Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression

4.8 6
by Nell Casey

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Unholy Ghost is a unique collection of essays about depression that, in the spirit of William Styron's Darkness Visible, finds vivid expression for an elusive illness suffered by more than one in five Americans today. Unlike any other memoir of depression, however, Unholy Ghost includes many voices and depicts the most complete portrait of the illness


Unholy Ghost is a unique collection of essays about depression that, in the spirit of William Styron's Darkness Visible, finds vivid expression for an elusive illness suffered by more than one in five Americans today. Unlike any other memoir of depression, however, Unholy Ghost includes many voices and depicts the most complete portrait of the illness. Lauren Slater eloquently describes her own perilous experience as a pregnant woman on antidepressant medication. Susanna Kaysen, writing for the first time about depression since Girl, Interrupted, criticizes herself and others for making too much of the illness. Larry McMurtry recounts the despair that descended after his quadruple bypass surgery. Meri Danquah describes the challenges of racism and depression. Ann Beattie sees melancholy as a consequence of her writing life. And Donald Hall lovingly remembers the "moody seesaw" of his relationship with his wife, Jane Kenyon.

The collection also includes an illuminating series of companion pieces. Russell Banks's and Chase Twichell's essays represent husbandand-wife perspectives on depression; Rose Styron's contribution about her husband's struggle with melancholy is paired with an excerpt from William Styron's Darkness Visible; and the book's editor, Nell Casey, juxtaposes her own essay about seeing her sister through her depression with Maud Casey's account of this experience. These companion pieces portray the complicated bond — a constant grasp for mutual understandingforged by depressives and their family members.

With an introduction by Kay Redfield Jamison, Unholy Ghost allows the bewildering experience of depression to be adequately and beautifully rendered. The twenty-two stories that make up this book will offer solace and enlightenment to all readers.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The recipient of a Carter Center fellowship for mental health journalism, Casey has compiled a widely varied collection in which authors reckon with their personal experience of depression the "unholy ghost" to which poet Jane Kenyon famously referred. Well-known writers such as Donald Hall and Ann Beattie rub shoulders with talented newcomers like Maud Casey and Joshua Wolf Shenk in pieces that alternate between startling eloquence and the kind of vague, self-indulgent writing that turns some readers away from memoirs. Lee Stringer concludes her contribution with the revelation that "perhaps what we call depression isn't really a disorder at all, but an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong," while Lesley Dormen resorts to cliches ("My heart pumped dread"). Among the most engaging essays are Rose Styron's response to husband William Styron's Darkness Visible, in which she writes about comic moments that her husband, in the throes of depression, was too blue to appreciate. Responding to spouse Chase Twichell's essay, novelist Russell Banks writes that he has "learned to feel for my wife and to avoid feeling with her." As a whole, the collection is a valuable contribution to the field of depression studies, and will lend some insight and cheer to those struggling with this little-understood condition. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This anthology will never earn a spot in library "Fast Fun Reads" displays, but given the number of people who suffer from depression and those who live with or love them, it probably deserves a place on most library shelves. Editor Casey has pulled together 22 contemporary pieces, some previously published, from different voices and perspectives, all trying to understand this devastating but elusive illness. The names you would expect are here: William Styron, Jane Kenyon, Susannah Kaysen, and Larry McMurtry, among others, with an introduction by Kay Redfield Jamison. Of particular interest are the companion pieces: Donald Hall's take on his wife, Jane Kenyon; Rose Styron on her husband; Russell Banks on his wife, Chase Twitchell; and editor Casey on her sister Maud. The dual perspective of experienced and witnessed depression is enlightening and at times frightening. Perhaps this volume should come with a warning label, for surely reading about depression can be depressing. The best of these pieces, though, like Kenyon's poems and William Styron's excerpt, overcome that pitfall with the power of their art. Recommended for public libraries. Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Twenty-two authors share their thoughts about depressing, probing a broad band of the illness. Lauren Slater writes on being pregnant and anti-depressants. Meri Danquah on the merging of racism and depression. Susanna Kaysen criticizes herself and other for making too much of the illness. Anne Beattie shares why she believes depression comes with the territory of being a writer. Donald Hall remembers the moody seesaw of his relationship with his wife, poet Jane Kenyon. Written for people dealing with depression, whether their own or another's. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In Unholy Ghost, Nell Casey has gathered essays about depression, including many voices who explore different aspects of the depression experience, from a mother on anti-depressants to an author's despair after surgery. The diverse first-person accounts provide a range of insights on depression and its aftermath.
Kirkus Reviews
An uneven collection of 22 essays and excerpts on the subject of depression by a wide assortment of writers. Mental-health journalist Casey has assembled quite an array of luminaries—from the quasars (William Styron, Larry McMurtry, Ann Beattie) to the lesser-known, and (in some sad cases) feebler lights. Among them they manage to cast considerable light on this dark disease, revealing vast dimensions that far surpass the ability of a single word to encompass it. Many confess they have no real idea of the source of their disease. (David Karp concludes that it"arises out of an enormously complicated, constantly shifting, elusive concatenation of circumstance, temperament, and biochemistry.") Some are grateful for anti-depressant drugs; others rail against them. Some rage against psychiatric hospitals and grave treatments (like electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT), but Martha Manning calls ECT"the tractor that pulled me out of the mud." Not unexpectedly, the principal adornments are those supplied by Russell Banks (who writes with compassion and eloquence about his wife's depression), Larry McMurtry (whose personal experiences chronicled here appeared in fictional form in his Duane Is Depressed), William Styron (who observes that the illness' only virtue—if such a sanguine word be apt—is that it can be conquered), and Donald Hall (whose loving words for his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, are almost unbearably poignant). Casey has employed an interesting device of juxtaposition: Chase Twichell (wife of Russell Banks) writes about her lifelong loneliness; Styron's wife writes about her coping with his illness; editor Casey herself writes abouthersister'sdepression—and then novelist Maud Casey ends her sister's collection with the observation that, finally, it is practicality that holds her to the earth. There is at times a redundancy to the volume (more than one writer teaches us about serotonin), but there are quiet surprises, too—like Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's luminous essay about being black, and being depressed. Administer in small doses at sensible intervals—or expect a serious side-effect: depression.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Harper Perennial
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5.20(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Delicious Placebo

