Monday, September 22, 2008
Depression and children's fiction
[Prefaced note added some time after the original post:
A commenter has complained that mentioning the literary author Antonia White in a post entitled 'Depression and children's fiction' stands to reinforce a reputation she suffers from as a writer of 'inconsequential children's school stories'. I was not aware that this reputation attached to White, as I have only ever heard her discussed as a serious literary figure. However, for the sake of clarity, let me make clear that this article is primarily a discussion of fictional depictions of depression that discusses two works for children, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and two major literary authors, Charles Dickens and Antonia White. While I personally do not consider children's literature to be any more 'inconsequential' than adult, in the interests of avoiding any confusion I hereby state that I in no way wish to imply that Antonia White's books are best suited to or intended for a juvenile audience, and that I consider her a sophisticated and profound literary talent among writers for adults whose work deserves to be widely honoured.]
(I'll be answering more of the questions asked earlier in later posts, but this one seemed to follow naturally on from the discussion about epics a couple of posts below.)
There's an interesting tendency I've noticed: graphic and well-observed portraits of depression are surprisingly common in children's epic fiction. When they are, they can be even more prominent than in adult mainstream.
What's up with this? While only somebody who never reads children's fiction would assume that it only deals with fluffy bunnies and happy fairies, mental illness is a complicated subject, one you'd think would be naturally suited to adult fiction. And yet, when I think of good portraits of depression, the funny thing is, I can think of three big examples: Antonia White's Frost in May series, particularly The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass; the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. As they would say on Sesame Street, two of these things belong together - but a set of literary classics next to a couple of epics for children packed with Good Versus Evil struggles and things going boom? It's an odd juxtaposition. It is, though, one I think can be explained by a simple factor: all of them involve the concept of evil in some form, and without it, it's hard to talk about depression.
To begin with, I should explain why I'm including all of them as examinations of depression. To start with the Harry Potter series: J.K. Rowling, as most people are aware, courageously outed herself as a depression sufferer, and there are clear marks of it on her books. (I won't bother to synopsise the plots, because even people who haven't read them know more or less what they're about. If you're reading them, or anything else I mention, be aware I will be spoilering left and right.) The most obvious depressive element is her representation of 'Dementors', frightening shrouded monsters that glide around spreading horror in their wake. In the presence of one, you flash back to all the most painful experiences of your life and become convinced you'll never be happy again; in the worst circumstances, it'll suck out your soul and leave you hollow for the rest of your life. That's a pretty good description of depression.
There's also, though, a broader sense in which the disease is represented. Harry, our hero, is confronted with the villainous Voldemort as a baby: in attempting to destroy him, Voldemort marks Harry - and in marking him, somehow entangles their souls. For the course of the story, Harry is stuck with something absolutely evil inside him, a force that yanks his emotions around at unpredictable moments, causes him agonising pain and leads to extreme and erratic behaviour that has all his friends worried and him defensive. The final conclusion is a pretty traditional one - the hero and villain must fight to the death - but it's interesting that in this case, the hero has to kill the villain, not just to stop him, but because there's a piece of the villain inside himself that he has to rip out for everyone's sake.
Voldemort himself is the least realistic character in the series, to the point where his villain shtick sometimes contrasts oddly with Rowling's more naturalistic portraits of human badness as expressed in sadism, pettiness, denial and spite rather than capital-E Evil. Yet it's significant that, from what Rowling depicts of his motivations, his main desire is not for pleasure or even primarily for power: it's to avoid death. His desire to remain alive, no matter what the cost and no matter who he destroys along the way, is the primary force. If you've ever seen a recovering depressive panicking at the opportunity to do something positive, there'll be something familiar in that.
Depression can act almost like a parasite personality, setting up a voice in the sufferer's head that, ever so convincingly, talks them into taking the worse course of action, acting the worse way to those around them, forming the worse view of themselves, and gradually getting them to sever all their ties to life until suicide looks like the only sensible option. When a sufferer faces the chance to do something that'll help them improve, sometimes their first response is fear: not the healthy fear of a self-preserving organism, but the depression itself screaming, because if the better course is taken, the depression will take a body-blow. Like a real creature, depression fights for its life, which means fighting to keep the sufferer down. It's you or the depression, and your interests are directly opposed; depression will talk a sufferer into anything that'll keep its hold strong.
In the light of this, a villain who occupies the hero's soul and whose only concern is to stay alive no matter what he damages in the process starts to seem less like a character and more like a personification. Voldemort as a child is shown as grandiose and resentful - two traits that depression breeds in abundance - but it's his resolute will to live even if the world has to burn to keep him going that stands out the most, and that's the will of a disease more than a person.
