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Depression and NarrativeReview - Depression and Narrative
Telling the Dark
by Hilary Clark (Editor)
State University of New York Press, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 14th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 16)

This is a collection of 16 papers with an introduction by the editor, of about 15 pages each.  Each addresses some aspect of the way people describe depression.  The authors are mostly from university English departments, while some are from counseling psychology, social work, cultural theory, philosophy, and Russian.  They address a broad range of topics, including William Cowper's Adelphi, Colridge's The Time of the Ancient Mariner, websites on depression, The Sopranos, early Chinese novels, the work of W.G. Sebald, and the work of Leonid Andreev.  The papers are quite short and so do not have much space to develop a thesis.  So instead they present a sketch of an idea with some supporting evidence.  The overall standard of scholarship is relatively uniform, and there is interesting work here.  This diversity and short format means that most readers will want to dip into the book and focus on the papers of particular interest to them. 

I will focus on a few of the contributions.

  • "My Symptoms, Myself: Reading Mental Illness Memoirs for Identity Assumptions," by Jennifer Radden.  Radden addresses the way people describe their experiences of mental illness, especially the relation between the experiences and the self -- whether they are external to the person, or the person identifies with them.  She goes back to the fifteenth century, and examines many narratives that would not normally leap to mind as typical accounts.  For this alone, her paper is a valuable resource.  She finds many examples where voices or moods are described as external to the narrator, imposing on him or her.  In contrast to this symptom-alienating framework, there is also a symptom-integrating framework, with which authors value their symptoms; Radden finds this especially in accounts of depression, and suggests that the cultural place of depression may explain why authors adopt a symptom-integrating framework. 
  • "The Language of Madness: Representing Bipolar Disorder," in Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind and Kate Millett's The Loony-Bin Trip, by Debra Beilke.  Beilke compares An Unquiet Mind with The Looney-Bin Trip.  The first is largely accepting of the medical model, while the second is anti-psychiatric.  Echoing some themes of Radden, Beilke says that Jamison distinguishes between her true healthy self and her manic or depressedself, while Millett makes no such distinction, since she does not accept that she has any disorder. 
  • "Storying Sadness: Representations of Depression in the Writings of Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, and Tracy Thompson," by Suzanne England, Carol Ganzer, and Carol Tosone.  England et al. compare the poems of Plath and Louise Gluck, and Thompson.  Their comparison is basically simple, examining the use of metaphor, their imagery, and their styles.  It's a relatively straightforward paper about how people convey their experience. 
  • "'Addiction got me what I needed': Depression and Drug Addiction in Elizabeth Wurtzel's Memoirs," by Joanne Muzak.  Muzak addresses Wurtzel's way of portraying herself in her memoirs Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again, explaining how the discourse of addiction is dominant with respect to depression discourse.  It is an ambitious paper, situating these discourses in modern culture.  Muzak is struck by the fact that Wurtzel describes herself as addicted to depression, and she builds on this to make more general points.  She is suspicious of medical models of addiction and depression, and claims that "'disease' theories more readily accommodate the middle and upper classes," (99) but she gives no evidence for this.  She argues that "for Wurtzel, and in general, drug addiction registers as the more valid condition and serves as a more potent identity narrative." (100).  Muzac further says that our culture is distrustful and hostile when women attempt to relate and examine their experiences of depression.  I was rather alarmed to find that as evidence for this, Muzac cites my review of Prozac Nation.  Muzac accuses me and another reviewer of attacking Wurtzel personally rather than seeing the book as an account of a young women trying to understand her depression.  I was puzzled by this reading of my review, since the main point I made was that it was not clear that the book really was an account of depression, because Wurtzel is so explicit about how far she goes in alienating her friends and family.  Her memoir is very different from other accounts of depression, and she says that she is diagnosed with atypical depression.  I conclude, " Far from undermining the work, these features are what make Prozac Nation so distinctive, standing out among other memoirs.  It is a tour de force, and a powerful evocation of Wurtzel's experience, although it's not so clear whether that experience is depression, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental disorder."  Muzac goes on to argue that drug addiction carries an "ominous and legitimate urgency, particularly for the white, middle-class woman who violates normative femininity by being an addict" (106).  She contrasts this with the figure of the depressed woman who exemplifies normative femininity.    There are interesting ideas here, but the claims are sweeping and unsupported, and often problematic.  Maybe the basic idea is that addiction involves an active stance, while depression is passive, and femininity is passive, so there is tension between addiction and femininity.  However, the suggestion that addiction is a more legitimate disorder than depression is puzzling, since it is generally more contested than depression.  A prime example here is that while depression is a condition covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alcoholism is not.  Muzac's argument would benefit if she had the opportunity to expand on her provocative ideas and defend them at greater length.

So this is a useful collection of papers that brings the discussion of the role of narrative of mental illness forward. 

Link: Publisher website for book.

© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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