In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family

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John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life.

This crisis provoked him to search for the source of his malaise. Did it begin with him, or did it begin before, possibly even ...

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In My Blood

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John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life.

This crisis provoked him to search for the source of his malaise. Did it begin with him, or did it begin before, possibly even long before, with previous generations whose genes he bore? If so, how had the "family illness," as he came to think of it, shaped their lives, and come to define his? To find the answers, he launched into a full-scale investigation of his family's history--one of the oldest, and fully documented in America. It was, at once, a very personal journey of self-discovery, and a broader retracing of his family's evolution, as he pored over the many extraordinary Sedgwicks who had gone before--from the protean early Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick through to Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's muse and the 1960s "It Girl." Both a brimming family saga and a courageous narrative, the book paints a startlingly candid portrait of a man and an eminent American family.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
… Mr. Sedgwick provides a clear, incisive view of a complicated family.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this overwritten family biography- cum-memoir, novelist Sedgwick (The Education of Mrs. Bemis) traces in great detail multiples generations of his wealthy yet ill-starred family. Beginning with his own near suicide, Sedgwick takes the unrelenting trials and tribulations of his family and tries to tie them to some parallel history of the U.S. It doesn't work. Reaching back to the late 18th century, the family Sedgwick was in the upper tier of New England society. In Sedgwick's telling, Theodore Sedgwick, a prosperous attorney, set the family off to its posh but difficult history by swindling an old Native American woman out of her property in western Massachusetts. Building a grand country home-a home that would become both family redoubt and scene of some intergenerational depravities-Theodore suffered from what would now be diagnosed as depression. In fact, depression and madness dog the coming generations most famously in the incarnation of Edie Sedgwick, Warhol superstar, world-class drug addict and celebrity suicide. This memoir is not without its pleasures. Sedgwick has a keen eye for detail and a voracious appetite for family lore and history (Catherine Maria Sedgwick was a popular mid-18th-century author; Kyra Sedgwick is an actress). The finely honed prose glides along effortlessly; it just doesn't add up to much. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and Harvard grad Sedgwick (The Education of Mrs. Bemis, 2002) painstakingly scrutinizes his Boston Brahmin family history to reveal more than a few skeletons. In 2000, at age 46, Sedgwick was enjoying a thriving writing career and a loving marriage that yielded two beautiful daughters. But poor investment choices, one daughter's sports injuries and general malaise slowly chipped away at his happiness and tipped his downward spiral into debilitating depression. Sleepless and crazed from the reverse effects of a sleeping pill, suicide seemed appealing, but instead, Sedgwick began psychotherapy and embarked on a journey of self-discovery by researching his New England family lineage, which dates back to the Washington, Jefferson and Adams' presidencies, and the origins of his present mental state. Among his roots he finds an inherited legacy of mental illness and desperate behavior. Sedgwick's multi-generational exploration entailed scouring mountains of previously unseen archives and making personal visits to the original townships of his ancestors, enabling the author to reanimate his family heritage beginning with Judge Theodore Sedgwick, who, in the late 1700s, was a spry lawyer with political aspirations in the Berkshires of leafy, colonial western Massachusetts. But second wife Pamela's family had a history of psychiatric illness. When daughter Catharine Maria grew up, she became a renowned novelist, even as her brother, Harry, dissolved into madness. The legacy of Sedgwick's grandfather Babbo is melodrama at its finest, and its story is nicely juxtaposed with tender memories of his manic depressive mother and his detached relationship with his father. Years later, a cousin,Edie, became Andy Warhol's star-struck protege, then died tragically. The author's peace arrives with the ultimate embrace of his manic depression: the Sedgwick "family disease."Surely one of the most exhaustively-researched attempts to exorcise personal demons. Agent: Kristine Dahl/ICM
Wall Street Journal
“Ingenious…a lurid inversion of the American a larger point about the self protective mechanisms of American democracy.”
“This reading promises to be an excellent portrait, not just of madness, but of one of the major American families.”
Boston Globe
“A gift...The Sedgwick story engages us with the powers and insights of a great novel.”
“[Sedgwick] offers up a very personal look at his family history.”
Daily News
“The combination of privilege and affliction is seductive.”
USA Today
“’s John Sedgwick’s struggles with his own health and identity that give this book its literary power.”
“The individual stories are fascinating…With a writer’s eye for detail, Sedgwick provides an unflinchingly honest chronicle of a...familial odyssey.”
New York Times
Janet Maslin
“Articulate, insightful…and substantial…Mr. Sedgwick provides a clear, incisive view of a complicated family.”
Linda Wertheimer
“Compelling family biography…These people characters in a very good novel...[Sedgwick] writes with great confidence.”
Donna Seaman
“Engrossing, affecting, and enlightening...A grand, candid, and sensitive family memoir...unique in its perspective on American history.”
“[Sedgwick] offers up a very personal look at his family history.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060521592
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/9/2007
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,015,229
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.26 (d)