In short, there's an interestingly depressive note to the structure of the Harry Potter narrative: a relentlessly negative force that consumes all in its drive to preserve itself becomes part of the hero that has to be purged if he's going to survive. In metaphorical terms, Harry's depressed. And while depressives themselves tend not to conquer or save entire nations, depression does ruin entire lives. The concept that the negative force has to be stopped or everything will be laid waste is in some ways a pathetic fallacy: by turning it into the fate of the world, Rowling manages to convey the urgency and danger of the disease. To a sufferer, it really can be that important to get a cure.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is another interesting example, which I'll summarise as it's less well known. Set in an imaginary world divided into four nations - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - the series rests on the premise that some people can 'bend' their natural element, with spectacular results. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four: this Avatar is reincarnated into each of the four nations in turn, and is destined to keep the balance between them. Unfortunately, a hundred years before the story begins, the Fire Nation declares a war of conquest against everyone else just as the Avatar - an amiable twelve-year-old airbender named Aang - disappears. The story begins as Aang is discovered frozen in a glacier and revived by a waterbender named Katara and her brother Sokka; the three of them team up and start roaming the world, trying to get Aang to find teachers for the other three elements so that he can confront the Fire Lord - a notably nasty man named Ozai - and stop the war.
In this story, depression is not a personified character; our heroes all show robust emotional health, and the villains are reasonably naturalistic people for a children's epic. But what's interesting is the handling of evil. The Fire Lord dynasty, while unquestionably in the wrong, are not presented as all-purpose bad guys, but instead as a messed-up family with a history of emotional damage that's spread down several generations, worsening as it goes. And watching them, there's something eerily familiar.
The Fire Nation character who spends most time on screen is Lord Ozai's conflicted son, Zuko, whom Ozai has banished from his homelands at the age of thirteen and told not to come back unless he has the Avatar captive. This banishment is unreasonable - Zuko speaks out of turn in a war meeting to protest a general's plan to sacrifice soldiers; offended at the breach of etiquette, Ozai demands he fight a fire duel; Zuko agrees, thinking he'll be fighting the general, but finds himself confronted with his father, who ignores his pleas for reconciliation, blasts his face with flame leaving a massive scar, and then banishes him for being too cowardly to fight. Not unnaturally, Zuko is a rather disturbed young man, obsessed with finding the Avatar and regaining his honour - or, more accurately, regaining his father's approval, a fruitless endeavour as his father has clearly never much cared for him and prefers his aggressive, talented sister Azula. Eventually Zuko comes to his senses, tells his father where to stick it and joins the Avatar, but there's a lot of unstable behaviour along the way.
And if you watch him and his family, and if you've seen a depressive panic, there's something very familiar about it. Zuko's odd mixture of fragility and relentlessness; his rigid body language that alternates with fits of near-hysterical lashing out; his unfocused, inturned glare; the tension that contorts his face into a classic depressive scowl; his irritability; his fixated insistence that his life will be without worth or meaning until a specific thing happens, and that thing an unlikely event that's outside his control; his bitter conviction that others are irrelevant at best and hostile at worst; his determined refusal to find any enjoyment in ordinary things ... All of this rings a bell. His appearance changes considerably as his mood lifts, and that's familiar as well; Antonia White's husband, for instance, remarked:
Nothing is more startling than the rapidity of her physical changes ... I've know her undergo changes which could, I am certain be verified with a tape-measure and scales ... I have seen ... her whole face sweet, contented witty. I have seen her in a few hours collapse & put on twenty years, her features stiffen and set, her skin crinkle & age, the flesh of her face sag into a heavy Neronian scowl. She could be a daughter of the morning or an 18th century debauched marquis all in the same day.
- and that sense of change, the difference a glower or a smile can make, is something the animators capture well. (I'll return to White later.) The sense of Zuko as a basically nice person trapped inside a permanent black mood that pains him deeply, yet which he somehow clings to, is well-drawn and convincing.
Similarly, this emotional damage is tied firmly to childhood trauma, in Zuko's case his father's rejection and the earlier disappearance of his mother; portrayed as an earnest, anxious and impulsive child, his mother's mysterious exit leaves him isolated and desperate to please his remaining parent. But depression runs in families in real life, and so it does in Avatar. Zuko's sister Azula, favourite of their brutal father, carries similar damage, although it's better concealed: the implication is that, having witnessed their father's dislike of her brother from an early age, Azula draws the conclusion that there are sides here and she'd better be on the winning one, and consequently bullies Zuko from childhood as if to separate herself from him, and with him the chance of being victimised - as well as domineering relentlessly over her few friends, regarding all others with an intense, wary watchfulness, using threats as her main means of communication and generally remaining permanently braced against any possibility of imperfection. In an unguarded moment, she remarks that controlling others by fear is the only thing that works; eventually she degenerates into paranoid insanity. Along the way, her bipolar swings from wild grandiosity to furious meanness chart a dangerous course through her life. (If you don't mind spoilers, you can watch her fighting her much-recovered brother here: Azula's facial expressions are a good example of the 'depressive scowl' I was talking about earlier with Zuko. Sorry I can't find one to back him up; YouTube is full of mash-ups with pop tunes and I got tired wading through them. You can watch full episodes here; 'The Storm' will give you the childhood flashbacks, but it's worth watching properly, as, despite all this talk of depression, it's actually a lot of fun and very entertaining. But if you're going to watch it all, try to buy the DVDs as well, because copyright infringement leaves people like me poor and sad. We get no money for our work, so we have to eat our shoes, and shoes taste bad.) [Later: found an still image here that's a pretty good example.]
