Is it a self-destructive urge, I wonder, to want to walk away from everything you know and love, or not? Is depression in part a result of not feeling at home in this world, and blaming yourself for it? Is it similar to a battered woman’s belief that she is the cause of her own misery, that somehow she brought the abuse upon herself, and if only she were a better wife, it might stop? Does a depressed person say to himself, if only I were a better human being I wouldn’t feel depressed, or does he say, if only the world were a nicer place I might get out of bed?
Perhaps depression is caused by asking oneself too many unanswerable questions.
I found this memoir absolutely fascinating. Miriam Toews writes about her father Mel’s life long struggle with manic depression, and she writes brilliantly as if in the man’s own voice. It’s uncanny – almost eerie – the way she seems to channel his thought processes and feelings, almost as if she were inside his head.
Almost as if she felt them herself.
There have been many memoirs written about bipolar disorder (or manic-depression, as it was called in the 1960’s when Toews father was first diagnosed.) Because I have a family member and a friend living with this disorder, I’m always interested in books about others who navigate life in these choppy emotional waters. What sets this book apart from any other I’ve read is Toews ability to write from her father’s perspective. His engaging personality shines through, his quirkiness is heartwarming, but the deep level of disturbance is evident.
In the small Canadian town where he grew up, worked as a school teacher, and raised his own family, and especially in the Mennonite community, privacy was valued above almost anything else. Feelings were not discussed aloud, family problems were not aired, and mental illness was treated as if it did not exist. This was a man was known and loved for his gregarious and imaginative teaching style, yet he spent the entire year following Toew’s birth in complete silence when home with his family.
Not a word at home for an entire year. I don’t know why the birth of my second daughter, a normally joyous event, would plunge me into darkness and why the birth of my first daughter did not. I was caught in a no-man’s land, paralyzed in a place that lay somewhere in between my past and my future, unable to move or dream or call out for help, or even die.
As the book progresses, and Mel’s childhood story unfolds, the reader becomes aware of the seeds of this illness and how it developed. We watch, helpless, until if finally devours him at the age of 62, and he commits suicide.
Toews was born and raised in the small Mennonite community of Steinbach, Manitoba, where the book is set. She currently lives in Toronto, and has published four novels. In 2010, she was received the prestigious Rogers Writer’ Trust Prize for her body of work. Her latest novel, Irma Toth, is being published by Harper Collins this month.
Swing Low is an insightful, compassionate, and loving portrait of a man and an illness that has become all too prevalent in our modern world.