Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 5, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Demon at Our Door

Depression arrives like a thief in the night. And its

victims may not immediately recognize just what has been taken. But

gradually the stolen items — the missing ingredients of vitality,

personality, and character — make it impossible for them to


Writer Andrew Solomon was a bright, successful young adult who had

everything going for him, "when hell came to pay me a surprise


Over the course of three major breakdowns and various depressive


Solomon, the author of a 1994 novel and a book on Soviet art, has

spent the past five years working on a state-of-the-art study of


The book, "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,"


in June, is his comprehensive inquiry into the anatomy of this


illness. Last month it won the 2001 National Book Award for


Solomon comes to Princeton to consult for Princeton House, the Medical

Center of Princeton’s mental health facility, and Micawber Books has

arranged for him to speak at the store, on Tuesday, December 11, at

6 p.m.

There’s nothing new or newfangled about depression. According to


its symptoms are "as old as the hill tribes, if not as old as

the hills."

Solomon describes himself as one of some 19 million Americans who

suffers from chronic depression. The World Heath Organization


that depression worldwide currently takes a greater toll on useful

life years than AIDS, cancer, and war combined. Solomon tackles every

aspect of the illness: its history, chemistry, psychodynamics, and

treatment. He chooses the metaphor of a vine to describe his own


— think New Jersey’s prolific poison ivy — a vine that


conceals, and chokes off the life of a strong, upright oak.

To dispel the notion that depression is a Western middle-class


Solomon has explored its roots and treatments in other cultures. His

book includes three stories from outside the "first world."

Narratives of his encounters with the illness as it is manifest in

Cambodia, Greenland, and Senegal, West Africa, are designed to


the medical literature’s Western bias.

Depression hits high-achieving and creative individuals just as it

does the rank-and-file. CEOs, musicians, salespersons, factory


stay-at-home mothers, the poor, and the homeless are all equally


Many substance abusers are diagnosed depressives. As Solomon explores

the medical, cultural, and imaginative worlds of depression, he also

invokes such well-known literary melancholics Virginia Woolf, Sylvia

Plath, Samuel Beckett, John Milton, Shakespeare, John Keats, and



This autumn, more Americans than ever have experienced some level

of depression, with its feelings of futility. Solomon says that he’ll

address the issue of September 11 at Micawber Books, by discussing

"how people can get through a trauma and depression and make sense

of themselves on the other side of it."

"Getting through" and "making sense" are exactly what

Solomon has accomplished in his own story of depressive illness.

Born in New York, in 1963, Solomon grew up in a


family, the oldest of two sons. His book chronicles in detail his

life as a homosexual in a homophobic society. A bookish, non-athletic

boy who was taunted and abused as a youngster, he gradually learned

to cope. By his college years at Yale he had become a popular student

with many friends. His first recognized depressive breakdown came

the summer following graduation. Nevertheless, he went on to earn

a graduate degree in Cambridge, at Jesus College, where he made more

friends. He now divides his time between luxurious lodgings in New

York and London.

Solomon dedicates the book to his father Howard Solomon, a self-made

millionaire and chairman of Forest Laboratories, a pharmaceutical

company valued, according to the New York Times, at $12 billion. His

mother, Carolyn Solomon, who ended her life in 1991, at age 58, while

suffering through the final stages of ovarian cancer, has had an


intense impact on the author’s emotional journey.

"I’m very proud of my father," he told the New York Times

earlier this year. "He’s an entirely self-made man. He grew up

waiting on milk lines in the Bronx. His great love was always music,

and he got a job when he was 13 selling librettos at the old Met


he loved opera. Now, he’s chairman of the City Ballet and on the board

of the opera."

Solomon chooses to include a conflict-of-interest disclaimer in


Noonday Demon." "It is hard for me to write without bias about

pharmaceutical companies because my father has worked in the


field for most of his adult life," he writes, explaining how the

elder Solomon, 67 years old when his son had his first episode of

depression, then extended his company into the field of


Now Forest Laboratories is the United States distributor of the


a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). "My father has

been, always, my unfailing mainstay and my great inspiration,"

Solomon writes. He also reports that 28 million Americans — one

in every ten — are now on SSRIs.