Both children, in short, are shown less as power-hungry than as obliquely terrified of powerlessness. Lost in a world where there's a grim dichotomy - either you can control others, or they have power over you and will use it to hurt you - each finds it tremendously difficult to have ordinary social interactions or experience any pleasure beyond the brief exhilaration of triumph. (Self-medicating with adrenaline, perhaps.) This tendency to place one's self-worth in the attainment of impossible goals rather than in a fundamental sense of being all right as you are, the horror of failure and the classing of failure as anything short of perfection is all profoundly depressive. 'Perfection or nothing' is a depressive credo, and the creators of Avatar convey it well.
Again realistically, the narrative depicts the damage as something that goes back several generations. Ozai's father is portrayed in his single scene as impatient, rigidly punitive and harsh; Ozai himself is the second son of this unpleasable father who's clear that first sons come first - which may partly explain his lack of sympathy for his own first son - and shows a fierce rejection of imperfection in others, a preoccupation with failure, a violent overreaction to small slights, and a grandiose hunger to control and impress, which again all have a depressive ring; a desire to be impossibly perfect, to outdo those you cannot please, destroying the ability to relate to people. His cruelty to his son can most sympathetically be read as an inability to deal with his own embarrassment, first at the boy's blurting out his concerns and then at his apparent fear in a public duel where he's supposed to display courage, except by a desperate, vengeful overcompensation; if your empathy's broken, it's harder to see your children as people who need care, and regarding them as trophies to be displayed or smashed depending on how much credit they seem to do you, according to your own unachievable standards, becomes easier. Other people probably aren't judging you as worthless and disgraced just because your kids occasionally act on impulse or look scared (especially if what they're actually scared of is losing your love rather than getting injured, which would seem to be the case in this instance to anyone whose empathy is working) - but if you judge yourself without mercy, you expect others to as well, and that can lead to a panic that you end up taking out on those close to you. It's difficult to be a good parent if you're suffering from depression, and many sufferers pass the disease along; there's a genetic predisposition towards it, and if you're vulnerable to depression it can be brought out by stress - and as having a depressed parent is unquestionably stressful, the damage perpetuates. The inner depressive is a small, frightened child, no matter how old you are, and it's difficult for one small, frightened child to be a forbearing and sympathetic parent.
The overriding sense is that people need to experience love and security if they're going to be all right: Zuko is redeemable largely because he's experienced the love of his mother and, latterly, his kindly uncle who follows him into exile and endures his mood swings with a deep paternal patience (while also trying to make Zuko do something that CBT recommends, which is seek out opportunities for enjoyment. Much of the affable Uncle Iroh's conversation is suggesting stuff that might kick some pleasure circuits into life: eat something, drink something, come for a walk, listen to some music, take a girl on a date. It all has limited short-term impact, because 'cheering up' a depression sufferer who isn't working with you and actively trying to grapple down their black mood is all but impossible - mood management has to come from within - but it's also clearly a lifeline, and while Zuko frequently snaps at his uncle, he also desperately needs him and is heartbroken at any threat of losing him.) Our other heroes, Katara and Sokka, are shown as having a mother who sacrificed herself to save them and a father who handles them with sympathy and support, while Aang's mentor/foster father is presented as an affectionate, playful man who tries hard to protect Aang's right to have a normal, happy childhood. The struggle is ostensibly between good and evil, but the Fire Nation is not shown as inherently bad - there are a lot of nice people in it and a lot of good things about its culture. Instead, the conflict is between emotional health and emotional damage.
In this case, depression is not a personification, but instead a force that distorts the souls of characters and disconnects them from others until they become harmful. Significantly, there's a moment where Zuko succumbs to a mysterious spiritual fever that purges him, and while he relapses and makes further mistakes later, he rises from his sickbed with a relaxation in body language and tone that bears a good resemblance to a sufferer who's feeling much better now the Prozac's kicked in.
Two different children's epics, both presenting depression as a force for evil. Where does Antonia White come in?
