Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey, is an all-encompassing book containing 22 essays on depression by various writers. This book is compiled of a series of personal journeys through the complex world of depression. Each writer distinctly brings to the table an aspect of depression that is true to their own experience. Unanimously, the writers depict their depression as a very real, physical and emotional being that takes on a life its own. Writer of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry, best describes this personification simply as an "alternate self" that threatens to rob these depressives of their lives and happiness. I found this book to be extremely insightful, as it allows the reader to experience depression vicariously through each writer's articulated journey.
The book starts off with a standard introduction by Kay Redfield Jamison. She briefly sums up what the reader can expect to find in the pages ahead. The introduction of this particular book establishes a common thread that will follow the reader throughout all of the essays.
In the first and eighth chapters, the writers expose the fears and stigmatism that surround antidepressant medication. The first chapter, titled A Delicious Placebo, the reader is given a personal account of depression from writer Virginia Heffernan. Ms. Heffernan talks about her long time battle with depression, her disbelief that depression is biological, and the humbling surrender that led to antidepressant medication. I enjoyed this authors essay and picked up on some sarcastic humor that I found very refreshing. Many times, I find myself wanting to exit "Therapyland", only to quickly come to my medicated senses and the realization it's much safer to stay put. In the eighth chapter, titled Noontime, Lauren Slater writes about her own experience as a pregnant woman on antidepressant medication. Ms Slater's essay comes to the reader in a series of diary entries, which I found to be complexly profound and beautifully written. Ms Slater's essay subtly takes the reader down the depression stairwell until they are immersed in all the terrifying feelings and emotions the disease has to offer. Both Heffernan and Slater, along with David Karp and Maud Casey, expose the erroneous belief that the depressive themselves are in control of their depression. They show us through the stories of their own self destruction, that accepting some form of treatment is the only solution.
More often than not, desperation is the only catapult that will throw a person suffering from depression into seeking treatment. Sadly, it's this same desperation that results in suicide attempts, and death. Edward Hoagland and A. Alverez address suicide respectively in their writings Heaven and Nature, and The Savage God. Alverez's thorough account of the feelings he felt before and after his attempted suicide triggered in me an eerily accurate remembrance of the very same feelings surrounding my own suicide attempt. His portray of depression's lowest point was accurate and effective.
Throughout the book, the reader is confronted with contradictions from one author to another. Their extreme differences in perception are what bring this disease to life for the reader. Editor Nell Casey shows her awareness, with each variance in perspective, that there are alternative ways of discussing the same material. In one way or another, all aspects of this illness have been addressed. In the excerpt from Darkness Visible, William Styron's states,
"I shall never learn what 'caused' my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics. Plainly, multiple components are involved..."
Mr. Styron's opinion is opposite to that of other writers in this book, like Anne Beattie, who clearly pin point triggers and onsets of their own depression. Ms. Beattie sees her depression as more or less a consequence of her writing life. While William Styron is undeniably an intelligent and gifted writer, I found myself wanting to reject his theory that we will never learn the causes of our depression. Such a viewpoint doesn't seem to foster much hope, and for many individuals struggling with depression, hope can be a powerful antidote.
The most interesting aspect of this book are the pieces written by a family member or loved one close to the person struggling with depression. These dual standpoints thoroughly depict the intricate and sometimes codependent bond that develops out of this disease. Nell Casey, in her own essay about watching her sister, Maud Casey, wrestle with depression, is contrasted with Maud Casey's own account of the very same experience. A Better Place to Live, written by Maud, also contains entries from their mother's diary. All three perspectives come together, allowing the reader to see the overall impact depression can have on a family unit. The most bittersweet of all three perspectives, comes from Maud Casey, when she invites us into the moment when she finally sees she is not alone in her struggle:
"My depression was not all mine, and as I read my sister's words again and again, relief loosened my relentless grip on my illness even as my heart broke, too."
Equally fascinating was writer Russell Banks' Bodies in the Basement. Like writers Donald Hall and wife Jane Kenyon, and William and Rose Styron, Banks' essay gives the reader a husband and wife perspective on depression. Banks takes us along as he battles to understand and cure his wife of her depression. The journey transforms him from ignorant and arrogant, to understanding and sympatric of his wife's condition. Of all the essays in this book, Bodies in the Basement is a personal favorite. This book as a whole does not offer any clear cut solutions for depression, but after reading this essay, I found myself comforted by the feeling that I am not alone. Bank reaffirms in me what I had already known, but often ignore, that in every situation there is a gift of knowledge.
As a whole, this book accurately describes the many dimensions of depression, as well as, the devastating symptoms that comprise this elusive disease of mind and body. You do not have to be a person afflicted with depression to appreciate the uncensored honesty of these writers. They are telling us something highly personal, something that meant or still means a great deal to them, their families, and their friends. I believe everyone who reads this book will leave it having a better understanding of the bewildering experience of depression. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is suffering or knows someone who is suffering from depression.