five. What made your
mother scrimp on
It was maladaptive. My mother had family in Israel. They
didn’t have much. My mother was the lucky one and she was
always helping them out, always aware of what she had and not
wanting to make her good fortune felt. Starving us was her way
of straightening the scales. It’s amazing I don’t have rickets.
Despite everything, on occasion, reading your pages,
I’d find myself laughing. Do you believe that wit can
In the utter depths, humor is gone. Short of that, there is a streak
of humor I hold on to. For this, I should credit my parents: my
father had a macabre sense of humor and my mother, a grim wit.
You’ve been in therapy much of your life. Were you ever
I’ve never been in full-fledged analysis. I once got on the couch
and cried for 50 minutes, lost in dismal thoughts. I didn’t go
You and your siblings were raised in Orthodox Judaism,
but you are the only one who left the fold. Why?
Orthodoxy didn’t make sense to me. How could I believe in God
when my life was like it was? If there were a God, why would
he do that to me? There were elements of coziness and ritual I
remain nostalgic for, but to me being Orthodox felt like deprivation. Orthodoxy is restricting and oppressive.
You have this history of depression, yet you’ve been
tremendously productive from the get-go. At 20, you
won the poetry prize at Barnard. By 21, you were writing
book reviews for the New York Times. Was your mother
proud of you?
She took pleasure in my writing. She’d studied writing at Columbia University and written a novel.
Was it published?
A vanity press in Israel published 1,000 copies. I loved to call
her and ask her, “Ma, should I use ‘velvety’ or ‘smooth’? Should
I use ‘bell-like’ or ‘mellifluous’?”
You write: “It would be difficult for even close friends
of mine to detect how I am at any given time.” Is that a
A Family Affair
In her piercing memoir about her depression, This Close to Happy,
Daphne Merkin looks back and looks deep
BY PATRICIA VOLK
Daphne Merkin, the novelist, critic, essayist and poet, was first hospitalized for depression when she was eight years old. We meet over lunch at my place to discuss her gorgeous and devastating pull-no-punches memoir,
This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, coming from
FSG in February.
Writing this book meant sliding your family under a
microscope. Did you have revelations about them in the
My father had more alluringness. I found myself yearning for
him. He paid so little attention to me, I’d written him off. “You
don’t notice me? I won’t notice you.” My father took me in on
And your mother?
The narrative began to cohere with my mother. I began believing my own story. Somehow I no longer had to solve the riddle
of my mother. Why didn’t she attach? Why didn’t she love
better? Why did she use her perceptiveness to dismantle?
According to the book, your mother could be downright
cruel, and yet you couldn’t get enough of her.
I had floating rage. I used to ask my therapist: “What would
happen if I killed my parents? Would you testify in court for
me? Could I get away with it? Would you cite their child
Why do you think your mother hired Jane, a violent
hair-brush-wielding bully, to be your nanny?
She was worried we’d love our nanny more than we loved her.
So she picked someone we couldn’t love.
Your mother lost 25 relatives in the Holocaust. When she
drew swastikas on the inside of your forearm with a
ballpoint pen, what do you think she thinking?
The Holocaust was always very much on her mind. Drawing
those swastikas may have been counterphobicality. She was endlessly toying. Which side was she on? She was a little sadistic.
I used to think she was really Ilse Koch.
You were the fourth of six children. None of you ever
had enough to eat. You were all always hungry yet you
lived on Park Avenue in a duplex. There was a staff of