Writers on

Nell Casey, Editor

When people write about something as traumatizing as melancholia, they have to be good --- for they are defining the undefinable. I would suggest that for the majority of these writers, we might be seeing them at their best. They are telling us something highly personal, something that meant or still means a great deal to them, their families, and their friends. These twenty-three are exposing themselves, letting us know that whatever it was that they went through turns the world upside down, that it wrings you out, leaves you wasted and --- sometimes --- feeling apologetic to yourself and to those you almost brought down with you.

And all along, after you are done with it, done talking about it, just to fool you, it comes flooding back all over again.

Some of the writing is as artful as can be found in contemporary literature. Larry McMurtry in a few short crisp pages takes us deeply into the two years where he could barely function. Lauren Slater's thirty or so pages give us a slow drop into despair, so subtle that we don't know we are there until suddenly it is all around us (exactly like the very condition it portrays).

At times, her words turn poetry. She wants to have a baby, or rather husband Ben does, so a doctor checks her out, and they find she is in good shape to be a mother: "My piping is clear and open, my ovaries stuffed with human caviar, my uterus pear-shaped and warm." But then, as she drops her anti-depressants, her mad, sad fantasies begins to work on her, and this is what comes up:

    Inside me now is a coiled thing going from parasite to personhood, and as it does it emits horrid toxins. I am awash in stinking hormones. The little embryo ejaculates human chorionic gonadotropin. All day long the embryo sits in my stomach and jerks off in spurts' sex steroids.

Meri Nana-Dama Danquah says, "There are times when I feel like I've known depression longer than I've known myself." She sees "the mask of depression" being "not all that different from the mask of race:"

    It, too, barrages its prey with groundless images; it concerns itself more with the fiction of a prescribed identity than with the notion of any true individuality. It too, seeks to blur a person's vision of herself, and her place in the world.

And the editor's own tale, and the co-responding essay from her sister, left both of them overwhelmed, something familiar to those of us who have gone through such journey. Professional writers have to be a bit daft anyway, and the terror comes from the fact that what one so depends on --- the brain --- suddenly goes screwy. There's something going on within, and we can't control it. We become scared not only for ourselves, but of ourselves.

And since no one can see our pain, we sometimes have to use extraordinary means to make it visible. An overdose of pills, perhaps. A slash at the wrists. Leaning out, too far, out of the open window of a high building.

§     §     §

It's not all pointed insight here in Miseryville, however. Of the twenty-three writers, there are three or four that sound like the off-key tubas in your typical Mexican mariachi band. Someone by the name of Susanna Kaysen tells us that she thinks that "depressive people have more fun." Hunh?

    Human nature being what it is, we enjoy more whatever is hard to get and in short supply. Happiness is certainly both, and nobody knows that better than someone who spends half the time sunk in gloom.

Then there's one Anne Beatty. We're not so sure how she wormed her way into this anthology, because in her brief essay she doesn't convey dread or grief or anything more than complaining about the downside of being a Famous Writer, carping about her mailman who insists on delivering manuscripts to her --- not from strangers, or friends --- but his own. That's it for the black bile department. When I was a kid, we had a saying. "Crazy? Who me crazy? I'm not crazy, I'm a teapot." Maybe Beatty has turned into a teapot.

Equally off-putting is Nancy Mairs. Ms. Mairs was the premier literary Gloomy-Gus of her day. Whenever it was time to review a book on disability or depression for the New York Times, she was the critic of choice. Her writing was and is very depressing, largely because she tends to give out with a huge number of words which go 'round and 'round (and 'round) but don't seem to reach wherever it is that she's trying to get us to.

She lets us know repeatedly that she was sad, that her childhood was miserable, that she has had electro-shock more than twenty times for her depression, and that she frets that she will never be a great writer. We don't know about all the others, but if she keeps carping about it, we'll definitely have to buy into the latter.

Finally, there's William Stryon. For some reason, he has become Mr. Melancholia Expert for the New York Literary Set. Anytime the subject of depression comes up, someone will inevitably invoke his autobiographical novel, Darkness Visible. It has been made the defining volume on personal woe. References to it turn up repeatedly in Unholy Ghost, as well as in magazines like Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker.

It may have something to do with Styron's world-renowned siege of depression, but --- equally as possible, the East Coast Smart Set being what it is --- it may have to do with his owning a house at Martha's Vineyard, mixing a mean Martini, and hanging out with all those other world-class depressives.

He and his wife (she appears in this volume too) go on and on about their friends Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, Peter Matthiesson, George Plimpton, John Marquand, and Truman Capote (with a mynah bird on his shoulder). It's a regular fun-house of names of those who believe they run the American Literary Fraternity.

However, despite all the names, as soon as Stryon starts in on his version of The Miseries, we get the feeling that there's something screwy. He is capable, without even trying hard, of coming up with some startling howlers, making him a modern-day neo-psychological Polonius. "I shall never learn what 'caused' my depression," he tells us, "as no one will ever learn about their own." No one? This ignores many of the perceptive writers (such as Larry McMurtry) in Unholy Ghost. Most have a damn good idea of the source of the blues and have consequently acquired a fair amount of personal insight from it.

"A vast majority of survivors of Auschwitz," Styron reports, "have borne up fairly well." Now where in God's name did that one come from? One of my psychotherapists was actively involved in treating older survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He told me that for many of them there was to be a conscious decision, on a daily basis, as to whether they wanted to continue living or not.

"Depression is not the soul's annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease --- and they are countless --- bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable." Right. Here we are in the trenches of life, gathered in dawn's breaking light, our Mausers in hand, knowing that when we race over the top, guns blazing, we'll conquer all. We know we'll win, because The General told us so.

And, finally, there's this astonishing solecism, contradicted not only by the other essays in Unholy Ghost, but by the writings of thousands of psychologists, psychotherapists, and other care-givers:

"Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds..."

This guy is not only a teapot, he's a menace to the trade, the Archie Bunker of the Psychotropic Set. Those of us in the depression fraternity should band together --- if we can ever make it out of our various Sloughs of Despond --- and take up a collection to get a restraining order against Styron, get him banned from ever writing about bipolar disorder ever again. Otherwise, those --- like David Karp --- who turn into "mental health detectives," seeking help in the current literature, may well find themselves stuck in a dismal hole of ignorance from which they'll never be able to escape.

Which would be very depressing.

--- L. W. Milam