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Pierre Trudeau and the former Margaret Sinclair at the reception following their wedding March 4, 1971, in North Vancouver. (FRED SCHIFFER/Fred Schiffer/The Canadian Press)
Pierre Trudeau and the former Margaret Sinclair at the reception following their wedding March 4, 1971, in North Vancouver. (FRED SCHIFFER/Fred Schiffer/The Canadian Press)

Maybe we can learn from Margaret Trudeau Add to ...

She was our Princess Di before there was a Princess Di, with a little bit of Lindsay Lohan thrown in for good shocking measure. So here's my question about Margaret Trudeau: She has evolved, but have we? Are we able to accept she has something to teach us?

We have always had an uneasy relationship with Margaret, ever since she burst onto the scene at 22, the luminously beautiful, intriguing new wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who at 51, probably should have known better.

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Even though second-wave feminism was urging women out of their houses and girls into careers, most Canadians swooned over this barely grown woman, literally barefoot and pregnant, giving birth to one adorable son after another.

But as she recounts in her moving new memoir, Changing My Mind, something was terribly wrong. First came postpartum depression and then came alternating bouts of mania and depression, which led her to behave outrageously, from smoking weed under the noses of her RCMP officers, to shouting an obscenity in public at an aide of her husband, to singing inappropriately at a Venezuelan state dinner.

Feeling cooped up like a princess in a tower, Margaret blasted her way out, running off to see the Rolling Stones (and sleeping with one of them) and carrying on a strange romantic liaison with Senator Edward Kennedy, which drove her husband ballistic.

We thought she was nuts! Appallingly selfish! And in the eyes of most media, the worst sin of all, she abandoned her children. Yet as a young female journalist, I also felt some sympathy for her. Once, when I was working in Vancouver, my editor back east called to say there were rumours that Margaret had suffered a breakdown, and would I go to her parents' house in North Vancouver and see if she was there? I just couldn't do it, so I lied and said no one was home.

But after her marriage broke up and her first book Beyond Reason was published, I got on board the scandal express and broke the story in Maclean's of her liaison with Mr. Kennedy. Hot stuff!

I don't think all that time I seriously entertained the idea that she was truly ill. But as Margaret now writes, perhaps the most liberating day of her life came late, in 2004, after another marriage had foundered and another set of adorable kids had suffered from "mad Mommy," when she held a press conference to announce: "All my adult life I have suffered from a mental illness."

That illness is bipolar disorder, and Margaret, who writes that "30 years in and out of Canada's mental illness services had done me very little lasting good," is now determined to help the roughly 300,000 Canadians suffering from it and the more than three million with depression learn from her lessons: "If I can't be a role model, maybe I can be a dire warning."

Today an independent woman and a delighted grandmother, she has enormous potential to connect with Canadians suffering in different ways. For grieving parents, there is her own sorrow over the death of her son Michel Trudeau, swept away in an avalanche in 1998 while skiing. For abusers of alcohol and drugs, there is her ample history with both, which she now views as a desperate way to self-medicate (although she still indulges in the odd joint).

And for sufferers of mental illness, which affects almost every family in Canada, she urges them to move through denial and on to acceptance, and to keep looking for the right combination of doctor and medication. Every mentally ill person needs an advocate, she says.

Our attitudes toward mental illness have somewhat evolved, and a lot of what she is advocating we already accept. Furthermore, because of her own complex role in our public life, it will be interesting to see whether she has any impact.

If my husband is any example, this may be Margaret's moment. He listened to an interview she did with the CBC's Michael Enright and pronounced himself "shocked." Why? "I had no idea she was so articulate."

In her book, Margaret poignantly captures the paradox of the mentally ill. She quotes Michel, shortly before he died, desperately asking her during a canoe ride what everyone who loves someone who is mentally ill secretly thinks: "You've got the most beautiful life and the most wonderful children who love you very much. Why are you so sad? Why can't you just love your life?"

When you're mentally ill, unless you get the right help, you just can't.

Margaret Trudeau still occasionally says odd things and she still seems fragile. Yet I admire her perseverance, and her determination, this time, to make a lasting contribution. There's no reason not to take her seriously.

Margaret Trudeau's first book is entitled Beyond Reason. Inaccurate information originally appeared in an earlier version of this story.

 

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