On Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, Mental Illness, & the “Ugly Cry”

Carrie Mathison Homeland feminist mental illness

It was in my couples’ counselor’s office, after a breakup, where I first realized I identified with Carrie on Homeland. The therapist was smart, Buddhist, queer, and clearly of the opinion we should have broken up much earlier. Even though he had told us both he would only see us as a couple and not alone (because we fought over him) he had agreed to see me solo once to debrief.  We wound up talking about Homeland.

Carrie Mathison is not a beloved character. The trolls hate her, especially what they refer to as her “ugly cry.” When Carrie cries, it is a mix of anguish and outrage; she does not get doe-eyed, while a tear gently rolls down her cheek.  Her face twists; her lips quiver; her voice cracks… she embodies what the artist Louise Bourgeois once said about her emotions, “they are disproportionate to my size.”  Carrie is played by Claire Danes, formerly of My So Called Life. Her character on Homeland is a CIA agent, a single mother, and bipolar.  What I love about the portrayal of mental illness on this show is that it does not separate her gifts from her demons; it does not lock a part of her in a box and label it crazy. While it causes pain to her and those she loves, it is Carrie’s mania that sometimes allows her to find the truth.

I’m not a spy but I might have the skillset—a combination of passion, paranoia, and a propensity for relentless obsession. When I want to find something out, I usually do. Driven by both heart and humiliation, I can usually tell you what all my significant exes are up to, no matter how many ways they block me. These days, I mostly temper these impulses in my personal life, but reading the news can feel like an invitation to uncover the secrets of a Russian spy movie. I have to make myself turn it off and watch something soothing before sleep. Homeland decidedly does not fit this bill, but, like Carrie, I don’t always do what’s good for me. This was driven home recently, by season 6, episode 7, when Carrie’s young daughter is taken away by Child Services because she is seen as being in imminent danger. This is, of course, a triggering fear for any parent, but for me, it felt disproportionately personal. Like Carrie, I’m also a single mom (although I’m lucky to have a great co-parent). Like Carrie, I also reside in Brooklyn.  Also like Carrie, I have been diagnosed with bipolar illness. 

I don’t put too much stock in that diagnosis. It’s a quarter-century old and I have functioned mostly without medication since. I keep Klonapin and Ambien around in case of emergency.  Having had two manic episodes (one at 21 in Ireland, in 1991; the other in 1999 at 29), I know that sleepless nights are not something I can play with. While I live with a certain vulnerability, I don’t suffer from clinical depression or cycle rapidly. What happened in ’91 and ’99 resembles what I’ve read about descriptions of mania. Both were in mid-April. (Both were also preceded, incidentally, by trying to read Ulysses.) In both cases, I lost the ability to go to sleep and spoke rapidly to try to keep up with the barrage of insights (some useful, some nonsense) that were firing in my brain. In Ireland, I had worked at a late-night takeaway restaurant with a retired fisherman/history professor who would fill the time by telling me about the history of the freemasons. He showed me the symbol on American money and told me most of our presidents had been members. A year away from home allowed me to have some painful realizations about my father that were difficult to contain, so I escaped to a manic state where I was discovering which men were masons and which women were part of a (possibly valid) coven of witches in Galway. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, convinced I was either about to give birth or be born, strapped down and forcibly injected with anti-psychotics. At 29, I was choosing between a long-distance relationship with a man and a local one with a fellow female adjunct professor.  I was also becoming woke to my privilege without quite having the language for it and in over my head teaching college students in Downtown Brooklyn. This time when I stopped sleeping, I made my apartment into a vast art installation with tax documents and symbolic objects. I had a dead butterfly framed in glass; I smashed the glass and inserted a sleeping pill next to the butterfly’s head. I had seen this one coming though, and contacted friends and family when I stopped sleeping, and they surrounded me and helped me avoid the hospital this time. (After all was said and done, I wound up with one lover, not two, so at least I managed to simplify something for myself.)

In a season five episode of Homeland, (episode 3, the one I discussed with the therapist) Carrie decides to go off her meds because she knows it will give her the intense attentiveness she needs to figure out who is trying to kill her. She warns her boyfriend, who has never seen her manic, that he might see another side of her and asks that he be a kind of mental designated driver. She tells him they might have great sex but she might not be very nice. He agrees in earnest, but soon enough, she’s swigging vodka in a spiral of photographs of enemies and calling him a boring, lousy lay. (Reader, he leaves her. When people tell you they are prepared to see all sides of you, do not take them at their word.)

