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Book review and more: Swing Low by Miriam Toews

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Being manic/depressive my whole (dang it) life, I think there’s just something in the brain which fires off way too much adrenalin. Unfortunately my body won’t make enough endorphins or dopamine to combat that. I spent my early twenties in a constant fight or flight state of emergency – at least in my mind. Since then I’ve been able to keep most all of it controlled, except for depression – which surely can start as circumstantial but end up just hanging on for no good reason. My best defense is to not let myself get THAT depressed AND to have a strong spiritual practice. Always and Ever. Good review – I love reading your blog –

    • I was definitely hoping someone would reply to enlighten me about this kind of thing. I had a couple of bouts of mild depression as a teenager and after my husband died. But as my situation improved, it went away.

      I really like endorphins, they are great things. It would be sad if I didn’t have enough 😦

      Well done for keeping it controlled. Must take a lot of vigilence.

      • And the REALLY odd thing is you have to watch how HAPPY you get – isn’t that awful? Or really you have to recognize happy as not containing unrealistic euphoria! I guess that’s better – thank God I’m MD in this day and age and not the 1800s – I’d be in somebody’s attic ………….

      • I remember a couple of bouts of unrealistic euphoria… and then the realisation of what was unrealistic afterwards was such a crash.

        Luckily not had to do it since. It would definitely be sad if I had to do that.

  2. This is deep stuff Denise, you are a deep thinker and I love that about you and love reading your blog because of that.
    Manic depression is something I have not experienced (that’s something good then!) but I lived with a man who was depressed for most of our marriage (ex, 22 years).
    What really grabbed me most, however, about this post was what you said towards the end, that despite all the love and support in the Toews’ family, Mel still succumbed and could not break free from his darkness. I immediately thought of my own father, who, as you know, is a lifelong alcoholic and who has never been able to, nor wanted to (therein lies the difference!) give up alcohol, despite having the deep love of his family. He has 7 grown grandchildren who he has only met once. He is 81 but he has not had a life because of his addiction, the power of his own particular darkness. This definitely affected me growing up but I came to a place of forgiveness and peace over it a few year’s ago for my own mental health. Despite all, I do love my dad so I can understand Miriam.
    Fascinating review and insight from you, now you have got me really thinking today 🙂

    • Although I don’t understand depression much, I do see it is having similarities to addiction, and it’s interesting that you bring up your father’s alcoholism and compare it in the same way. Similar experience, similar effects.

      It’s interesting what you say about your family’s love for your father. It’s clearly been difficult for you to forgive your father and I am glad that you have. As you say, it’s your own mental health that suffers if you don’t, but it can be hard.

  3. Amazing review! You bring up some really good points too. There’s a lot of depression and issues with mental illness in my family too. It’s genetic, because it seems to go way back but it’s also reinforced by the trauma. I do think we get addicted to living in a certain mind-set because we don’t know another way. I have a great family life with my children but there’s definitely some residue from my childhood. It may always be there. I try not to show that side to my kids, in hopes they can grow up in a happy manner. Only time will tell but I agree with what Jennifer said. The best thing you can do is to try to avoid getting that depressed in the first place. I have had to work on rewiring my brain with gratitude and positivity and most of the time it keeps me well 🙂

    Wow. I really have to read this book!

    • Yes, and then I think it’s not just genetics but maybe children see our example, however much we try to hide it, and maybe parents’ behaviours affect their children’s.

      You are right about not getting depressed in the first place, and then the addiction cycle doesn’t kick in.

      I don’t really have much experience or understanding of depression and it’s interesting to find out from people what it is like. Thank you for your reply.

      • Of course 🙂 It was nice to get a different take on it too. It really makes you think about it in a different way.

        Laurali Star

  4. Interesting–I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” right now, exploring how tell our stories, what we cling to and what we chose to change… but she doesn’t address depression (although she addresses other difficult issues, such as watching a parent descend into Alzheimer’s)

    Depression is very difficult to be around–it’s, well, it’s depressing. I’m surprised someone was able to write a book about it that wasn’t depressing. I guess the ending made it overall a more positive than negative reading experience?

    • Something that came out of the book was – Melvin Toews had a love of erudition and words that came out in his daughter. It felt as if his daughter was able to make something out of his life that he felt he couldn’t make out of his. He was unable to get rid, she thought, of the feeling that he had failed. But I think she wanted to create a lasting testament to the fact that he hadn’t failed.

      That’s what I read into it anyway, and that’s what made it positive.

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