slider top

I’m Not O.K., You’re Not O.K.

by Joyce Carol Oates

New York Times "T" logo

The Noonday Demon is an inspired title for a survey of depression, deriving from biblical texts that include the King James version of Psalms 91:6 (“the destruction that wasteth at noonday”) and the Roman Catholic Douay version, which refers to “the noonday devil.” Though one might wince at the theological metaphor, with its suggestion of demonic possession — a primitive stage in our comprehension of mental illness we like to believe we’ve advanced beyond — still the poetic figure of speech is a powerful one that no amount of scientific terminology and matter-of-fact discussions of serotonin deficiency, neurotransmitter systems or tricyclics can match. Though we “know” better, we tend to “feel” symbolically. Depressive personalities, and their close kin suffering from bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depression), are prone to romanticizing their neurochemical-based illnesses, for these illnesses intensify isolation, inwardness, self-analysis and self-dramatization. “In the throes of depression,” Solomon says, “one reaches a strange point at which it is impossible to see the line between one’s own theatricality and its reality of madness.”

The Noonday Demon originated in 1998 as an article on depression in The New Yorker that stimulated an extraordinary response among readers. It’s both an intensely personal document, a memoir of the author’s several breakdowns in the wake of his mother’s harrowing experience with ovarian cancer, and a more conventional, ambitiously encyclopedic study of depression and suicide. In its mixture of the personal and the impersonal, the confessional and the analytical, The Noonday Demon will remind readers of Kay Redfield Jamison’s Unquiet Mind (1996) and Night Falls Fast (1999), the latter of which Solomon quotes throughout his text. In its informed discussion of psychotropic drugs, including the ever-popular Prozac, it will remind readers of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac (1993). Though oddly missing from Solomon’s 34-page bibliography, William Styron’s spare, elegiac memoir of breakdown and depression, Darkness Visible (1990), would seem to have been a model as well.

Yet there is much in The Noonday Demon that is original and vividly recounted. Solomon’s account of his mother’s courage and integrity in the face of her deteriorating physical condition and her decision to commit suicide by way of an overdose of Seconal, taken in the presence of her family, is particularly moving, and might have been developed into a book-length memoir. This sensitive material is rather swamped by the many reportorial pages that surround it.

…In addition to Solomon’s memoirist material, the most rewarding chapters in The Noonday Demon are “Populations” (a persuasive synthesizing of sociological theories on depression, focusing on gender and feminist issues), “Politics” (an investigative report into mental health hospitals) and “History” (a succinct history of depression from ancient Greece to the contemporary United States, theories and treatments). Solomon’s thumbnail critique of Michel Foucault’s “Madness and Civilization” is witty and persuasive: “Foucault makes good reading, but the influence he has had is much crazier than the people who are his subject. Depressed people cannot lead a revolution because depressed people can barely manage to get out of bed and put on their shoes and socks.”

The Noonday Demon is a considerable accomplishment. It is likely to provoke discussion and controversy, and its generous assortment of voices, from the pathological to the philosophical, makes for rich, variegated reading. Solomon leaves us with the enigmatic statement that “depression seems to be a peculiar assortment of conditions for which there are no evident boundaries” — exactly like life.