The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘The Crack-Up’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the essays shelf:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The essay “The Crack-Up” was originally posted in three parts in Esquire magazine in 1936. It caused much consternation among Fitzgerald’s friends, many of whom felt that there are some things that should not be revealed (and most of his friends were writers!) It seemed self-indulgent, “not done”, and for those who cared about him it seemed a very bad sign. It was a revealing essay, and perhaps it gave his friends glimpses that they had not received. Cracking up is often a very private affair. People may sense something is wrong, but they have no idea how bad it really is, behind closed doors.

Recently, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, Elizabeth Wurtzel of Prozac Nation fame, published an essay in New York Magazine that got everyone talking. Fitzgerald’s friends could have no way of knowing that self-revelation would become not only the wave of the future, but a neverending trend from which we all would yearn to escape. He was way ahead of the curve! He clearly is a better writer than Wurtzel, but the topic is the same: the way depression works, the way it operates, and how it impacts a life. Wurtzel has less self-awareness than Fitzgerald does (she is, perhaps, sicker, which impacts her perspective: Depression is a closed circle with its own logic), and that certainly makes her stuff more alienating (to some). I read that Wurtzel piece and felt a chill of recognition, but also a sympathetic sense of frustration that her friends and family must have when dealing with her. Depressives are not easy, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about what it actually LOOKS like.

Comments about “whining” I dismiss out of hand (I usually stop listening to the speaker when that word comes up, unless said speaker is describing a toddler’s behavior), because “whining” has come to mean “anyone who shares anything about themselves” in this day and age. People who throw the word “whining” about all the time are also the people who place a high high premium on the phrase “TMI”. I’ve written about this before. “TMI” should be put to rest. It represents one of the worst qualities in human nature. The people who love to crow “TMI” and do so 10 times a day have no curiosity about the inner workings of other people. There are certain degrees, of course. If you share a picture of your child’s first poop in the potty on Facebook, that is certainly something I do not want to see (although congrats, kid! Yay for poop!), and I think some people need to learn boundaries about what to share on social media and all that.

HOWEVER. The “TMI Brigade” is more serious than that. They find vulnerability expressed to be disturbing and offensive and they don’t want to hear about it. I have experienced it myself when I write a personal essay. And, duh, it’s a personal essay. Therefore, I will be personal in it. So no, I do not think Elizabeth Wurtzel is “whining” and anyone who throws that claim at her has never experienced one minute of serious depression in their lives. I’m an artist, I’m a writer, I’m in the business of sharing shit about myself all day every day. Even if I’m writing about a book I read, I’m sharing myself. And please understand: I have struggled with depression since I was a teenager. I had a crack-up in 2009 and another bad one in 2002. I hope to never have one again. My response to Wurtzel is one of dismayed connection and recognition. I know that Loop she’s in that she describes in that piece. It is a loop with its own rigid rigorous logic (depressives can be very logical, but I’m not sure I want to say more about that: let’s just say that I know that first-hand and I know that Logic can sometimes be a very very bad sign for me). Wurtzel lives in an austere polarized place: On the one side you can live like THIS, on the other side, you have how I live. There is no middle ground. This is the sickness in plain view. Fitzgerald actually covers something along these lines in his “Crack-Up” essay, only he doesn’t feel as IN it as Wurtzel does. He has recovered somewhat, enough to be able to write about it. The Wurtzel piece does not have that, and it is tough to get through, but I think it’s worth it, if only to participate in all of the discussions going on about it. Lindsay Beyerstein wrote this piece in response to the Wurtzel essay and I think it is spot-on. (I thank the Siren for alerting me to it.)

