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review: memoir

Margaret Trudeau in 2009The Globe and Mail

In the autumn of 2000, Margaret Trudeau was falling apart. Two months before, Pierre had died. Two years earlier, Michel had been killed. The death of her former husband and the loss of her youngest son were body blows. A life of divorce, drugs, alcohol - ricocheting between celebrity and notoriety and wealth and privation - was now presenting a bill. It was all too much.

In the last days of December, she lost control. When her middle son, Sacha, found her disoriented at her home and called a doctor, she learned that her depression and mania had become a wasting malaise demanding treatment in a psychiatric ward. At the hospital, she begged nurses not to lock her up. "I had hit rock bottom," she writes. "There was nowhere lower for me to go."

And so it was Margaret Joan Sinclair Trudeau Kemper at the nadir of her descent into mental illness. She had been the flower child of Morocco, the temptress of Tahiti, the child bride of the prime minister and the unhappy chatelaine of 24 Sussex Dr. She had been the drug-addled hipster and the high-octane jet setter. She had been tastemaker and mischief-maker and, once upon a time, the enfant terrible of cold, grey Canada.

But now, as she lay broken on the floor of the Royal Ottawa Hospital, what could she be thinking? Perhaps, we might guess, simply this: How, oh Lord, had it come to this?

Changing My Mind follows Margaret Trudeau's stormy passage from ingénue to depressive and beyond, and the stations in between. It is the chronicle of a life of hurt softened by interludes of happiness. While much of the tale is achingly sad, shaded by mental illness, it is affecting and uplifting. We knew that she was quicksilver, quirky and mercurial and her misbehaving appalled us. Whatever our suspicions, though, we did not know that she was clinically ill, even suicidal.

When we left the story in 1982, Trudeau had recalled her life after Pierre as author, actress and adventurer in her second book, Consequences. In her first book, Beyond Reason, in 1979, she recalled her life with Pierre, two years after their separation.

It has been 28 years since we heard from her, though this book isn't exactly "breaking her silence," as its publicity suggests. Now, at 61, a grandmother of five, she is a figure in repose - single, sane, content and chatty. If much sounds familiar, it is, though this memoir is written (or perhaps ghostwritten) with economy and sincerity.

Once again, she recalls her childhood in Vancouver as the fourth of five daughters born to James Sinclair, a Liberal cabinet minister; her soul-searching in Morocco in trailing skirts and sequins; her spiritual journeys with Leonard Cohen and others.

For those who don't know the saga of Maggie and Pierre, she explains how implausible their secret marriage in 1971 was - he disciplined, rational and devout; she reckless, impulsive, rebellious and extravagant.

Shortly after he meets her in a bikini in the South Pacific in 1967, he says: "If I ever marry, she's the one." He does and she is. She revisits the October Crisis, her pregnancies (which banished her melancholy) and raising three boys (Pierre was a dedicated father, always). Soon it will all go bad. Pierre is old enough to be her father, parsimonious (he ensures early on that she won't inherit his fortune) and strange (they could make love on weekends, sometimes Tuesdays, but never Wednesdays, when the cabinet met).

She feels used in the Liberals' victorious election campaign in 1974. Her home becomes "a jail." She has an affair with Ted Kennedy, then drummer Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, and others. The girl got around.

But we know all that, sort of. What we didn't know, at least not when Margaret was in our consciousness, was that she was a manic depressive, suffering from bipolar disorder. Depression, she allows, has been a hallmark of her inconstant life.

And so it went, through her second marriage to Fried Kemper, with whom she had a son and daughter. There were wonderful years, she reminds us, but as his business went bad and their relationship dissolved, she sunk into despair again, aggravated by a fondness for marijuana. When they were burying Pierre, by one account, she threw herself on his casket and sobbed inconsolably.

Since that awful Christmas 10 years ago, she has come back from the abyss. She has gone public with her medical affliction and works to raise public awareness of mental illness. It has been a long, strange trip for Margaret Trudeau, whom we respect today for her honesty and her courage. She has changed her mind - and now, perhaps, we'll change ours about her.

Andrew Cohen, who covered the last government of Pierre Trudeau, is president of The Historica-Dominion Institute. He is working on a new book on the Kennedy presidency.