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A New York Times Book Review Favorite Read of 2016
“Despair is always described as dull,” writes Daphne Merkin, “when the truth is that despair has a light all its own, a lunar glow, the color of mottled silver.” This Close to Happy—Merkin’s rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression—captures this strange light.
Daphne Merkin has been hospitalized three times: first, in grade school, for childhood depression; years later, after her daughter was born, for severe postpartum depression; and later still, after her mother died, for obsessive suicidal thinking. Recounting this series of hospitalizations, as well as her visits to myriad therapists and psychopharmacologists, Merkin fearlessly offers what the child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz calls “the inside view of navigating a chronic psychiatric illness to a realistic outcome.” The arc of Merkin’s affliction is lifelong, beginning in a childhood largely bereft of love and stretching into the present, where Merkin lives a high-functioning life and her depression is manageable, if not “cured.” “The opposite of depression,” she writes with characteristic insight, “is not a state of unimaginable happiness . . . but a state of relative all-right-ness.”
In this dark yet vital memoir, Merkin describes not only the harrowing sorrow that she has known all her life, but also her early, redemptive love of reading and gradual emergence as a writer. Written with an acute understanding of the ways in which her condition has evolved as well as affected those around her, This Close to Happy is an utterly candid coming-to-terms with an illness that many share but few talk about, one that remains shrouded in stigma. In the words of the distinguished psychologist Carol Gilligan, “It brings a stunningly perceptive voice into the forefront of the conversation about depression, one that is both reassuring and revelatory.”
Merkin's deeply intimate account of living with clinical depression is illuminating, heartbreaking, and powerfully written. With lively prose and shrewd observations, Merkin (Dreaming of Hitler) examines the contending discourses on the potential causes of depression as she bravely exposes her lifelong struggle with suicidal thoughts and attempts to overcome them. Merkin arrives at no easy conclusions about childhood trauma or biological circumstances. She writes candidly about her lonely childhood with Holocaust survivor parents who were forced to fight their own demons. Despite her family's wealth, Merkin and her siblings were subjected to austerity and abusive caretakers, and their mother was emotionally absent. Merkin's exploration into her complicated yet unconditional devotion to her mother is rendered with compassion and profound perception. The book is not without humor or hope as Merkin takes readers on the journey from childhood to the present, and into her passion for literature. She writes about the past such as the time when she was a young, aspiring writer who stayed with Saul Bellow at his summer home into the present with the same astute eye. She also relates her experience with different treatments for depression, including the early days of Prozac and her frequent hospitalizations. Merkin eloquently blends the personal with the researched; her intellectual tenacity and emotional rawness impress as much as they entertain. This book is a wonderful addition to literature about the unrelenting battle against depression.