Daphne Merkin’s daring memoir about her lifelong struggle with depression received a fantastic review from Andrew Solomon on the front page of the February 5th, 2017 issue of The New York Times Book Review, which was especially gratifying since This Close to Happy was brutally difficult for Daphne to wrestle to the ground—it was sixteen years in the making. She first wrote about her affliction in The New Yorker and in The New York Times Magazine, and I remember thinking—at the time—how important and audacious those pieces were. This Close to Happy builds upon that early work to give us an incredibly potent account of the inner life of a high-functioning person living with depression. To celebrate the book’s publication, Daphne and I discussed her childhood, family relationships, and pitched battle with the illness. —Ileene Smith
Ileene Smith: Jill Soloway really captured the intimacy of This Close to Happy when she said it was like a long letter from a friend at sleepaway camp. Did you risk sleepaway camp as a child? I ask because I was pathologically homesick, inconsolable. And I know that your depression started in early childhood.
Daphne Merkin: “Risk” is the right word. I, too, was pathologically homesick and inconsolable the first time I was sent to sleepaway camp at the age of ten. I was put in a bunk with girls who were a year older than me because I was young for my grade and my mother had told me to keep notes about my experience in a notebook. I dutifully followed her advice and wrote terrible things about all the girls in my bunk. The notebook was found by one of them, to my horror. That was the final straw to a terrible non-adjustment on my end—I had been crying nonstop—and I went home after three weeks. My mother sent Jimmy the driver to pick me up, to the camp’s general astonishment, and when I arrived back at our summer house, our housekeeper stood in the doorway and declared me a “traitor,” whatever she meant by that . . . I did try camp again some years later with better results.
IS: Is it possible to write one’s way out of deep depression? When we worked on your book of essays, The Fame Lunches, I was astonished to find that you’d produced 350,000 words of superb literary journalism to choose from. That would be prolific for any writer.
DM: I think really deep depression is immobilizing and that it’s difficult to do something as focused and demanding as writing when you’re under its influence. I do think it’s possible to write with low-grade depression, before it’s really taken hold. But even that is an act of will, since depression is a real energy-sapper.
IS: There is a powerful mother-daughter current that runs through This Close to Happy. Your mother was very withholding yet you seemed to love her deeply. In fact, one of your hospitalizations occurs soon after her death. Did writing your memoir help you make peace with her?
DM: That’s an interesting question. I think writing the book helped me to see my mother more fully, and from a useful distance. I’ve never known what to do with my dual sense of her having been a fairly destructive mother but also someone I was deeply attached to—indeed, loved. I think I’ve come closer to making peace with her, though it’s still a work in formation.
IS: And your many siblings? At the top of this Q&A there is an amazing picture of them glaring at you. You are just three or four years old. Where do they fit in to your story?
DM: I think we were all captives, in a way, of an authoritarian system, one that didn’t allow for much closeness between the six of us. Besides, I was frequently on crying jags. That couldn’t have been easy for anyone. Looking back, I would say that we were all unhappy and weren’t in a position to be of much comfort to one another.
I think we were all captives, in a way, of an authoritarian system, one that didn’t allow for much closeness between the six of us.
IS: I know you didn’t set out to write a prescriptive book, yet I have a hunch that This Close to Happy will offer solace to others who struggle with depression.
DM: That certainly is my hope. One of the most difficult parts of depression is how it imprisons you in your own mind, isolating you from others who might be of help. Depression is silent and silencing, and I think it’s important to give voice to it as articulately and vociferously as possible so that others who suffer from it will feel less alone.
IS: It should also help family and friends of individuals with depression—those whom a friend of mine on the staff at the Austen Riggs Center calls “the worried.” Are there times when your depression vanishes?
DM: There are, mercifully, times—even weeks on end—when my depression lifts. It always comes as a great relief, like the end of a long siege. I think it would be impossible to endure otherwise.
IS: What’s been most helpful to you in managing your depression? A particular therapist or drug?
DM: Both “the talking cure” and medication have been helpful in reckoning with my depression, although it can be difficult to make use of a therapeutic encounter when one is feeling really dark. Good friends, who understand the gravity of depression and the way it encircles one, have also provided ballast. Last but certainly not least, there has been my daughter Zoë, whose matter-of-fact comprehension of my battles with depression have gone a long way to helping me tolerate them. Her assurances that there will be a future beyond my latest bout of depression—and her ability to make me crack a smile or even laugh when I’m in the thick of it—have been a godsend.
IS: Has Zoë read This Close to Happy?
DM: Not a word! She’s lived it with me.
Daphne Merkin is a former staff writer for The New Yorker and a regular contributor to Elle. Her writing frequently appears in The New York Times, Bookforum, Departures, Travel + Leisure, W, Vogue, Tablet Magazine, and other publications. Merkin has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount College, and Hunter College. Her previous books include Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish theme, and two collections of essays, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in New York City.
Ileene Smith is vice president and executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.