The New Black

Do we ever get over our most significant losses, such as the death of a loved one or the ending of an important relationship?  And is depression — which now seems as common as the common cold — a chemical problem effectively treated with medication?  These are the central questions that The New Black seeks to answer in no uncertain terms.

Leader, a London-based psychoanalyst and author of two other books aimed at explaining the underbelly of human psychology to the general public, believes the answer to both questions is no.  “We need to give up the concept of depression as it is currently framed,” he says. “We should see what we call depression as a set of symptoms that derive from complex and always different human stories…[that] will involve the experiences of separation and loss.”  This is hardly a new argument, but Leader gives it a few novel twists, drawing from a wide array of psychological and anthropological literature, as well as his own and others’ analytical practice. To prove his case, he describes a number of other interesting phenomena, such as emotional anniversaries (when physical and emotional ailments surface each year on the date of a past loss) and fear and worship of the dead.  He also explains how art and creativity can be paths to successful mourning.

Leader is ever looking back at Freud, whose seminal essay “Mourning and Melancholia” is a constant touchstone for this book’s argument.  He wants to reinstate Freud’s notion of melancholia, a “lowering of self-regard” that is basically an unacknowledged state of stalled mourning, an unwillingness to let go.  This, argues Leader, is what most depression really is, and to treat it, we need to mourn — to identify and accept a loss — not medicate. 

The hip title makes the book sound juicy indeed, and the prose seems targeted at a general audience, but Leader sometimes gets caught in the dry, thorny thicket of analysts’ shop talk, making the book less accessible and compelling than it could be. Nonetheless, Leader makes an important diagnosis, one that could be especially useful to an America that often thinks of itself as very depressed, but may actually be extremely melancholy.