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Book Review: “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression”

“‘You like to be sad,’ my mother frequently said to me…As though it was a choice,” author Daphne Merkin writes in her autobiography “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression”. Merkin’s recollection of how she battled, and continues battling, depression instils a new perspective into the eyes of her readers. She uses her blunt and real accounts to not only explain the development of her own mental disorder, but she ponders of others persevering through related situations, the affect her depression has on others and informs readers of many controversial issues revolving around psychological disorders. Her writing is enticing, haunting, and leaves her readers speculating about the questions she leaves them with. To anyone curious about, or hoping to understand, the inner workings of depression, or for anyone affected by psychological disorders wishing to find solace in knowing you are not alone, I highly (and cannot stress highly enough) suggest this novel.


Her Past

Though Merkin grew up in an upper class, sociable family, she accounts her past for much of her psychiatric problems, claiming, “…it’s hard to believe that anything would help short of a new brain or at least a different childhood…”. She grew up the fourth of six children in a lofty apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. Her parents both escaped Germany in the time of Jewish persecution during Hitler’s reign, who then resided in Palestine before embarking on their permanent residency in New York. The couple was well respected in the Jewish Orthodox community, which should have indicated a healthy upbringing for the children; sadly, that was not the case. Merkin disclosed she felt like an upperclass priss complaining, but the atmosphere of her childhood was truly the epitome of psychologically damaging.

Her parents were rarely interested in what young Merkin was involved in, what her grades were like, or what she enjoyed doing in her spare time. She explains her mother and father both lacked parental skill and were not very engaging as family bodies. They kept themselves foreign to their children through their philanthropy, social outings and work; they also hired a nanny, Jane, to care for the children. Though hiring the nanny was suppose to compensate for the lack of affection they gave their children, Jane evidently left more damage through negligence and actual abuse. Merkin shows the mental scar Jane left on her when she admits that when her depression paralyzes her for days, Jane is the ghost that lingers in the corner of the room.

Merkin may have had the set up for an enchanted life, but she was deprived of important developmental factors in her upbringing, like love, affection and attention. At eight years old, she began feeling the onsets of depression, questioning, “how young do the stirrings of anxiety begin…” as she battled manic fits of crying; the only way she recieved any empathy from her parents. At the same age, her mother institutionalized her, which began the longing for her mother Merkin will continue to face the rest of her life. This unhealthy bond with her mother creates many conflicts later in life, like raising her own daughter, Zoe, and the beginning of her depression.


Her Writing

The style and writing of “This Close to Happy” is nothing less than beautiful for a multitude of reasons. The way Merkin wrote of her encounters were so personal and invasive, it felt like reading a diary; the feelings raw and completely truthful. At times, it felt like I was sitting across from an old friend in a small coffee shop, who is finally allowing me to see life from her eyes, revealing a side of her I never saw. She’s never over-dramatic or romanticizes her disorder; she makes use of literary rhetoric to relate to the reader, but never abuses the metaphors she places carefully in between lines of plot and actual events.

A personal favorite is her referral to her body as a battlefield. In earlier chapters she writes, “I imagine the inside of my head as scarred and bloody from the battles that have been waged there,” and then ties the metaphor in again about a hundred pages later by inquiring whether her depression roots from the chemical imbalance in her brain or the neglect from her childhood, “Is there to be no undoing…no way of going back and putting myself-my chemistry-in order? If what happened, happened, what front am I fighting on?”

Another enticing component of Merkin’s memoir was the research she implemented into her writing. She lines her story with facts of depressive disorder such as the effectiveness of certain treatments and the probability of obtaining a mental disorder through genetics, as well as going into personal accounts of suicide and depression by several renowned authors like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and dissects their lives to answer her questions and uses them like outlines for her own life.

The novel also revolves around the debate of nature vs. nurture and which caused Merkin to develop depression. Though she liked to use genetics and the chemical imbalance in her brain as a scapegoat for her disorder so she doesn’t have to blame her mother for the suffering she has endured, she writes, “I think therapy has saved my life,” accepting that her family shattered her psyche at a young age. Her use of the nature vs. nurture proposes several questions left unanswered that intrigues the reader as well as propels Merkin’s story further and deepens the plot.

From her contemplation on the best way to end her life to the vast expanse of treatments she’s undergone (various medications, illegal drugs, talk therapy, hospitalization and almost subjecting herself to shock therapy) Merkin proves with each word she wrote the domination of depression in everyday life; how it wakes you up everyday and keeps you up every night.


My Opinion

What made “This Close to Happy” so impactful was that her novel was so unlike others dealing with the recollections of living with depression. Instead of writing of high-stake events and plots that took rigid turns down morbid paths, Merkin’s memoir explained the incessant nature of depression in everyday, normal life. She explains the explicit difficulty of attempting to simply engage in societal norms and push through day-to-day routines. Within the first pages of the autobiography she writes, “And then, comes the impulse to kill herself. It’s so strong that she goes over to the wood block of knives…She envisions herself slashing her wrists…no, filling a bathtub with water first then slashing her wrists…” To disclose thoughts about suicide so blatantly and nonchalantly was daring, uncomfortable, yet completely invoking. The casualness of Merkin’s writing makes it evident how invasive and overpowering the disorder is and the capacity and depth it consumes her thoughts on a regular basis.

It was also incredibly brave of Merkin to exploit the inner workings of her mind in the translucent way she did. The novel achieved exposing the demons that followed her through her entire life and divulged into very personal information–like phallic dreams of her mother and wanting to murder her daughter after she was born–I’m sure not even the many psychiatrist she saw knew. It’s truly a gift Merkin persevered through her illness and many suicidal thoughts and the events in her life led up to writing this autobiography, for it truly moved the people who have read it and spoke openly about something many people still shy away from talking about.

“This Close to Happy” opened my eyes, and personally changed my perspective on going through life with my mental disorders. Because I read this autobiography, I will do something I never thought I would do because I always told myself I could figure my problems out on my own; I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist and I couldn’t be more excited. I decided suffering was only inevitable when you make it inevitable, and it’s time to take the steps to a happier, wholesome life.

For Kent State students, psychiatric help is available. You can schedule an appointment with a trained professional at http://www.kent.edu/psych as well as take a pre-assessment if you are unsure if you need psychological help. Psychological services provide crisis intervention counseling, psychological testing, workshops and seminars. Every service provided is strictly confidential.

Merkin reminds us, “Life is a gift…a great gift,” and no matter what you go through, days get brighter and each one is a step closer to happiness.


Public Relations major with a political science minor. When not in coffee shops catching up on homework and writing, I'm usually covered in a blanket watching Planet Earth drinking a mango smoothie.
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