Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression


In 1988, shortly after moving from Sydney back to his birthplace in the rural New South Wales hamlet of Bunyah, Les Murray was struck with depression. In the months that followed, the “Black Dog” (as he calls it) ruled his life. He raged at his wife and children. He ducked a parking ticket on grounds of insanity, and begged a police officer to shoot him rather than arrest him. For days on end he lay in despair, a state in which, as he puts it precisely, “you feel beneath help.”

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In 1988, shortly after moving from Sydney back to his birthplace in the rural New South Wales hamlet of Bunyah, Les Murray was struck with depression. In the months that followed, the “Black Dog” (as he calls it) ruled his life. He raged at his wife and children. He ducked a parking ticket on grounds of insanity, and begged a police officer to shoot him rather than arrest him. For days on end he lay in despair, a state in which, as he puts it precisely, “you feel beneath help.”

Killing the Black Dog is Murray’s recollection of those awful days: brief, pointed, wise, and full of beauty in the way of his poetry. The prose text—delicately balanced between personal and informative—gives a glimpse of the imprint that depression can leave on a life. The accompanying poems show their roots in his crisis—a crisis from which, he reports toward the close of this poignant book, he has fully recovered. “My thinking is no longer jammed and sooty with resentment,” he recalls. “I no longer wear only stretch-knit clothes and drawstring pants. I no longer come down with bouts of weeping or reasonless exhaustion. And I no longer seek rejection in a belief that only bitterly conceded praise is reliable.”

Killing the Black Dog is a crucial chapter in the life of an outstanding poet.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“ . . . equipped with a fierce moral vision and a sensuous musicality . . . [Murray] writes subtly about postcolonialism, urban sprawl and poverty and, in his most intimate poems, reminds us of the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight. (His admirers have argued he ought to be considered for a Nobel.) But he is equally capable of writing emotionally simplistic and strangely soured poems in which the enraged adolescent emerges all but unmediated. This mercurial doubleness can make his work hard to categorize or describe: this is a mind at once revolutionary and reactionary. Or maybe just a poet who’s willing to show more id than most.” —Meghan O'Rourke, The New York Times Book Review


“Mr. Murray’s verse wears, from the waist up, a cosmopolitan, Philip Larkin-like wit. From the waist down, it dresses in worn dungarees and mud-caked boots. There’s a sense of rural astringency . . . Mr. Murray employs both rhyme and meter, but variably—he’s like a man walking a large, randy, omnivorous dog on a retractable leash. He can cinch his words tightly in an instant; he owns one of poetry’s most sensitive verbal choke collars . . . ” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times


“In the ever-diminishing world of contemporary poetry, Les Murray is one of the few undeniable titans.” —Emily Colette Wilkinson, The Washington Times



Dwight Garner
"Mental illness is apt to make you into a bore," [Murray] writes, but there's not a dull second here…Killing the Black Dog is rowdy and plainspoken. The details of what he went through, the weeping, the rage, the incoherence, are harrowing.
—The New York Times
Meghan O'Rourke
…a book that offers a powerfully candid view of Murray's struggles with depression—one that will speak even to readers unfamiliar with his work…a pungent, forthright primer in what depression can look like—and surely will make many suffering from the disease feel less alone with it. It also lifts the curtain on the stagecraft of poetry and offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour, elucidating just what the special abilities of poetry are.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374181062
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Les Murray is the author of twelve books of poetry. His collection Subhuman Redneck Poems received the T. S. Eliot Prize, and in 1998 he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, presented by Queen Elizabeth II. He lives in New South Wales, Australia.

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Read an Excerpt


A Memoir of Depression
By Les Murray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2009 Les Murray
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-18106-2

Chapter One

Killing the Black Dog

On the last day of 1985, I went home to live in Bunyah, the farming valley I had left some twenty-nine years earlier. My wife and our younger children followed two days later. My father had acquired an old forty-acre selector's block some ten years previously, and we'd built a house for him and for family visits from Sydney. In 1981, we'd extended this in preparation for a move which then got delayed by a family emergency, the diagnosis of autism in our fourth child. But now at last I was going home, to care for my father in his old age and to live in the place from which I'd always felt displaced. What I didn't know was that I was heading home in order to go mad.

All went well for the first year and most of the second. My wife had agreed to move on a year's trial, but after a couple of months she said she loved the new life and would stay indefinitely. We found better school arrangements for Alexander than any we'd found in Sydney after he'd finished with the Autistic Association's marvellous special school in Forestville. Modern communications made it just as easy for me to carry on my writing career out of Bunyah as out of Sydney; a great change that had occurred in my absence was that, where once you had to be a housewife, farmer, farm worker or timber hand to live in the bush, now all sorts of trades and none were followed there without social pressure. At first I suffered no more than the normal background depressiveness of a writer, plus the irritable defensiveness that came from a bitter division in the literary world which had begun in the late 1960s, between the so-called Generation of '68 and those who served it throughout the Australian cultural world and a minority of us whom it demonised as its opponents. The tears which had appeared as an absolute in a mysterious figure who wept in Martin Place, in a poem called 'An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow', which I'd written a few years after my first depressive breakdown at the end of the fifties, now seemed to have dried in my imagination. I enjoyed discovering that I was still attuned to the wry subtleties of conversation around my region, though I'd missed a whole generation of my friends' and cousins' kids. But if home conceals Old Bad Stuff you had not mastered the first time around, going back there, perhaps especially as you approach your fifties, is an invitation to crisis. Mine started with a well-attended poetry reading at the bowling club in Taree in early 1988.

In many ways, it was a triumph for a local celebrity. The member of parliament for our electorate was there, the dignitaries of all the service clubs were there – at the end of the evening, I was presented with the Paul Harris Fellowship of Rotary International, which I understand is a rare honour for a non-member of the organisation – and upwards of a hundred and fifty guests had come to hear me. Among them was a former schoolmate from the Leaving Certificate class of 1956 at Taree High School. This woman cheerfully recalled to me one of the nicknames she had bestowed on me thirty-odd years previously, and within a day or two I began to come apart. I started to suffer painful tingling in my fingers, I began to slip into bouts of weeping as I drove my car – 'What the hell is this?' I asked myself, but the cause of the tears wouldn't come into focus. In the middle of that year, my ongoing breakdown threw up a very happy symptom: cigars suddenly gave me up. From being an eight-cigar-a-day smoker, I suddenly became unable to endure the taste of tobacco; it was worse than burning rubber, and this change has been lasting. Around the same time, savage indigestion racked me throughout a fortnight's tour in Ireland, then ebbed away; I'd never previously suffered this complaint at all. I'd always led a crowding mental life, but now my mind became congested, jammed with ideas I couldn't formulate clearly or nimbly enough, so that they tumbled over each other and made me incoherent. During a week's residency at La Trobe University around September that year, I faced at a seminar a nasty post-graduate student who had published an insulting study of my work, mocking me for grief at my mother's death many years before, and I found I couldn't denounce him effectively, or defend myself. I did go on writing poetry during this whole period, however, and the last poem I wrote before the crisis which would get my illness diagnosed was the title poem of a book called Dog Fox Field (1990). Several poems in the latter part of that book reflect my mental state, being over-concentrated and under-explained in ways not caused by experiment.

"Excerpted from KILLING THE BLACK DOG: A Memoir of Depression by Les Murray, published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Les Murray. All rights reserved."


Excerpted from KILLING THE BLACK DOG by Les Murray Copyright © 2009 by Les Murray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. 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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