Meet the Author

John Sedgwick is the author of the novels The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis, and has written extensively for the Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Newsweek, and many other magazines. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Read an Excerpt

In My Blood

Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family
By John Sedgwick

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 John Sedgwick
All right reserved.

Chapter One

My Fall

In the fall of the millennial year of 2000, my fall, I was up on the third floor of my house, and I was pacing like a wild man, each step a drumbeat that pounded inside my skull. "I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this," I chanted over and over. Each time I'd stress a different word, as if these were lines from some demonic Dr. Seuss poem, but the meaning was the same: I can't go on like this. Not the way I'm feeling. I was pouring sweat; my pulse thudded in my ears. My eyes jumped from the pine floor to the white wall to the open door to the window. Seeing, but not taking in. The room, the world, was senseless to me; it had no form, no order, certainly no purpose. It seemed alien, frightening, just as I did. I was a stranger to myself, a crazed weirdo who'd leapt into my clothes, taken over my body, seized my brain.

At that point, I'd gone three weeks without a solid night's sleep, but I was more wired than exhausted. I might have been a jungle warrior, ready to jump at the sound of a twig snapping. I'd stopped eating, pretty much, since I'd decided I wasn't worth food. In the mirror I could almost see my eye sockets hollowing, as if, any minute, my bones might burst through the skin. Thoughts hurtled through my head like meteors, burningout before I could quite track them.

"I can't do this. I can't . . ."

I'd been toying with death for a while by then, almost daring myself to take a suicidal plunge. To feel nothing--feel nothing forever. I craved that. In my scarce moments of calm contemplation, I pondered various ways of bringing about my own demise. It was a comfort, like the prospect of a cool drink on a broiling hot day. Hanging myself, blowing my brains out--such acts seemed not at all ghoulish.

Most of all I wanted to take a long fall from a high place. I'd always had a fear of heights, but I started to think that was actually an attraction. A few days before, I'd stood by the bannister on the second floor, lifted a foot onto the railing, and hopped up a little, to see what it might be like to hurtle downward to the first floor like Primo Levi. It wasn't much of a drop from there, barely a dozen feet, and I'd probably have crashed down onto the front hall table without much harm. But now, on the third floor, as I paced about the room, I kept returning to the window. From there, it was a long way down, a good forty feet to a concrete walkway. Such a plunge seemed so right. I was falling, so I should fall.

I reached for the window, flipped the latch.

The proximate cause, as the lawyers say, was the two Ambien sleeping pills I'd taken the night before. I was desperate for sleep, but the bed was hell for me. As I lay there, I felt a prickling heat all over me, as if my body were being licked all over by infernal flames. Breathe deep, just breathe deep, my wife, Megan, sleepily counseled, having conquered insomnia this way during her two pregnancies. But I spent most nights twisting about in agony, trying to find a spot of coolness on the rumpled, sweat-soaked sheets on my side of the bed. I got good at judging the time by the shade of gray on the ceiling, the rate of the cars passing by the street out front.

