The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Heaven and Nature’, by Edward Hoagland


On the essays shelf:

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey.

Another essay from Unholy Ghost, a collection with different writers writing about their experience with depression.

What a thoughtful and difficult essay this is. Edward Hoagland, a man in his 50s at the time, writes about suicide. His perspective is not mine, and that is one of the reasons I so appreciate his contribution, because it shows the universality of depression, how no one is exempt. And while generalizations sometimes are not helpful, sometimes they are. It can help one feel that one is not alone. Hoagland was a Korean War vet, so he grew up in a time when heroes were revered, when men were expected to behave in a certain way. He writes a lot about men in this essay, and it’s a fascinating glimpse of the struggles of men, culturally, socioeconomically, emotionally. Women are (to generalize) expected to be more interior-looking (mainly because only until recently they did not have any political power). And men were supposed to be more objective. Hoagland has found that to be true, but it’s not so black and white. He has found that when he has confided in women of his suicidal depression, women are more likely to follow up with periodic phone calls, postcards: in other words, his emotional abyss is on their radar. Whereas when he has spoken with male friends, they will listen, they will sometimes admit that they, too, have felt that despair that he mentions. But that will be that. There are positives in both reactions. People get so nuts nowadays when anyone dares to say “women are like this” or “men are like this”, and it is just another example of how public discourse has deteriorated. Let us admit nuance, let us talk about nuance, let us not be so black and white. We are dead in the water if we stop being able to listen to one another.

And, in a way, that is the topic of Hoagland’s essay. He talks about suicide and the devastation it leaves behind in families and friends. He talks about the different kinds of suicide: those who slip quietly away, conscious of not wanting to leave a mess, and those who want to go out in a blaze of glory, messing up other people’s lives (ie: jumping in front of a rush-hour commuter train). There is the “selfish” criticism, and Hoagland suggests that men are more likely to be painted with the “selfish” brush, because of their position in society (even still, even now, this is true). What have YOU got to complain about?? is the common theme. You have a wife, a job, a house in the suburbs … what on earth is wrong with you? This, naturally, can make things worse, for the man suffering from suicidal ideation.

This makes me think of Lee Strasberg’s theory of the “blight of Ibsen”, described in Clifford Odets’ 1940 journal:

He spoke of what he called “the blight of Ibsen”, saying that Ibsen had taught most writers after him how to think undramatically. He illustrated this by an example. A man has been used to living in luxury finds he is broke and unable to face life — he goes home and puts a bullet in his head. That, Lee said, any fair theatre person can lay out into a play. But it is not essentially a dramatic view of life. Chekhov is dramatic, he said, for this is how he treats related material: a man earns a million rubles and goes home and lies down on them and puts a bullet in his head.

Hoagland is curious about the fact that more men than women kill themselves by guns. He is not defensive, so I would hope that people are not defensive in response. He asks a woman friend why she thinks that is, and why it is that more men than women commit suicide in general. His friend says, “I’m not going to go into the self-indulgence of men.” Hoagland is not angry at that response. On the contrary. He considers it, and considers the implications. One of the important things to keep in mind, and this is something that classic psychotherapy often doesn’t touch, is how society works ON us.

Consider the Victorian malady of “hysteria”. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that women suffered from such a thing due to political reasons, and political powerlessness. Political powerlessness can manifest itself in all kinds of insane ways. It is a valid response to having no social outlet, no freedom (outside the domestic realm), and a society designed to keep you on a pedestal. You know what it means when you’re on a pedestal? It means you are supposed to be perfect, and everything that happens to you that is NOT perfect is somehow wrong. You are not human. In Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, he describes the first moment the two are naked, and the shock Oscar feels when he realizes that women had hair “down there” too. (Unfortunately, we are back in the Dark Ages yet again in our current day when it comes to women’s body hair, but that’s another topic.) The ignorance of Oscar, of the fact that women are actually human, is a social and political problem, although human beings on the ground at the time obviously wouldn’t see it that way.

The focus on sex in psychotherapy is not entirely off the mark, especially if society is repressed. However, cultural and political injustice have as much to do with “depression” as bad childhoods. It’s a depth unplumbed in most therapeutic literature that is not strictly feminist in bent. But Hoagland approaches it in his piece, and for that, I am truly grateful. He is coming at it from the male side, and the pressures men feel in society, and also how “not done” it is to even mention these pressures. You aren’t going to get much sympathy. You’re a man, you’re top of the heap, you’ve got it all, what the hell are you complaining about?

Again, this is not something I relate to, because I’m a woman, but I am appreciative of Hoagland for how clearly he puts it out there.

He opens with a chilling revelation: He has a gun at home, he’s had it for years. He was a good marksman, he enjoys shooting, no biggie. But at some point in his 50s, he stopped trusting himself to have bullets in the house. He just didn’t want them to be around, in case some abyss opened up. He knew he was a danger to himself.