This is what whould happen. In the middle Of movie theaters, meetings, and restaurants, I would suddenly have to leave. Jamming my arms into my coat sleeves, I would face away from anyone who could see me, my wrists tightening. I felt asthmatic. If someone noticed that I was rushing, I'd evince artificial warmth designed to get that person away. "I need to quickly go outside, okay? Because the garage is closing. It's an early-closer. And I have to work," I'd garble, inventing words.

I developed a faith in motor memory. As I ducked out of the places I was supposed to be, I would stand up like an erect human woman, remembering the feeling of normal standing and pleasant hands. And then, over and over, I would say I was sick -- sick with any documented ailment that came into my head, any ailment I could think of except "depression," which no one, no matter what the brochures with grainy girls' pictures and the word "reuptake" say, will ever believe is a real sickness.

I didn't think of it as a sickness either. I thought of it as work. Once I got outside, I would crawl into a taxi, sink down behind the divider, and start my classified work. I'd cry until I felt blood-poisoned with tears and keep crying. After a few minutes the driver would say, "Are you all right?" In careful adherence to my contract's confidentiality clause, I would always answer, "Yes!"

Adam broke up with me in January, at midnight, after two hours of stares and logic loops. Finally, he admitted he needed to get ahold of his feelings before he could see me again. I assumed the role of love executive andsaid, "Let's touch base later." But, at the door, a more proactive plea occurred to me. "You're denying exactly what's best about life!" I blurted, and that was my last coherent declaration for a long time.

At home in my apartment in Brooklyn, I scoured the cupboards for a sedative, hearing distant notes from a Wharton or Tolstoy medley. Was there an apothecary that still delivered brown-paper packages of laudanum to shrieking women? I drank wine from the bottle, took a double dose of cold medicine. In my hands, filings from the Sudafed package sparkled evilly. Then my mind began to blur. I panicked: if I drift off while I am so weakened, I will wake up demolished, my bones smashed. Frightened, I lay stiff but groggy on top of my bedcovers. Later, thinking I was awake, I dreamed of slicing, shape-shifting light.

