Review: This Close to Happy

The Book:  This Close To Happy


TCTH is a memoir written by Daphne Merkin, a former New Yorker film critic and essayist. She recounts a life journey that has been afflicted by decades of depression, tracing back to a difficult childhood, through three psychiatric hospitalizations, as well as periods of functioning as a hard-working writer. This is a tale of survival – of a difficult childhood, of depression, of often inadequate, and sometimes harmful psychiatric care.


If you want to read a memoir that's extraordinarily blunt, open, and clear-eyed about a life lived with depression, TCTH is your book. Merkin narrates what happened and how it felt to her. She does not ask you to like her – and she does not romanticize depression. Depression can make people (including Merkin) self-absorbed, self-pitying, even narcissistic. But you will probably end up liking her for her honesty.

If you've had a difficult family life yourself, you may identify with Merkin's story. Family dynamics are at the core of her memoir –  bad family dynamics feed into depression and depression feeds bad family dynamics. The family in question is a complicated brew, but it is the mother who stirs the pot. Merkin is by turns, attached to, and repelled by, a mother who is a figure of stunning narcissism and, at times, psychopathic cruelty. 

TCTH is also the story of how depression can strike hard at someone who has so much, at least on paper – Merkin has money; she has education; she has social position.  Knowing full well her life is charmed by some metrics, Merkin struggles to make sense of her severe depression (does it flow from a tortured childhood?  bad genes? personality foibles? what?). While she has insights about this paradox, her most profound one may be that depression doesn't always make sense.  


Perhaps the best reason of all to read this memoir of depression is that it is so darned well written.

On telling the story of her family...

Sometimes I feel doomed to tell the story of my family over and over again, like the injunction at the annual Passover seder to narrate the story of the Jews' liberation from Pharaoh's cruel dominion and the subsequent departure from Egypt.

On her mother...

Love or money, money or love, my mother scrimped on both, had always done so, and at some point I had begun confusing the two.

On how depression haunts…

One of the most intolerable aspects of depression is the way it insinuates itself everywhere in your life, casting a pall not only over the present but the past and the future as well, suggesting nothing but its own inevitability. For the fact is that the quiet terror of severe depression never entirely passes once you've experienced it. It hovers behind the scenes, placated temporarily by medication and a willed effort at functioning, waiting to slither back in. It sits in the space behind your eyes, making its presence felt even in those moments when other, lighter matters are at the forefront of your mind. It tugs at your awareness, keeping you from ever being fully at ease in the present.

On the conundrum of what to do when depressed...

Always, for me, it comes back to this question: Where do you go when you're depressed? That's the heart of the problem, isn't it? You can't disappear inside your own skin, although that would be ideal. Nor can you lie low and hole up in your room forever, like Henry James's sister, Alice. Once upon a time people went on months-long ocean voyages for just such reasons-or at least they did in movies and novels-but nowadays the only form of legitimate convalescence on offer is by way of psychiatric hospitals, which, as I've learned, come with their own horrors and limitations.


This is a bold and often brutal book. Some readers may find the honesty about depression to be too punishing. The memoir is also a deep exploration about the enduring consequences of a difficult childhood. Don't read it if you don't want to read about childhood!


The best memoir about chronic depression ever written.  

It joins the first rank of other classic memoirs, such as Andrew Solomon's, The Noonday Demon, or William Styron's, Darkness Visible.


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