January 19, 2020

Not exactly ‘happy,’ but handling depression

In Daphne Merkin’s new memoir, “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression,” the author recalls: “By the age of 8, I was such a traumatized specimen, such an anxious, constipated mess. … I cried inconsolably about everything … not to mention the raging insomnia that kept me up night after night.”

The primary source of her depression, she reveals, was her remote, rage-prone father and, especially, her mother, who was capable of “insidious cruelty.”

“I remember I used to stare out of the window of the bedroom I shared with my sisters, and think about jumping out,” Merkin, 62, said, speaking slowly and deliberately in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. It was at age 8 she was first hospitalized for her illness, in what would become several such stays throughout her life.

Merkin will discuss her memoir in conversation with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway as part of the Aloud series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Feb. 21. The book has already received laudatory reviews from major literary critics, including in The Washington Post and The New York Times, where it graced a recent cover of The Review of Books.

“This Close to Happy” flashes backward and forward in time to document Merkin’s struggle with her desire to commit suicide, even as she built a career as a novelist, essayist and critic.

The memoir took her 16 years to complete, in part because of her nagging fear that her illness might spiral downward, her recurring bouts of depression and the pain of reliving her fraught childhood, she said.

She persevered to counter the bias she believes still exists against those who suffer from chronic severe depression. The state is often considered “a fraudulent bundle of symptoms, an inflated case of malingering that everyone suffers from but that only a select, self-indulgent few choose to make a big deal about,” Merkin writes.

And so she aspired “to show the interior of the experience of severe depression, in a life that went on around it,” the author told the Journal.  If readers “could see someone who was ostensibly functioning, working at a magazine like The New Yorker, it could perhaps help relax the stigma,” she said.

Even before “This Close to Happy,” Merkin was already known for unabashedly writing about highly personal, and at times provocative experiences; her 1996 New Yorker essay about her penchant for sadomasochistic spanking, for example, raised interest as well as eyebrows.

“Of course I’ve written about many other things,” Merkin said. “But Freud said that art exists to disturb the sleep of the world. … And I’ve always felt I don’t have that much to lose by telling the truth. I’m fascinated by truth-telling. I think that comes directly from my family. We lived with a certain truth on one level and then a much darker truth on another level. We appeared affluent and sort of golden, but underneath it was all dark and deprived.”

Merkin’s mother, Ursula, who died of cancer in 2006, hailed from an esteemed German-Jewish family. Ursula’s great-grandfather was Samson Raphael Hirsch, who many consider a creator of Modern Orthodoxy.

Both of Merkin’s parents fled Nazi Germany with their families in the 1930s; Ursula traveled to Palestine and, at 29, to New York, where she met and married Merkin’s father, Hermann, a wealthy financier. 

Daphne Merkin grew up in a Modern Orthodox household and attended the Ramaz School yeshiva. But despite the religious observance, the servants and the family’s Park Avenue address, Daphne and her five siblings lived in an atmosphere of stark emotional and physical deprivation.

“There was … never enough food to go around and a pervasive feeling of hunger,” Merkin writes. The children wore ragged clothing and suffered at the hands of a nanny, Jane, who often beat and kicked them.

In the interview, Merkin surmised that her mother hired the blatantly unmaternal Jane because she didn’t want her children to feel closer to their nanny than to her. Ursula also had a sadistic streak: “I have written that I thought my mother was [the Nazi perpetrator] Ilse Koch,” she said.

Once Ursula even drew a series of swastikas on Daphne’s arm. “I guess a shrink could say that that was counter phobic — that she was warding off the Nazis by drawing [their symbol],” Merkin said in the interview. “But I would say that it was a complicated gesture. My mother could have a macabre sense of humor. And she had this sort of split identification as victim and aggressor — because there was a lot of aggression in her.”

As a girl, Merkin also chafed against her family’s Orthodoxy — partly because the religion felt rigid within a household that already had so many restrictive rules and partly because she wondered how a God could allow the abuse taking place in her own home. She slowly drifted from religious observance.

Even so, Daphne’s mother became her “everything,” because “if you don’t get what you need, you cling, and you hope for it to come,” Merkin said.

Despite her early-onset depression, Daphne went on to attend Barnard College, where she won the school’s annual poetry award, and to write for such publications as Elle, The New York Times and Vogue. She said she penned her 1986 autobiographical novel, “Enchantment,” to try to “fix” her relationship with her mother. Did it work? “No, no,” Merkin said, with a rueful laugh.

After Ursula died a decade ago, Merkin felt “a radical dislocation … as though the world had spun off its axis,” she writes in “This Close to Happy.”

Yet at the end of her memoir, Merkin sees glimmers of hope.  She writes that she has come to realize “the opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness, but a state of approximate contentment, of relative all-right-ness.”

Since Merkin finished her memoir, she told the Journal, she had one severe depressive episode after she tried to wean herself off some of her medications last summer. She added that she has always felt “ambivalent” about taking pills, due to the stigma, the side effects and because even psychiatrists don’t know exactly how they work.

These days, she said, she’s back on her meds, is working on a new novel, about sexual obsession, and has only fleeting thoughts of suicide. “I hope [‘This Close to Happy’] will help people understand depression better, and that it will help those who suffer from it to feel less alone,” she said.

As for herself, Merkin added, “I guess there is something melancholy about me.  But with that, I am now melancholically moving forward.”

For more information about Merkin’s Aloud appearance, visit lfla.org.