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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
There’s nothing new or newfangled about depression. According to
its symptoms are "as old as the hill tribes, if not as old as
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
"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
609-921-8454. Discussion and signing of "The Noonday Demon: An
Atlas of Depression." Free. Tuesday, December 11, 6 p.m.
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