As viewers, we feel sad for Carrie that she is alone again, but we agree more with her manic assessment of Jonas, her boyfriend, than her medicated one. It might be nice for her (and her daughter) if she could be happy with a nice, stable, boring guy, but Carrie’s got terrorist plots to uncover and she’s not going to do it by sipping chamomile tea and trying to fit herself into a role that doesn’t suit her. In this season, Carrie also separates from her daughter, sending her home to the States to stay with her sister while she holes up in Germany attempting to find her assassin before he finds her. It’s never clear whether the life Carrie lives is one she’s chosen or one that’s chosen her, but she seems doomed to shed love from her life in favor of truth.

When I got back from Ireland, I was supposed to slowly wean myself off anti-psychotics and go on mood stabilizers, presumably for life. I went camping with my sister and forgot to take any meds.  I woke up under the cold, clear Colorado sky, more awake than I’d been in months.  I decided I was going to go off the drugs, but it was going to have to be secret (aside from telling my sister) in order to regain faith in my own mind.  When I met with the psychiatrist and my mother a few weeks later, I told them I’d been off drugs for weeks and wasn’t going back on. They scolded me for making a dangerous decision that put myself and those around me at risk, but they also had to admit that I had a point. I was okay without them.

In the Homeland episode, it is Carrie’s bipolar illness that clinches the judge’s decision to temporarily remove her daughter from her home (that and the fact that her daughter reported waking in the night to see her mother sitting on the floor of the bedroom guarding her with a loaded gun). “But that’s discrimination!” her lawyer rightfully cries out as people are clearing out of the courtroom and Carrie’s face is twisting with pain.  TV drama aside, the stigma about mental illness and motherhood is very real. Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind, is about her experience living with and treating others who have bipolar illness. She recounts a time a doctor suggests that she should not have children because of the risk of passing it on genetically.  She is firstly appalled at the suggestion that her very full life is one that might better not have been, and further speculates on what would happen if science manages to eliminate the gene or perfect prenatal diagnosis: “Do we risk making the world a blander, more homogenized place… What are the risks to the risk takers, those restless individuals who join with others in society to propel the arts, business, politics, and science?”

These days, I live a relatively stable life. I love being a mom, am blessed with a happy, thriving child, and find meaning in pleasure in teaching and writing. For years after that Colorado morning, I cavalierly judged those around me who took psychotropic medication. I’ve since grown out of that. Like the difference between Carrie deciding to send her daughter away, and Child Services taking her, it’s all about agency. Drugs are useful tools when one is empowered with choice. Who knows how much more functional I’d be—a reasonable salary?—if I were on medication. For now, I choose to avoid the myriad of side effects and live with my moody, imperfect but basically functional self. (Of course, I’m incredibly lucky to be basically functional without medication. For some people, it is what saves their lives.) Like Carrie, I believe that my gifts and curses are often two sides of the same coin. In fact, it was intrinsic to my healing to see my madness as a part of me rather than something that needed to be chiseled off. It’s part of my overall package, which most of the time, I manage to accept. Imperfect and farfetched as the show sometimes is, I’m grateful for Homeland’s portrayal of mental illness as just another aspect of what it is to be a whole human being in this increasingly nonsensical world.



Caitlin Grace McDonnell was a New York Times Fellow in poetry at NYU and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poems and essays have been published widely, and she is the author of two books of poems, Dreaming the Tree (belladonna, 2003) and Looking for Small Animals (Nauset Press 2012). Currently, she teaches writing and lives in Brooklyn with her eight-year-old daughter, Kaya.


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2 Responses to On Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, Mental Illness, & the “Ugly Cry”

  1. Lisa Andrews

    This was wonderful to read — not to make light of or discount in the least the rough ride, the very real ride involved. An amazing piece of writing, truth — powerful, real and true. You are bringing light to this subject, to all the subjects inside this. Truth and light. Yes, yes, yes.

  2. Pingback: In the Media, April 2017, Part One | The Writes of Woman

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