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Esther Sperber

Getting Closer to Nearly Happy

“The Melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, and impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale.

… a delusion of (mainly moral) inferiority is completed by sleeplessness and a refusal to take nourishment, and – what is psychologically very remarkable – by an overcoming of the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life

… the self reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” 

These quotes from Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” published in 1917, still feel relevant. Mourning, Freud writes, is the normal reaction to the loss of a loved one, but melancholia is an illness in which, due to trauma, the “ego turns on to itself.” The anger and frustration for the failures of caregivers and loved ones is internalized, and the melancholic directs his anger onto himself, losing the wish to live. 

What Freud called melancholia today we call depression, or in the words of Daphne Merkin, “being someone who is… pickled in the brine of self-hatred.” Merkin’s new memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26), is a project of remembering, repeating and working through a life-long struggle with the dark pull of depression and suicide wishes. For Merkin, depression is a chronic condition from which she is never completely free, but with the help of a hefty combination of medication and therapy she can be “this close to happy,” living a life centered on the love of writing, friendships and motherhood.

In beautiful, poetic writing Merkin shares her battles with depression. She tells about times when she could not leave her bed and of the weeks spent in psychiatric hospitals. She invites us to see her in her worst moments, and to be moved by this painful and intimate story; to be seen as she never was by her own mother.

What is depression? Is it a neurophysiological tendency caused by a chemical imbalance, and therefore treatable with medication? Or is it a result of childhood trauma and deprivation which need mending though therapy which attempts to undo or bypass one’s harmful childhood self-images and relationship patterns?

Merkin avoids the false choice between nature and nurture, between talk therapy and medication. She suggests that depression is triggered by a combination of genetic dispositions and personal history. She recognizes that there is a risk of “coming off like a poor little rich girl, mewling piteously against a backdrop of plenitude.” “And yet,” she continues, “there are deprivations that can be at least as injurious as material ones… strange withholdings––impoverishments, even––that can occur within the landscape of privilege.” Merkin’s childhood was “something monstrous and uncountable… for which there was no name.”

Good parenting provides love and responsibility. But parents are also those who first teach us to understand our own emotions and to interpret correctly the feelings of others, a capacity that psychologists today call mentalization. When a child cannot understand his or her parents, the world becomes stressful and confusing. “Mothers,” Merkin writes, “come at us with inherently positive signifiers. Mothers, that is, aren’t expected to lunge at their offspring with jaws snapping,” describing her mother’s cruelty. But even when Merkin’s mother was not hostile she was cold and removed, repeatedly telling her crying child “your tears don’t move me.” Perhaps Merkin writes to provide a belated tikkun, repair, for her harrowingly neglected childhood, by allowing us as readers to see her inner world. By witnessing her pain, by being moved by her childhood tears, we can provide the mentalizing mirror that was unavailable in her early life.

Autobiographies are never simple to write. They require a delicate balance of revealing what is embarrassingly private, while not triggering the reader’s uncomfortable sense of witnessing crass, pornographic nakedness. Autobiographies also need to negotiate the rights of the author to tell their own story with a respect for the constellation of family and friends who have not chosen this exposure. Often there is conflict between a desire to include provocative stories that draw attention and a need to maintain some privacy for the good of the people involved, including the author. In this book I felt a maturity which allowed Merkin to conceal as much as she revealed, and to respect the privacy of others. This sensitivity allowed me to trust her to guide me along the path of her story. 

Merkin writes that “Sometimes I feel doomed to tell the story of my family over and over again, like the injunction at the annual Passover seder to narrate the story of the Jews’ liberation from Pharaoh’s cruel domination,” since, for Merkin, childhood was a kind of slavery. Even though Passover celebrates the Exodus, the seder narrative tells of repeated oppression. In this ritual we publicly accept our own flawed and traumatic past. In admitting that evil was afflicted on us we can hopefully let go of internal self-doubts and criticism, which Freud saw as the cause for melancholia, and escape the destructive repetition of trauma in which the abused child becomes an abusive adult. Perhaps, like the seder, writing and reading of personal trauma can liberate us from the shame and hate that perpetuate abuse. 

Although Merkin sees her childhood as the main cause of her depression, I hear in her story an indictment of a Jewish society enamored of––perhaps blinded by––wealth and power. Our community should remember to honor not only wealth but also kindness and honesty and stand up to abuse wherever it is found.

Merkin has written an intelligent and touching story about herself, the illness of depression and our culture.


Esther Sperber is an architect, founder of ST Architects (www.studio-st.com). She writes and lectures on architecture, psychoanalysis and culture.