I’m changing. OK, you know that. You probably got that by now.
Where the Change comes in is that I want to change the direction of my book reviews so that I also include a bit about the issues reading has raised in my mind.
As well as a Change Alert, this is an Actual Book Review Alert. I’ve actually read a book and am going to write about it now.
The book I’ve just read is Swing Low by Canadian author Miriam Toews. This is an account of her father’s lifelong manic-depression and subsequent suicide.
It’s written from the point of view of her father, Mel, with a very brief prologue and epilogue, in Miriam’s voice. She explains that when her father was hospitalised for the last time, he coped by asking her to write notes for him. In a confused state, he turned the writing round, so that he was asking her to write in the first person, but from his point of view. After Mel died, and she was trying to come to terms with his death, she found that writing like this helped her to understand it herself.
Mel comes across as funny, in a sweet and thoughtful, slightly tart way. In his hospital room, after a slight fracas, he considers writing a sign for his door saying “C’mon in, patient is already disturbed.”
His public profile was one of inspirational teacher. There are bright, sunny accounts of family life. It’s oddly endearing and tender having Miriam describe herself as a child, through her father’s eyes. It’s clear how much his family and wife meant to him. But darkly, he ponders on the way in which he has “killed” his wife, Elvira, over many years destroying her spirit as the brunt of the caring fell to her:
“I was consistently pleasant and upbeat. And dishonest … Elvira had such a difficult time convincing doctors that everything was not fine. That’s why she became so tired. Nobody believed her… It’s how I killed her.”
Mel wonders where his depression came from, conjecturing that it could be from the memory of a childhood trauma, or something buried in the genes, or the fact that he was treated unfavourably compared with his siblings. There is also the complication of the pressure of the conventions of the Mennonite community in which Mel was brought up.
For those of you waiting for the real life part, my question is this: which of these suspects: Early Trauma; Genes; Family; Culture causes this utterly deep seated depression that can become so much part of a person that it blights their relationship with the family they love, and ultimately causes them to turn away from their loved ones permanently?
The misfortunes Mel has suffered in his life are mentioned many times, but not dwelt upon (by Mel as narrator). They seem rather matter of fact. Mel admits he doesn’t like to talk about things and doesn’t find it helpful. He also admits that he is determined to avoid talking. It seems to me that Miriam Toews believes that it was this schism in the family, coupled with Mel’s refusal to talk about it, which exacerbated the situation.
I don’t think, though, that the argument she wants to make is that it was all down to this. I don’t think it would be believable to any of us to argue it so, because many people have issues like these in their lives and don’t suffer from lifelong depression as a result.
There’s also the reinforcement of all the insecurities Mel felt through the expectations. society around the family. But again, there is no mention of any epidemic of suicides amongst this society.
I do think it affects people very adversely if, when young, the consistent message is that you are not OK and not good enough. I think it’s quite common for children and young people to take on board this message, even if it is not intentional. For example, I don’t want to give the impression that my parents are not good and loving, because they are. But there’s a difference between giving someone what you think they want and seeing what they need.
One of my friends used to be on a Usenet Depression group. She had suffered from it in the past and wanted to go back and help people. But she said it was very depressing. People really didn’t want to be helped or have their familiar cycles broken. They just wanted to repeat the same behaviours and thoughts over and over.
I think it’s interesting that Miriam Toews brings up the idea of early childhood trauma (here it is a near death experience in an accident) of making a person insecure in the world. Some trigger. Something extra.
I think that in society, incidences of depression come about largely through circumstance. I think once circumstances improve, most people return to normal. But for a small minority of people, I think maybe their brains are wired up to hang onto and repeat the patterns that they go through during depression. To me, the book seemed to reinforce that. The loving instances in the Toews’ family life were so numerous and so strong that it seemed to make no sense that someone would not be able to choose that over the darkness, unless they were in the grip of something very physical and addictive.
The ending of the book is very moving. Miriam Toews is so tender and gentle with the memory of her father, when she had every right to feel angry at him for the way his behaviour affected her childhood and teens, and the way he took his life away from her at the end.