Book Review: Songs of Three Islands

A Story of Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family

by Millicent Monks, 2010
Atlas & Co. Publishers, ISBN 978-1-934633-34-2, $24

Song of Three Islands cover

The first of the three islands in the title is Cumberland.

Millicent Monks is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Carnegie (brother to the famous Andrew) and Lucy Coleman Carnegie, who bought Cumberland Island in 1881, inhabited Dungeness and a number of other large residences there, living elegantly, surrounded by amenities and many servants.

The departure from the familiar Carnegie story as told by Ms. Monks is the recurrence of mental illness beginning with matriarch Lucy Coleman Carnegie, who late in life spent time at McLean, a famous mental hospital near Boston. “Mama Negie’s illness was never mentioned by my mother. You simply didn’t talk about such things in those days.”

Today, Ms. Monks does talk about the borderline personality disorder that affected not only Lucy Coleman Carnegie, matriarch of the clan, but her daughter Lucy (mother of the author), and the author’s daughter. Without being specific, she also alludes to behavioral problems exhibited by other family members, and while she describes her own reckless behaviors and childhood experiences typical of borderline personality disorder, she never applies that label to herself. Borderline personality disorder is a problem fairly recently identified, one that involves strong negative emotions and impulsivity. Parts of the brain have been identified that function differently in people with this problem.

The most vivid and engaging parts of the book describe times long past. These have a “tell all” quality with the author often including verbatim comments and intense imagery that seem to be eyewitness observations, often from events before she was born. It’s a lively and romanticized story of luxury and of bold and reckless behavior. By comparison – and partly because of the expectations set up by early chapters — her writing about her own adult life is less satisfying, for she retains a high degree of privacy.

Stylistically, the author’s imagery of the North wind, which she describes as integral to her sense of self, is used intermittently through the book, but generally seems calculated, rather than integral to the narrative. Some personal experiences, occurring in her adult life story, especially her visions, fail to convey the larger/deeper meaning, which they seem intended to carry. Overall, compared to the immediate tone and intimate sharing of earlier years, these chapters are told in a more distanced, reporter’s voice than the immediate, intimate sharing of earlier years, and could have benefitted from further editing.

Since readers of the CIM Newsletter are likely interested in the natural history of Cumberland, it is important to note that Ms. Monks’ descriptions of Cumberland Island, despite their vivid detail in early chapters, are at times fanciful rather than factual. Likewise her descriptions of the process of Cumberland becoming a National Seashore and the actions of the NPS, while perhaps reflecting family attitudes, are often historically inaccurate. On her last visit to Cumberland she “noticed something in the bushes on the side of the road. It was a group of backpackers. I was startled. I had never seen anyone on the road, and it brought the realization back to me that the Park Service, which had taken over much of the island when Jimmy Carter was president, had allowed campers and day visitors, and had also killed off the wild boar and alligators.” She concludes this short chapter: “I will not return.”

In summary, this book credibly describes how a person with financial resources and a heritage of privilege can deploy these assets to address her needs and search for answers, though never escape, the “life sentence” of mental illness running in her family.