For those unfamiliar with her works, Antonia White was a mid-twentieth century novelist who wrote four novels closely based on her own life. (And who might well be offended at the comparisons I'm making, given that she was a very literary author; I can only apologise to her ghost and say that I'm not placing her in the same genre but looking at portraits of the same real phenomenon in a variety of fictions, because looking at something from different angles improves our understanding of it. Given that she's one of my favourite writers, I hope she'll forgive me.) The first and most famous, Frost In May, details experiences in the rarefied and oppressive atmosphere of an aristocratic convent school; the latter three, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, follow the character's life into her mid-twenties. Antonia White's life was ravaged by bipolar depression; in her early twenties, following a failed marriage to an alcoholic, impotent young man she married for reasons she found hard to explain to herself, she suffered an onset of mania leading to complete collapse so severe that she was hospitalised, hallucinating and raving. The Sugar House follows the disastrous marriage, Beyond the Glass the mania and hospitalisation, and it's those that are particularly worth considering. Rather than synopsise and analyse, I'm mostly going to let her prose speak for itself, as it's really outstanding.
Though I haven't seen this suggested in her biography, based on her depictions of her first husband, Archie Hughes-Follett (the real young man's name was Reggie Green-Wilkinson), I'm fairly convinced that he, too, suffered from depression. The first encounter with him in The Sugar House describes his mood as 'aggressive bitterness ... his face was set in lines of angry discontent' - which is one of the most precise descriptions of a depressive downswing I've ever read. Their conversation has an air of entrapping gloom that's too long to reproduce, but I'll reproduce some of it here as it's worth preserving:
'Go on, say it,' he muttered. 'You think I'm a pretty poor specimen, don't you? Well, you're probably right.'
The pattern is precisely drawn: Archie's tireless knocking down of positive suggestions, his insistent projection of greater power and talent on to someone he admires, his implicit demands for comfort combined with a rejection of any Clara offers; all are a sharp and pitiful portrait of a man in the process of emotional collapse, trying to medicate himself with alcohol and only sinking further. Archie's laments in this scene are a sharp example of the depressive problem: he does have things to be upset about, but none of them are quite fatal enough to justify, in rational terms, this committed despair. His mother has died; his beloved Clara broke off their engagement four years previously; he's living on a reduced income (though enough to live on, just not extravagantly) until his inheritance comes through in two years' time, and he's under pressure to get a job, which he doesn't want to do. All are reasons to be sad or frustrated, but a more robust psyche can deal with such distresses without finding alcohol 'the only thing that makes me feel human'. Sick as he is, Archie is instead overwhelmed by them: once his mood sinks, each grief reminds him of a new one and locks him in a depressive circle, where he turns from woe to woe, feeling that because no one solution will solve all of them, everything is hopeless.
Similarly the portrait of Clara's degeneration is bleak and detailed. As she and Archie grow progressively more mired in debt and unable to look after themselves, the symptoms are starkly recorded: a 'fuddled and inert' inability to concentrate, an avoidance of social contact -
She did not know what obscure impulse drove her to isolate herself in this way but, once she had formed the habit, she could not break it. The more she was alone, the more she became conscious of her own emptiness. Sometimes she even doubted whether she existed at all.
- her sense of herself as 'sour soil where nothing will grow', her 'paralysed lethargy', of 'being utterly cut off from life, gasping inside a bell-jar', and her crippling tension:
Each anxiety was like an actual weight on her diaphragm pinning her down on the rumpled bed: the bills, Archie's drinking, her own impotence to write, the impossibility of going either backwards or forwards in any direction. But more crushing than any of these was an overall sense of guilt, not localised, as if all these were a punishment for some mysterious sin she did not remember having committed. [Emphasis mine]
I'll return to the emphasis later, but I'll add a final quote first, this one from Beyond the Glass (the others are from The Sugar House). In this, Clara has been rereading her diary, having lapsed into a state of emotional numbness:
She was astonished, as well as disgusted, to find how violent her feelings had been. Could she really have felt such passions of absurd misery, bitterness, frustration and even more absurd hope? The creature ... she could hardly bear to think of it as 'Clara' ... who had written some of those pages had had a short memory too. Over and over again, some state of mind was described in almost identical words as if it were being experienced for the first time. On her second reading she could discern a rhythm in these recurring entries. It was like watching someone hurling themselves repeatedly against a wall until they fell back, exhausted and battered. The creature kept rising up again, full of absurd hope and good resolutions, only to go through the hurling and battering all over again, sometimes in a passage written at one stretch.
That's one of the best descriptions of the recurring swings of a deep depression I've ever encountered, and one I suspect will be familiar to many sufferers.
So, why am I connecting Antonia White with two children's stories? Well, aside from the fact that good art is good art whatever the genre and that it's important to share understanding of this disease wherever it's found, there's something artistically interesting too. I emphasised Clara's sense of having committed some mysterious 'sin' - and I think this 'sin' is one of the elements that gives Antonia White a vocabulary to talk about depression. Raised Catholic, her conscience suffered severe damage at an early age through over-zealous nuns; the concept of being somehow evil and tainted - the cornerstone of depression - was given a framework in which to wreak havoc.