What is dismaying (and also interesting) about the Wurtzel piece is that she is writing with no distance about her own chaos. It’s a natural response to think, “God, girl, get on some good meds, get a good night’s sleep, drink some tea, and CALM DOWN.” I thought the same thing. But I felt guilty as I thought it, knowing that I have put my family and friends through the same thing at different times in my life. So let’s just say I relate. But it’s not a good relate when I read Wurtzel, it’s not “Oh, I don’t feel so alone anymore”. It’s “Oh God, I know that, I don’t want to be like that, please God let me do the work so that I won’t be like that anymore.” People with better equilibrium are totally baffled by the sheer craziness on display in Wurtzel’s piece. And it DOES sound crazy, although I know that word is a painful one and I use it deliberately. “My God, she sounds NUTS.” is the general response. Well, yes. She does. And, for better or worse, she doesn’t give a shit. Do people honestly think mental illness “presents” as sympathetic? What are you people, cracked?

I was chatting on Twitter the other day about it and it occurs to me that Wurtzel romanticizes her depression, and she doesn’t seem to know she is doing it. This shows up in the rigidity of the piece: “Most people live THIS way, but I live THIS way”. She makes it sound like everybody else in the world, protected as they are by mental health and domestic arrangements, are somehow missing out on the pure dangerous clarity of her position of freedom. Now, again, this is a thought I somewhat relate to, although I do recognize the danger and toxicity of the thought, when taken too far. It never does to have a superior attitude about your own troubles. It’s a natural response sometimes, if you feel you have been through too much pain (“Nobody else can understand what it’s like for me”), but it’s a response that must be fought against, counteracted against. It will take all your strength to do so and it will also take support. You must ask for help (“If I start to get superior towards you, please call me on it. I need that.”), you must start to notice it yourself when you do it, and re-rout those impulses. Tough work, as I said. Superiority is toxic, and it helps the depression re-group itself and entrench itself even further. What I think is interesting about the Wurtzel piece (and I’m not sure this was her intent) is that you can SEE her re-trenching herself in her sickness. You can SEE her hold onto it with fists. For me, it was really disturbing. I am currently struggling and currently trying to recover from something, and Memphis helped, it helped so much. But it is as though I can actually FEEL the way my brain/heart wants to go in response to this bad thing that just happened to me: I can FEEL the deep grooves of habit/sickness saying, “Come. Let us find the most self-destructive and soul-destroying interpretation of these recent events. You know you want to, Sheila. Come on. You already know the way.” It’s seductive. Even better, it’s known. I know that way, I know how to do that way. But it’s been killing me. I need a better way. And perhaps Wurtzel would have contempt for me, and a former Me would also have had contempt, but I want to be happy. Depression is a disease. When you are in it, you cannot see it. Because how can you actually fight with your own mind? How can you fix your own mind? Well, of course … you can, although there are degrees of success possible.

Even though I am as frustrated by Wurtzel as everyone else (and I’ve never been a big fan of her writing anyway – I think she’s a mess of a writer), I am grateful to her for putting that essay out there. It is the clearest example, with no retrospect, of what it sometimes feels like, and it’s a pretty horrifying mirror, I’ll say that.

Fitzgerald’s three-part essay “The Crack-Up” got a similar response. His friends scolded him. His friends were worried. Everyone was embarrassed. It just “wasn’t done”, to have an established writer of fiction to come out with such a blatant expression of despair. It was so …. personal. People seemed offended. It was the 1930s version of the TMI Brigade. It was also 1936, so of course he got a lot of the, “With the world approaching war again, why are you going on and on about your personal problems?” reaction, which is something that Stupid people say when they are trying to be Helpful. In the middle of a crack-up, reminding yourself of the orphans in Sudan does nothing but to re-entrench the disease and make you feel like a Worthless Piece of Shit for being so Selfish.

There are lines in “The Crack-Up” which are so fine, so perfectly rendered, so cold and clear in their articulation, that they provide deep comfort to me. Unlike Wurtzel, who is still in the Closed System of her Sickness, a system so rigid and perfect that nobody else could ever get in, Fitzgerald has opened his out to us in a way that is still startling, and so that leaves me room to respond in a different way, a way of feeling “seen”, of having the nameless named. “Yes. Yes. That is just what it is like. Thank you for saying it so perfectly.” This is what a great writer can do. It takes courage and honesty, which Fitzgerald had in spades.

