Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression

Andrew Solomon
Random House, (May 2002) 560 pages
ISBN: 0 099 27713 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

I must confess that at first sight this book depressed me. It is a thick, heavy, drab-looking paperback, its pages are crammed with small type, and its sub-title suggests something dull and analytical. But I was wrong.

I began by looking up Sylvia Plath's name in the index (her description of depression is quoted briefly on page 66) but I was soon dipping into the book and reading with interest. The first thing I learned was that my initial reaction to this book was not depression: it was more akin to distaste or apprehension--laziness even. Real depression is nothing as trivial as that. And one of the great values of this book is that it gives clear and powerful descriptions of what it is really like to suffer both mild and major depression.

As Andrew Solomon can attest from personal experience, depression is not the sort of passing mood-swing we all experience. It is something far more traumatic and uncontrollable. Solomon had a reasonably happy, secure and stable childhood and, by his own estimation was successfully in control of his life. Yet, just before his thirty-first birthday depression "came slinking in on its little cat feet and spoiled everything." There seemed to be no excuse for it, no reason for it; how could it have happened to him?

Solomon describes an attack of kidney stones for which he underwent surgery and which scared him unduly, then a subsequent "slippage" into unwarranted fear, withdrawal, lack of sleep, appetite, and energy. Eventually, he experienced a complete paralysis of will which left him unable to do the simplest of things: even to turn over in bed, for example. Luckily for him, his father stepped in and cared for him lovingly and efficiently, becoming his mainstay for long months until he began to "emerge" from this illness.

Later, it seemed to Solomon that although the kidney-stone surgery may have precipitated the crisis, it could not have been the root cause of it. So he set out to learn all he could about depression. And Solomon, in spite of recurrent episodes of depression, is an optimist and a fighter. He quotes Ovid: "welcome this pain; for you will learn from it." And The Noonday Demon is one result of his learning. It is a funny, harrowing, informative and often digressive summary of everything Solomon has learned from scientists, therapists, history, different cultures, and (most vividly) from others who suffer from this illness. It is idiosyncratic: factual, anecdotal, literal and literary by turns.

The Noonday Demon is, as Solomon says, an extremely personal book and yet it is one which will interest many others. It tells Solomon's own story, including a moving account of the planned suicide of his mother, who was suffering from cancer, and it tells the stories of many others. It is so packed with information that I could not read it from cover to cover. Instead, I dipped into chapters headed "Depression," "Breakdown," "Suicide," "Treatments" and "Evolution"; I read less extensively in "Addiction," "History," "Politics," and others. Like most people who have not experienced real depression, my own understanding of the illness was vague. Solomon has changed that. He has given me a different perspective, too, on suicide.

"People around depressives expect them to get themselves together," Solomon observes. Some depressives do, eventually: some don't. In this book Solomon lets many depressives tell their own stories and many of them have developed ways of coping. Some people's stories are very distressing. I found that I could not read them all. But there is hope and courage here which makes me glad that I didn't abandon Solomon's book unread simply because it looked daunting. There is valuable information here for those who suffer from depressive illness and those who don't. And Solomon is to be congratulated for turning his own suffering to such useful purpose.


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