Jamison estimates rates of bipolar disorder are 10 to 40 times higher among artists than in the general public.
Left untreated, about 10 percent of patients who suffer from milder bipolar disorder will “cross the line” into Bipolar I with a socially unacceptable manic episode, Dunner said.
The cause of the disorder is unclear, with some researchers examining genetic culprits and others examining the environment. Most studies say the problem can be traced to biochemical imbalances in the brain.
Evaluations indicate Letourneau likely has had Bipolar I disorder since adolescence, Moore said. As a popular teacher at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Wash., she had boundless energy. She juggled four children at home and 28 more at school. She often worked long past midnight, grading papers, devising creative teaching projects. Moore said Letourneau sometimes went three or four days without sleep.
During the month she was free from jail - between her release Jan. 2 and her re-arrest Feb. 3 - she fell back into her late-night patterns. A friend said she and Letourneau spent an entire night talking and watching movies in between spurts of cleaning and laundry. They went to bed about 7 a.m.
San Juan Island businesswoman Kate Monahan was diagnosed as bipolar in 1983. The years leading up to her diagnosis were marred by sleeplessness.
“When you’re not sleeping at night, you begin to have these dreams in the daytime,” she said. “Your real world is meshed with your dream world.”
During a sleepless manic high in 1982, Monahan crashed a meeting of the men’s only Rotary Club. She strode to the front of the room and belted out a song parody (“And I have a terrible voice,” she groaned.) - “The song of women is a sad song, hi lily, hi lily, hi lo.”
She remembers “some sheriff” dragging her out. She was sent to Western State, the mental hospital.
Monahan, 47, now takes a full dose of lithium, a common medication prescribed to bipolar patients. Faithful use of mood-leveling drugs minimizes the risks of a severe manic episode, making bipolar among the most treatable of mental illnesses.