(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Andrew Solomon readily admits that he is not an obvious candidate for sympathy: “I did not experience depression until after I had pretty much solved my problems. My mother had died three years earlier and I had begun to come to terms with that; I was publishing my first novel; I was getting along with my family; I had emerged intact from a powerful two-year relationship; I had bought a beautiful new house; I was writing for The New Yorker.” Yet by offering himself up as Exhibit A, this privileged son of a pharmaceutical company executive, this former student at Yale and Cambridge Universities, this member of the New York literary elite proves his fundamental point: Depression is an equal-opportunity illness, striking rich and poor, old and young, accomplished and undistinguished individuals without discrimination. The goal of his ambitious tome is to cast some light into dark corners where most people prefer not to look and to give hope even to those who have no reason to believe hope exists.

Before he gets to hope—“Hope” is, in fact, the title of his last chapter—Solomon surveys the landscape of mental illness in an effort to describe what depression is, what causes it, and how it might be cured. In this effort he ventures far afield. Solomon movingly describes his interview with a Cambodian woman who was forced to watch while members of the Khmer Rouge first gang-raped, then killed her twelve-year-old daughter. Although Phaly Nuon exhibits classic signs of depression—rocking and weeping—while she recounts this story, Solomon tells us that after the fall of the dictator Pol Pot, Nuon went on to found an orphanage and a center for depressed women, endeavors that have led to talk of a Nobel Peace Prize. Solomon also traveled to Greenland, where he studied depression among the native Inuit, who enjoy free healthcare and education, but who also live in a land that remains dark for a full three months each year. An astronomical 80 percent of this population is said to suffer from depression. In Senegal, on the northwest coast of Africa, Solomon underwent a kind of public exorcism when he participated in an animist ritual called an ndeup, designed to rid the native peoples of depression. After spooning with a live ram who is then slaughtered to provide the fresh blood Solomon must wear in order to be freed of his demons, the author concludes that “the ndeup impressed me more than many forms of group therapy currently practiced in the United States.”

Not all of Solomon’s research took place in such exotic locales. Some of the book’s most moving sections appear in a chapter called “Poverty,” where he introduces women such as “Lolly Washington” of Prince Georges County, Maryland, an abused and indigent mother of eleven children who was set on a course toward depression at age six, when a friend of her alcoholic grandmother began sexually abusing her. Not all the depressive women Solomon describes are so bereft of resources, however: Laura Anderson is blond and beautiful, graced with both a supportive mother and an attentive boyfriend. Once again, the exception proves the rule. While it is true that depression disproportionately affects the poor, the reader’s last vision of Laura is of a woman so ill that her mind gets stuck like a broken record. As Solomon recalls,

She was telling me who was who in [her family] photos and she began repeating herself. “That’s Geraldine,” she said, and then she winced and began again. “That’s Geraldine,” each time taking longer to pronounce the syllables. Her face was frozen and she seemed to be having trouble moving her lips. . . . We eventually managed to get her upstairs; she was till saying over and over; “That’s Geraldine.”

So much for depression being an affliction of malingerers. So much for it being a fashionable self-indulgence.

The Noonday Demon lives up to its billing as an “atlas of depression,” providing not only contrasting case studies but also statistics, which are more than a little disturbing in and of themselves. Solomon claims that over nineteen million Americans suffer from this illness, and that some sixty million prescriptions were written for antidepressants in the year 1998. Depression, he says, is the leading cause of disability worldwide for persons over the age of five, and if one takes into account diseases such as alcoholism and hypertension, which can mask depression if depression causes them (and it often does), depression may be the most lethal and...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)