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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In My BloodSix Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family
By John Sedgwick
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 John Sedgwick
All right reserved.
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.
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Table of ContentsThe Genealogy of the Sedgwick Family xiv
My Fall 3
Our Graveyard 13
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
Our Interior Weather 363
A Guide to Life 379
A Note on Sources 387
What People are Saying About This
“Compelling family biography…These people are...like characters in a very good novel...[Sedgwick] writes with great confidence.”
“Engrossing, affecting, and enlightening...A grand, candid, and sensitive family memoir...unique in its perspective on American history.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
If you have ever had mental illness in your family, then this book will open doors of comfort and intrigue for you. FANTASTIC!