The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen’, by Larry McMurtry


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.

I read this essay in 2002 and haven’t read it since (well, I re-read it this morning in preparation for this post), but I was amazed by how intimately I remembered every detail. That’s good writing (not a surprise, considering that it’s by Larry McMurtry). Larry McMurtry had quadruple bypass surgery in 1991. The surgery went well, he didn’t experience too much pain, the surgeon was excellent, and his physical recovery was quick. But he felt altered, on an indefinable level. It manifested itself in various ways, and it seems to have been a delayed reaction. He didn’t wake up from surgery and start having psychological issues. For a while, things were fine. But then began night terrors, and trouble with sleeping. He stopped being able to travel, he was consumed with fear (something he never experienced before). He also, and this seemed the most painful part of it, was unable to read anymore. He stopped being able to read for pleasure for about three years. He clarifies that if he had to read something for research, for an essay or a book, he could do that. But the pleasure of books was closed to him. His pain about this reverberates through every line. He never really recovered his joy in reading. He suggests that the surgery gave him a “less generous level of attention to bestow”, which is a great and painful thought.

When I read this in 2002, I had not gone through my nearly a year of being unable to read for pleasure. So I couldn’t “relate” to that, I suppose, but this morning when I re-read it, I really understood his anguish at this great pleasure being closed to him, seemingly permanently. The last two authors he was able to read were Proust and Virginia Woolf, and he still holds them very dear, in a personal way, because he remembers their books as from “the time before”. He seems glad that he was able to “get them in” before the door of unnamed trauma closed on him.

It’s not clear if he was unable to read books because he was depressed, or if it went the other way around. I don’t think the word “depression” is actually used here at all. He speaks of “trauma”, and he speaks of this overwhelming feeling that he had not just had surgery on his heart – the surgery had somehow left him with a loss of Self. He felt that palpably: his Self was changed. Doctors are trained to go in and deal with the problems of the body. The chest is sawed open, the body kept alive by the “heart-lung machine” while the surgery occurs. McMurtry is grateful for the doctors who did all of this. But the side effects were emotional, unforeseen, and un-planned for. McMurtry wonders about the mind-body-Self connection. He wasn’t a young man when he had the surgery. He was used to who he was, how he walked around in life, his reactions to things … he was used to being himself. That changed, suddenly. And so fiction, with its imaginative and unself-involved outlook, became incomprehensible. Not only could it provide no escape, but he didn’t know how to relate to the written word at all. He himself had changed.

In the past month, I spoke to a psychiatrist and I told him about being unable to read for pleasure in the 8 months or so following my dad’s death. It was so disorienting. I would try to read. I attempted to read the big biography of Nureyev, which was elegantly written and fascinating. I would read a page or two, and then put the book down, exhausted. Nothing was getting through. I couldn’t comprehend language. And then when I would pick up the book the next day, I would completely forget where I had left off, and have to re-read the two measly pages I had read the day before, because nothing had sunk in. This was not a book about rocket science, it was an accessibly written popular biography. I couldn’t handle it. I finally put the book down in despair and then didn’t read for months. The psychiatrist I spoke to said that when you go through an emotional trauma, it is akin to getting a concussion. There are parts of the brain that actually show the effect of the trauma, looking like “bruising”, as though you had a head injury. Emotional trauma affects the memory centers of the brain. It’s like anything non-essential must be left out, your body and brain can’t deal with anything extraneous (and reading, while essential to me, became extraneous that year).

So it was very interesting to read Larry McMurtry’s beautiful, clearly written, and pained essay again this morning, especially now that I have had a bout with being unable to read myself. If you are a lifelong voracious reader, then you know the relationship to the written word and what it can provide. It’s not just pleasure, it’s all kinds of things.

McMurtry is clear that he has written the piece to help others, and that generosity shows through. He writes very personally, but is aware that if he had such a reaction to major surgery, and was blindsided by it, then others must have had the same experience. He hopes his words help.

I think, too, that men may be less inclined to admit they need help. Edward Hoagland covered that in his gorgeous essay. Generalizations are not always helpful, though. I’m a stubborn bitch, and I resist help, too. Who wants to admit something is wrong inside your mind? Of course depression strikes both sexes with equal severity. More men than women commit suicide. Depression memoirs have, in recent years, been the territory of women. I certainly think men could read those things and find them helpful, regardless of the sex of the author, but I am sure it is validating to read the words of another man who has been through what you are going through. He’s shining a light on his own experience, saying, essentially, “You’re not alone. I get it. And, as a man, we may have challenges we’re afraid to speak of. I get that, too.”

Here’s an excerpt.

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey: ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen’, by Larry McMurtry

Now, looking back from a distance of eight years, I realize that even in the first months after the operation, when I thought I was feeling fine, what I was really feeling was relief that I was alive and not in pain. After all, I had had my breastbone sawn in two, my heart put in coolant. I wasn’t quite myself, but I hadn’t started grieving either, for the self or the personality that had been lost during the process. The violently intrusive nature of that operation – of any operation, really – was bound to dislocate one for a bit, I thought. Car metaphors seem to apply. I had had some serious engine work done and then been jump-started back into drivability. If there was a little sputtering at first, well, that was only to be expected.