Children's literature can be good for exploring depression in metaphorical terms for a simple reason: struggles of good and evil are commoner in children's than adult's fiction. But the fact is, it's hard to talk about depression without talking about evil. It's not just because the disease's effect on people is so utterly, brutally malign -though it is; if there's a Devil, depression must be one of his greatest inventions. It's also because the language of evil, guilt and cataclysm is the language that depression forces sufferers to use to themselves. The official list of symptoms is accurate as far as it goes, but language like 'low self-esteem' in no way conveys the raging drive of the disease, the sense of being corrupt, tainted, poisoned at the root. Depression inflicts on the sufferer a sense of being a bad person - and in a lot of cases, a sense that other people bad are too. I recently viewed an episode of The Wire with a friend who was recovering from a bad bout, and they said something interesting: it was an episode they'd watched when they were sick, and they'd inferred between the characters a degree of friction, tension and hostility that, now they were feeling better, they realised simply wasn't there. That sense of badness had washed over everything; it was an essential part of their interaction with the world.
Depression, in short, casts the sufferer into a moral maelstrom where it's difficult to express the scale of it without using the langage of good and evil.
But with sophisticated adult literature, here's the problem. Good and evil are difficult concepts, especially if your mental health is sound. Get too free with the concept of evil, and you're at risk of projecting it onto other people, and that's a dangerous game. You start labeling people, and from there it's a short step to not caring what happens to them: you risk becoming someone who stands by while scapegoats get hurt. Being too comfortable with the word 'evil' can damage your own morality. It's a problem in fiction, too: if you want to portray vivid characters, Just Plain Bad is not a good start. In real life, people are a moral mixture, and moral stereotyping leads to crude fiction. You wind up with a pantomime villain, which is something to avoid.
Now, that's all fine and appropriate when you're depicting normal mental states. But mental illnesses bring in a scale and crisis that's difficult to depict in a way that's both accurate and low-key. Someone who hadn't encountered it would be liable to think you were exaggerating.
This is one reason why children's fiction allows such room for manoeuvre: it's already exaggerated. You can, to coin a truly vile word, metaphorise the issue. There isn't exactly an evil force that possesses you and has to be cast out and fought down to preserve everything you hold dear, but in metaphorical terms, that's a pretty good summation. People don't usually set fire to your head and then banish you for years, but a sufferer feels subtler injuries just as keenly as if they did. Children's fiction is large-scale, and makes room for large emotions - and depression is enormous.
With adults, it's a different matter. It's notable that many of the famous depictions of depression (or at least those I can think of) are not novelistic. William Styron's Darkness Visible is a memoir. Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode' is a poem. Depressive characters can crop up - Sydney Carton in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is one example, but it's notable that Dickens, too, had a flair for the exaggerated in his work. Dickens doesn't use the word, and may not even have been familiar with the concept, psychiatry not being then what it is now - but Carton's inability to make good use of his talents or sustain an effort, his self-hatred, his self-dosing with alcohol, his conviction that there's something inexplicable but insurmountable wrong with him, his belief that his self-hatred is merely realistic ('I have proved myself, and I know better', is his bleak response to encouragement) and his corollary conviction that any hope for him is nothing more substantial 'unformed ideas', delusions, 'A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing and leaves the sleeper where he lay down', are all distinctive. It's a typical feature of the disease that the harsher a judgement a sufferer forms about himself, the more he feels that it's honest. Without emotions to spur us, it's almost impossible to act, because belief is an emotion and it's hard to believe in something you we can't feel. Thus, with the inability to feel anything but pain, a good idea thus feels insubstantial and false because there are no positive feelings present to give it the emotional heft of reality, whereas self-hatred and despair are thoroughly backed up with emotional 'evidence'. A depressive saying to himself 'I'm a bad person and won't accomplish anything' feels despair, which is the appropriate emotion to go with such a statement. If he says, 'I'm a good person and my life will be all right', he feels, at best, nothing, and at worst, despair, which would be the appropriate emotion if the statement were false. This is actually because the emotional circuits that produce hope and confidence, the emotions you'd normally feel if you were truthfully saying 'I'm a good person and my life will be all right', are broken; the inability to feel anything but despair doesn't actually prove anything about you except that you're feeling despairing. But the brain is a rationalising organ, and protects itself from the knowledge of its dysfunction very thoroughly; I've listened to schizophrenics give massively complicated explanations of why everybody's out to get them, and some people are even saying they're mad, which is just part of the conspiracy, of course ... If your limb breaks, your brain knows about it, but if your brain goes wrong, it goes into denial: we're wired to make sense of a welter of information, and we usually get it in the right order - but if we get it in the wrong order, we won't notice, because our brain is still giving the 'I've arranged an explanation, yes, that makes sense, doesn't it?' signal. The ability to believe in one's own conclusions doesn't necessarily go offline just because the ability to draw accurate conclusions has: you wind up with someone utterly convinced of something false, because their conviction circuits are working better than their judgement circuits. This effect is particularly vicious when it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: a depression sufferer who believes they can't accomplish anything because their confidence is withered will not try to achieve anything, or be unable to tell a good plan from a bad one because they're equally unconfident about them all, and consequently achievement is less likely, bolstering up the sense of failure. Dickens doesn't go into this degree of analysis, of course, because he's a novelist trying to portray the effects of character rather than the causes, but Carton's deeply convinced sense that it's simply kidding himself to think he might do something worthwhile is a fine portrait of one of depression's many painful symptoms.
