Anatomy of Melancholy

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression BY Daphne Merkin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. . $26.

The cover of This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression

In a fascinating moment toward the end of Daphne Merkin's new memoir, This Close to Happy, she observes from her seat in the cafeteria of a psychiatric hospital that she feels jealous of the anorexics. "They were clearly and poignantly victims of a culture that said you were too fat if you weren't too thin . . . . No one could blame them for their condition or view it as a moral failure, which was what I suspected even the nurses of doing about us depressed patients." The depressives "were suffering from being intractably and disconsolately—and some might say self-indulgently—ourselves." The anorexics were victims and their disease expressed itself as conspicuous self-denial. Depressives, meanwhile, exhibited self-indulgence, and self-indulgence is both unappealing and impossible to share.

There are at least half a dozen thought exercises at play in Merkin's memoir. Probably the most prominent of those, though, is the challenge: how to make a depression memoir that's an enjoyable read, one that describes "what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside"? The question relies on a hugely relativistic understanding of enjoyable. It's hard to like books that make you feel as if you're slowly drowning in a Crock-Pot of simmering oil, or that make you want to take a knife to your own heart. A reasonable person might expect a depression memoir to be just that kind of book. Clinical depression is, after all, a paralyzing, unrelenting, frequently boring stew. Or, as Merkin characterizes it in her opening pages, an "all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross . . . against which one tries to construct a flourishing self." A drag, in other words. Here's what's not a drag: Merkin's ranging, nimble, eloquent intellect in a pitched battle with the albatross.

Merkin's depression, which made its first appearance when she was a child, is detailed here at length: years of depending on increasingly complex pharmaceutical cocktails just to feel normal; an endless parade of therapists—each with a unique perspective on root causes and avenues of remedy; dramatic weight gains and losses; severe postpartum depression; a number of stays in mental-health facilities; a terrifying phase when she considered electroshock therapy; and, finally, extended periods of inertia, during which Merkin was unable to write, work, or even participate effectively in daily life. There are, it turns out, two albatrosses in Merkin's book: One is depression and the other is family—more specifically, her mother, a complex, hostile, and withholding parent. As the disease shapes Merkin's emotional life, so does her mother, a fierce, brainy, wealthy Holocaust survivor, who seems consistently appalled by her maternal obligations to her six children. "I can't explain it," says Merkin's mother to her youngest daughter. "Something happens to your face when you're moody. . . . You just look hi-dyus." In the wake of Merkin's first hospitalization, at age eight, her mother is advised to lock her daughter in a room alone when she cries. "Your tears don't move me," her mother would say, or "You feel my five fingers in your face," before slapping the girl. One of Merkin's siblings was told by a psychiatrist that their mother was insidiously cruel and suffered from the pathological inclination to "eat her own." The pronouncement apparently became the stuff of undisputed family legend.

Merkin has covered a lot of this territory already in her previous books (one novel and two works of nonfiction), as well as in her autobiographical magazine pieces, most notably in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Early in This Close to Happy, she writes, "Sometimes I feel doomed to tell the story of my family over and over again," and compares her fate to the Passover seder, for which the annual repetition of the story of the Jewish people's flight from Egypt is considered a mitzvah (i.e., a blessing). There are many theological explanations for the ritual repeating of stories, common to all religions. Not least: The retelling of stories reasserts a connection to the deep past and by extension to eternity. Yet the effective result of repeating biblical stories is to discover how their meaning and resonance change for any given person over the course of a lifetime. As she exhaustively plumbs her life story for connections to her mental illness, it becomes clear that Merkin is urgently trying to solve a puzzle: "to wrest my story away from my own earlier telling of it—a narrative that once may have felt necessary and true, but that has by now become its own sort of prison."

