Since my posts sometimes cluster naturally, I compile them and post them as one long document. Nothing fancy. No images.



Tuesday, September 23, 2008


My three red-headed warrior women heroines through childhood and beyond were Isadora Duncan, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Lucy Maude Montgomery. Isadora, the free-spirited dancer; Gene, the indomitable naturalist; and Lucy whom I knew in her aspect as “Anne of Green Gables.” All three went head-long crashing into the world and all three had their melancholy moments. Isadora never lacked for eroticism and Gene never slowed for traffic. But Lucy/Anne was the prize, a minister’s wife no less. (Fictional Anne settled for a doctor.)

Now Lucy’s granddaughter has spilled the beans: Lucy Maude Montgomery killed herself at age 67. Hey, that’s MY age! (Isadora died at 50. Gene S-P died at 61. Both from automobile-related accidents.) Lucy had a lifelong struggle with depression and so did her husband, who died a year later than she did. (Isadora’s husband, much younger than she, also had mental health struggles which emerged in violence.) The granddaughter of Lucy Maude made her disclosure to try to break down the stigma of mental problems and promote programs that help those fighting for their very lives.

My problems have been more with managing paranoia and temper than depression. But my mother, some members of my father’s family, and my mother’s mother have all had to fight off what Winston Churchill called “the black dog.” When my mother, also named Lucy but “Lucy May,” first realized she was dying, I was sitting in the corner of the hospital room to watch over her. She said, “You’re sitting there like a “big black dog.” And I was. But it was as a guardian. Some say depression is a guardian against realities one cannot face, a relative to denial.

I first realized that my mother, the invulnerable, could suffer was one twilight when I was pretty small. I came in from the yard and found her in the near-dark weeping. I had never seen her cry before. Dumb-founded, I couldn’t think what to do except to pat her. She turned angry, which was her Irish Prot family’s way of handling most everything, and sent me back outside while she started supper. Though she denied that such a thing ever happened, I finally figured out she must have been just realizing that cancer would kill her mother. In those days cancer was hidden deeper than depression. It implied that a person deserved some awful punishment. I suppose mental illness is the same.

Later my mother and we kids went down to Roseburg, OR, so my mother could do her mother’s canning. Her mother was in a nursing home, but the canning had to be done. My grandfather must have tended the garden. Gardening of food was man’s work, but canning was not and my aunts, farm wives, were doing their own canning. We kids bedded down on quilts behind the sofa and my mother and her father raged at each other all evening. We’d left too quickly for me to remember to bring along a doll, so my grandfather got me to draw one on some thin plywood and cut it out with a coping saw. He was a skilled finish carpenter, often away from home so he could go to contracting jobs. His raging was mostly empty, meant to control rather than wound.

Both my mother’s parents were religious. “Pop” was a pillar of the Presbyterian church -- maybe more like a rumbling radiator in the church, always making heat and noise. “Mom” was at heart a Universalist Baptist and, since in Roseburg the two churches were next to each other, she would slip out during the tedious hair-splitting of the Presby sermon in order to hear about forgiveness at the Baptist church. I thought her name was Grace, but it was Ethel Grace. These are gender-assigned religious tastes: a man wanting structure and a patriarch; a woman wanting comforting and something more like a lover.

I don’t think suicide is always a result of depression, though both are theorized to be rage turned inward as self-destruction. I don’t know of any suicides in the family; at least no successes. I guess, like me, they figured if it were that bad they’d make the bastards kill ‘em. And in the meantime, not be held back by good manners! The secret of a suicide must be pretty depressing, a lead weight on a weary swimmer through life. I’m not much one for secrets: disclosure might be a good trait for a writer, but not necessarily for her family. Maybe Lucy Maude’s fictionalizations kept her alive and were far more satisfying to readers than an honest account of her life might have been.

Through some kind of alchemy, she managed to create a kind of Victorian/Japanese, weeping-willow melancholy, a sort of romantic twilight woven of white flowers among the pines along the dunes where memories of lost loves walked alongside and the breakers sighed in the distance. She did have a keen sense of the ridiculous, gently mocking what must have been the tyrants and cranks of any congregation. She lanced the abcesses of pretention and applied the antiseptic of Rachel Lynde’s astringent opinions, showing them for the conformist and class-based assumptions they were. It’s “face,” facade, appearances that form a cage as much as depression. Isadora and Gene might be said to have destroyed themselves by hurling themselves against the bars. Or were they endangered by leaving the constraints of convention? Did they really escape? Do we really have freedom now?

Some commentators have noted that the lives of women in previous generations were enough to depress anyone and there’s some justice in that. But we’re also far more aware of chemical, sometimes hereditary and sometimes industrially-generated, conditions that cause this state, and we have counter-chemicals that are often effective, sparing a lot of psychic pain and supporting functional lives. Still, we have far to go.

Will I throw out my three role models, since from here on I will have lived more years than they have anyway? Certainly not. Do I discredit them for not living in the same decades or the same geography as I do? I’m not repeating someone else’s life, I’m living my own. It’s their ATTITUDES, I’m after, their style.


Dona Stebbins said...

This piece really resonated with me. There is a history of depression in my family, although none resulted in suicide. The "black dog" analogy is spot on.
Your beautiful writing illuminates this sad condition.

prairie mary said...

Dona, a lot of people -- including me -- think YOU are a bodacious heroine!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

And what is often forgotten is the impact of a depressed or mentally ill husband upon a woman, especially a sensitive or nurturing & loyal woman, and the vulnerability toward depression that this produces. In nursing I have seen this story repeated over & over, esp in the older generation. Without this component of a black cloud dispersing to cover the other family member, (without the other leaving in body and/or spirit with coping mechanisms of separation), who knows - the other person may have more than survived. A

Whisky Prajer said...

"Maybe Lucy Maude’s fictionalizations kept her alive and were far more satisfying to readers than an honest account of her life might have been" -- I recall reading Carol Shields' review of LMM's journals when they were first published. Shields confessed she thought from the get-go that Anne was a little too sunny a character to make for compelling reading, but that LMM's journals were another matter entirely. This was a curious admission from Shields, since anyone within her acquaintance (including me) knew her as unflaggingly cheerful and unpretentious. In her final stage of cancer, when she wrote Unless, Shields admitted this was the first time depression had ever struck. I wonder how her perspective on Montgomery might have changed during that experience?

Anonymous said...

I now have my grandmother's copies of "Freckles" and "Girl of the Limberlost" which I read and re-read as a child, while at her house (sleeping on a pallet on her living room floor, reading by dawn's early light.)

I would observe that, until really recent times (and, maybe, even now), the condition of some women's lives, inflicted upon them by husbands, was enough to "cause" madness.
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

"Freckles" and "Girl of the Limberlost" were also key to my young book life. Gene Stratton-Porter seemed to mostly have contempt for men in some of her less popular books, but "The Harvester" is a study in devotion. Elnora Comstock's struggle was with her mother, right? And she found in the Birdwoman an ally in that struggle, which is sometimes a role that a lover takes.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Although I won't deny that "...that is sometimes a role that a lover takes", it surely isn't an idea that would have occurred to me. In general, I would have thought that issues with one's father might engender "a role that a lover takes", while issues with one's mother should almost always engender a role taken on by another woman. Hmmmm.
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

Ever since a very intelligent feminist counselor in my congregation listened to my story and remarked, "You married your mother!" I've found this a useful idea. It was especially useful when I tried to figure out Bob Scriver's appeal to some VERY different women: almost always he was shielding them from their mothers or providing something their mothers didn't.

Prairie Mary