Authors, Mental Illness, and Suicide

September 25, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Books, LIfe, Reading | 17 Comments
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I just read an article from Globe and Mail revealing for the first time apparently, that L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, committed suicide at the age of 67 through a drug overdose.  The author suffered through a great deal of depression during her life.  Reading this made me very sad.  She created a novel that has been an adolescent staple for close to 100 years now, yet she was unable to fully enjoy her life or her success because of the depression from which she suffered. This news also comes close on the heals of the recent suicide of David Foster Wallace, who has now joined the company of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan, and Virginia Woolf.

I know that authors are not alone in their connection with mental illness and suicide.  Artists and other highly creative people also seem more likely than the general population to suffer from depression or other forms of mental illness and ultimately commit suicide.  It wonder if it is true that creative people are more likely to have these types of issues or if it only seems that way because of their fame and noteriety?  Is what drove these authors and artists to write or create also responsible for their mental anguish?  Could any of those people have been saved while keeping their talent alive and flourishing?

When I started this blog, I was trying to find some way to fight my way out of the depression and anxiety that was strangling me after my beautiful and beloved daughter Allison was born.  She was two at the time, but everywhere I turned I smacked into the same wall.  I was hoping that making a goal for myself that had nothing to do with being a wife (I love you, Danny!) and a mother (you too, Em -n- Em and Ally McBeal!) could help me.  I decided to read 52 books in 2007.  After I got started, I wanted to document what I read in some way.  That was the beginnings of what is now The Literate Housewife Review.  It has been the combination of reading and the creative outlet of writing my blog that has helped me feel more like myself.  I could not imagine what it would be like if this made no difference or if it made me feel worse.

I have had the wonderful opportunity to correspond with and, in some cases, talk with several authors who have written novels and memoirs that I have really enjoyed.  I am also eagerly anticipating my trip to D.C. this weekend to listen to Neil Gaiman, Philippa Gregory, Salmon Rushdie (great way to kick of Banned Books Week!) and James McBride and hopefully get my books signed.  I do not know any of their personal circumstances, but it would be devestating to me if any one of them were to be in such a situation.

While I know that the appreciation of millions can do nothing if someone is so dark inside, I want to express my appreciation for authors and other artists.  As you reflect the human experience, you enhance it and make it beautiful.  You provide a context through which to speak, discuss and think about that which is without words and I will forever be grateful.

My Grandmother’s Journal

July 11, 2008 at 8:00 am | Posted in Books, Family, Guest Post, LIfe | Leave a comment
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It is with great pleasure that I announce The Literate Housewife Review’s very first guest post by Diana M. Raab, the author of Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal. I hope that you enjoy her reflections on her grandmother and how she encouraged the young writer in Diana:

At the age of ten years I found my grandmother dead in her room next to mine. On that sunny summer morning I knocked on her door to ask permission to swim in a friend’s pool. I called her name, but she lay in her bed beside the window, remaining perfectly still. On her stomach sat an opened Graham Greene book and a pair of eyeglasses. I touched her face and it was stone cold. With a child’s intuition, I sensed something was seriously wrong. I ran out of the room to phone my mother at work.

Within minutes, emergency vehicles lined our once quiet residential street. All I remember is two uniformed men carrying my grandmother down the creaky wooden stairs strapped to a stretcher. I prayed they wouldn’t drop her.

There wasn’t much talk about my grandmother until about twenty years later when my parents were getting reading to move from that childhood house in Queens, New York. While packing, they stumbled across her retrospective journal which she’d written after emigrating from Vienna in the early 1930s. Only after reading that document did I really understand the deep roots of her depression, which tormented her entire life, and eventually led to her demise at the age of sixty-one.

I tucked the journal away and pulled it out ten years later after being diagnosed with breast cancer. I wondered if she’d committed suicide because of a cancer diagnosis which she’d kept to herself. I hoped her written words could provide an explanation for my own health problems, but they didn’t. However, the details of her tragic life once again drew me close to her. Her powerful words sharing her being orphaned during World War I, just pulled me in. She witnessed the Russians hack up little boys in the street and soldiers march through her town.

I realized how I’d never connected with another woman in the same way. She was an extension of me. Those ten years she’d care for me, planted the seed for my writing, because not only was she devoted to the written word by daily journaling and propensity for leaving notes on the kitchen table, but she had also taught me how to type. I remember the day as if it were yesterday.

