Jeffrey Eugenides and Marilynne Robinson

I am drawn to writing about these books. Both Home, (Robinson, 2008) and The Marriage Plot (Eugenides, 2011) portray the truncated half-life of a person suffering depression and the stress it brings to their carers. Allowing entry to those darker places is part of being seen, being understood. It’s why I read fiction.

I know this subject. I think many of us do but stigma and taboo crowd out a basic human need to share an experience. Without knowing who amongst us will understand, and feeling that it is not our story to tell, we keep it inside. It is a long and lonely heartache living with someone who doesn’t want to be here anymore; trying to keep them alive and sometimes failing.

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides’ character Leonard is bi-polar, swinging between mania and deep depression. His girlfriend, Madeleine, is told early on by an earnest psych major ‘how attractive it can be to think you can save somebody else by loving them.’ How this resonates. I thought love—and organisation—could save my brother.

Leonard lies, cajoles, distorts and is ruled by his medication: dosage, properties, schedules, results, or lack thereof. It makes him feel fat, slow and stupid. He can’t remember what it was like to feel normal. He goes on spending binges, rampant with his own generosity. Only exorbitant gestures kindle a sense of life. And Madeleine ‘threw herself into the task of loving and caring for Leonard’ (Eugenides 2011 p184), as she mops and tidies, cooks and plans, she is keeping him alive. Or so she thinks. But you can only save yourself, the prescient psych major says.

Madeleine’s energetic impotence so closely mirrored my own. In one scene, he cannot be around people, his apathy and listlessness driving Madeleine to burst out ‘Why can’t you go to one party?’ ‘I just can’t.’ My brother would do the same. I wanted to shake him, slap him, show him all the things he could be, could do. The total incomprehension of that life, the impossibility of seeing the world through their eyes, is a constant when you love someone with depression.

At a writers’ festival event, I asked Eugenides about his awareness, his precision here. He had not experienced depression himself, but spoke to many who had. A woman stopped me afterwards, ‘You were the one who asked the question!’ I nodded. ‘Me too!’ she said. Her rage at her sister for not getting a grip, just snapping out of it, was consuming.

Marilynne Robinson’s Home tells of Jack, a child in a loving family who grows into a man they do not understand. He disappears for twenty years, staying away even for his mother’s funeral, never knowing how often they try to find him. Robinson tells of his return to his father’s house. He looks at the family who love him with cool eyes, a lived detachment—if I stay away, I can’t be hurt. They see his alcoholism, contained but just below the surface, and fear is the air they breathe. Removing bottles from his room, counting housekeeping money, hiding it in the piano stool, keeping him from self-harm.

“Was this what they had always been afraid of, that he would really leave, that he would truly and finally put himself beyond the reach of help and harm, beyond self-consciousness and its humiliations, beyond all that loneliness and unspent anger and all that unsalved shame, and their endless, relentless loyalty to him. Dear Lord. She had tried to take care of him, to help him, and from time to time, he had let her believe that she did.” (Robinson 2008 p 248­–249).

It pierces, language like this. The shame my brother felt at failure, failing us, failing himself, was constant. Not understanding, we could not heal it. Robinson writes that Jack refuses help. I saw the prison my brother created for himself, seeing himself as someone unworthy of receiving help, owing it to us to either fix himself or get out of the way. Out of our lives. And, like Jack’s family, we imagined every dreadful outcome, ‘lying awake nights’.

When we change, or our lives are changed, books like these can help us understand. The intricacies of the human condition can be smothered with misunderstanding and euphemism, or explored; while the hole in my life cannot be filled, I can accept it and accept me.

Home, Marilynne Robinson, Virago Press, UK, 2008

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate, UK, 2011

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