Nearly thirty years ago, toward the end of the 1980s, acclaimed American novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and other books) wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times that he revised as an expanded article for Vanity Fair. Then it was published as a slim volume titled Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and Styron’s smallest book became his biggest bestseller.
Even now, three decades later, Styron’s trailblazing account of his grim battle with clinical depression remains a milestone. When Darkness Visible first appeared, the confessional epoch of tell-all memoirs and the Age of Oprah’s “public sharing” were getting underway. However, there was something startling regarding Styron.
He was a high profile, bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author at the peak of his international fame and fortune (the film version of Sophie’s Choice sent his latter-day career into the stratosphere). And then there was this: William Styron, by all accounts, seemed to enjoy wealth, status, celebrity, critical respect, and much luck.
And yet, he boldly made clear in Darkness Visible how a crippling clinical depression (combined with his late-in-life decision to abandon roughly forty years of hefty, nightly, vigorous drinking) destabilized him for significant periods of time. Styron was hospitalized more than once for depression, and suffered the agonies of varied pill prescriptions that rarely produced anything other than side-effects so ruinous that he lost his ability to write, and even his capacity to read. Yet, he recovered -- that is, until other such episodes in his twilight years finally rendered him an invalid.
Daphne Merkin tells a somewhat similar yet distinctly different story. She, too, may give the appearance of good fortune and a privileged life. She’s the daughter of a wealthy Park Avenue couple whose philanthropy in New York City is well known. Educated at prestigious schools and for many years a staff writer at The New Yorker, Merkin also published a distinguished first novel (Enchantment). Her essays and features in The New York Times Magazine (and elsewhere) always evoke interest.
Nonetheless, the bulk of Daphne Merkin’s life has been not just burdened but downright plagued by a relentless species of depression that is constant and omnipresent in ways that remind us that Styron’s troubles were, indeed, episodic.
In This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, all of Daphne Merkin’s power as a writer is on display. This is that rare and wondrous type of book that lends itself to being read in varied ways. A straight-through linear reading is always an option. But you can also let this memoir open to whatever page it happens to reveal, and chances are Merkin’s insights, memories, and anecdotes will instantly engage you.
For example, the Prologue begins with this arresting paragraph: “Lately I’ve been thinking about the allure of suicide again – the way it says basta! to life, like an Italian grandmother sweeping out all the accumulated debris of daily existence, leaving a clean and unmarked surface. No more rage at the circumstances that have brought you down. No more dread. No more going from day to day in a state of suspended animation, feeling tired around the eyes—behind them, too—and making conversation, hoping no one can tell what’s going on inside. No more anguish, that roaring pain inside your head that feels physical but has no somatic correlation that can be addressed and treated with a Band-Aid or ointment or cast. Most of all, no more disguise, no more need to wear a mask . . .”
And that’s just for openers! This entire book is replete with such superb writing. Any respected writers’ workshop could invest an hour in assessing that opening paragraph: the allusion to suicide that hits like a hammer; the vivid image of that raging Italian granny; the deft repetition of “No more” again and again; and so on.
Well, the following 285 pages are no less impressive – and no less telling.
The 37 chapters of Daphne Merkin’s memoir offer a literary texture that rivals the best prose fiction of Saul Bellow or Joan Didion. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that in This Close to Happy, the dramatis personae of the author’s life easily equals the cast of characters in any novel by those two masters.
As one of six children in an upscale Orthodox Jewish home in the first few decades after the Second World War (both of the author’s parents escaped Hitler’s Germany between 1936 and 1939), there are eerie and oftentimes bewildering echoes of an era that Merkin, exceedingly sensitive even as a small child, absorbed fully.
Her parents were German Jews and their extended family was affected ineffably by the Holocaust, and its postwar aftermath. It is no accident that in 1989, well over forty years after the end of WWII, Merkin published her essay “Dreaming of Hitler.”
Her father? A classic example of the hardworking, remote, earnest patriarch who rarely interacted with his children – yet mandated that they all tow various lines.
Here’s one of Merkin’s majestic riffs on the father she scarcely knew: “My father was preoccupied with work—he had decided to abandon the fur business for Wall Street in the [1950s]—and Jewish community affairs, where he was involved in establishing a new Orthodox shul on the Upper East Side. More to the point, he was a man without a paternal bone in his body—and without much interest in other people altogether, except for my mother. He participated in no collective activities other than those relating to Jewish life, and I don’t believe he had any close male friends. In truth, I think he would have been perfectly happy to have had no children, much less a gang of them, and I realized fairly quickly that I and the homely details of my existence held no allure for him whatsoever.”
And what about her mother? Fasten your seatbelts, readers. The primary reason that this book delivers such a bumpy ride is that the lifelong conflicts and chronic tensions between the author and her mother are layered with tragic subtext.
Merkin begins the aptly numbered Chapter 13 with this flourish: “My mother was a victim of history, of catastrophic world events, in a way none of her children had been, and some responsive chord in her had hardened early on to any but the most compelling of disasters. She also lost a clutch of close relatives in the concentration camps, including a grandmother, two uncles, and a favorite widowed aunt . . .”
One decade after World War Two, when Daphne Merkin was born into a mid-1950s household already dominated by a fiercely controlling, full-time nanny, the die was cast. Almost all aspects childhood were arranged, facilitated, observed, critiqued, and ultimately handled by the “tyrannical” nanny, while Merkin’s mother reserved most of her energy for doting on her husband and he, in turn, focused on his career.
Discerning readers will be quick to anticipate the inevitable series of cascading issues in regard to the author’s emotional cravings, psychological stress, sibling rivalries, emerging sexuality, and myriad forms of domestic distress. Summing up the decades of her life, one by one, Merkin assesses and anatomizes her endless struggles with recurring spasms of serious depression; always suffered behind a façade of wealth and privilege.
At different pivotal times in her life, Merkin will be admitted to psychiatric units at esteemed locales, and yet never enjoy the kind of reprieve from depression that others are sometimes able to experience. In Merkin’s life, despite scholastic and creative achievements in abundance, in addition to a career in New York publishing that put her on the fast-track in the go-go late 1980s, there’s always the punishing and often elusively inexplicable anguish and despair of depression as a disease.
Her memoir is particularly riveting as she describes getting married while sensing all along the way that it will not end well. It doesn’t. And her many passages about giving birth to a daughter and the travails of post-partum depression, compounded by divorce and her quest to do her best as a single mother – well, it all inspired the author, on page after page, to compose a narrative that is rich with heart and soul.
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