Glenn and Jessie Close: Two sisters, one mental illness, and a book

This past week I finished reading Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness (Grand Central Publishing, Jan. 2015). I picked it up because I like Glenn Close, whose successful acting career has turned her into American royalty. But also because the jacket photo shows her with her arms wrapped around Jessie, her younger sister, whose life gradually unraveled into mental illness and for whom Glenn is a fierce advocate.

As a little girl, Jessie Close was separated from her parents when they joined a cult called MRA (Moral Rearmament), a Christian movement founded by Dr. Frank Buchman in the 1930s. Not only was Jessie made to stay behind when her mother and father shipped off to Africa – ostensibly to make the world a better place – she was separated from her three older siblings, including big sister Glenn, whom she calls “Glennie.”



It would be presumptuous to assume a cause for Jessie’s illness. But one can draw associations. Separation from family can result in feelings of abandonment in any child, and a lack of emotional safety – conditions that researchers now say can cause toxic stress and contribute to cognitive, behavioral, and mental disorders.

While the ebb and flow of Jessie’s alcohol addiction and emotional “storms” consumed more and more of her energy, at times shutting down her ability to function as a mother and business woman, it was not until Jessie reached her 50s that she was finally diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, and her illness controlled with medication.

“Resilience” moves quickly through Jessie’s early years, revealing bits and pieces of her life in New York, Switzerland, Connecticut and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Even during the short periods she lived with her father, he remained emotionally distant and preoccupied. Her mother Bettine apparently felt it was her duty to stay by her husband’s side, leaving the children in the hands of MRA nannies.

In a misguided attempt to inculcate the cult’s four moral standards: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love, MRA staff members pried into the children’s private thoughts and made them feel guilty for wanting their parents.

Imagine. An organization whose goal is to improve the world’s condition encouraging the separation of families.

While in Zaire, William T. Close, a surgeon, became the personal physician of President Mobutu, a corrupt dictator. Dr. Close and his wife spent a total of 16 years in Africa. (In 1976 he was instrumental in stemming an outbreak of the Ebola virus.) Meanwhile, their children were off in distant lands and Jessie was basically raising herself.

As I read this book, I was taken by how very alone in the world Jessie must have felt as a child and adolescent, moving from one continent to the another with attachments as thin and fragile as spun sugar. It’s not surprising that she grabbed hold of the first guy who showed an interest.

Brad was one bad-ass dude. But Jessie married him anyway, mostly to spite her parents. Just a wild teenager, she used her trust fund to finance an underground radio station, KPOT, which she and Brad ran from of their LA apartment. (I liked this chapter a lot – a little bit of music history on the side.) Even her grandmother threw in ten grand in support of the operation.

The illegal station –  a hot spot for well-known rockers – was eventually busted by the FCC. The couple was forced to shut it down. With their connections, however, they were able to morph it into a cable station. But things went from bad to worse between Brad and Jessie, mostly because he was a womanizing control freak. (But wasn’t her husband’s control of her similar to her father’s, whose aloofness also made her feel unworthy?)

Had it not been for the intervention of Jessie’s mother and sister, I think the relationship might have killed her – or at least dragged her into a drugged-out abyss. But Glenn and Bettine kidnapped Jessie from Brad’s dangerous clutches, and spirited her away to the parents’ ranch in Montana. As Glenn flew in and out of her sister’s life over the years, rescuing her from one disaster or another, I imagined an angel soaring into hell, then flying back to the heavens – or whatever movie she was filming at the time.

Another bit of history that I found fascinating was Glenn’s association with Up With People, the well-known, squeaky clean singing group, which (surprise, surprise) was founded by the MRA. These international high school and college-age kids were known for smiling through goody-two-shoes songs that Mr. Rogers might have written, songs largely promoting goodwill and right living.

Actually, Up with People was the Right’s answer to the burgeoning counter-culture of the mid-1960s and early ’70s, and was funded by corporations such as Haliburton, General Motors and Exxon – all of them eager to quell  “unAmerican” activities, including anti-war protests and rock music. In one interview, I read Glenn’s admission that during her time in Up With People she was unable to think for herself.

While Jessie’s life today is no doubt a far cry from the train wreck she once lived (think addiction, depression, impulsive decision-making, five ill-fated marriages), her writing-style is so immediate, so raw, that I felt as though I were living through the crashes – and resulting pile-ups – with her. Frankly, I wish there had been a lot more “air” blown into the manuscript in the way of perspective. In other words, a bit of distance and reflection on her past experiences and mental illness coming from where she is today. But as my son says, “It is what it is.”

Glenn’s intermittent contributions to the book succeed in pulling the reader out of Jessie’s nightmare existence and into a calmer, more lucid dimension. It’s quite obvious that the advocacy Glenn provided was invaluable, as were the family’s financial resources. Unlike so many of the country’s mentally ill, Jessie was able to receive excellent care, as was her teenage son following his diagnosis with schizo-affective disorder. And while the book takes us on a roller-coaster ride, we wait patiently for a fitting ending, something that lets us know everything is going to be all right.

On the whole, I think Jessie’s story is really about what happens when parents abandon their children –  for whatever reason and however noble the cause. Of course we can, and perhaps should, set aside blame.  But there is such a thing as leveling responsibility. The children of Dr. and Mrs. Close were not given a voice – a way to express their need for nurturing, for touch, gentle smiles and positive interaction from those who love them best – things that all children need. That’s because their parents put their own needs first. It’s just what happened. And it happens everywhere. As a result, it seems to me that Jessie didn’t have a sense of “mattering,” of being cherished by the very people who were supposed to cherish her each and every day: her parents.  Being outside that conversation can only create the worst kind of stress, alienation and self-loathing.

While many say that mental illness is genetic – and I believe that it can be – new brain science points to the science of  “epigenetics” – the influence of environment on genetic expression. And we cannot discuss environment without considering the effect of stress hormones, such as cortisol, on the DNA. In a YouTube video titled, The Neurobiology of Secure Attachment, Dr. Allan Schore, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, talks about the DNA “spinning out,” or “coming online” in children well into the first year of life. (

This is not the Mendelian genetics we learned in high school biology, where you draw a grid to show a baby’s chances of having blue or brown eyes. This new stuff forces us to recognize that children have different needs than adults. What we do with that information has the potential for impacting more than we once believed possible. The Harvard Center on Developing Child offers a wealth of information on the topic of childhood stress, including interactive displays and taped forums on the effects of toxic stress on developing brain architecture.

But you can draw your own conclusions. Pick up the book some lazy weekend. Let me know what you think.  FFG

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