A reader responded to my negative review of Annie Lamott’s Almost Everything (July 12, 2019) by asking if I could recommend any books on depression. The short answer is yes and no.
The problem is that there are many books out there that purport to address the issue of depression. Note the word “purport.” I’ll explain my use of that cautiously qualifying verb by saying when I decided to do some research in the hopes of finding books that actually deal with depression without lapsing into malignant narcissism or self-righteous political polemics, I quickly found out it ain’t as easy as I thought it might be.
First, what qualifies as a book on depression? The Bell Jar¸ by Sylvia Plath, is technically a novel (roman à clef would be more accurate), but as I remember it (I read it back when Jimmy Carter was in office, literally, as preparation for my role as Buddy in the unsuccessful movie starring Marilyn Hassett) it is a book about depression. Will it help you deal with your depression? I’ll have to go back and re-read it, but my recollection is that because it follows a fictional construct, it would only be helpful in a sort of peripheral, oblique way. I’ll know more after I re-read it, but it is certainly not a self-help book.
There are memoirs by and about people dealing with depression. I have recently read or re-read three of those I can unreservedly say are excellent: William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. I hope to review all three in length, at some future date when I feel a little more up to the task, because all three deserve to be read as much for literary merit as for any other reason. In the meantime, while all three offer insights into depression and some of that disease’s ancillary symptoms, none of them qualify as self-help books.
Manchester’s is probably the least helpful, being more a memoir of the appallingly bloody Pacific War and some of the nightmarish experiences he had there than it is about his own mental state, but it is emphatically worth reading, both for its historical analysis of the Pacific campaign and for its portrayal of the stresses those young men were put under and the incredible sacrifices they made. Here is his description of close quarters combat inside a small hut on one of the remote islands you and I have never heard of where so many young American men died for us:
“My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead on in the femoral artery. His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush. A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor. Mutely he looked down at it. He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red. His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died. I kept firing, wasting government property.”
When self-righteous virtue signalers tell you what a monstrous act America committed by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remember that over 75,000 young American soldiers were killed on Okinawa alone, an island that measures only seventy miles in length and approximately seven miles across. Read Manchester’s book, and you will understand why he suddenly found himself having troubles thirty-five years later. Shooting another human being can be every bit as traumatic as getting shot.
Styron’s is a straightforward account of his own descent into an exceptionally severe and virulent variant of depression, one that required his ultimate hospitalization and the use of serious medications. It, like Manchester’s memoir, is exquisitely written, well worth reading, and offers hope from the point of view that both men recovered ultimately, but it too is not a self-help book. It is, however, a grim description of what really severe depression can do to a person.
“Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims. It has been estimated that as many as one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds and classes, though women are at considerably higher risk than men… [snip] …Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that aristocratic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide.”
Aristocratic antecedents and artistic ability are cold comfort to sufferer and families of sufferers both.
Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, is probably the most revealing, from the point of view that she discusses candidly both her symptoms and her diagnoses, frequently with a wonderfully off-beat sense of the absurd:
“It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.”
Ms. Kaysen was hospitalized at the prestigious McLean Hospital just outside Boston, the same hospital where, many years earlier, Sylvia Plath, poet Robert Lowell, singers James Taylor and Ray Charles, among others, were hospitalized.
“What is it about meter and cadence and rhythm that makes their makers mad?”
Her book, which I first read many years ago, was the first to alert me to the fact that depression can be associated with, or coupled with, a variety of other psychiatric disorders, up to and including psychotic episodes. From that point of view alone it is well worth reading.
Not owning any self-help books, I decided to do some online research and found certain books being recommended over and over again by multiple people.
And therein lies the rub. You can’t believe everything you read online, whether it’s about politics or depression. Even when you do find a trustworthy on-line source, read what it says carefully.
Because I have limited resources and limited space, I decided to save money and get some of these books from my little town’s local library. Like most other small towns, our library interconnects with other library systems within our county (four small towns, total) so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, only two of the five books I decided to try were in the system, and only one of those was available. That book is, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, by Sarah Wilson.
Ms. Wilson is an Australian writer, a former journalist and editor of Cosmopolitan Australia, and the best-selling author of I Quit Sugar and a bunch of spin-offs of that book; in fact, she appears to have created a highly successful cottage industry about quitting sugar, a highly sensible project and one for which she is to be commended.
The problem with First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (great title) is that it has nothing to do with depression. In fact, its subtitle is, A New Journey Through Anxiety. None of the reviews I read mentioned that tidbit. Also, I found the book praised on multiple sites and multiple lists of the best books about depression. Wrong: it deals with anxiety issues. It seems to offer some excellent advice for people with anxiety and/or bi-polar disease, but not for those of us suffering from depression. Ms. Wilson’s style of writing is a sort of breezy, hip-and-happening, we’re-all-in-this-together Cosmopolitan style I associate with articles entitled Five Hot Tricks to Drive Him Wild in the Sack! (yes, I look at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line, just as you do) but while I might not enjoy her writing style, I gladly admit it offers great advice. For anxiety sufferers, not depression sufferers.
So, for right now, all I can suggest are the three memoirs above and I’ll keep looking. For thee and for me.