And what does death actually mean? What does death mean to someone who fantasizes about it? Who knows that that is a path he COULD take, if the situation got bad enough? It’s still so taboo. Hoagland is brave enough to talk about it. He’s brave enough to talk about the sadness of men, and the helplessness of men, something that can be completely destabilizing to men, especially because society expects men to be strong, to suck it up, to do the right thing, to be a provider, to show no weakness.

In a deeply moving sentence, Hoagland writes:

Men greet one another with a sock on the arm, women with a hug, and the hug wears better in the long run.

There’s another piece in the collection by an African-American woman which is FASCINATING, because she talks about the cultural and social pressure on African-American women to be “strong”. Nobody wants to hear about the depression of black women, least of all other black people. It is very isolating for this writer, and it’s a greatly compassionate and revelatory piece, and probably very validating for other black women who suffer similarly. The “Mammy” stereotype is a racist trope, obviously, but that’s the horrible thing about racism’s legacy: it can get inside your head. You’re supposed to be a “Mammy”, white people expect it of you, and other black people expect it of you, and to admit you’re “depressed” when you’re black? Self-indulgent nonsense. But I’ll post an excerpt of that essay when I get to it, it’s one of my favorites in the entire book.

Hoagland’s essay is brutally honest, and to some degree is a philosophical contemplation on death, and our relationship to that great mystery.

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey: ‘Heaven and Nature’, by Edward Hoagland

I can remember how urgently my father worried that word would get out, after a preliminary operation for his cancer. He didn’t want to be written off, counted out of the running at the corporation he worked for and in other enclaves of competition. Men often compete with one another until the day they die; comradeship consists of rubbing shoulders jocularly with a competitor. As breadwinners, they must be considered fit and sound by friend as well as foe, and so there’s lots of truth to the most common answer I heard when asking why three times as many men as women kill themselves: “They don’t know how to ask for help.” Men greet each other with a sock on the arm, women with a hug, and the hug wears better in the long run.

I’m not entirely like that; and I discovered when I confided something of my perturbation to a woman friend she was likely to keep telephoning me or mailing cheery postcards, whereas a man would usually listen with concern, communicate his sympathy, and maybe intimate that he had pondered the same drastic course of action himself a few years back and would end up respecting my decision either way. Open-mindedness seems an important attribute to a good many men, who pride themselves on being objective, hearing all sides of an issue, on knowing that truth and honesty do not always coincide with social dicta, and who may even cherish a subterranean outlaw streak that, like being ready to violently defend one’s family, reputation, and country, is by tradition male.

Men, being so much freer than women in society, used to feel they had less of a stake in the maintenance of certain churchly conventions and enjoyed speaking irreverently about various social truisms, including the principle that people ought to die on schedule, not cutting in ahead of their assigned place in line. But contemporary women, after their triumphant irreverence during the 1960s and 1970s, cannot be generalized about so easily. They turn as skeptical and saturnine as any man. In fact, women attempt suicide more frequently, but favor pills or other passive methods, whereas two-thirds of the men who kill themselves have used a gun. In 1996, 87 percent of suicides by means of firearms were done by men. An overdose of medication hasn’t the same finality. It may be reversible, if the person is discovered quickly, or be subject to benign miscalculation to start with. Even if it works, it can be fudged by a kindly doctor in the record keeping. Like an enigmatic drowning or a single-car accident that baffles the suspicions of the insurance company, a suicide by drugs can be a way to avoid making a loud statement, and merely illustrate the final modesty of a person who didn’t wish to ask for too much of the world’s attention.

Unconsummated attempts at suicide can strike the rest of us as self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, however, or like plaintive plea bargaining. “Childish,” we say, though actually the suicide of children is ghastly beyond any stunt of self-mutilation an adult may indulge in because of the helplessness that echoes through the act. It would be hard to define chaos better than as a world where children decide that they don’t want to live.

Love is the solution to all dilemmas, we sometimes hear. And in those moments when the spirit bathes itself in beneficence and manages to transcend the static of personalities rubbing fur off each other, indeed it is. Without love nothing matters, Paul told the Corinthians, a mystery which, if true, has no ready Darwinian explanation. Love without a significant sexual component and for people who are unrelated to us serves little practical purpose. It doesn’t help us feed our families, win struggles, thrive and prosper. It distracts us from the ordinary business of sizing people up and making a living, and is not even conducive to intellectual observation, because instead of seeing them, we see right through them to the bewildered child and dreaming adolescent who inhabited their bodies earlier, the now-tired idealist who fell in and out of love, got hired and quit, hired and fired, bought cars and wore them out, liked black-eyed Susans, blueberry muffins, and roosters crowing – liked roosters crowing better than skyscrapers but now likes skyscrapers better than roosters crowing. As swift as thought, we select the details that we need to see in order to be able to love them.

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