Her black Remington typewriter was perched on the vanity in her room. Each morning, I knocked on her door for a morning kiss. She then took my hand and we’d walk down to the kitchen for breakfast. One morning when I was about six years old, instead of immediately heading downstairs, she invited me into her room.

“Have a seat,” she said,” pointing me to her vanity chair.

“I’m going to teach you how to type. This is a handy skill for a girl to have, plus you never know what kind of stories you’ll have to tell one day.”

She stood behind me with her image glowing in the mirror. She took my right hand and positioned it on the second row of keys from the bottom, carefully placing one finger on each letter, repeating the same gesture with my left hand.

“This is the position your fingers should be in. When you become a good typist, you won’t have to even look at the letters while you’re typing. Okay, dear, let’s see if we can type your name.”

With my left middle finger she had me press on the “D.” Then we moved to the right middle finger and moved up a row to type an “I.” Then my pinky pressed the “A” and then something really tricky had to happen, I had to move my right thumb down to the bottom row to type an “N.” Then my left pinky typed an “A.” After each letter I glanced up at the paper to see the impression of my efforts. After reaching the last “A” in my name, I proudly looked up at my grandmother’s face in the mirror.

“You see, you did it!” she said, squeezing my shoulders.

“Like anything in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll become. You must work hard to get results; you’ll learn that soon enough, my love.”

This seemingly innocent gesture on her part instilled my own lifelong commitment to the written word. As a young girl, I wrote stories, but as a young adult, I worked my way through college typing term papers for students.

Finding the journal was my impetus in writing write my memoir released in September 2007, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal. The project which began as my graduate thesis made me me realize the strong connection I had with my grandmother. It also made me realize how depression is a precurrsor to suicide and the intrinsic value of writing and how important it is for one generation to pass on their stories to the next generation. As a result, I have become a journaling advocate to those in my community and beyond.

#84 ~ Regina’s Closet

July 9, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Books, Culture, Family, LIfe, Reading | 9 Comments
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Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal by Diana M. Raab

If ever there was a granddaughter who loved her grandmother, Diana M. Raab is that granddaughter. In her book, she lovingly weaves a memorial to her grandmother Regina through her own remembrances as the precious journal Raab’s mother found in the closet, decades after Regina’s suicide. Without judgment or justification the author allows her grandmother to tell the story of her childhood and early adulthood. When outside historical or family information could be found, Raab filled in some of the gaps, but what was especially poignant was how Regina’s journal brought her grandmother to life for her.

Diana M. Raab was 10 years old the day that her grandmother committed suicide. She discovered her grandmother’s body in bed when she went to her to ask if she could go out. She was home alone. What a terrifying experience for a young child. To exacerbate that, she didn’t discover the truth behind the death until she over heard her mother whispering to friends. There is no way that such an experience couldn’t leave a lasting impact on one’s life. It seems that it caused Raab to be a strong, loving woman. Although her own parents were distant, she went on to raise a close knit family with three children. It was only after she read Regina’s journal that she discovered from where her fortitude, her writing skills, and her nurturing love for her children came.

I read this book in less than a day. Regina’s story along with the author’s incites were compelling and freshly written. Often when a person commits suicide, that is how they are remembered or talked about. Raab gives life to her grandmother’s entire story in Regina’s Closet. Reading this book made me think about my Uncle Randy, who committed suicide exactly one week after my 21st birthday – on his father’s 75th birthday. Randy had been very sick for a very long time before he died. I wish that he had left a journal or something to reassure my grandfather that his suicide was not my grandfather’s fault or a final punishment for something he did. Survivors, in my experience, blame themselves a thousand times over for what happened. Rarely do they stop to consider that while they were the ones who had to pick up the pieces, this wasn’t about them at all. Raab even expands on that concept. Upon reflection she discovered that Regina gave her a gift after her death – a beautiful relationship between Diana and her grandfather Samuel. Where there is death, there is new life.

I would highly recommend Regina’s Closet to everyone. Although Regina did commit suicide, there is a rich history in the story. Much of the book takes place in Eastern Europe, and tells the story of lonely and unloved young girl growing up in a Jewish family scrambling to survive World War I and the beginnings of World War II. What was simply a journal Regina kept during those years became a treasure for the author, who wrote a love letter in return. Simply beautiful.

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To purchase this book, click here.  Diana M. Raab is donating the proceeds from Regina’s Closet to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. When you buy this book, you’ll also be helping to prevent suicides. You get a great book and a donation is made to a great cause. What could be better than that?

