This Close to Happy

  • Review
By – March 30, 2017

After years of inter­rup­tion and hes­i­ta­tion, not­ed lit­er­ary crit­ic and author Daphne Merkin has a new, sear­ing­ly hon­est and inti­mate auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal memoir.

Ms. Merkin has been at risk of sui­cide through­out her adult life. Now, in late midlife, not a year has gone by where the thought and, at times, impulse and plan to end her life has not accom­pa­nied her. Her hope­less­ness and help­less­ness has been treat­ed for decades by both psy­chophar­ma­col­o­gists and psy­chother­a­pists, along with peri­od­ic hos­pi­tal­iza­tions. Now more sta­ble and in rea­son­ably good health, Merkin con­tin­ues to write review, edit, and teach. She is extreme­ly close to Zoe, her devot­ed daugh­ter and clos­est confidant.

But This Close to Hap­py remains unset­tling to read. Hailed by read­ers for its can­did and exquis­ite­ly sen­si­tive descrip­tion of her strug­gle with sui­ci­dal depres­sion, This Close to Hap­py can also be read as a lengthy med­i­ta­tion or inter­nal debate over her long­stand­ing ambiva­lence about being alive, and the impulse to choose death hov­ers over the mem­oir through­out. There are just too many ref­er­ences to the imag­ined peace that self-anni­hi­la­tion and obliv­ion will bring.

How does one come to live with such a ten­ta­tive and at times almost absent self-preser­v­a­tive dri­ve? Even a cock­roach races away when about to be crushed. Yet at times Merkin regress­es into vir­tu­al inac­tiv­i­ty with a loss of will and ini­tia­tive. Efforts at self-reas­sur­ance abound with quotes from Rilke, a friend remind­ing her that life is a gift,” and pos­i­tive self-talk to nav­i­gate through her dai­ly chal­lenges. One hopes fer­vent­ly that such self-care, along with med­ica­tion and ther­a­py, will allow Merkin to keep her pow­er­ful death dri­ve at bay.

Merkin’s most life-affirm­ing response to Camus’s fun­da­men­tal ques­tion Why not sui­cide?” comes through the pages of this remark­able work: she stays alive for her beloved Zoe. Sure­ly a strong bio­log­i­cal com­po­nent plays a cen­tral role in severe depres­sive ill­ness — how­ev­er the dev­as­tat­ing impact of her two hyper­crit­i­cal, auto­crat­ic, self-absorbed, and non-nur­tur­ing par­ents con­tin­ues to haunt the author. Merkin depicts how utter­ly divorced her Ortho­dox par­ents were from Jew­ish val­ues and ethics regard­ing the emo­tion­al needs of chil­dren. The cor­ner­stones of men­schlishkeit, human decen­cy, along with parental com­pas­sion and empa­thy were rarely to be found in her child­hood home.

This book is far too raw and real to be uplift­ing. It is thank­ful­ly free of Oprah-esque” self-help clich­es; still, the read­er will be left root­ing for Merkin to make it, to choose life uncon­di­tion­al­ly. Men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, both in train­ing and long prac­tic­ing, will find This Close to Hap­py essen­tial read­ing. The mem­oir is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, sophis­ti­cat­ed, and com­pelling account of one person’s coura­geous strug­gle with the dark demons of a life-threat­en­ing illness.

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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