He starts with “Of course all life is a process of breaking down”. He takes us through his crack-up, step by devastating step. He says that he had “prematurely cracked”, and he describes it like a plate cracking, which is a terrible image in this context. He writes, and boy is this the truth: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is what Wurtzel cannot yet do. And of course there is an ebb and flow with such things. There have been times when I certainly CAN do that, and other times when I lose that ability (those are the Bad Times). But it is an exquisite observation.

Fitzgerald describes how he lived his life, how he saw things, how it worked for him. He describes hearing a “grave sentence” from a doctor. He “pillow-hugged” for a while. He consumed himself with making lists. He felt stronger.

“– And then suddenly, surprisingly, I got better.
— And cracked like an old plate as soon as I heard the news.”

He describes this process as one of having his illusions about himself and life itself stripped away. He was left with no resources available to him, no fantasy of past or future was left intact. He was left, alone, a cracked man, not knowing which way to turn. He had been revealed to himself, as a fraud, a shallow man, and he could not escape from it. He breaks this all down with devastating clarity. He is highly self-aware. He knows all of the arguments against cracking up, he knows that he is not actually a bad person, that his life has amounted to something, etc., etc., but when you are in full blown Crack-Up Mode, those comforting thoughts no longer become available. You cannot think your way out of a Crack-Up.

One of the most hauntingly perfect paragraphs in this essay is as follows:

Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering – this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work – and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.

Fitzgerald has done us all a great service by being bold enough to put that into words. It is one of the greatest descriptions of depression ever put on paper. In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning. Such sentiments certainly comfort me, because “yes, yes, that is what it is like”, but it would also be helpful to those who do NOT understand, who have never suffered in that way: He writes so well about it that you cannot help but empathize (well, I suppose the TMI Brigade wouldn’t, but we don’t need to care about what they think: they are usually anti-art in their attitudes.) Fitzgerald clearly wrote this essay for himself: there is no other reason to put such stuff down, it’s one of the reasons why it works so well, it is so breathtakingly personal. But a byproduct is that understanding does open up. The essay is a masterpiece: deeply specific to this one man’s life, but transcending the personal and becoming universal. This is something, again, that Wurtzel has not yet accomplished. She is still trapped in the Bell Jar (and there is certainly something to be said for that kind of writing, too, although it probably won’t last as long as Fitzgerald’s work).

I tread carefully here because I feel somewhat protective of Wurtzel, due to my own identification. I know that people have thought I was nuts, too. I know that I have frustrated people when I am trapped in the bell jar. And, like her, I am good with words: I can describe to you what it is like for me, and I do so in a way that can be forbidding in its perfect Logic. “Listen. I have thought about this harder than you, and here are my conclusions.” Logic can shut others out. I alluded to this earlier and honestly I am sharing more about myself than I originally set out to, but that’s what Fitzgerald’s essay seems to demand.

I first picked up the book in 2009 as I was starting my own “process of breaking down”. I read a couple of essays and put the book down immediately. Nope, not ready for THAT. Talk about a terrifying mirror. But I was ready to read it in 2010, because I was out of the Bell Jar, and I was starting to piece together my own narrative again, trying to make sense of what seemed like chaos. Interpretations were changing. It was very stressful. I felt like I was being left with no devices of survival at hand. But there is also a strange comfort when illusions are finally stripped away, once and for all. You have the strength to face the truth. Of course it has to be the right truth, and who can say what that is? In the sickness, I will always pick the most self-destructive and hurtful interpretation. And make no mistake, it will feel like truth.

These are all questions that are still important that will always have value. Fitzgerald’s three-part essay is an essential piece of understanding. I wonder if Wurtzel has read it. She could perhaps learn something from it, and I say that with respect.

The Crack-Up, ‘The Crack-Up’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is the real end of the story. What was to be done about it will have to rest in what used to be called the “womb of time”. Suffice it to say that after about an hour of solitary pillow-hugging, I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. What was the small gift of life given back in comparison to that? – when there had once been a pride of direction and a confidence in enduring independence.

