The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
|May 27, 2010||Posted by Randy McDonald under Biography, Health, Non-fiction|
Andrew Solomon’s 2001 book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is the book that made Solomon’s name internationally, a survey of depression that avoids the survey’s flaws of superficially recounting its symptoms, its history, its treatments.
The Noonday Demon is a comprehensive survey of the issue that begins powerfully by recounting his own experiences: when his depressions began, what triggered it, what it felt like, what worsened it, what could start to make it better. Without his personal admissions, the book would have been a useful tome, a survey of depression’s treatments and history and sociology written in the clear entertaining style one would expect from a writer for The New Yorker. Solomon’s accounts of his depression made it more than this, describing the subjective experience of depression to his non-depressed readers.
The experience of depression is such a hard thing to communicate to one’s well-meaning friends and partners and families, the ways in which life loses its interest and its balance, either accelerated into a frenzy as the sufferer looks for some sort of distraction or decay into the hopeless lethargic passage of painful moments. Depression has been too often been presented in a romantic fashion; Solomon strips the romance away and presents the experience of depression in print perhaps as well as anyone can.
After his feat of autobiography, Solomon goes on to describe the disease in full. Depression, he demonstrates, is fundamentally a biological disease, a product of the failure of neurons and neurotransmitters, and is often very successfully treated on those terms. Depression also has to be understood as a cultural phenomenon, though, as an illness that has often been seen as a cultural artifact—others have seen depression as laziness, as malaise or boredom, even as something fashionable—and as an illness that is the product of isolation of one kind or another. Solomon’s examination of the different populations that have been especially prone to depression—the poor, subjected to terrible suffering and isolation; women, treated at best as second-class citizens and more frequently as objects who should know their place and be politely quiet; gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, despised because of the people they happen to love; ethnic and racial minorities, suffering the experience of knowing that they’re not wanted by the societies where they live—makes it clear that depression is at least as much a function its sufferers’ social experiences as of their physical ills. Sometimes, there are good reasons for people to be depressed; sometimes, it would be surprising for someone not to be depressed.
That’s why I found it heartening that The Noonday Demon went on to explore the many different ways in which people can recover from depression, by finding ways to talk about their experiences and to have other people react in constructive ways. Self-help groups led by Inuit community leaders in Greenland, shamanistic rites among Senegal’s Wolof, talk therapies like group therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy, public health bureaucracies which identify mental health as a serious problem—there are any number of ways to deal with and to help heal depression, all of which involve recognizing it as a serious but treatable health issue.
My single biggest issue with The Noonday Demon is the degree to which Solomon talks about depression itself as a cure of sorts, as something that people can learn from and use to better themselves. Maybe—certainly the treatments available help people understand their psyches better. That’s all that they do, however. Some people may survive depression intact, some people might even thrive with the skills they’ve acquired, but what about all the people who don’t make it? Surviving a serious illness like depression might be cause for celebration, but any improvements come at too high a price.
Still, Solomon has succeeded wonderfully. He introduced his readers to depression via his own personal experiences; he examined depression’s origins; he examined ways different people coped; he examined the hopes for effective treatment. Solomon succeeded in his project of explaining depression, indeed defining it in a way that the world can understand. I’m so glad that he did that. If you’re interested in mental health issues, or even if you’re curious about the human mind, pick this book up.