My brother, Rob, no stranger to sleep troubles as a harried New York lawyer, recommended the Ambien to me as if it were a hot stock. "No side effects," he assured me. "Every lawyer I know is on it."

"Including you?" I asked.

"Of course!" He gave a throaty chuckle.

He's my older brother. Tall and energetic, he's almost invariably cheerful, and he made the pills seem cheerful, too.

I scored an Ambien prescription through a doctor friend. In retrospect, she should probably have asked me a few more questions, but at the time I was really glad she didn't, since I didn't have many good answers. I hurried off to the pharmacy like a junkie, sure that happy, sleep-filled nights were soon to be mine. That night, I moved upstairs to the guest bedroom on the third floor, since I didn't want to disturb Megan any more with my writhing.

I took the pill, then lay back on the bed, eager for the letting-go. But the pill didn't give me the milky calm I'd expected; if anything it made me feel alert, as if I should be doing quadratic equations, composing Elizabethan sonnets, inventorying my sins. So I took another, which set my thoughts racing even faster; I felt my heart rate rise. I didn't take another. Sleep, even the notion of it, fled. I didn't close my eyes the whole night, just lay there staring in terror at the ceiling until morning. Then I got up and went nuts.

As I say, the Ambien was the proximate cause. But there were others. I'd recently placed my mother in a locked ward at McLean Hospital for her fourth hospitalization for major depression, a disease that she'd been fighting since college. Always a tender person, she'd become increasingly frail with age, both emotionally and physically. After my father's death in 1976, she'd had trouble adjusting to the solitude, the exposure, that had come once her big bear of a husband was no longer around to protect her.

It was during hospitalization number three that I'd had the bright idea of writing a novel about her. Not her exactly, but someone like her, an elderly Bostonian patient, proud but broken, at an old-line mental hospital that, like McLean, had . . .


Excerpted from In My Blood by John Sedgwick Copyright © 2007 by John Sedgwick. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

The Genealogy of the Sedgwick Family     xiv
My Fall     3
Our Graveyard     13
The Legacy
A Man of Property     23
Mr. Sedgwick Builds His Dream House     31
A Friend of Order     35
Among the River Gods     43
The War Within the War     49
Williams Family Secrets     57
The Household Did Not Run of Itself     61
All Men Are Born Free and Equal     69
The Proper Object of Gibbets & Racks     79
Bottled Lightning     93
The State of Widowhood     99
A Disorder of the Blood     107
Among the Maniacs     113
The Reign of Terror     117
Colonel Lovejoy's Methods     121
It Can Not Be Told     133
In Mamma's Room     141
The Legacy Defined
The Third Mrs. Sedgwick     147
The Will     153
To Worship the Dead     157
Catharine in Silhouette     161
I Have Located My Heaven     175
The Great Central Fire     181
In the Country Burial Place, Would I Lie     199
The Price of Legacy
The Great Wheel Turns     207
Babbo & Ellery     227
Marrying Up     237
Good Night, Sweet Prince     243
The Family Patriarch     251
Evasion and Escape     263
Sally & Shan     275
The Anti-Helen     279
My Mother's Diary     283
A Little Scratch on the Chromosomes     291
Little Duke     303
Edie, Superstar     315
"One Loves to Remember Beauty"     327
In Loco Parentis     331
"We're Ruined"     343
"Wssht"     355
What Remains
Our Interior Weather     363
A Guide to Life     379
Acknowledgments     383
A Note on Sources     387
Index     401
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 24, 2012

    Excellent. Very well researched.

    The author offers an unexpected approach that reveals the historical relevance of mental illness and the impact that bipolar disorder has imposed on his family.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2007


    If you have ever had mental illness in your family, then this book will open doors of comfort and intrigue for you. FANTASTIC!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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