The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Noonday Demon: More Novelistic Than Reportorial?
New books dissected over email.
June 22 2001 3:06 PM

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

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Dear Chris,

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So, what have we learned here? I mean, apart from our shared view of V. Woolf?

I have been thinking about whether Noonday Demon sheds any light on the latest hideous suburban mass murder. You know, the mother in Houston who drowned her five children and whose husband then went before the cameras to explain that she'd battled postpartum depression since the birth of their youngest child and had been pushed over the brink by the death of her father a few months ago.

There's a potential connection between the book and the case that's just too complicated to pursue here. Rather, one I'm not well-informed enough to pursue. That is whether depression as Solomon presents it, an utterly uncontrollable altering of one's worldview, changes in any significant way the legal concept of an insanity defense. (The best book I've read on this subject is The Insanity Defense and the Trial of John W. Hinckley Jr. by my friend Lincoln Caplan.) But there is a connection that runs the other way, and its effect is to make me re-emphasize a virtue of Solomon's book that I feel I've haven't adequately acknowledged.

That virtue is the breadth and inclusiveness of what Solomon has undertaken. As you say, it is a little odd to find a book arguing that the after-effects of the Khmer Rouge killing fields are in some way similar to the sadness a wealthy, comfortable person feels after watching his mother die in bed.

But in fact the appeal of the book, I think, lies in Solomon's decision to classify various forms of depression as fundamentally similar because all are manifested in profound sadness, rather than as fundamentally different because of their highly varied causes and different possible remedies. This allows him to cover a tremendous range of material--the brain chemistry of serotonin, the role of religious faith in giving people the courage to go on, the long-term impact of child abuse, the politics of mental-health funding--and to do it in an intelligent, lucid way. We each have our complaints about this book, but I wanted to end with a re-emphasis of your opening point about its impressive breadth.

Now, back to a few cavils. We discussed yesterday the central role of the unforgettable "assisted suicide" scene in the book. Only when you're deep into the book, and realize that Solomon and his family watched his mother die from swallowing a handful of pills, do you understand the passage early in the book when he suggests that the loss of his mother triggered his depression. There is a similar arc, I think, to his discussion of the "evolutionary" role of depression. Without belaboring it here, I don't go for his explanation. Many results of the long struggle for survival do not, in my view, suggest any evolutionary "superiority" or logic, but are just how things turned out. (What is the "logic" to the exact clump of trees I see out my window at this moment? That's just where those trees happened to sprout.)

Whether evolution has a "purpose" is a huge argument I don't mean to open here. My point is that at the end of the book, after reading Solomon's "evolution" chapter, I realized that it was actually the concept with which he opens the book. The first words of the first chapter are these:

Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.

Now a word about "reporting." I was initially startled by your saying that Solomon did not have a literary sensibility because I'd been warming up to say that this was more a novelistic than a reportorial treatment of the subject. Let me explain what I mean because I think we're reacting to something similar.

Solomon presents several kinds of material in the book. He summarizes scientific and political arguments, and I think he does this very well. He presents case studies from people he has met and interviewed. By chance, I realized that I know one of the people he is describing--and all of the details and interpretations Solomon offers ring exactly true.

Solomon also goes in for some oddball foreign ventures, and despite the vividness of the African scene, I think they generally are not successful. The Greenland trip, as you say, is particularly odd.

And, crucially, he tells the story of his own depression. This is where the "novelistic" conceit occurred to me. To put it bluntly: I'd rather think of this as a novelistic rendering of depression than an actual memoir because I am not sure how much of it to believe.

As one of the Fraysters points out, recent science of memory suggests that when people are depressed, their recollections are particularly unreliable. And yet we have long, detailed recreations of what Solomon said and did during the years when life was bleak (and presumably he lacked the energy to take constant notes). There are also particular details that give me pause. For instance, Solomon said that he'd been raised with a casual, moderate exposure to wine and alcohol. "When I got to college, I found that I was a pretty good drinker: I could handle liquor well." Then, when he was in graduate school in England:

I was initiated into a dining society, and as part of a rather stupid ritual, I was made to drink a half-gallon of gin. It was something of a breakthrough for me.

I'll say. Half a gallon of gin, 60-plus shots, is approximately 30 ounces of pure alcohol. I pulled a handy blood-alcohol calculator down from the Internet.  Let's say he nursed the gin over four hours and that he weighs 175 pounds. This would still put him at least 10 times over the limit for legal intoxication and into a possible-coma zone. Maybe he did drink half a gallon of straight gin that night, and maybe he did in Russia, as he says, typically drink "a quart or two of vodka during a long day." Obviously lifetime alcoholics build up to this level and more. My point is that I'm suspicious of many of the first-hand details in the book and would prefer to think of them as part of a, yes, novelistic presentation of the depressive descent into hell.

Again: Cavils aside, it is an impressive and memorable book. My assumption has also been that it would help people grappling with similar problems--or, more realistically, their loved ones. That is justification enough for the book.

Enjoyed doing this with you, Chris. Best wishes,
Jim

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This week, Slate's Book Clubbers wade into Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Click here for an explanation of our format, here to read an excerpt, and here to buy the book.

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