Thus poor Carton, unable to keep hold of any pleasant sense of anticipation, finds his good intentions slipping through his fingers. Compare this description of his inner life:
When he got out of the house, the air was cold and sad, the dull sky overcast, the river dark and dim, the whole scene like a lifeless desert. And wreaths of dust were spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert-sand had risen far away, and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city.
... to Antonia White's description above of the rhythm of hope and exhaustion - or the sense of externalised hopelessness, seeing his internal desert in the city surrounding him, with my friend's comment that they saw, inaccurately, their own tension and conflict mirrored in the characters before them. Even Carton's 'far, far better' suicide is depressive: I can never make a good life; I wish I could just make a good death; it would be better for everyone is the beginning of the end. Interestingly, as I ran this article past my fiance, who's better-informed than me in many areas, he pointed out that A Tale of Two Cities is one of J.K. Rowling's favourite books, and may have been an influence for Harry Potter's semi-suicide. Harry effectively dies, and gets the death out of his system. (Zuko's 'metamorphosis' illness can perhaps be seen as a less extreme example of this: a form of death that leads to rebirth.) When depression's around, it seems, something has to die: hopefully it will be the disease, but it can be hard to separate the disease from the sufferer. Rowling's books in particular are surprisingly preoccupied with death for a children's series - which makes perfect sense if we consider them an image of depression: the natural progression of the disease is to choose one's own death, although it can take a long time to get there and look very different in its early stages.
To return from this digression: Antonia White struggled with horrific writer's block all her life, and found it impossible to write a full-length novel that wasn't at least semi-autobiographical; she considered this 'hug[ging] the shore' and felt it a failure in herself - there's that depressive perfectionism and self-blame again - but the effect is outstanding: a detailed and intimate study of character that spans over a decade and traces the metastasis of the disease with bleak, passionate precision.
And at the beginning of that story is a convent, where good and evil are not just abstract concepts, but part of the fabric of daily life. 'Almost everything's a venial sin', the heroine remarks gloomily, and it's this framework that gives the story, not just a language for depression, but also a scope. An ordinary depression can blow up to massive proportions over small, personal things - I didn't get that job, I wish we hadn't moved house - but Clara's Catholicism ties her perceived failures to an appropriately massive source: the Church. If she can't be a 'good' person, she isn't just failing herself, but centuries of tradition, an international monolith, and God. Catholicism is also a family issue - her faith begins when her adored, intimidating father converts when she's seven and makes his family come along, so failing God is also failing her father, to the extent that the two are almost impossible for her to separate. The domestic, in short, is given a metaphysical grandeur of scale that makes room for the magnitude of depression in the same way that a children's epic does.
Depression is, by its nature, a disease that makes its victims overreact to the world. Unless you give some serious justification for it in fiction, it's hard to portray well or sympathetically; the Wikipedia article on Sydney Carton, for instance, describes him as 'indulged in self-pity because of his wasted life', which is hardly sympathetic. But Carton's depression is mysterious: there's something wrong with him, but he can't say what, and in the absence of an explanation, it seems frustratingly incomprehensible that he'd be drinking away his potential and reject good advice and encouragement. From the outside, depression looks like an easy fix: just drop the moping and do what you need to do. Of course, saying that to someone in the throes is about as useful as telling someone autistic that they just need to be more sensitive to other people's feelings: it looks like won't, but it feels like can't. Depression is an implacable force - or at least, implacable to more or less everything except medical treatment - but the implacability comes from within, and from without, it looks like someone is doing it deliberately unless their illness happens to be tied to something that's easily understood. If it's not, then it baffles anyone who's fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the effects. You need some way to make the baffling seem plausible, the mad seem believable.
And for that, though it's not the only way of doing it, it's extremely useful to have recourse to metaphysics. It can be done broadly in bright, colourful strokes, or subtly in shades of grey, but it's a fine way to convey a terrible thing. Even Dickens, who keeps religion more in the background that White and whose grandiosity skirts the borders between naturalistic and magic realist fiction, has to resort to moral language to describe it. Victor Hugo writes in Les Miserables, 'The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God - that is love.' Substitute 'Hell' for God: that is depression. It's therefore notable that in all three examples, contrasting though they are, there's something supernatural involved in all of them, be it magic, spiritual illness or religion: in any case, something inexplicable, unchallengeable and overwhelming. What better way to express the sufferings of someone wearing an intangible shock collar?
This is a beautiful article.
I am myself a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and one of the most admirable points of the series is Zuko's very realistic internal struggle.
I remember reading -- skimming? -- Dickens' Tale of Two Cities in high school; sad to say I don't remember much about it, except that Sidney Carton really was a lonely, self-loathing character. You do him justice.
This is wonderful. A young lady very important to us is having some real problems with depression, and is quite the fan of Avatar.
We'd like to send her a copy of this in hopes it might help her a bit.
Not much to add except:
we have to eat our shoes, and shoes taste bad.
It could be worse; you could have to eat clowns, and clowns taste funny.
An astonishingly perceptive and compassionate piece of writing. In a very long post, this one phrase was especially crystalline:
looks like won't, but it feels like can't.
But all in all, you expressed the bafflement that I feel when I am told by well-meaning atheists that "religious beliefs are just so much fairy tales!"
Well, OF COURSE they are. That's why they WORK.
I'd usually end up here quoting Tolkien on Fairy Stories, but varieties sake, I'll turn to C.S. Lewis:
"used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of 'commenting on life,' can add to it."
And, ro round out the thought, some G. K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
Or, more importantly in the case of depression (as Gaiman and Pratchett have astutely noticed), the astonishing revelation that the dragon can be killed.
Sorry for going on so long. But this post really touched a chord.
...A young lady very important to us is having some real problems with depression, and is quite the fan of Avatar.
We'd like to send her a copy of this in hopes it might help her a bit.
Send her my best wishes, as well. I'm really sorry for what she's going through: I hope she, and you, come through it. Take care of yourself, too; depression is exhausting for friends and family as well as sufferers. Good luck.
Has she tried CBT? That's been the most effective method I've seen, and I think it's got the highest statistical success of all the talking cures. There are some useful links here. I've seen exercise have great results as well, plus anti-depressants - most of the people I've seen resist the idea of 'taking pills' have changed their minds dramatically once they've actually tried them and found their selves coming back. This is a good article on new research on the subject as well; it's about how scientists now suspect that it's not caused by a serotonin deficit, but by a neurological degeneration similar to Alzheimers - except reversible, which is the good news. You may know all this already, but in case it helps...
You'll be in my thoughts.
(Anyone else who wants to pass this in in the hopes of helping a depression victim, please do so with my blessings. One of the main reasons I wrote this was that I've seen that vicious disease rip up more than one person I love, and if anything I say helps anyone's understanding, that means a lot to me. The more information we share, the better we can fight it.)
Very well said, it's tempting to print this out and have it hand the next time I'm involved in a discourse with someone who doesn't understand the disease.
Thank you for a fascinating and stunningly accurate article. You know that feeling of, "wait a minute, how did you get into my head and put what I've felt into words?" Yeah. That.
I just found out this blog and I have to say, I like it already. A very insightful piece.
This, in special, stands out: it looks like won't, but it feels like can't. I often engage my mother in such discussions and I've felt - feel - that myself. It looks like won't, but feels like can't. That no matter what I want - try - to do, it does not seem to help at all.
One of the many problems of this horrible, horrible disease is that it gives no external signs. You don't have fever, you don't forget things, you don't have deformed limbs. It isn't visual. It isn't there for all to see.
I have seen far too many dismiss depressed people as lazy whiners, or other such epithets, as if it's the person's fault that they have such an overwhelming pressure in their minds. As if it is a matter of won't - especially if that person has a generally, for the onlooker, good life.
It's hard to convince people that there is, indeed, a sickness that, as all sicknesses, needs treatment if that person isn't, say, vomiting her guts out. I can hardly imagine a person who would willfully spend a life in misery.
I suppose there was a point to this. I am not quite sure what it was.
Another possible example of depression in children's fiction: Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea.
Ged's chippy dislike of his rival Jasper, the shadowy demon that he unleashes, the demon's pursuit of him wherever he goes and the way in which he finally vanquishes it all have strong echoes of real world depression.
Another strong depressive personality might be the character of Wolf Larsen, in Jack London's The Sea Wolf. I'm not sure if that counts as children's fiction or not! Still, Larsen's utterly nihilistic view of life, his frustrated talent, his implacable sadism and tyranny over his crew, his inhuman strength (much like a depressive's ability to rant for hours) and the way that, finally, his nervous system seems to destroy itself and kill him - all these things seem at least a bit depressive, especially given that Jack London himself suffered from depression and committed suicide because of it.
Late -- April 2009 -- but I was wondering what you thought about Sozin, from the little we saw of him in "The Avatar and the Firelord."
That is an outstanding post. I am myself a fully recovered ex-depressive, and I do what I can informally to help those who are still suffering from it. I will be pointing people here.
It's a typical feature of the disease that the harsher a judgement a sufferer forms about himself, the more he feels that it's honest. I couldn't stop staring at this sentence.
