The plot of a memoir related by a person who has survived major mental illness is somewhat predictable. Some subtle signs of the illness are present even in childhood, and the symptoms become more frequent and more disturbing as the protagonist reaches adolescence. But, being a high-achiever, (and who but a high achiever would ever go on to write a book about their horrendous experiences?) our hero manages to do well in high school, go to college, and get a good job. His or her (and it seems more often to be a woman) personal life is a mess, but then, that's not so unusual for people in their twenties, and so he or she doesn't seem so unusual, despite the mental illness becoming ever more noticeable. Eventually, though, the narrator tells of a major crisis, the first hospitalization, a series of further crises and treatments, until he or she triumphs over the illness, finding a combination of medications and other forms of therapy that work well.
The tension in the story is not whether or not the narrator will survive, because we know, even if we have avoiding reading the blurb on the back, that he or she has written a book. Of course, the writer might not survive after the time where the book ends, but generally the indications are hopeful. Often in a relationship, or even married, and having written a most of a book, the last chapter ends on a satisfying note of accomplishment. Yet there is still tension in the story. We get to see the casualties along the way, the fellow sufferers who do not make it, the failed relationships, and the friends and family members who can't understand the illness and its symptoms. Of course these events were difficult for those experiencing them at the time, but they can also be difficult for the reader, either because of feelings of strong identification with some of the characters, or possibly feelings of intense annoyance and frustration with the them.
The first time one reads a memoir of mental illness, one is generally caught up in a new world. The details of symptoms, the interactions with mental health professionals, and the trials and tribulations of treatment are all fascinating. However, for readers like myself, whose bookshelves are packed tight with such tales, there has to be something more to retain interest. Personally, since I'm a philosopher, I like it when the author takes a moment to reflect on the meaning of her illness and how it affects her self-image, or the injustice of the treatment she received at the hands of others. Yet those moments of more abstract thought need to be amid the a series of gripping events; in the end, it's the drama of the story rushing from one event to the next that makes a memoir gripping.
Having indulged myself in these abstract considerations, I now turn to the book at hand. Tracy Thompson is a writer for the Washington Post, and so it is not surprising that she has a way with words in telling the story of her depression, which she calls "the beast." Her story goes pretty much as one expects it to. We learn of her childhood down south in Georgia, her successes leading to her eventually getting a journalist at the Atlanta Constitution, and then even greater success in Washington DC. Much of the book revolves around her denial of her depression, and her unhealthy relationship with Thomas, a widower with two children. Thompson tells us that in her early years a therapist diagnosed her as having a personality disorder, and that's easy to believe. She comes across as self-absorbed and manipulative. Depression can do that to people. I spent much of the book wondering how differently other people would describe the events she relates; especially Thomas, who if Thompson is to be believed, both recognized her depression before she did, urged her to get it treated, and yet at the same time seemed to need her to be depressed in order for him to be able to exert power over her.
Thompson eventually responds well to Prozac, and she clearly favors a biological explanation of depression. But while her scientific explanations are a little simple-minded, she is not reductionist. She likes to describe the physical feeling of depression and how it affects her perception of her life. Implicit in her narrative is the idea that Thomas both saves her from depression and also causes it. Their relationship lasts far too long, and becomes massively convoluted and unhappy. Furthermore, she is also very impressed with Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy of Depression, and so she describes how performing the exercises from that book is helpful to her.
So The Beast is a rich, interesting book. Given the constraints of the genre, Thompson does well at keeping the story going and making insightful comments along the way. People who have experienced depression, or know others with depression, may well find it useful. It provides a story with hope: Thompson not only beats her depression and overcomes her suicidal moments, but does so while holding down a high pressure job at one of the nation's top newspapers.
Nevertheless, this book leaves me wondering even more than before what it takes to be ready to put one's life story into a book. I can't help thinking that the only kind of person who would want to do so is someone with considerable narcissism.
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