Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review: Room for Two by Abel Koegh

I usually end up posting my in depth reviews on my other blogs: A Motley Vision and LDS Readers, but my reaction to this book was too personal (and therefore unprofessional?) for AMV and too conflicted for LDS Readers (they have a policy of not saying anything negative--which makes it difficult to review stuff. . .) so I'm posting this here.

Anyway, the book was a memoir, Room for Two by Abel Keogh. It literally starts with a bang--that of gun that Keogh's pregnant wife's has aimed at her own head. He runs to the bedroom of their apartment and holds Krista while she bleeds to death. You see Krista was born to two people who met in a mental hospital--her father was manic depressive and her mother was schizophrenic--and was given a genetic legacy of mental illness which manifested itself as severe depression. Keogh sits numbly through the police investigation and then struggles through the nine days of his little baby girl's life. Because Krista killed herself the baby had to be delivered nearly four months early after being deprived of oxygen for an extended period of time. It is a sad, sad, complicated story.

But that only occupies the first fifty pages--less than a quarter of the book. The other one hundred and sixty-six pages chronicle Keogh's search for a new wife and drives home the point that a person can get over these things. You can love again. You can be happy again. You can move on.

I should probably stop at this point in the review and say this: I respect Keogh's experience and his right to move on. I am glad for him and his current wife and children. I'm sure he has helped a number of people through his openness and honesty about the pain he suffered as a widower. I applaud his courage to tell a story a lot of people in LDS culture wouldn't. I am glad he is happy.

But. . .

As a depressed LDS woman, I'm a little hurt. As a woman who struggled with perinatal depression three times and with PPD three times and is now fighting run-of-the-mill depression every day, I feel a little betrayed--not by his remarriage or his eagerness to move on, but by the fact that he abridged his wife's incredibly complicated and IMPORTANT story into fifty pages and managed to spend one hundred and sixty-six on what it was like to hold hands for the first time again. I mean, love IS magical, but depression is a transforming experience too. If his book is a true reflection of his experience, he didn't seem to spend more than few days wondering what his wife must have been suffering. And, what is perhaps the worst part to me, he didn't seem to even try. It was as if he thought that since he wasn't mentally ill there was no way to comprehend the strangeness of her experience so he closed himself off completely from any type of sympathy for her. He missed her after she was dead, but, from the way the book reads, he seems to have misunderstood her while she was alive. And that makes me sad.

Granted, I might have taken Keogh's book a little too personally and my reading may not be an accurate reflection of his experience; he might be horrified to find that I feel this way. But I wish that he had chosen to spend a little more time in the rush and tumble of the storm cloud and a little less on the silver lining.

It also angered me that this book perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about depression:

*His wife had been on Prozac for a long time previous to her pregnancy and chose to go off it because of the baby. Now, he may or may not know this, but SOME antidepressants are safe to take during pregnancy and most OBs and psychiatrists agree that if the mother's health--mental or physical--is at risk. I wish he had taken the time to correct this misconception while he had an audience.

*As luck would have Keogh's second wife also has depression--although obviously not as severe as his first wife's. She herself says she's never been suicidal. When his soon-to-be second wife tells him this he praises her for not taking medicine and handling it through excessive running (I say excessive because she ran at least three marathons in a single year, one of which was run on a broken femur). He says, "Her [solution] intrigued me. Maybe it was because I had spent so much time with Krista's family, where prescriptions were preached as the cure-all for every ailment; this was the first time I'd heard someone say they'd rather not be on anti-depressants [sic] . . . Some people would say there's nothing you can do about the way you feel. Take a pill and enjoy the ride." His soon-to-be second wife replies, "I'm not saying the medication isn't helpful. I just think people have more control over the way they behave and act than they think" (165-166). Now there are a lot of things that bother me about this conversation but the glaring misconception is that medicine is an exclusive option, an all-or-nothing deal, a zero-sum game. I've blogged about the stereotypes surrounding antidepressants before and I've blogged about the wonders of CBT and therapy too, and I hope that people are beginning to understand that antidepressants and therapy (and exercise) work best in combination! It's not an either/or scenario. Taking medicine is not a cop-out. What it is, is a responsible choice. Oh, and it doesn't take away your agency. If anything it restores it after illness has taken it away.

