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  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

Bodies in the Basement

From Brick 65/66

Brick 65/66

Whenever I happen to meet and talk with people who are complete strangers to me but who know me, insofar as one can, only through my writings, they almost always say that they’re surprised (and perhaps relieved) to find that I’m not depressed. And I’m not—neither clinically nor in affect. But I can understand why a stranger, having read my work, might expect me to be depressed, at least in affect—that is, withdrawn, down-at-the-mouth, enervated, possibly even surly and curt. In those novels and stories, after all, there are no happy endings; the characters endure lives led mostly in quiet desperation; and on the rare occasions when they do escape from their traps, they tend to do it in ways that only make things worse for themselves and for the people who love them. The comedy, when there is some, is likely to be on the dark side of pessimism and dread; and if at the end there is “redemption,” it’s only because we have seen that in this material world there is, gratuitously given, something, rather than the merely nothing we properly deserve. Beyond that, everything the characters both do and don’t do seems to derive its final meaning from the overriding fact that nobody gets out of here alive.

But even if I did express through my personality and body the affect that people seem to expect from a depressed person (withdrawn, down-at-the-mouth, enervated, etc.), it would only indicate that my view of the world has made me, not necessarily depressed, but sad and angry. As, indeed, it has. Thus the reader is right to expect to find me sad and angry (if only because the work has made him or her feel that way, too). Which is fine by me, if they feel that way, since I want the novels and stories to be true to my view of the world, and in my view the world is such that any other response to it than sadness and anger would be inappropriate.

Having said that, however, it should also be said that it’s precisely the writing of those novels and stories, the act of making them up, that releases me in my day-to-day life and my personal dealings with other people not to feel sad and angry. So that, when I push myself away from my desk and rejoin the company of my dear wife, my family and friends, and even the company of strangers, I’m freed to overflow freshly with what feels like a natural sociability and joie de vivre, the way a comedian, finished with his act, is freed to walk off the stage and let his smile fade, to slump into his chair, look into his dressing room mirror, and place his hands over his face and weep.

For this reason alone—that there exists a sharp distinction between my attitude and my consciousness—no person who is clinically depressed is likely to have written my novels and stories. Of course, no one other than I, depressed or not, could have written them anyhow. My point is simply that, given the nature of the work, I could not possibly be suffering from depression. Fiction, unlike poetry, is not so much a portrait of the author’s consciousness as it is a dramatized expression of his attitude. I speak of the difference between fiction and poetry as one who has written fiction for nearly forty years and who began by writing poetry as well and has been married to a practicing poet for over a decade.  Beyond that, from my experience of depression, which derives mainly from my continuing happy marriage to the poet just mentioned, a woman who happens to be clinically depressed, scrupulously self-analytical, and supremely articulate, I have come to believe that the consciousness of a depressed person rarely supports an attitude (or fiction) like mine. A depressed fiction-writer with an attitude filled to the brim with sadness and anger nourished, not like mine by a hierarchy of value, but instead by her malfunctioning limbic-diencephalic systems, would probably be suicidal. Unable to separate her consciousness from such an attitude, unable to withdraw from it as the comedian withdraws from his comedy, she would likely be destroyed by it.

A fiction writer’s attitude, generally referred to as an author’s “vision,” is what informs and gives meaning, especially moral meaning, to the plot, the form and structure of the narrative, the point of view, and the characters; it gives meaning even to the tiniest detail, to the sheen, if singled out, reflected off the dewy surface of a single oak leaf at dawn. Everything in a story or novel, by its nature and placement, by the very tone and inflection of the language in which it is borne, reveals, for better or worse, the writer’s hierarchy of value. And as I’ve implied above, this characteristic of fiction is wonderfully liberating to the writer. Whether he’s aware of it is irrelevant. The point is that he is able to distinguish functionally between his work and his personality, which is to say, between the manifestations of his attitude and those of his consciousness. (I might even say, between his body of work and his body.) For him, the two are under no compunction to be the same or even similar. Yet, for the poet, it seems, they are. This, to me, is not just a crucial difference between the poet and the fiction-writer; it is also a crucial difference between a person who is depressed and one who is not. And thus it represents a crucial difference between my wife and me.

