family silver book coverI just finished The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance by Sharon O'Brien. It's very, very good.

The book is partially O'Brien's memoir, partially a memoir of the last three generations of her Irish-American family, and partially a book about depression, both in general and O'Brien and her family's specific experiences. This medley of subjects work perfectly. O'Brien ties her own depression not only to her upbringing, but to genetic inheritance, and makes a strong case for these things being intertwined. She moves back and forth between herself, each of her parents, her siblings, and her more distant relatives, as well as moving geographically between Ireland and several towns in Massachusetts and update New York, weaving a seamless tale that is both enlightening and heartbreaking.

Sharon O'Brien is a professor of English, specializing in Willa Cather (about whom she wrote a biography I am now anxious to read). She's suffered from depression and anxiety since childhood, as do her parents and as did their parents. O'Brien, however, has the distinction of being a member of a generation that has begun to recognize depression as an illness that can be (at least in most cases) treated, rather than a personality problem. Because of this, she's able to distance herself from her depression enough to write about it, and to look back at the history of depression in her family as well. O'Brien also has the distinction of not being self-hating due to her depression, or feeling too guilty for having the help she's had when her relatives (including and especially her father) did not. And her book is much better because of it.

In general, I am not crazy about the way people write about depression. Their experience does not correspond with mine enough for me to feel solidarity, and then I feel guilty for thinking they are whining, or for not being as sick as they are. O'Brien, however, tells her story in a way I can relate to, and tempers her personal depression anecdotes with a fascinating family history, which makes the whole thing go down much easier.

I'd highly recommend this book to those who are depressed, have been depressed, have depressed family members, or are just interested in Irish-American family life in early 20th century to mid-century America. Or just those who dig a well-written memoir.

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April 2012

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