The problem with depression—the thing that makes it so hard to describe, and gives its sufferers a bad conscience—is its resemblance to unhappiness. Unhappiness is part of every life, and most people learn how to cope with it: by changing the conditions that cause it, or by distracting themselves, or by actively repressing it. A person who can’t deal with being unhappy is seen as a moral failure—childish, selfish, “difficult.” It is all too easy to apply the same judgment to a depressed person, as if depression just meant luxuriating in unhappiness. David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant story, “The Depressed Person,” in which a woman worries that by describing her suffering she will only disgust her friends and even her therapist—a worry which itself feeds into her suffering.
But depression is actually the opposite of unhappiness, because it is precisely not “a part of life.” When you are unhappy, life is pressing you, hurting you, and you are forced to respond to it. An unhappy life is a problem, and to be absorbed in a problem is to be absorbed in existence. When you are depressed, on the other hand, there is no problem, because there is nothing to be solved. Existence itself seems to retreat, to leave you stranded, without purchase on things, people, yourself. In her new memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, Daphne Merkin describes it this way:
Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school. You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become—and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.
This is the situation that Heidegger called anxiety, and that Sylvia Plath describes as being covered with a bell jar. Nothing matters—not obligations, or commitments, or challenges, or pleasures. It is this failure of mattering that feels so impossible to remedy, and which leads the depressed person to thoughts of suicide.
“Yesterday in therapy I described my life as ‘horrific,’ which I realize is subjective and self-dramatizing,” Merkin writes. Right away you can detect the depressed person’s urge to apologize and justify, for Merkin knows that outwardly her life might seem a happy one. She is a successful writer (and a Tablet contributor)—this is her fourth book—and the daughter of a wealthy and prominent New York family. She does not suffer from any obvious misfortune, such as hunger or poverty. “I know I lead a privileged existence, I know there are people hanging on by a thread in Haiti and the Congo and elsewhere across the globe, I know, I know, I know. … But I still can’t get out of being me.”
In this book, Merkin tries to explain why “being me” is such an affliction. The result is a hybrid of memoir, case study, and confession, which joins such classics as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon in the contemporary literature of depression. What distinguishes Merkin’s book, and gives it an alarming power, is her recognition that depression is not something that once happened to her, an experience she can now look back on with understanding. That way of writing about depression, Merkin suggests, is peculiarly masculine, characteristic of books like William Styron’s groundbreaking Darkness Visible. “Men,” she writes, “have cannily figured out how to sidestep the implication of moral failing that attaches to mental illness—as well as the specific criticism of self-indulgence that is attributed to more introspective accounts of this condition—by insisting on a force outside themselves, or on a purely genetic susceptibility.”
For Merkin, by contrast, depression is something that emerges from within, the medium in which she lives. She experiences it as “a yawning inner lack—some elusive craving for wholeness or well-being.” Writing about a lack is difficult, and perhaps no one has ever captured exactly what it feels like to be depressed, simply because one can’t describe a negative. Merkin avoids this problem by writing less about the feeling of depression than about its causes and its remedies. What, she asks, made her so miserable? And what happens when she tries—through therapy, medication, or hospitalization—to cure that misery?
The answer to the first question—what causes depression?—depends largely on the vocabulary you use to ask it. Is depression understood philosophically, as a response to the true nature of reality—its futility, loneliness, despair? Or is it understood medically, as a deficit of certain brain chemicals, which turns it into a disease like diabetes? There are hints of both these approaches in Merkin; but the vocabulary she prefers is that of psychology and psychoanalysis. And this means that she looks for the origin of depression in early experience, especially in family relationships.
Much of This Close to Happy, then, is a memoir of her childhood. “I recognize,” Merkin writes, “that there is always the risk in a story like this one of alienating the reader, of coming off like a poor little rich girl, mewling piteously against a background of plenitude.” Even in a family less well-off than the Merkins, childhood complaints run the risk of seeming petty, simply because childhood takes place on a small scale. It takes courage to admit that it is exactly these petty injuries that cause the greatest harm, even decades later. For instance, when Merkin complains that her mother, a wealthy woman, got Merkin’s daughter a cheap bat mitzvah present—a Timex alarm clock—the reader might wonder whether this is a grievance worth cherishing.
But the power of the gesture lies in what it symbolizes—the withholding that Merkin feels to be characteristic of her mother, and which defined her own childhood. Though the Merkins were (and are) a mainstay of New York’s Orthodox community, she recalls that “I never remotely felt a sense of community growing up,” and as an adult she let go of Jewish observance. She writes of “the barbed-wire infrastructure of our early life, gilded over by its Park Avenue facade,” and the picture she paints is consistently harrowing. Merkin’s parents, Hermann and Ursula, were both born in Germany, emigrated during the Nazi period, and ended up in New York City, where they met after the war. They complained that their lives had not taken the paths they intended, but Merkin is not inclined to pity them; she reserves that emotion for their six children.
Though there was a staff of servants, she writes, the children were often hungry, because there was never enough food in the house. They were effectively raised by a nursemaid, Jane, who was cruel and violent: On one occasion, Merkin recalls, Jane smashed her head repeatedly into a bathroom wall. Their mother was complicit in this abuse, showing no interest in her children’s wellbeing. When she did pay attention, it was worse: Merkin recalls one episode in which her mother, without explanation, drew a “daisy chain of swastikas” on her daughter’s arm. While Merkin takes care not to give away details of her siblings’ lives, she suggests that all of them were scarred by this upbringing and had serious trouble adjusting to adulthood.
Merkin writes about her own psychic fallout with a fluency that reflects decades of therapy. She was a miserable child, tearful and anxious, and her first hospitalization came at the age of 8: “I wasn’t sure whether I had been taken to the hospital as a reward or punishment but I tried very hard to make as little fuss as possible, just in case my behavior was being evaluated by some unseen, Jane-like presence.” This Close to Happy includes accounts of several later, adult stays in mental hospitals, ranging from the grimy to the genteel, all of them disappointing and ultimately ineffective. Indeed, while Merkin has spent much of her life in therapy, and credits it with saving her life, she takes an ambivalent view of it: “To this day, I don’t know what I feel about the whole therapeutic enterprise, whether I would have been better off never delving into the wreckage.”
Delving into the wreckage, of course, is exactly what she does in this book. In the end, it is not a choice but a necessity. As Merkin relates the course of her adult life—professional successes and failures, marriage and divorce, and motherhood—she cannot help seeing it as the sequel to a childhood whose very awfulness gave it an unforgettable intensity. Yet self-knowledge does nothing to help her suffering: “If what happened, happened, what front am I fighting on?” Toward the end of This Close to Happy, Merkin remarks that she has been working on the book for more than a decade, and it shows, in a good way. This is a book about the process of depression, its ongoing-ness; and while it ends on a hopeful note, Merkin gives no guarantees about the future. Suffering can never be redeemed, certainly not by a book, but at least Merkin has written one that will illuminate, challenge, and possibly even console.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.