"The Noonday Demon" originally appeared as an article in the

New Yorker in 1998, "The Anatomy of Melancholy," an article

that precipitated more than 1,000 letters from readers, some of whom

eventually became the subjects of Solomon’s book.

"There were so many letters and they did fall into


he explained in a recent phone interview. "There were a few from

angry, outraged people saying, `Pull yourself together’ — but

those were the minority. Most were writing to tell their own stories,

and to tell what they had been through. And there were many who wrote

with `Thank you, Thank you for writing this.’ There were also huge

numbers of depressed people who wrote and said they had never been

able to explain their depression to their families, `and now I


"I think the most gratifying letter I received was in response

to the book," he says. "It was from someone who wrote to tell

me that they had been planning to kill themselves, but the book


their mind, they decided not to kill themselves, and they went to

get help instead." Today Solomon says his professional goal is

"writing that changes people’s lives."

In recent decades readers have flocked to books on depression. William

Styron’s "Darkness Visible" (1991) and Lewis Wolpert’s


Sadness" (1999) are among many best sellers. Weighing in at over

500 pages, Solomon’s "Noonday Demon" is the most comprehensive

to date. Its 35-page bibliography also encompasses hundreds of books

by and about people suffering depression.

Such books can be helpful, says Solomon, because


how much of it there is, depression is talked about so little. There

are so many people living in fear and denial."

"The more people there are that acknowledge they’ve been through

depression, the more the stigma wanes," he says. "In fact

I tell people they might be surprised when talking about their


— maybe to be careful in the workplace, and with insurance


— but socially, you’re unlikely to be dismissed and more likely

to get the response that your listener has a sister, a friend, or

knows someone with depression."

The New York Police Department last week ordered all 55,000 employees,

including uniformed officers, to attend mental health counseling to

assist in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. In

the announcement, officials indicated that "the stigma attached

to counseling would be reduced by making it compulsory."

"No question, in employment there is still an incredible


says Solomon. He gives as an example a recent poll on political


in which 40 percent of respondents said even if they agreed with a

candidate on every issue, they would not vote for one being treated

for depression.

"High achievers and perfectionists have a high level of


On the one hand, there is a large category of people who suffer to

the extent that they can’t achieve very much. But there are lots of

people who keep accomplishing to keep reinforcing themselves, until

the depression gets so strong that it overwhelms them."

"Yet there are some people who are able to keep their jobs and

talk about it. The prime minister of Norway just took two weeks off,

and when he came back to work he said he had been having a depressive

episode. Instead of taking off for `flu’ he went home for


Among the subjects of Solomon’s book is Lynn Rivers, the only member

of the U.S. Congress who has come out of the closet about her own

struggles with mental illness. She reports that several other members

of the House have told Rivers of their depressive illness but are

afraid to tell voters.

It is important not only to get treatment for depression but to


as Solomon does throughout the autobiographical sections of his book,

that it might happen again.

"Despite the enthusiastic claims of pharmaceutical science,


cannot be wiped out so long as we are creatures conscious of our own

selves. It can at best be contained — and containing is all that

current treatments for depression do," he writes.

There are those who, since September 11, have diagnosed most of the

nation with some level of depression.

"It is incredibly important to acknowledge the depression and

look for what strength can be drawn from it," he says. "Since

September 11, people who have had depression had significant relapses.

Many were mentally destabilized. Also, people who had the capacity

for depression were pushed to the edge.

"It’s important, as you continue to have experiences that lead

you out of depression, not to make a break in your life," he says.

"You need to establish continuity between the self who become

depressed and the person who became better."

Having visited the darkest side of himself and returned, Solomon is

making the most of the opportunity to illuminate depression. In his

12th and final chapter, entitled "Hope," he suggests that

depression, for all the anguish it causes, can have a positive aspect.

"You cannot choose whether you get depressed and you cannot choose

when or how you get better, but you can sort of choose what to do

with the depression, especially when you come out of it," he


For Solomon and many of his subjects, it has provided an expected

means of growth: he thinks they may have learned to be more tolerant,

more loving, more confident. "Every day I choose, sometimes gamely

and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not

a rare joy?"

— Nicole Plett

Andrew Solomon, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. Discussion and signing of "The Noonday Demon: An

Atlas of Depression." Free. Tuesday, December 11, 6 p.m.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments