The Book Club

“Could I Do That?’

Dear Chris:

You know how David Letterman will sometimes wave and say, “Goodnight, everybody!” two minutes into his show? I am tempted to do that right now, because in your last dispatch I think you’ve captured the essence of Solomon’s book–what is powerful about it and what is unnerving in a way he might not have foreseen. But hey, we’re professionals, so let me react to and complement some of your comments, starting with what you rightly call the most harrowing portion of the book.

By the end of the book, it does seem clear that his mother’s death must have been the organizing event in Solomon’s emotional life. Of course we can’t know that from outside. But the episode, as he describes it very late in the book, is so wrenching as to place in an entirely different light his brief mention of it very early in the book, when he begins telling his own tale:

“I did not experience depression until I had pretty much solved my problems. My mother had died three years earlier and I had begun to come to terms with that; I was publishing my first novel …”

Solomon was in his late twenties when his mother died. That is younger than usual for this inevitable trauma–but not so young as to explain, in itself, why he might still be wrestling with it three years later. The real explanation, as you suggest, must involve the actual process of her death. Solomon, his brother, and his father gather around his mother’s bedside at home. She is in agonizing pain from ovarian cancer and has no medical reason for hope. She has hoarded Seconal tablets–and with her family’s foreknowledge, swallows 40 of them. “Then we had about forty-five minutes, while she said all the last things she had to say, and we said all the last things we had to say.”

I can’t bring myself to quote or even paraphrase the subsequent passages. (I do, still, wonder how he can recreate all of it verbatim. Given that it happened many years before he started the book, he couldn’t have been running a tape recorder for research purposes, and that would be too ghoulish in any case. Was there a tape recorder because it was so fundamental a family event? Perhaps. Was it simply so indelible that every word stuck in his mind? Perhaps, too. Tomorrow I’ll explain the reason for my larger curiosity about research methods.)

Here is where I think the book may have an unintended effect. It subject, obviously, is depression, but if it starts a debate I bet it will be about assisted suicide. Not the right of people to take their own lives, but the involvement of anyone else, from Jack Kevorkian to the dearest loved ones, in that process.

Until reading this book, I hadn’t quite so vividly imagined the difference between the person deciding it is too painful to go on and those you describe as “accomplices.” Much of the book, with its descriptions of suffering people looking for ways to feel better, will inspire empathy in most readers and, ideally, courage in those wrestling with despair. But the assisted-death scene forces readers to take sides. We won’t all deal with depression, but we will all face the deaths of parents, spouses, or if we are terribly unlucky, children. Readers will end up asking themselves: Could I do that? Could I watch my mother, my father, my husband or wife swallow the pills and then sit and talk as the lights go out? My answer is no–although who knows what I might say when the moment comes. I could imagine myself being in terminal agony, and needing relief. I cannot imagine my children watching. My real point is: A book about depression may be remembered for getting people arguing about assisted suicide.

Let me respond to one other point, saving for the last round a summary of ways this book changed my view of the world. You’re entirely right to say that everyone has tasted depression; the Depression that Solomon describes becomes different in nature because of its different scale. The reason I was so struck by the passage I mentioned yesterday–” when the simple fact that we exist in a transient world seems paralyzingly sad”–is that this exactly explains the moments when I think I will cry. In the last 25 years I’ve lived in a dozen different places. In principle I like the density of experience these frequent moves create. Life seems richer, longer, because of the variety. But when each change occurs I am ineffably sad–depressed–because it seems a miniature death. I won’t sleep in this bed any more, sit on this porch, walk down this street.

We all have moments of feeling this way–and Solomon makes a strained case for the evolutionary “advantage” to human beings of this capacity for grief. (Essentially: Love is important to preservation of the species; grief comes from the loss of attachments; therefore “perhaps the anticipation of grief is critical to the formation of emotional attachments.” Perhaps.) But he is very convincing in depicting the difference between the temporary buffets everyone suffers and the bottomless despair that seized him.

That’s all for now. Goodnight, everybody!