Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania is published today. It is perhaps not surprising that Charles Monroe-Kane, who has heard voices in his head since childhood, should find a career as an award-winning public radio producer and host. Here he talks with us about his life. He’s also chosen links to radio pieces that expand on this story.
Why did you write this memoir? I’d struggled all my life with mental illness—extreme mania, hearing voices—and it got misunderstood in many different ways. It got me in a lot of trouble, actually. And surprisingly, about five years ago, in my 40s, it got really bad. The voices were changing, and I was actually scared. I went to a therapist to talk about it and my therapist was like, “I can help you, but you need to slow down! Write this stuff down!” So I did.
And really, on a deeper level, I wrote the book because I was trying to figure out who the hell I am. Why did I take lithium, and why did I quit taking it and then start taking it again? And what were these voices, anyway? Was it mania? Brain chemistry awry? Angels? A gift? Was I just crazy? I never really thought this book could get published. I just wanted to tell the truth to myself so I could figure it all out.
Can you tell us about your book title, Lithium Jesus? Well, the lithium part is about the drugs. As for Jesus, I grew up in a rough-and-tumble steel mill town, and I was a very manic kid who was pretty out of control and hearing voices, which, of course, I didn’t tell anyone about. One day at an Evangelical/Pentecostal summer camp, I heard people speaking in tongues for the first time. It sounded, structurally, very similar to the voices in my head. That didn’t scare me; I actually found it comforting. I ended up becoming a born-again evangelical Christian because I felt a kindred spirit with those people. And once I got the guts, I also spoke out loud the voices that I’d been hearing for years. That led some people to think I was anointed by God, and when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old, and grownups see you that way, that’s one hell of an ego boost. It was also a good feeling to think that God was speaking through me. I thought the voices in my head were angels. It was beautiful at the time!
Later you made a huge leap from being a clean-cut Christian to a lifestyle that included lots of mind-bending drugs. Why? I think the reason was twofold. One, when I left the church and God, I was pretty lost. You can imagine, your whole life is wrapped up in Jesus, and when that’s gone but you still have these voices leftover . . . that was very difficult for me.
Second, I wanted to rebel. In high school I didn’t drink, smoke, or have sex. But I wanted to do those things! Of course, my introduction wasn’t beer: it was psychedelics. And that’s not surprising, really. I went from having charismatic experiences in church to taking psychedelics because it was familiar. I liked it. I wasn’t afraid of it. And I did a lot of it. Before it turned into abuse, it was a way for me to be both transcendent and an atheist. I still sincerely believe drugs are a way to do that. I just don’t think you should do lots and lots of them without a guide or some help.
This is your story, but you’re not always a hero in it. I think many people make themselves the goat of their own story because they’re embarrassed about their own past. It’s one or the other, right? We either exaggerate to belittle ourselves or to make ourselves great. If we were all a bit more honest, we’d find out we’re all both sinners and saints.
With this book, I said to myself, “I’m not going to judge the church. I’m not going to judge the people I did drugs with. I’m not going to judge anybody, including myself.” Because who wants to read that? Look, salvation is the journey, not the destination. So let’s quit denying how we got to the place we are at and just chill the fuck out. And keep on down the path, you know?
You’re a public radio producer. Did that influence the way you tell your life story in this book? Yeah, when I was staring at the blank screen, trying to “just write,” I didn’t even know where to start. But I knew I had about seventeen core stories I wanted to tell, stories that I’d told many times before. So I decided to treat the whole thing as a radio producer would.
Here in Madison, I usually go drinking on Thursday nights with my buddies at our local bar. I decided to start bringing my recorder to the bar, and I’d record myself telling these stories. Then I would go home and transcribe and edit them, and I’d put them in chronological order and add some connective tissue to make them work. A few more intimate pieces I recorded alone. So the whole thing’s very oral, because that’s what I know how to do. But I would advise other people to try this. You think you can’t write a book, but I bet you can talk! Then see what you get.
[Listen to a radio interview with Charles Monroe-Kane about hearing voices, and talking to God, on the To the Best of Our Knowledge radio program.]
Charles Monroe-Kane has won a Peabody Award for his work as a senior producer and interviewer for the program To the Best of Our Knowledge, broadcast on 220 public radio stations. He has reported for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.