I realized that in those two years, in order to preserve something – an inner hush maybe, maybe not – I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love – that every act of life from the morning tooth-brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking. I saw that even my love for those closest to me was become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations – with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days. All in the same month I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in the magazines, the screech of tracks, the dead silence of the country – contemptuous at human softness, immediately (if secretively) quarrelsome toward hardness – hating the night when I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went toward night. I slept on the heart side now because I knew that the sooner I could tire that out, even a little, the sooner would come that blessed hour of nightmare which, like a catharsis, would enable me to better meet the new day.

There were certain spots, certain faces I could look at. Like most Middle Westerners, I have never had any but the vaguest race prejudice – I always had a secret yen for the lovely Scandinavian blondes who sat on porches in St. Paul but hadn’t emerged enough economically to be part of what was then society. They were too nice to be “chickens” and too quickly off the farmlands to seize a place in the sun, but I remember going round blocks to catch a single glimpse of shining hair – the bright shock of a girl I’d never know. This is urban, unpopular talk. It strays afield from the fact that in those latter days I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers (I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can) – and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class …

Trying to cling to something, I liked doctors and girl children up to the age of about thirteen and well-brought-up boy children from about eight years old on. I could have peace and happiness with these few categories of people. I forgot to add that I liked old men – men over seventy, sometimes over sixty if their faces looked seasoned. I liked Katharine Hepburn’s face on the screen, no matter what was said about her pretentiousness, and Miriam Hopkins’ faces, and old friends if I only saw them once a year and could remember their ghosts.

All rather human and undernourished, isn’t it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up.

It is not a pretty picture. Inevitably it was carted here and th ere within its frame and exposed to various critics. One of them can only be described as a person whose life makes other people’s lives seem like death – — even this time when she was cast in the unusually unappealing role of Job’s comforter. In spite of the fact that this story is over, let me append our conversation as a sort of postscript:

“Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen — “she said. (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks — really thinks.) So she said: “Listen. Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you — suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes — your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked — it’s the Grand Canyon.”

“Baby, et up all her Spinoza?”

“I don’t know anything about Spinoza. I know — “ She spoke, then, of old woes of her own, that seemed, in telling, to have been more dolorous than mine, and how she had met them, overridden them, beaten them.

I felt a certain reaction to what she said, but I am a slow-thinking man, and it occurred to me simultaneously that of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one. In days when juice came into one as an article without duty, one tried to distribute it — but always without success; to further mix metaphors, vitality never “takes.” You have it or you haven’t it, like health or brown eyes or honor or a baritone voice. I might have asked some of it from her, neatly wrapped and ready for home cooking and digestion, but I could never have got it — not if I’d waited around for a thousand hours with the tin cup of self-pity. I could walk from her door, holding myself very carefully like cracked crockery, and go away into the world of bitterness, where I was making a home with such materials as are found there — and quote to myself after I left her door:

“Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

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7 Responses to The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘The Crack-Up’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Dan says:

    I wasn’t going to read the Wurtzel piece until I read your post.

    Wishing you strength in your struggle.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks, Dan.

  3. Patty says:

    Great commentary and what a fascinating connection you’ve made between two texts/two writers. About the Wurtzel piece: I don’t disagree with anything you wrote about it. I think you’re dead-on with several points. It struck me that what’s she’s trying to do is create a narrative–a public meaning-making–of some choices that she knows comes from some dark places in her psyche and/or life context. She tries to make her own flailing and failures sound “artsy.” But she’s entertaining us with her dysfunction and dressing it up, making it “cool” and so very special. While I love that she is mouthy and candid about being “messed up”–but I can’t help feel a little manipulated by her presentation of self with a capital S. I must read the Fitzgerald piece! When you compare Wurtzel’s confessionals to someone say like Plath or Sexton, I feel like Wurtzel is glib, a little showy and a bit weightless.

    • sheila says:

      Patty – thank you for reading and for your intelligent comment! It just so happened that ‘The Crack-Up’ came up in my list right around the time that the Wurtzel brou-haha was going down – and they really did seem to inform/reflect one another. I do not respond much to Wurtzel’s writing – although on some level I do applaud her balls-to-the-wall honesty. I really FELT for her in that piece, despite my misgivings.