This article is probing and articulate. It's also, I think, the straw on the camel's back to make her finally watch the Avatar series! I seem to hear good things about it every day.
As an exploration of depression in literature, this piece is very interesting but I would hardly describe Frost in May, and particularly the books that follow, as children's fiction.
I know that in the piece itself you admitted as much but including the books in a piece called "Depression and children's fiction" is unlikely to help Antonia White's novels shake off the reputation of being inconsequential children's school stories.
Like you, I am a fan of her work and feel she has important things to say, not just about mental health but about women and their status in society. It would be unfortunate if this article were to put off even one adult from approaching her work.
I know that in the piece itself you admitted as much but including the books in a piece called "Depression and children's fiction" is unlikely to help Antonia White's novels shake off the reputation of being inconsequential children's school stories.
I wasn't aware of White suffering a reputation as inconsequential: she's published by Virago Modern Classics and the subject of serious biography, so possibly we've been reading different sources. I was under the impression that she was generally accepted as a literary author just as much as Dickens and that her reputation was in no more danger of misinterpretation than his.
(I also don't think it's reasonable to dismiss a story as inconsequential just because it's intended for children. Which White's books weren't, so it's a separate point, but as far as I'm concerned literary quality is a function of content, not of market.)
If she is in that position you may have a point, but I can't change the title now without messing up any links to the article people may have made, which I don't think would be fair to them - especially as several of the commenters have said they wish to recommend it to people suffering from depression; if there's even the slightest chance it might help someone in that agony I feel I have a responsibility not to make it hard for them to find. The best I can do is to state categorically that I consider Antonia White a profound and vital literary author, one of my personal favourites, who deserves the most sincere respect, and to add a note at the top of the post.
Late -- April 2009 -- but I was wondering what you thought about Sozin, from the little we saw of him in "The Avatar and the Firelord."
Even later myself - I don't get any kind of comment notification - but on the off-chance you're still reading I should have the manners to reply...
I think he's a minor enough character, and represented in simple enough terms, that it's hard to speculate about his mental health; like Ozai, we see his personality largely in terms of how it affects other people, but compared with Ozai we see very little of anyone who knows him directly and very little of him either, so it's difficult to call.
His family as a whole has a fairly strong set of personality traits which he definitely manifests - drive, control issues, difficulty managing emotions and hunger for approval - all of which are traits that may be found in people who have a vulnerability to depression*, but not everyone who might get sick does. Very often it takes a period of stress to push someone over the edge. If Sozin were a real person you might say that he's a man with a potentially depressive personality who may or may not ever have gotten that push, but we don't know enough to know; all we do know is that he bequeaths both a breakable temperament and a stressful situation to his unfortunate decendents.
So whether you could call him sick or just a creator of sickness isn't really supported by the text either way. In general I'd say it's a pretty good portrait of a family getting sicker and sicker with each generation, passing on the abuse and multiplying the damage, until the youngest members descend into complete psychological collapse, from which one of them heals and the other doesn't. In a way Zuko can be interpreted as healthier than Azula in that he has the good sense to have a long-overdue nervous breakdown when he's got someone to look after him and the good fortune to be worse at pretending to be well than she is. His facade keeps slipping, which in various painful ways gets him out of the toxic situation; she's a victim of her own success who fakes being all right so well that people believe her and don't help her. At a push you might argue that Sozin has Azula's ability to hold himself together, which might conceal illness more effectively than Zuko's flailing, but at that point it starts to edge towards just making things up, which is kind of unwarranted. So you can say it's a sick family, but it's hard to judge exactly how deep the sickness bites the patriarch.
If I remember right Sozin is also drawn as an older man with that characteristic family scowl, which is something I've seen on the faces of depressed loved ones, and his letter talks of life having seemed brighter once, so one wouldn't call him a happy chappy. But again, there isn't much to go on.
* I wish to stress that I am in absolutely no way suggesting that people whose personalities are vulnerable to depression are evil people, and certainly not genocidal dictators. Most of them are extremely nice people who suffer from an excess of virtues like perfectionism and conscientiousness; qualities like drive and a longing for approval are perfectly honourable and can lead to good behaviour as well as bad; issues with control can as much be a fear of being controlled arising from traumatic experiences as a desire to push people around, and nobody's perfect at managing their emotions. Of those I know who've been struck by that horrible disease, they're consistently lovely people and not villainous at all.
I really love this article. For a long time I suffered from depression and had therapists to help me, but they never understood what was wrong because I always hid it well from them. I never really wanted to change until I got with my boyfriend, which I don't know how to address that. The fact that I needed a boy to motivate change makes me somewhat disappointed in myself,but yet I'm damn happy I did.
Looking back, it was because he did his own version of CBT that I got out of that pit.
I'm sorry I'm rambling, reading this piece reminds me of the past. And I agree with you about all the points you made. Thank you.
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