WHEN I FIRST came to know and love my wife, I had only a vague and, as it turned out, wrong-headed idea of the true nature of depression. I regarded it more or less the same way as do those readers who—made sad and angry by my work, made “depressed” by it—expect to find me withdrawn, down-at-the-mouth, enervated, etc.. In other words, despite what I knew about my bifurcated self, or selves, I assumed that my wife’s personality originated in her attitude, her view of the world, and was therefore pretty much under her control. I saw her personality, her consciousness, as a product of her will, and if there was a down-side, it was the price in easy sociability that, unlike her sociable husband, she, who was clearly tougher than he and more stringently self-sufficient, was willing to pay in order to stay visibly consistent with her views. Which views I took to be characterized by sadness and anger—like mine. Other people might not understand her, but I did.

In fact, there was much about her “affect” (it was far more and other than mere affect, of course, but I didn’t realize it yet) that I had not previously associated with depression, but should have, and found seductive, interesting, and energizing. All right, sexy. She was a fast-moving lady, someone who walked up the backs of other people’s heels on a crowded sidewalk, with quick, nervy (but not nervous) gestures and sudden shifts of expression and attention, so that all my modes of attention were put on high alert. And to a fellow in middle-age, especially one grown a little jaded and inattentive, high alert can be very exciting. Her insomnia suggested a sensibility more refined than mine, lighter and brighter, and her history of migraines and fear of their return lent drama to stress. Also, her careful hedges against stress, the elaborate ways in which she protected herself against it, simply meant to me that she lived a more stressful life than I, an unfortunate but redeeming consequence, I felt, of her having more consciousness than I. Any aspect of her behaviour that she explained as having been caused by depression, I took to be the result of her principled, clear-eyed, realistic view of the world that surrounded us. And her account of having viewed herself since childhood as separated from her true self by a pane of glass, dissociated, yet always self-aware, as if trapped in an infinite regress—this struck me as a slightly heightened and metaphoric way of describing the detachment from one’s self that all writers require and actually nourish: I merely thought that she was describing a familiar thing in a new way.

In those early months and well into the first few years of our life together, like all couples newly in love, we told each other the stories of our past marriages and love affairs and our complex, often painful relations with our parents, siblings, and, in my case, children. Like most such couples, we were better able to describe our lows than our highs, or perhaps felt freer to linger over unhappiness and dissatisfaction than their opposites, and emphasized traumatic disruption over easy, inevitable maturation, growth, and change. We described our difficult childhoods, our tormented adolescences, our past loves (in particular the ones we regretted and had suffered from), and our up-to-now neglected emotional, spiritual, and sexual needs: we told each other about the bodies buried in our basements. And in so doing, discovered that we were perfect for each other.

Time passed, and slowly, as in any marriage, a third person, who was neither of us, began to join us in our marriage, a person smiling beneficently between us, with an invisible arm draped across our shoulders. It was a person whose identity participated in both our separate identities and was, without our intending it or knowing how it happened, our mutual creation, containing both genders, both pasts, both personalities—someone utterly trusted in whom we each could see him—or herself and the other, but could see neither one nor the other alone. This third person, whose identity feels more real than one’s own, makes a marriage transcendent, but also, when one or both the partners fail the marriage, makes divorce so difficult to endure, living on, as it must, for years after the marriage has been dissolved, keeping ex-husband and ex-wife from knowing who they are alone, what they like and dislike independently of the other, and what their own secret stories were and are. It’s not unlike the invisible third person who appears in one’s family when a parent or sibling or child is an addict or alcoholic and whose presence alters everyone’s behaviour and perceptions in tiny, incremental ways, until before long everyone in the family has changed to such a degree that no one, not even the addict, can know who he is anymore or who the others are without that third person present. It’s how one becomes an “enabler.” But in a marriage that’s not organized around addiction or alcoholism, it’s how one becomes a usefully sympathetic and understanding spouse.

In marriage we put our identities at risk, gambling that change will turn out to be improvement. I can’t speak for my wife, but in my case, change has been improvement—at least insofar as I came over time to feel, not quite her pain, but her depression. And gradually came to realize that I’d had it all wrong.