*Another problem in the book's treatment of depression was its complete silence on the fact that depression has spiritual ramifications. The above conversation illustrates this and the implication--and all too Mormon idea--that we are better off doing things ourselves and not asking for help. This is echoed by the author's insistence that he doesn't need to see a therapist and that others around him aren't "progressing" as much as he is because their grief lingers longer than his. The way he present himself in the memoir, he comes off as proud that he was the one who actually suffered the most and needed the least help. This idea of needing to do things alone and for ourselves is not only untrue, it is absurd. Yes we have our agency and we are accountable for our actions, but the point of this life is to learn to partner with Christ. There is no way to yoke ourselves with Him without asking for help--both temporally and spiritually. The idea that we need to pull ourselves up by our spiritual/emotional boot straps keeps too many depressed people from seeking the help they need and from building the support structure they cannot live without.

I could probably go on but it would cease to be helpful. There's just one more thing that I feel like I need to mention: depression is a deadly illness. For all the pain Keogh's first wife's death caused, he only barely links her death with her depression. If the memoir is an accurate depiction of his mind's workings it takes him months to realize/accept that Krista was not in her right mind when it happened--that she could not have done something different. So I'll say it again: depression IS a deadly illness. It needs to be taken seriously.

Anyway, I'm not trying to slander Keogh or disrespect his experiences. They are his and I'm grateful to him for being willing to start a scary conversation. I just disagree with the way the story was framed. Like I said before: I would have appreciated a little more time of the storm cloud and a little less on the silver lining. It might not only have been more interesting, but have done a lot more good.


P.S. It is interesting to me that Keogh blogged through much of the aftermath of his wife's suicide and almost none of it is included in his book. The blog posts are raw and, a few of them, powerful and interesting. It seems natural to me that, as a writer, you would want to use some of what you had already written about the experience. After looking at his blog his memoir feels sanitized.

7 comments:

Becca said...

It makes me angry when people treat taking medication for mental illness as though it is a 'cop-out' or a sign of weakness. Like you said, depression is a deadly illness. We would never belittle people who take insulin for diabetes, or use chemotherapy for cancer. Why do we insist that people with mental illness go at it alone and without the aids that God has given us as a gift to give us our lives back?

Besides, I totally agree that life is not about toughing it out or getting over things ourselves. It is about feeling deeply, experiencing intensely, and learning to rely on the Savior to survive it all.

Charlotte said...

Wow, very well-written! There are so many things that you said very well here but my fave was, "The idea that we need to pull ourselves up by our spiritual/emotional boot straps keeps too many depressed people from seeking the help they need and from building the support structure they cannot live without." I agree totally. Every point you made was spot on.

Mary said...

Amen!

Katie Ackerman Langston said...

Interesting review. I'd like to read the book now to see what I think!

The above conversation illustrates this and the implication--and all too Mormon idea--that we are better off doing things ourselves and not asking for help.

I think this really speaks to Mormonism's fundamental tension between grace and works, something that I believe gets to the heart of many mental health issues in the Church. The erroneous idea that we're saved ONLY after "all we can do" (whatever that means) leaves many of us suffering silently for years when we don't have to.

Truth is, life is a messy, messy thing, every single day. That's why there's Jesus.

The sooner we can all be okay with that, the better off we'll be as a people.

Thanks for the important conversation you have going here.

antidepressant birth defect lawsuits said...

I really loved your review and it made me curious about the book. I think I'm going to read it after all. I'm really interested about a writer's view on medication for mental illness.

Sue Enos said...

I realize I am commenting on this 4 years after this article was written, but from a different perspective, my boyfriend is a widower.He also lost his wife at a young age. He is now reading Room for Two. It is proving to be very helpful for him. I think the purpose of the book, was that there can be a silver lining. When I met my boyfriend, he initially told me he didn't know if he could ever love again. This book gives him hope and encouragement and in some ways strategies to be able to move forward as he says he wants to do. I think the article reflects a disappointment in a purpose that was never intended.We have read one of Abel's newer book, "Dating a Widower" which initiated conversation that needed to happen for our relationship to succeed.We are so happy that Abel has shared his story. Without him, our relationship may have not survived. We are now speaking of marriage.

Sue Enos said...

I realize I am commenting on this 4 years after this article was written, but from a different perspective, my boyfriend is a widower.He also lost his wife at a young age. He is now reading Room for Two. It is proving to be very helpful for him. I think the purpose of the book, was that there can be a silver lining. When I met my boyfriend, he initially told me he didn't know if he could ever love again. This book gives him hope and encouragement and in some ways strategies to be able to move forward as he says he wants to do. I think the article reflects a disappointment in a purpose that was never intended.We have read one of Abel's newer book, "Dating a Widower" which initiated conversation that needed to happen for our relationship to succeed.We are so happy that Abel has shared his story. Without him, our relationship may have not survived. We are now speaking of marriage.