We’ve finally arrived at the end of my absurdly long review of The Noonday Demon. Andrew Solomon’s chapter entitled Evolution was very interesting to me, irrespective of whether I disagreed with all of it or not (“agreement” was really not the point here), and would make a great stand-alone essay to encourage people to think differently/in a multi-faceted way about depression. The chapter is a relatively neutral discussion on different theories of the origin of depression attempting to get at any useful function it might have. But he freely admits, towards the end of the book, that he basically only wrote about people he liked (429), as if it is self-evident why such a thing should just be readily accepted (from a person who claims to do exhaustive journalistic research, no less!). But, if, as he claims, “writing is an act of social responsibility” (428), then writing about people you admire is biased (at best) and thus not all that responsible. Simply admitting your bias doesn’t excuse you from responsibility. Writing about people you like is much easier than writing about people you don’t like and admitting to doing the former is, to me, basically saying you’ve purposefully written a lop-sided, half-told story. No one can see all angles but it doesn’t make sense to me to claim to be nobly taking up your duty to society by writing while simultaneously ignoring people because you didn’t like them as if your personal preferences are the gold-standard measure of a human being.
Furthermore, I’m wary of someone who refers to human technology as “art” and who brushes of pollution and global warming as easily as Solomon does: after rattling off horrors that could seriously disturb civilization, he says, “but on balance, our art has lead us forward” (430). This is a seriously questionable assertion and one that probably only a Western man could make. In the same vein, he talks neutrally about hypotheticals that should not be neutral: “It is not so long until you will be able to choose between a talking cure for your bad marriage and having your infatuation renewed with through the invention of a pharmacologist” (432). Whether other technological advances are “natural” or not, I don’t want to be around for that one.
He does say something super helpful: “It is inarguably the case that depressed people have a more accurate view of the world than nondepressed people” (432). But “if a depressed person may have better judgment than a healthy person” (432), what, then constitutes illness and, perhaps more importantly, who benefits from using words like “healthy” as if they are opposite of “depressed”? If depressed people are more realistic as he claims, why does he throughout the book use language, even if it is tongue-in-cheek, like “I may wake up without my mind again” (442) when referring to his own depression or “craziness” (342) when discussing mental suffering? This sort of thing does nothing to bridge the “us-vs.-them” gap the mentally ill are viewed with in society. Either way, let’s be clear: having a keener sense of the truth is no reason at all to try to be depressed. It is a ravaging, shrieking emptiness and its victims deserve persistent care and dogged commitment to understand.
He lists all the things people are being prescribed antidepressants for, as if to build up to a scrutiny of this widespread and apparently indiscriminate prescribing…only to claim he “has no problem with this broad use” as long as it’s done knowingly. (435) I have to say, this makes me quite suspicious of Solomon…and the podiatrist who prescribed Prozac he discusses…and the DSM for dropping the bereavement exclusion in a depression diagnosis, essentially pathologizing grief. Solomon had spent the previous several paragraphs talking about how necessary grief is to the human condition and the thriving of love, yet he’s totally okay medicating it as long as we know that that’s what we’re doing? Who’s side is he on? The “pharmacological utopia” (435) he discusses and seems to have no qualms with sounds like an absolutely nightmare, one in which we actively participate in our own dehumanization for nothing but the profit of blindly greedy corporations.
Ultimately, I want to say to be wary of Solomon. If it’s true that “we only know people by what they tell us” (363), then Solomon certainly knows the heck out of a lot of people. But why? Why were so many people willing to divulge stories to him that they did wish to tell their own spouses or attach their own names to (as he explains in the “Politics” Chapter)? In another book of his that I reviewed, he got to interview the parents of one of the Columbine shooters; in another book, he talks to the father of another school shooter. But why were the parents of killers so willing to talk to him? Maybe it’s just me, but “can we talk about your mass murderer son? I want to write a book about him” would send me running the other direction from anyone who said it. I’m not impressed with his support of programs that make patients “better” – better is not well and anyway, who gets to define “better?” Reading this book with caution might help understand depression and those who suffer from it, but don’t let it be the only thing you read on the subject – and don’t let it be the only interaction you have with the subject. I do not think of Solomon as a hero, but I’m willing to commend what he writes here: “Virtue is not necessarily its own reward, but there is a certain peace in loving someone that does not exist in distancing yourself from someone” (435) and his advice on how to help depressed people is sorely needed: “Blunt their isolation…and do it willingly” (436). Reading a book is a good start (so long as you’re cautious), but it’s not enough.