#50 ~ Fight Club

November 26, 2007 at 2:23 am | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Film, Free, LIfe, My Life with Books, Reading | Leave a comment
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Fight Club: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Throughout the year I’ve been talking with people at work about the books I’ve been reading. Two of my co-workers mentioned Fight Club. I’ve never had a desire to read this book or see the movie. They are six and 13 years younger than me respectively and I reasoned that I was too old. I missed the boat for this book. After arguing that I was not, in deed, too old to read this book, I asked if either of them had a copy of the book that I could borrow. I figured that would be the end of the story. Not so fast. The very next morning, I was handed a nearly pristine copy in paperback.

After finishing Love in the Time of Cholera, I wanted something quick to read. Thumbing through this book, it seemed the obvious choice. Well, maybe it wasn’t such a good next choice. Given the lack of hope, kindness, and charity of the characters, it wasn’t the best book with which to start off the holiday season. Additionally, where there was too much personal hygiene-type information in Cholera, that was amplified and modernized in Fight Club. Had I not made a promise to myself that I would finish every book I started this year, I would have tossed this book as soon as I found out that the main character, who is never named (what’s up with that type of thing happening all at the same time with my book choices?), does not kill the wanna be veterinarian. I can not stand torture in art (or life – but I thought that should go without saying – although I am saying it here). I threw up because my date wouldn’t let me leave The Silence of the Lambs. Reading that scene in Fight Club wasn’t much better for me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s good that I didn’t simply toss it during the torture scene. It gave a very interesting insight into human nature – especially when not everything is fitting together as it should. I can’t say that I would ever read it again, but I’m glad that I read it the first time. If for no other reason, knowing what happens will save me from ever having to watch the movie. I can now report back to my co-workers that no, I’m not too old for this book (or the movie). I just don’t have the stomach, and that’s been true since I was in college.

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To buy this book, click here.

#04 ~ Keeping Faith

January 31, 2007 at 3:33 pm | Posted in Books, Jodi Picoult, Parenting Dilemmas, Reading, Religion | 4 Comments
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Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult

I love Jodi Picoult. The last time I finished one of her books I suffered withdrawal symptoms because I didn’t have another one waiting in the wings. So it was surprising to me as I began this book that I was growing tired of her. I actually was wishing I’d chosen another book. This happened a couple times before while I was in high school. I read so many Steven King and Danielle Steele books that I began to recognize patterns and just couldn’t read them anymore. At one point I swore that if I ever read another book that mentioned Carmel, CA that I would throw it against the wall. Thankfully, as I read further into the story, I got hooked and couldn’t put it down.

This is the story of a messy divorce and custody battle and its effects on an only child named Faith. Mariah, Faith’s mother, suffers from a lack of self esteem. From the moment that Colin shows interest in her in college, she allows him to mold her into the type of wife he wanted. She loses her identity. Colin’s first infidelity drove Mariah to suicide. He had her institutionalized against her will and it was in the hospital that he discovered her pregnancy. That was the only thing that kept their marriage together. The book begins when Mariah and Faith come home to retrieve a lost ballet leotard; they find Colin getting ready to take a shower with another woman. In the aftermath, Colin leaves, Mariah calls in her mother to take care of Faith while she gets herself straightened out, and Faith begins to see and talk to God.

Mariah takes Faith to psychiatrists, doctors, rabies, and even allows interviews with Catholic priests in order to get to the bottom of Faith’s visions. Faith was found by all to be mentally stable, but no one was brave enough to believe that Faith’s visions were actually contacts with the divine. That is, until her touch brings her grandmother back to life after being clinically dead for an hour. Once that story hits the press, people begin to congregate outside of Mariah’s home. The story is spread even further by an atheist televangelist name Ian. He has made it his life’s work to debunk religion and especially the miracles. When Colin returns home from his honeymoon with his pregnant wife, he discovers what is going on and decides to sue for full custody of Faith, using a renowned cutthroat lawyer. Not only does Mariah need to find the inner strength to handle the situation with Faith, she then has to fight to keep custody of her daughter.

Some of the relationships that develop seem too convenient and predictable. As with many other of Picoult’s lead female characters, Mariah is not alone for long. On the other hand, I enjoyed the way in which Mariah interacted with her mother. They have a truly special relationship. Still, the most interesting thing about this particular Picoult novel is the way in which visions, religion, faith, and God are handled by each of the characters. I believe that the book covered this topic and all sides with respect.

This was not one of my favorite Picoult books, but I would recommend the book to others. It provides the opportunity to explore your beliefs about the extraordinary. What would you do if your child began seeing visions of God?

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