Where the Roots Reach for Water: A Personal & Natural History of Melancholia

by Jeffrey Smith

Published by North Point Press

292 pages, 1999

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Depression Revisited

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Depression memoirs have become a distinct and popular genre in recent years, with gifted writers like William Styron and John Bentley Mays vividly recalling their descent into hell and subsequent recovery. Such books help to put a personal face on a malady which seems to be on the rise in a stress-torn world. They're also a good antidote to the alarmingly common view that depression is a mere chemical imbalance which can be "fixed" with the right pills.

Fundamental to these memoirs is usually a sense of how the sufferer "triumphed" over their disease. Here is where American writer Jeffrey Smith's Where the Roots Reach for Water differs, even radically, from all the rest of them. For Smith did not triumph over his illness at all. In fact, he came to doubt that what he was suffering from was even an illness. Digging back into old medical records, he began to realize that depression was once called melancholia, and considered a naturally occurring condition for people with the "melancholic" temperament.

The other major difference in this book is the fact that only about half of it is memoir. The rest is a kind of scientific, philosophical and cultural treatise, what Smith calls a "natural history" of depression, driven by his insatiable curiosity and his need to get to the bottom of his problem.

"Get to the bottom" is an apt phrase, for in order to come to any sort of understanding of what was happening to him, Smith found that he had to stop fighting, stop medicating and experience the condition fully: in other words, to let himself sink. This runs so counter to all of our cultural shoulds, our need to fight and resist and conquer, that it is almost shocking in its implications.

There was nothing particularly horrendous in Smith's Appalachian boyhood to suggest the torment he would experience in later life. In fact, Smith recounts these formative years in language ringing with lyricism ("In the breeze the lime-colored cottonwood leaves were all atremble; they shimmered the light in every direction, like some radiant version of glory revealed"). Though he never felt close to his practical-minded father, his mother was a sort of mentor to her dreamy, bookish son.

Though there was something of the chronic misfit about him, he nevertheless made his way in the world, finding meaningful work as a psychiatric case manager who helps clients cope with independent living. But at a certain point everything began to go sour. Smith is particularly effective at describing what an impending depression feels like: "So my familiar was stalking me again. I felt its breath on my neck hairs. I could smell it. The spoor was everywhere around me." Though he has felt this way before, this time the depression is particularly pitiless: "All savor is gone, all pleasure in experience and thought and imagination usurped. I am unable to see my way out of it, and I cannot reason it away." The condition even saps him of his identity: "My 'me' was gone, and I wanted it back."

At first Smith takes the conventional approach, seeing a doctor who puts him on Zoloft. For a few months it works, almost too well; he feels propelled out of his lethargy, supercharged with an extroverted energy he has never known before. But when the drug abruptly dumps him, the crash is almost unbearable. After several more unsuccessful drug trials he gives up in disgust and consults a homeopath.

Here he encounters a different sort of philosophy entirely. The homeopath does not favor fighting the condition, but asks Smith to pay attention to what the depression might be telling him. This encounter sets in motion a profound, life-changing search for the possible deeper meaning of the condition.

Here is where Smith begins to dig into medical and historical records to try to divine the true nature, perhaps even the evolutionary purpose of depression. His eyes are opened. "Anthropologists have observed that in a variety of indigenous cultures, among them the Alaskan Inuit and Australian aboriginals, melancholics were likely to be installed as shamans or priestesses or prophets." Other eras looked on the malady as a creative gift: "In Renaissance Europe, in Elizabethan England, and to the 19th century Romantics in Germany and Great Britain, the illness was taken as a great gift; painful and trying, yes, but on the whole a worthwhile experience -- desirable, even."

This attitude contrasts sharply with modern thought: "Surely the marketplace has shaped the way we conceive illness, and dictates the sort of temperament we consider acceptable.... Depression derails the 'efficiency' and 'productivity' widely used to measure job performance in the modern workplace."

In other words, there is something almost counter-culture about giving over to a depression, dwelling within it and listening to its deeper messages. When Smith lets himself descend it feels like a natural, organic process, the "downward mobility" reminding him of tree roots thrusting deep into the earth in search of water.

Though he is anything but "cured," a massive tectonic shift has occurred in his soul, and with it a subtle spiritual lifting. When he meets and falls in love with the only woman who has ever been able to touch his heart, it feels like the outward manifestation of deep inner change.

Smith writes beautifully and gracefully about a dire, frightening, terribly human condition. The result is an intriguing, quirky, flawed book. At times it is so self-absorbed that it is draining to read. In other places it is inspirational in a subversive, unconventional way. Where the Roots Reach for Water is really two books in one: memoir and natural history and it might have worked better in two separate parts. Braided together, there is a clash of styles between the lyricism of the memoir and the intellectual rigor of his observations. Even though it doesn't quite come off, it is refreshing to read a book about depression that concludes, "I had conquered nothing, mastered nothing, transcended nothing. I had simply settled into something that had been waiting for me -- who knows how long? -- and made the descent it seemed to require." To surrender to depression's deeper lessons is a radical notion, leading to an odd sort of personal transformation. How much more imagination and courage this takes than the typical modern strategy of "getting back to normal" with pills. | February 2000

MARGARET GUNNING has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.