Depression and the questionable value of telling stories

Hey everyone! Yesterday it was the turn of Caitlin Moran – today let’s all flame India Knight! These female Times journalists don’t half ask for it, don’t they? (Meanwhile, Rod Liddle treads the same old hate-filled path because, well, he’s just Rod Liddle. Funny, that.)

I have a feeling that Knight wrote something deeply offensive about mental illness in yesterday’s Sunday Times. This is just a feeling, though, since I’m not about to subscribe to the bloody thing to find out. All the same, I’ve seen the “taster” paragraphs and it doesn’t look promising:

Are there people left standing who still believe that depression is “taboo”, and that by speaking about their own they are bravely shining a light — “just a little beam, but I do what I can” — into the darkness?

I ask because in the past six weeks alone a slew of autobiographies — the blockbuster ones published to coincide with the fat, money-spinning Christmas market — have put depression at the centre of their narratives.

From David Walliams to Antonio Carluccio, from Victoria Pendleton to Jack Straw (never mind the politics; where’s the crying?), via Edna O’Brien and Pamela Stephenson . . . the list goes on and on.

There are different ways of reading this. Knight is mocking celebrities and their motivations when offering up confessionals, that is for certain – but is she also mocking all people with mental illness? Her opening question is, to my mind, pretty dodgy, but is it merely a badly-worded dig at those who cynically exploit mental illness to sell books? The charity Mind didn’t think so, mentioning Knight in a tweet encouraging followers to challenge her using the hashtag #whatstigma. Knight claimed to have been misrepresented and accused Mind of rabble-rousing. All the same, her way of responding to criticism – with tweets such as “The depressed people are making me depressed” – didn’t do much to argue her case (nonetheless, Mind have since apologised and requested that tweets do not go directly to Knight).

The Guardian already features a response to Knight’s column. In a piece called We Need To Keep Talking About Depression, Mark Rice-Oxley – himself the author of a depression memoir – argues that this type of confessional writing helps other sufferers even if, contrary to Knight’s suggestion, the stigma of mental illness has not gone away:

Depression makes you feel alone, afraid, an outcast. Hearing that it is an illness that can affect anyone is enormously helpful. Learning that rich and starry people suffer too makes you feel less broken, less bereft. Understanding that it affects rich and poor, successful and not so successful, men and women, old and young also helps you to comprehend: this is a universal scourge. It picked you, you didn’t pick it. You really are not to blame.

I am not so sure I buy all this. Certainly, those who suffer from depression do not bring it upon themselves (apart from me; I suffer from depression and, as is fitting in such a situation, I totally believe I’ve brought it upon myself). Even so, I don’t think other people’s depression memoirs are always written for the purest of reasons. At times I even wonder whether the sheer popularity of the mental illness memoir does more harm than good.

Partly it’s the prurience of the whole thing. “The sane” are no longer offered diverting tours round psychiatric hospitals, but the “tragic life stories” shelf in WHSmiths is bulging with misery porn. Real-life sadness remains a form of entertainment, whatever the excuses we choose to make. We tell ourselves we’re merely gaining understanding, but are we really? Reading about another person’s mental breakdown might feel educational and altruistic – you can tell yourself you’re gaining an insight that can’t be provided by a textbook – but it’s not the same as supporting a real, live person, who can be unpredictable, challenging and downright embarrassing. Someone with depression won’t behave exactly like a depressed person in a memoir. You might close the book when things get heavy, but what will you do in real life?

Rice-Oxley claims that fellow sufferers find solace in the stories of others. There’s a lot about this that makes me uncomfortable. I know people respond to things in different ways, and for many people Rice-Oxley may be right. But I also suspect that when reading such books sufferers compare themselves to the subject. I suspect sufferers may end up wondering whether they’re really “all that bad”, since I’d imagine getting a book deal and decent promotion is conditional on offering something rather extreme. Nonetheless, despite the extremity, sufferers may also wonder why, when depression has rendered them incapable of getting out of bed, the person whose life story they are reading has held down a massively successful career (or failing that, written an autobiography).

Beyond that, I also wonder whether some sufferers seek, and indeed find, a particular narrative that they wish to impose on their own illness. The trouble is that autobiographies aren’t simply the truth; they’re the truth edited and shaped. Depression doesn’t have a clear path. On the contrary it can be far more restrictive and repetitive than 300 pages could bear. Perhaps in writing an autobiography some sufferers wish to give their illness that shape and meaning. I’m not so sure it’s the best way to engage with a condition as an individual, let alone as a means of helping others.

During my last stay in a psychiatric hospital, I went through a phase of getting very absorbed in “the story” of my illness. I even identified “the turning point” – the point at which everything would change, the moment when I decided that “from now on, things will be, not perfect, but better”. In a 300 page book, I’d have situated this at around page 225. I wanted my life to be like that because it offered an illusion of control. But it’s not like that, and even if the books tell you this, they still always find a suitable ending, something neat to round it off. Even the worst stories become an impossible standard to live up to.

It’s perhaps ironic that the only books which have really spoken to me about mental illness – Angels Of The Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson and Life Size by Jennifer Shute – are works of fiction. I’ve no idea why that is – a lack of ego, perhaps?* Do fictional characters have less to lose and more to say? Merely knowing that famous people have suffered in similar ways is something that leaves me cold or rather, it just makes me sad. It’s just a sad thing, particularly because it’s true. I don’t know whether this is the case for many people. I don’t know whether the idea of the “helpful” confessional is actually bogus or not. It might be a debate worth having – but not one chaired by India Knight or the tweeters from Mind.

* Not ego in the Freudian sense, but that’s only because I’ve no idea what ego in the Freudian sense actually is.


2 thoughts on “Depression and the questionable value of telling stories

  1. I must admit the confessional nature of these memoirs often gets my back up, as it feels like a cynical way to make money, rather than being in any way useful or constructive. I’m lucky enough not to suffer from depression and I know I’m lucky as my husband does. I’m closer to him than anyone in the world, but I am still mystified by it. I try of course, but the nature of his depression makes him feel guilty for burdening me and every time he has a bad patch we have to start all over again. So while I find it helpful to talk to people in my life who suffer from, or live with people who suffer from, depression, I find the representation in media of this complex condition pretty damn trite. So I think understand India Knight’s point, but she really needs to stop abd think before submitting writing that is unclear in its intention. And maybe admit when something is poorly put. We all mess up, just swallow your damn pride.

  2. I really like your observation about how readers might let the narrative of the book become the narrative of their own depression. I don’t tend to read autobiographies or memoirs much at all, so I don’t have strong feelings about this subject, but I will say that William Styron’s ‘Darkness Visible’ is haunting and beautiful – but that’s because he’s a brilliant and moving writer, not because he was a celebrity with depression 😉

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