      Like I said I need to tread carefully because of my own history with depression – and I think a lot of the commentary about Wurtzel has been totally missing the point (“duh, this is what depression looks like, you idiots!!) – but I agree: there is somethign that does not sit well with me with her. I think she is completely identified with her illness.

      Now, this is very hard not to do: like I said, how do you fight with the way your mind works?? It can be a devastating battle and it can feel like everyone is telling you to “STOP BEING YOU”.

      But I still get the sense that she is reveling in it – that it is so much who she is – and that Polarity I mentioned, her rigidity – that is certainly a very telling sign to me that she is completely in the throes of her illness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I also have that rigid polarity when times are really rough …

      So … should she not have shared it? I struggle with that. Overall, I am glad she did, since it has really made me think.

      But I agree: there’s something that doesn’t quite LAND about it, not when you put it up against Fitzgerald, or Plath, or the best of Sexton, true masters of Depression Writing.

      Thanks again!

  4. Patty says:

    I agree with you–I’m really glad she did share it. I’m glad to have a glimpse into what depression feels like for her and her self-awareness about her own struggles. (and you clearly have self-awareness about *your* struggles too).
    When you said there was something that doesn’t quite LAND about it–I thought about one of the best books I read last year that NAILS it–Jeanette Winterson’s memoir “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” She does nothing short of opening up a metaphorical vein in laying it all out–her bleak, dysfunctional childhood and the professional and personal struggles of her adulthood, including thoughts of suicide and bouts of depression. She’s much more well known in the UK, and this is yet another reason I find her memoir so damn brave–she lays it out, even while also being honest about the worries of going public. And so, so darkly funny. Her discovery of books and the library as a child and her discussion of how that saved her life and shaped her life–her writing about it is revelatory. So, I highly recommend. By the way, the title of her memoir is what her mother said to her when Jeanette finally comes out of the closet and tells her mom that her young female lover makes her happy. I say all of this because Wurtzel’s piece feels candid but–as I said–glib. Winterson shows enormous courage in her trajectory to heal, to come to terms, to simply live.

    • sheila says:

      Patty – I have been dying to read Winterson’s memoir. She is one of my favorite authors (although I’ve gone through some ups and downs with some of her books – but her first books were so strong, I will read anything she writes). I can’t wait to read it and I was so fascinated to hear your thoughts about it. Her writing is so unique.

      I think the glibness you mention in re: Wurtzel is my biggest problem with her writing.

      I mean, think of Sylvia Plath: she wrote while in the throes of psychosis (probably just sleep-deprivation at the end, mixed with grief and depression) – and her stuff is cold, clear, also funny, and blazingly honest. Not a glib moment to be had. It’s like the sickness allowed her to gather her considerable forces together. Wurtzel just doesn’t have the craft, perhaps, to do that? I think her writing needs a good deal of work – and I think because she hit it so huge so young (incidentally, the excerpt I am going to post today from Fitzgerald’s next essay is about the pitfalls of “early success”) – she perhaps did not think she needed to WORK on her writing. Why should she? People bought her first book by the millions. I mean, good for her, but I can’t see that she has worked on the craft of writing – like put her nose to the grindstone in order to become a better communicator.

      Her name is enough for her now, it seems. She writes something, and everyone starts chattering. But her stuff just won’t last, it doesn’t have the reverb that it should.

  5. Bob says:

    Your writings on Fitzgerald really brought up some deep emotions in me. Please forgive my previous ill conceived comments as I have spent the last three weeks reading and remembering the lives of Scott and Zelda. I also hear your words on depression and know that they can only come from the darkest form of pain. Personally, my OCD tries to fight my depression with every ounce of logic and reason – only to be outlasted by depression’s insidious nature. I’m lucky enough to have friends and family to pull me over when I cross the lines. I am both happy and sad that you know this subject so well. Thank You.

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