In the fourth month matters worsened – the sense of grief for the lost self was profound. I didn’t feel like my old self at all, and had no idea where the old self had gone. But I did know that it, he, me was gone, and that I missed him. I soon came to feel that my self had been left behind, across a border or a canyon. Where exactly was I? The only real sign of the old self was that I could still connect with my grandson, Curtis McMurtry. Otherwise, I felt spectral – the personality that had been mine for fifty-five years was simply no longer there – or if there, it was fragmented, it was dust particles swirling around, only occasionally and briefly cohering. I mourned its loss but soon concluded that gone is gone – I was never really going to recover that sense of wholeness, of the integrity of the self.

That being the case, I began to put a kind of alternative self together, and the alternative self soon acquired a few domestic skills, on the order of loading the dishwasher or taking out the trash. But I still couldn’t read. I was at the time owner of perhaps two hundred thousand books and yet I couldn’t read.

The problem, I eventually realized, was that reading is a form of looking outward, beyond the self, and that, for a long time, I couldn’t do – the protest from inside was too powerful. My inability to externalize seemed to be organ based, as if the organs to which violence had been done were protesting so much that I couldn’t attend to anything else. I soon ceased to suppose that I would ever reassemble the whole of my former self, but I could collect enough chunks and pieces to get me by – as I have.

Such surgery, so noncommonsensical, to contradictory to the normal rules of survival, is truly Faustian. You get to live, perhaps as long as you want to, only not as yourself – never as yourself.

Sometime in the third year I slowly regained the power to read. I bought Diana Trilling’s The Beginning of the Journey and slowly read it through with pleasure. In the fourth year I recovered my interest in the rare-book trade, something that has been a fascination for most of my life. My memory for bibliographical minutiae returned. Once again I could open a copy of The Sun Also Rises and turn automatically to page 181, where in the first issue, “stopped” is spelled “stoppped”. I began to recall the provenance of books sold long ago, where I found them, where they went when they left my hands. I was cheered to find that a few of book scout’s skills were coming back.

Even now, reading is an uneven experience – though I began to read again several years ago, I am only now regaining my velocity – the ability to read several books more or less at the same time, at a fast clip. If many looked-forward-to books fail to engage me I suspect it may be because the operation left me with a less generous level of attention to bestow.

I think of the heart surgery now mostly in metaphors of editing. I am nervous about letting an editor edit my manuscript – even editors who have known me for years – and yet I let the surgeon, a man I had met for only ten minutes, edit my body on the basis of information from machines. This is not to blame the surgeon, who did a fine job. I merely call attention to the oddity of letting the body be abruptly edited by one who has no knowledge of the self of which the body is but one expression. All the machines can tell the surgeon or cardiologist, after all, is about the defects and flaws of a given body; the machines can’t read strengths, particularly not psychic strengths. Longevity is bound to be a chancy thing, a matter of gains and losses, but surely personality and spirit are forces in longevity, too.

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5 Responses to The Books: Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey; ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen’, by Larry McMurtry

  1. DBW says:

    This is very unsettling. It’s not that surprising because I’ve read of such surgery-related ‘disconnections’ before, but the idea really disturbs me. I wouldn’t think any of us like contemplating an involuntary loss of self, and even my limited experience with such things was very, very upsetting. I just read through your Unholy Ghost posts last night, and, frankly, it made me feel bad. Don’t get me wrong, I found it all very interesting and informative, but it’s sad that people have to struggle with such things. The idea that it’s unpredictable, and largely uncontrollable completely unnerves me.

    • sheila says:

      DBW – McMurtry’s essay was one of the most unnerving in the book because it did seem to strike him suddenly, with no warning from his former life, pre-operation.

      I am sure there is a connection between surgery and loss of identity – so so painful, and how do you talk about it, process it, get people to understand? I am sure there are specialists who understand, etc., and like I said: I think Larry McMurtry’s essay alone would be so validating to read if you were in a similar situation and confused by it. It wouldn’t fix the problem but at least you know you’re not nuts. That there is some precedent for this kind of reaction to major surgery.

      It pained me to hear that McMurtry said he still wasn’t back on track with reading – but who knows, he may have gotten it back – this essay was written in the late 1990s.

      People who have a glass-half-full constitution are so lucky and often they don’t even know it. And that’s fine: we are all imprisoned, to some degree, by our own experience. I look at the world one way, for my own reasons: history, experience, genetic chemistry – and you see it yours. I am glad to hear a compassionate response from you (although it doesn’t surprise me at all, you being you!). Often positive people just cannot fathom what the hell we depressives are going on and on about. :)

      • sheila says:

        This is one of the reasons, too, why I have never done hallucinogenic drugs of any kind. I so fear being the kind of person who would stroll out of a window 70 stories up, or would have some psychotic break that would alter me forever. I feared this at a pretty young age. I never experimented with drugs like that.

        Also, of course, there were all these horrifying TV movies about the dangers of drug abuse which scared me for all time when I was a kid.

  2. bybee says:

    This essay has stayed in my mind as well. I think about it often. Scarily often.

    I haven’t gone through an extended nonreading stage, but I did have a recent episode of struggling to read. It was because of decisions about life and location and work being up in the air. I hated it that I was stressed (and maybe a little depressed) and couldn’t even use reading to pacify myself.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, I think sometimes our brains are like, “Can’t take anymore in right now.” It’s very disorienting when that happens though. I hope you’re back to your reading self, bybee!

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