That was the beginning. Overnight, it seemed, I'd gone from a twenty-eight-year-old optimist, the type advertisers and politicians take into account, who might find a career and start a family, to a person who is unreliable and preoccupied, a person other people find themselves trying to avoid.

In my first few weeks without Adam, I thought I could engineer a quick turnaround, working maniacally and seeing everyone I knew. When that failed to lift my mood, I submerged myself in the procedures of heartbreak, lolling around my room for weeks, reading the severe poetry of Louise Bogan and listening to overproduced songs by Fiona Apple. But then the lovesick vapors burned off and I discovered something stony, jagged, and permanent underneath.

Every day I felt sadder and stranger. If depression came into my life attached to heartbreak, as one virus piggybacks another, it soon asserted its independence, bringing conclusions to my mind that were captious, adamant, and dark. I began to see life as too long, too easy to botch, and, once botched, impossible to repair. I took stock of how other people had or hadn't ruined their lives; worse, I told them what I thought. "You married too early and should have moved to South America," I pronounced to a friend who lived contentedly with her husband in Colorado. Those flights of rhetoric put me in a bind: the beliefs and actions that grew out of being depressed justified depression, and renewed it.

After a month of vain displays of resiliency, I decided I was living in the aftermath of a huge mistake. The mistake appeared to be the begging but casually not begging letter that I sent Adam over Christmas. Then the mistake seemed to be my not having been receptive enough when, several months earlier, he appeared drunk at my door at two in the morning and caught me with a Clearasil face. But the probe went back further. I shouldn't have gone to graduate school, shouldn't have broken up with good guys, shouldn't have lied to my parents about how far along on my dissertation I was. That led me to more mistakes: lying generally, not being careful in my career, taking praise too seriously.

Truthfully, I thought, exercising my hot self-knowledge, the mistake must have been longer lasting, a perverted pattern of aspiring out of ordinary happiness and abrading life's delicate surface by thrashing out for -- what? -- some brilliance or beauty or fury or extravagance that I had rabidly decided I deserved, my confidence having been mysteriously canted up. After that, I would throw off the safety measures -- friends, courtesy, family, money, work, health, sleep -- and, on the brink of breaking out of the earth's atmosphere, suddenly come diving down, without security, and hit the ground flat on my chest, crunching ribs. Then: cold stunned sobriety, and the Icarus-like mortification at having overestimated myself and flaunted my dissatisfaction with normal life. Normal life now looked like paradise: I would have to apologize to it and plea-bargain with it and then seek atonement from it in order to get back in its good graces again.

This sine curve accounted -- I decided -- for screeds I wrote in college, assorted ideological frenzies, and numberless decisions I made to just get in the car with these guys or just, fuck it, tell the faculty what I think.

Meet the Author

The editor of the national bestseller Unholy Ghost, Nell Caseyhas written for Slate, the New York Times, Salon, Elle, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.

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Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the book an excellent anthology of depression writing. My copy has a lot of dog-eared pages that I continually reread!!
arts-letters More than 1 year ago
As I began to read Unholy Ghost, I was touched by how vulnerable we all are to depression as well as the unexpected life changes which may come our way. No matter how you feel about mental illness,or if you are someone diagnosed, this book helps you feel for all of the characters. Each story is unique because it is about different people. I especially enjoyed the Styron stories. I wonder, after reading these stories, about how we are all connected by illnesses and accidents which affect people we know. Food for thought, and exceptional writing as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a person who once suffered of deperession, this book illustrates what it is like to have the disease, and provides great insight on it. A very interesting read, and all interested in the subject should read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being a sufferer of depression myself, I was surprised how realisic and remarkably similar these various authors had experienced in the emotional rollercoaster of depression. This collection shows many of the haunting aspects of depression that are not usually seen in just one victim. I cryed along with many of the authors who experienced situations that were so close to home. Not only was this book extremely entertaining, but it was very informative on what life is like for those who suffer from depression.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking and at times downright unpleasant though not due to content but its bleak subject. Made for a thoroughly engaging read which was informative and masterfully edited. Brought to mind how depression is an equal opportunity condition: no one is immune regardless of situation nor station in life. Those with gift of expression truly are a help to all in simply sharing their stories. Editor Casey is to be commended on a job well done.