Daphne Merkin, the novelist, critic, essayist and poet, was first hospitalized for depression when she was eight years old. We meet over lunch at my place to discuss her gorgeous and devastating pull-no-punches memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, coming from FSG in February.
Writing this book meant sliding your family under a microscope. Did you have revelations about them in the process?
My father had more alluringness. I found myself yearning for him. He paid so little attention to me, I’d written him off. “You don’t notice me? I won’t notice you.” My father took me in on the sly.
And your mother?
The narrative began to cohere with my mother. I began believing my own story. Somehow I no longer had to solve the riddle of my mother. Why didn’t she attach? Why didn’t she love better? Why did she use her perceptiveness to dismantle?
According to the book, your mother could be downright cruel, and yet you couldn’t get enough of her.
I had floating rage. I used to ask my therapist: “What would happen if I killed my parents? Would you testify in court for me? Could I get away with it? Would you cite their child abuse?”
Why do you think your mother hired Jane, a violent hair-brush-wielding bully, to be your nanny?
She was worried we’d love our nanny more than we loved her. So she picked someone we couldn’t love.
Your mother lost 25 relatives in the Holocaust. When she drew swastikas on the inside of your forearm with a ballpoint pen, what do you think she thinking?
The Holocaust was always very much on her mind. Drawing those swastikas may have been counterphobicality. She was endlessly toying. Which side was she on? She was a little sadistic. I used to think she was really Ilse Koch.
You were the fourth of six children. None of you ever had enough to eat. You were all always hungry yet you lived on Park Avenue in a duplex. There was a staff of five. What made your mother scrimp on food?
It was maladaptive. My mother had family in Israel. They didn’t have much. My mother was the lucky one and she was always helping them out, always aware of what she had and not wanting to make her good fortune felt. Starving us was her way of straightening the scales. It’s amazing I don’t have rickets.
Despite everything, on occasion, reading your pages, I’d find myself laughing. Do you believe that wit can ameliorate depression?
In the utter depths, humor is gone. Short of that, there is a streak of humor I hold on to. For this, I should credit my parents: my father had a macabre sense of humor and my mother, a grim wit.
You’ve been in therapy much of your life. Were you ever psychoanalyzed?
I’ve never been in full-fledged analysis. I once got on the couch and cried for 50 minutes, lost in dismal thoughts. I didn’t go back.
You and your siblings were raised in Orthodox Judaism, but you are the only one who left the fold. Why?
Orthodoxy didn’t make sense to me. How could I believe in God when my life was like it was? If there were a God, why would he do that to me? There were elements of coziness and ritual I remain nostalgic for, but to me being Orthodox felt like deprivation. Orthodoxy is restricting and oppressive.
You have this history of depression, yet you’ve been tremendously productive from the get-go. At 20, you won the poetry prize at Barnard. By 21, you were writing book reviews for the New York Times. Was your mother proud of you?
She took pleasure in my writing. She’d studied writing at Columbia University and written a novel.
Was it published?
A vanity press in Israel published 1,000 copies. I loved to call her and ask her, “Ma, should I use ‘velvety’ or ‘smooth’? Should I use ‘bell-like’ or ‘mellifluous’?”
You write: “It would be difficult for even close friends of mine to detect how I am at any given time.” Is that a function of you being so highly socialized? You’re dependably delightful to be with.
Being with a hangdog, sad-sack depressive isn’t appealing. That said, keeping up appearances comes at a price. It takes tremendous energy.
You’ve held nothing back in This Close to Happy. For instance, after you experiment with sado-masochistic sex, you show your mother the bite marks on your body. Your mother could be so vicious. How did you feel safe enough to do that?
I view it as an extension of my masochism. I was hers: “I belong to you. So you get to see this.” If she were the kind of mother who would have been horrified or sympathetic, I wouldn’t have shown her.
You write about Jean Rhys and despair. Do you consider depression different from despair?
Despair is the literary version of depression.
Has finishing this book given you any sense of potential mastery over depression?
Some of the onus of depression has been shared in writing this book. I have borne it alone long enough. Let other people come into this circle. Still, depression could come again. If you have the tendency, something can set it off.
Your prologue begins, “Lately I’ve been thinking about the allure of suicide again,” and yet the book closes with the propinquity of happiness. Did you write the prologue before you started writing the book or after you finished it?
I wrote the prologue first. But this book has been 16 years in the making. I’ve had three different contracts for it. This Close to Happy started when “The Black Season” appeared in the New Yorker [on Jan. 8, 2001]. I was on staff at the time, and depression was considered an unspeakable subject. I felt like I was walking around the New Yorker halls naked.
What made you finally finish the book?
I want people to know about serious clinical immobilizing depression. I want to make depression part of the discussion. After “The Black Season” ran, I got a letter from a woman saying, “Had my sister read your piece, maybe she would have gone to the hospital and not committed suicide.” I feel like I write for people like this. I hope that doesn’t sound grandiose.
Patricia Volk is a fiction writer and the author of two memoirs: Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family (2001) and Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me (2013).