In the Jaws of the Black Dogs:
A Memoir of Depression

by John B. Mays, Richard Rhodes,
xviii, 234 pages,
ISBN: 0140246509

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Darkness Visible
by Phyllis Grosskurth

THIS IS NOT A PLEASANT book to read, nor was it intended to be. Does anyone who is even mildly depressed from time to time really want to know what it is like to be deeply depressed most of the time? Frankly, I found myself able to read it only in segments. I am one of the fortunate people who can stave off depression by work, and I found myself frequently muttering "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

While an appalling number of people are afflicted with depression, it is denied or cannily disguised in our culture, which expects people to be cheerful and optimistic. Thousands of people are in therapy, thousands more are buying books claiming to make them as happy as other people seem to be, yet there is still a certain shame attached to being depressed. "Surely," even the depressed argue, "I am being self-indulgent?" This suspicion is confirmed by the impatience directed towards those who are habitually depressed.

There are as many forms of depression as there are depressed people, ranging from those who feel they are not enjoying life as much as they should to those who are totally debilitated. How John Bentley Mays managed to share his suffering with his readers took a rare degree of courage. He rightly saw that the only way he could help us to understand his particular form of depression was to write an autobiographical memoir, yet it is so oblique that I wonder if he altogether succeeds.

Born in South Carolina of an alcoholic father and a shadowy mother, he is orphaned at an early age and brought up by grandparents (but not the set of grandparents he would have chosen). He goes to a "northern university." Why not simply say it was the University of Rochester, without all those teasing allusions to Norman 0. Brown? He is invited to come as a teaching assistant to a Toronto university (why the coyness about naming York?), but is fired from his job. It is not clear if his depression is responsible for this. He finally finds a supportive wife and ends up as the art critic for the Globe and Mail. He finds a measure of peace with the help of an unsentimental psychiatrist, who will probably be around for the rest of his life. In other words, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs is a success story, even if it does not have a banal scenario.

At university Mays discovered that he was bisexual, although he rightly refuses to categorize himself. Some confusion about his sexual identity must have been a contributing factor to his depression, but from what we are told in the book, he has managed to come to terms with it through a stable marriage with a sensible, intelligent wife.

The accounts of persistent heaviness, unaccountable tears, suicide attempts, preoccupation with humiliations, all these are part of the disorder. What troubles Mays is wasted life. He writes: "Most of the time I imagine depressives merely believe that beauty is there somewhere." This is the saddest part of his story, and I had to stop reading when he talked about how the black dogs creep up in all manner of disguises -- feeling low with a cold, a hangover, continuing days of lowering skies. Before one knows it, they are clinging there tenaciously.

Yet there is a moment of illumination in this bleakness. On assignment to Kiev, in Sophia Cathedral, Mays was deeply moved by the magnificent mosaic of the Mother of God with her arms raised in prayer and victory. At that moment he made a vow to defeat the black dogs. Back in Toronto, he told his psychiatrist that he was ready to try anything, even electroconvulsive shock treatment.

He was given a prescription for a drug he had never heard of -- Prozac -- in early 1992, just at the time when it was beginning to be widely used. After a week he suddenly awoke one morning to hear the persistent sound of driving winter rain. For hours it seemed the most wonderful thing he had ever heard.

Mays now came to expect a permanent state of "peace and inner beauty." Prozac ultimately failed; it had given him false hope, although he credits it with providing a measure of peace for a time. His analytic sessions had already divested him of shame about his condition, convincing him that he had done nothing to deserve it. Now the failure of Prozac alerted him to the acceptance that he and his depression were inseparable companions.

Mays inveighs against those who proffer Prozac as the ultimate solution. He loathes self-help books for their shallowness, but his greatest scorn is reserved for the specialists who purport to offer the authority of truth on the subject.

Not unexpectedly, I enjoyed hearing about the things that enhance his life: his stable family, his religion, his love of Wagner, his rooftop garden. I was surprised that he spoke so little about his work. He talks of the lack of beauty in most contemporary art, which he sees as a reflection of the general malaise of society. Mays never considers the phenomenon of projection as part of his depression. I have enjoyed reading his Globe columns when he explores familiar yet neglected spots in the city in which he and I live. He has often opened my eyes. And while I was relieved to put this book away, I look forward to his views on many things. Surely this might give him a tiny measure of satisfaction?


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