Puzzles are the cornerstone of Merkin's ars poetica, especially the dangerous thrill of facing one's own puzzles and acknowledging "their often shadowy solutions." Merkin's writing is all about rigorous self-reflection, even though she comments repeatedly that there is no room today for figures like Virginia Woolf or Matthew Arnold, whose essays flowed from a "sober and nuanced wrestling with personal demons." "In spite of our anything-goes, tell-all culture," she writes, "so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure, too much ruffling of the surface. We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority, unless it is presented in a shrill, almost campy style under the aegis of the recovery movement, with its insistence on dramatic personal testimony." She takes exception in particular to "recovery," which, in the context of the depression-memoir genre, unselfconsciously dictates that the illness has to come to an end—as evidenced by the fact that a memoirist must emerge from her disease enough to produce a book. The implication of delivering a depression memoir to the world is that depression is categorically survivable. But chronic depression, suicidal depression, Merkin's depression, doesn't work like that. It doesn't actually end; it returns. And when it does for Merkin, she's hardly capable of writing, let alone answering e-mails, or getting out of bed. The genre of the depression memoir embodies a perverse contradiction. James Baldwin was spot-on, she writes, when he said that "no one works better out of anguish at all; that's an incredible literary conceit." Merkin's challenge to herself in these pages is to defy a genre that depends on the artificial structure of a bookend, on a recovery.

Caitlin Keogh, Interiors, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 63". Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York.
Caitlin Keogh, Interiors, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 63". Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York.

Merkin has a signature method to her writing, one that exuberantly crosshatches high- and lowbrow, and one that reveals and protects in equal measure. It's at once candid and curious, taboo-busting and respectable. There's no better model of her system than her notorious 1996 spanking essay, from the New Yorker ("I would say my life was 'before' and 'after' that spanking essay"). The essay, "Unlikely Obsession," begins with a detailed accounting of her sophisticated personal library. This is followed by a detailed confession of her darkest sexual fantasies, and then by a disclaimer: "Although I tend to be loquacious bordering on confessional with my friends, the discomfort I felt about my interest in erotic discipline and what it might suggest about me necessitated a degree of privacy that I was otherwise disinclined to observe. But even as I write the foregoing I feel a sense of relief (as well as shame) at finally giving voice to this confession, at putting down on paper, under my own name, what I know to be true of myself." These are not the grotesque revelations of a writer eager to air her transgressions, but rather the rigorous self-inquiry of an intellectual, who is cannily able to publicly declaim what she can't privately discuss. It is the opposite of the emotional exhibitionism that generally distinguishes the memoir genre. For Merkin, the mix of self-protectiveness and revelation is a motif running throughout her work, and in its inherent humility and explicit vulnerability, the conflict itself is an avenue to intimacy with the reader.

In 1996, Merkin wrote that her unlikely obsession was a conundrum, and that, "as with all puzzles, the clues were strewn everywhere, if one only knew where to begin looking and had the courage not to deny what turned up." One aspect of This Close to Happy is unmistakably its realistic, non-paradigmatic portrayal of depression. Another is the puzzle of her mother, and the effect that her "looming shadow" had on Merkin's life and her illness. As This Close to Happy draws to an end, Merkin realizes that while her depression is eternal, her feelings about her mother are not. Doomed to repeat the story of her family, Merkin finds herself at last distanced from the posture of her "earlier telling," which was: "Being a verifiable basket case had its rewards for all of us; it got my mother's wholehearted attention the way nothing else did, and it brought out in her a maternal solicitude that she rarely showed otherwise." Before her mother's death, Merkin flies to Israel on a sudden urge to confront her. Merkin collapses in tears and lobs ineffectual accusations at the elderly woman, who stands calmly in front of her, holding a cup of tea, reassuring her that everything will be fine; she's just having another one of her episodes. "The fact is," Merkin writes, "that she is not as unaware of my turmoil as she acts—or as I choose to believe. There is nothing she doesn't know, nothing that will undo her. Perhaps this resilience is what she offers instead of a more recognizable form of love, a stoic willingness to stand guard and see me through the depths."

There is a bookend, an albatross defeated. The complicated matriarch is revealed in a different light. Not as the abusive woman who only acts the way a mother should act when one of her children is profoundly ill, but rather as a force of endurance: "I was beginning to understand, however tentatively, that my quest for a new and improved childhood was so futile that it was tantamount to a wish to die—to stop the world and get off. The time for absolute caretaking was past, and if I hadn't gotten it thirty years earlier, I wasn't going to get it now, no matter how implacably I insisted on it." The adult child comes to accept her mother for who she was, rather than who she should have been. It's not recovery or a cure, but rather a perspective shift, a new chapter, a new puzzle. And, as promised, Merkin stays true to the dismal reality of chronic depression—but in a warm, articulate, positive-outlook kind of way.

Minna Zallman Proctor's collection of true stories, Landslide, will be published by Catapult this fall.