Liv­ing un­der de­pres­sion’s cloud since age 8

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY HELLER MCALPIN

Daphne Merkin’s “This Close to Happy” is a tri­umph on many lev­els, in­clud­ing the very fact of its com­ple­tion. Merkin, a for­mer New Yorker film critic and an es­say­ist who gained a cer­tain no­to­ri­ety for a piece she wrote 20 years ago about her sex­ual predilec­tions, was first hos­pi­tal­ized for de­pres­sion at age 8. Fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion in 2001 of an es­say in the New Yorker about her sub­se­quent psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, she was com­mis­sioned to ex­pand on the sub­ject in a book about the dark cloud and mis­er­able tug to­ward self-an­ni­hi­la­tion that has over­shad­owed her life, but its progress was de­layed re­peat­edly by the very ex­pe­ri­ence she was writ­ing about.

The book’s pub­li­ca­tion at long last is heart­en­ing. “This Close to Happy” is as in­sight­ful and beau­ti­fully writ­ten as it is brave. Merkin clearly un­der­stands the risks of go­ing pub­lic with such in­ti­mate, dark ma­te­rial and re­fuses the un­re­al­is­tic com­fort of an un­equiv­o­cally re­demp­tive end­ing. She also beats read­ers to po­ten­tial crit­i­cisms, “from self-ab­sorp­tion to self-pity, with stops along the way for ex­ces­sive can­dor and un­sightly nar­cis­sism.”

Merkin is one of six chil­dren of fi­nancier Her­mann Merkin and Ur­sula Breuer Merkin, Ortho­dox Jews who left Ger­many to es­cape Nazi per­se­cu­tion and made a fortune in in­vest­ment bank­ing and transat­lantic ship­ping. Al­though her par­ents’ phi­lan­thropies in­clude the Merkin Con­cert Hall in New York, Daphne Merkin quickly de­bunks the im­age of a priv­i­leged child­hood. She writes, “I rec­og­nize 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 back­drop of plen­i­tude.”

Yes, she grew up with her five sib­lings in a Park Av­enue du­plex with a nanny, cook, chauf­feur and laun­dress. But char­ity def­i­nitely did not be­gin at home. Merkin paints a night­mar­ish pic­ture of “strange with­hold­ings — im­pov­er­ish­ments, even — that can oc­cur within a land­scape of per­ceived priv­i­lege.” First and fore­most was a lack of parental af­fec­tion and at­ten­tion, but also of am­ple food and clothes. Com­pound­ing these de­pri­va­tions was the chil­dren’s vi­cious, over­worked nanny, “who could kick and punch as well as beat us” and who was of­ten the sole care­taker dur­ing Merkin’s par­ents’ fre­quent trav­els.

Merkin es­caped from “this joy­less land­scape” into read­ing, which “brought me as close as I ever came to a sense of plea­sure,” she writes. But books weren’t enough. “By the age of eight I was such a trau­ma­tized spec­i­men, such an anx­ious, con­sti­pated mess . . . that even my rel­a­tively im­per­me­able mother couldn’t over­look the ev­i­dence.” Her par­ents checked her into Columbia Pres­by­te­rian’s Ba­bies’ Hospi­tal for sev­eral weeks of psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion, her first time away from home.

Merkin, whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude the novel “En­chant­ment” and the es­say col­lec­tion “Dream­ing of Hitler,” puts her decades-long bat­tle with sui­ci­dal de­pres­sion in a wider con­text. Women, she notes, are twice as likely to suf­fer from this con­di­tion as men, al­though men are four times as likely to kill them­selves. She rues the stigma at­tached to de­pres­sion “in a so­ci­ety that is em­bar­rassed by in­te­ri­or­ity” and wist­fully re­calls “the great, vexed Vic­to­ri­ans, like John Ruskin, Thomas Car­lyle, and Matthew Arnold.” Not sur­pris­ingly, the long­time lit­er­ary critic’s book is filled with ref­er­ences to Vir­ginia Woolf, Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins and other touch­stones.

In her strug­gle to solve the rid­dle of her af­flic­tion, Merkin re­turns re­peat­edly to de­bates over root causes and treat­ment op­tions: na­ture vs. nur­ture, talk ther­apy vs. med­i­ca­tion. Al­though she ac­cepts a com­bi­na­tion, she at­tributes her chronic “in­ner black­ness” pri­mar­ily to her “emo­tion­ally trau­matic child­hood” and her warped, “dire psy­cho­log­i­cal en­tan­gle­ment” with her mother. Af­ter more than three decades on a stag­ger­ing, “so­phis­ti­cated amal­gam of sero­tonin- and dopa-minet-weak­ing agents,” she can’t help won­der­ing, “Was I med­i­cat­ing a bad child­hood or a chem­i­cal ir­reg­u­lar­ity?”

Still, Merkin cred­its her sur­vival in part to these med­i­ca­tions and the thou­sands of hours and dol­lars she has spent on ther­apy. She yearns for “a colonic for the psy­che” yet balks at the oft-rec­om­mended elec­troshock ther­apy, for fear of los­ing even the un­happy mem­o­ries that de­fine her. Psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals — de­scribed in grim de­tail — keep her safe from self-harm at her low­est ebbs yet fail to pro­vide the nur­ture or re­dress she craves.

Af­ter more than 50 years of self-ex­am­i­na­tion in ther­a­pists’ of­fices, Merkin is an old hand at in­ti­mate rev­e­la­tions, rang­ing from sui­ci­dal fan­tasies and wor­ries about bur­den­ing her daugh­ter to breast re­duc­tion surgery and shoplift­ing at Sephora. Some still have the ca­pac­ity to shock, such as the fact that she showed her mother bite marks from sado­masochis­tic sex. (Even this des­per­ate bid for ma­ter­nal con­cern failed, Merkin re­ports: “‘I hope you en­joyed it,’ she replied dryly.”)

Less-sym­pa­thetic read­ers may carp at Merkin’s abil­ity to af­ford the lux­u­ries of ex­pen­sive, seem­ingly un­lim­ited treat­ment op­tions, cos­metic surg­eries and sum­mer ren­tals in the Hamp­tons. (Merkin read­ily ac­knowl­edges that her hard­ships pale in com­par­i­son with what peo­ple go through in Syria or Haiti.) But any­one who has ex­pe­ri­enced or wit­nessed the pain of clin­i­cal de­pres­sion up close can’t help but be moved by her strug­gle. “This Close to Happy” earns a place among the canon of books on de­pres­sion, in­clud­ing An­drew Solomon’s “The Noon­day De­mon,” Wil­liam Sty­ron’s “Dark­ness Vis­i­ble” and Su­sanna Kaysen’s “Girl, In­ter­rupted” — books that of­fer com­fort to fel­low de­pres­sives and elu­ci­da­tion for those lucky enough to have dodged its scourge.

Heller McAlpin re­views books reg­u­larly for NPR.org, the Los An­ge­les Times, the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle and the Barnes & Noble Re­view.

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