I BEGAN TO SUSPECT that I might have a few things wrong when I came to the surprising conclusion that, for the first time in my life, I was feeling, not sad and angry, not even melancholic or gloomy, but depressed. I was manifesting certain classic symptoms—small phobias, along with elaborately contrived avoidances, and the sort of distraction one associates with anxiety, especially the anxiety that arises from fear of losing control over every aspect of one’s life. Also, minor sleep disorder and the anxiety that creates. I had never before asked myself, on waking in the morning, if I’d had a good or bad night’s sleep, but now it was a regular morning interrogatory, a ruthless, irritated demand for an answer. And I was acquiring a new and noticeable (to me) detachment from myself, an alienation from the person who spoke and acted for me—an unwanted, counter-productive extension of the familiar and necessary detachment I’d long maintained from the man with my name who composed, with attitude, my novels and stories.

The phobias first, for they appeared first and were the tip-off. For years, certainly since her adolescence, my wife had suffered from what we half-jokingly called “urbophobia,” fear of cities, especially New York City, an urb I rather loved, had visited all my life, and had resided in from 1982 until 1988, the year my wife and I set up housekeeping together in Princeton, New Jersey, where I was then teaching. Since my adolescence, I had responded to Gotham pretty much the way small-town American intellectuals have reacted since Whitman’s time, romanticizing its history like Thomas Wolfe, glamourizing its funky bohemianism like Kerouac, and embracing its varieties of humanity like a social scientist on speed. Everything about the city excited me and nourished my mind; nothing repelled or scared me (although, naturally, I avoided danger with the same rational care that I took when crossing streets against the lights—I always looked both ways).

Until, having failed to displace my wife’s phobia with my enthusiasm for the city, I began to see it with her eyes, instead of my own. The city hadn’t changed; I had. Now it seemed physically and psychically threatening to me, noisy and invasive, chaotic and cruel; for the first time, I found myself judging my numerous friends who continued to love the city as I once had, viewing them as somehow more parochial than I and sentimental and self-deluded. None of this, of course, was my wife’s doing, none of it was her desire. Quite the opposite. She felt embarrassed by her fear of the city, handicapped by it, and the last thing she wanted was to share that fear with me. Yet there it was: in looking out for her, I had begun to look out with her. Failing to protect her from a thing she feared, I had come to fear it myself.

It was the same with all but a few of her other symptoms of depression. Although I never suffered from migraines, I worried that perhaps I would, or should, and although I never slipped into the slough of near-suicidal despond that she sometimes endured, I began to magnify my own occasional dips and slips into morbidity and to rely less on humour to get me back on track and more on anxiety and agitated will, which, predictably, got focused on issues and occasions of control: the more I felt able to control matters both large and small, the less likely the fall into despondency. It was a mildly effective solution, but the end result was a raised level of ongoing anxiety and the constant care and feeding of a fast-growing control-freak.

My reaction to all this was to blame my wife—to be angry at her, first, for not having allowed me to cure her of her depression, and then for infecting me with it. Crude, I know, but not uncommon, I fear (especially among custodial males with the bodies of failed fathers buried beneath their basement floors). Happily, it didn’t take long for me to see that my wife was not responsible for my condition. I was. Physician, I told myself, cure thyself, and saw then that this self-inflicted “infection” was in fact a homeopathic cure, in which like cures like and by means of which I was allowed to see the extreme and defining difference between my minor case of depression, contracted by my having confused empathy with sympathy, and my wife’s major case, which went, not with her choice of spouse or diet or job or residence, but with her brain chemistry. It went with her body. And bodies don’t have attitudes; they have consciousness.

In the intervening years, much has changed, and all for the better, partly because of my growing comprehension of the nature and etiology of my wife’s condition, but mostly because of the rapid development and deployment of anti-depressants. In the meantime, I have learned a great moral lesson and have tried to apply it to as many aspects of my life with my wife and others, even strangers, as possible. I have learned to feel for my wife and to avoid feeling with her, and to avoid feeling for other people and not with them. To sympathize and not empathize. It now seems clear to me that it is arrogant for me to claim to feel another person’s pain—unless I’m willing to become that person. A fiction writer can do that with his characters. And perhaps, if he wishes to write fiction that will matter to strangers, he must do that. But a husband cannot become his own wife. Not if he wants to go on loving her in sickness and in health; not if he wants her to love him back.

Russell Banks is the author of eighteen works of fiction, including the novels Continental DriftRule of the Bone, and Lost Memory of Skin, as well as six short story collections, most recently A Permanent Member of the Family. He lives in Miami, Florida, and in upstate New York with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell.

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