3rd August 2007
I have been attending a local Mystery reading group – the Erdington Crime Fiction Reading Group – at my local library for a few months now. This is partly as a result of Mark (my therapist/analyst) encouraging me to participate in more ‘real-life’ activities. It has been an enjoyable experience and has widened my mystery reading since many of the books selected for the monthly reads are outside my normal purview (American, ‘hard-boiled’).
The group organises itself on the basis of monthly ‘themes’ and that for August was ‘On the couch – crime and the mind’. One of the books I selected was Giles Blunt’s Fields of Grief (aka By the Time You Read This) who’s main subject was depression. If I was going to talk about this book it was obvious that I would have to ‘come out’ as a depressive, if I was going to be honest. As I am also getting involved, albeit very cautiously, in some real-life activity campaigning around mental-health issues, especially the stigmatising of the people with mental health problems, there was also a theoretical or ideological impetus to this. I should not have to hide what I am (I know this begs very large questions about the extent to which I am defined by my illness, but that is for another time, and at the broadest level it cannot be denied that depression has shaped my life over the past 20 years). Now one of the reasons why I am so comfortable on the net is that it has always been easy for me to ‘come out’ as a depressive on-line. I don’t think I let it intrude too much, but it so shapes my reactions and comes up so often when one is reading fiction for instance that it is inevitable that I should discuss it fairly frequently. But it is also true that this kind of personal confession is much easier on the net, because one can write comfortably with the feeling that no-one is listening, as I am doing now. I am in a conversation with myself (I have written previously here – 28.6.07 – about the fact that I regard this kind of therapeutic effect of blogging as an unmitigated good and a positive thing, in the face of some who regard it with suspicion). It is true that when I get ill I can have a bad reaction to this and start to imagine lots of people reading what I have written and being mocking or scornful; but I am learning to deal with this reaction and those imagined reactions. A real-life ‘coming out’ is a very different matter. Even with a small, friendly group of people sitting in a circle, I feel all eyes upon me, exposing myself and altering the way that I am perceived. I do not think that I would have been able to do this at all if it had not been for the fact that I had also been attending the Depression Alliance meetings – there it is easy to talk fairly honestly (I do not pretend to baring my soul) because everyone else is talking in the same way. There is a sharing, a companionship. I was also helped, at this meeting of the Crime Fiction Group, by the fact that in the discussion of a book previous to the Blunt a woman had talked about how the book had effected her very powerfully on a personal level because several members of her family had worked within the mental health system, because she hated the way that people with mental illness could be treated, because she herself had sometimes felt shunned for difference. So with these aids I was able to take the plunge and ‘come out’. I explained, briefly, my history as a depressive and tried to show that I felt the book’s plot (see below) was, given my experience, plausible. What happened? Nothing of course. The sky did not fall in and nobody made any unkind or nasty remarks. Of course not. Depression is incredibly common. Everyone in the group would probably have either experienced it themselves or been close to someone who had. But to me it felt like a big step. Not only because it was ‘drawing attention to myself’ in a way I dislike, risking embarrassment, but because I felt I was exposing myself, inviting judgement. Now while I feel objectively pleased with myself when I argue the matter through, there is still a part of me which wishes I had not done it; which wonders if I will now be ‘seen’ in a different way. Of course I will, and in a sense I should be, because being a depressive is a big deal, it does effect my whole life, it is a part of who I am. So coming out to other people is also coming out to myself. This is true even after 20 years. And it is one more good reason for continuing to make the effort whenever I can.
Blunt’s book (The Fields of Grief) tells the story of the apparent suicide of John Cardinal’s (his series detective) wife Catherine. Catherine has suffered from bi-polar disorder for many years. But Cardinal is not only utterly grief-stricken, he also feels that there is something wrong about her suicide. And so there proves to be. The heart of the story centres on the therapist who treated Catherine. It emerges that he ‘treats’ his patients in such a way as to encourage their suicide. His motivation for this, perhaps the weakest part of the story, is his own suppressed and distorted anger with his own father who committed suicide when he was a child. What Blunt does absolutely brilliantly however, is detail those sessions in which the therapist attempts to drive his patients to take their own lives; Blunt shows how he subtly plays on and increases their feelings of self-loathing, guilt, despair and self-hatred, while all the time appearing to ‘help’ them. What was personally chilling for me was, as I explained to the group, that I recognised that should I have been subject to this ‘treatment’ I would indeed have responded by attempting to take my own life. Blunt therefore created a character who, very rare for me despite my extensive reading of mystery fiction, I believed in as a credible murderer – a credible murderer of me! I therefore really hated this character and was completely drawn into the fiction. At an objective level there are pluses and minuses to Blunt’s approach. Depressives are completely vulnerable when ill. When really ill I would probably agree to anything. It is therefore good to encourage a degree of scepticism about therapy and therapists. On the other hand a good therapist can, as I know very well, be helpful in a way that nothing else can. The book raises important issues for depressives. It is also worth noting that this series is set in Algonquin Bay in Canada, a geographical and cultural setting about which I have read little.
I will also mention here the other book I read for this particular theme/month – Jed Rubenfield’s Interpretation of Murder. Unlike the Blunt this was very enjoyable. It proceeds from the fact of Freud’s visit to New York in 1909, about which he was always unwilling to talk some ‘experience’ there having profoundly affected him. From this slender foundation Rubenfield builds up an extraordinary mountain, full of discussion of Freudianism, Freud and his relationship with Jung, the resistance to Freud, social and class divisions in New York in 1909, the political situation, the construction of the Manhattan Bridge, the meaning of Hamlet and a very brilliant and convoluted mystery plot – which is hard to fully comprehend even when one has finished the book. Its a lovely, big messy book and it left me above all wanting to go back and read some Freud (or a decent book about Freud). Jung, it is worth observing, emerges in an extremely bad light. But the book is full of both exuberance and interesting insights. Unlike the Blunt however it does not touch on a personal level.