‘A bold, brave and beautiful book’

Book Review / By Honor Molloy

“The Scar,” by Mary Cregan, is published in hardcover by W.W. Norton & Company; 274 pp.; $26.95.

“The Scar” is a book not to be ignored. Subtitled “A Personal History of Depression and Recovery,” Mary Cregan’s memoir is an account of her struggle to overcome the suicidal depression which overtook her as a young woman after the death of her infant daughter. (The titular scar, on her left carotid artery, is from her suicide attempt.)

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Cregan found herself in a desolate and unexpected place after her daughter died. “Whatever engine in the brain or body,” she wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, “that keeps people moving forward, driven by the biological instinct for survival, had simply sputtered out in me . . . I couldn’t understand how everyone else could be so busily engaged in their lives, productive, even happy, while I was paralyzed, obsessed with the meaningless of what had happened to my child.” She had, she says, “completely lost the knack for staying alive.”

“The Scar” is a bold, brave and beautiful book. As an Irish American, Cregan is familiar with the cultural imperative to “say nothing,” to repress and even deny emotion. “Steeped in Irish ways of thinking and behaving – our culture is one of self-suppression, stoicism and silence. We do not talk about feelings.”

The stigma of mental illness still exists; only cancer, perhaps, is a more forbidden topic. Cregan’s unflinching, deeply moving story is a welcome antidote to that close-mouthed – and dangerous – attitude. It is of the utmost importance to speak of mental health issues. People die when we do not.

Cregan seeks to understand the sources of depression, the various ways it’s been treated (successfully and unsuccessfully) over the years, and how to live with it – for depression is a tendril that weaves its way through the lives of those afflicted with it. “Severe depression came to me early enough to seep thoroughly into my sense of self . . . [It’s] very hard to see the self clearly when depressed, you think with your mind but the mind is ill and untrustworthy . . . Depression is just the outward manifestation of my inferiority and failure, paralyzing my desire and ambition . . . The vibrant self is gone . . . To someone in the depths of the illness the moment-to-moment experience of life in time is just too much broken, ruined, hopeless life.”

“The Scar” works exquisitely as a wrenching memoir of loss, sorrow, and recovery, as well as a layperson’s informed and intelligent investigation of the illness that almost ended her life. Fintan O’Toole praised the book’s dual nature in the Irish Times. Cregan, he noted, “has that history but it does not have her. She has written herself both into and out of it.” The reader views the depression close-up and at a distance. Cregan’s experiences personalize and illuminate her consideration of depression as a medical and historical phenomenon.

Several years ago I spent a month in the hospital recovering from a treacherous depression, so I well recognize the accuracy of Cregan’s observations, how true, how deep to the bones, she goes. I arrived at the hospital catatonic, barely able to whisper, and, like Cregan, unable “to carry the burden of my own life.”

Hope is depression’s first victim. In “Darkness Visible,” William Styron characterizes the worldview of those in the grip of the illness: “…faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come—not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute.”

As someone who found a path out of that dark, dark wood, thanks to medicine, therapy, my doctors, and the support of friends and family, I know that depression can be dealt with effectively on a long-term basis. Joy in living, joy in working - even hope - can be found again.

Depression can be treated but not eradicated. Cregan writes: “I’m aware…that my own life has been another kind of gift: a second chance. Even so, the depression that emerged so clearly at that time has never entirely left me. It is the trace of bad luck that lingers, amid so much good fortune that has come to me since.” This is why I, and so many others, remain ever vigilant. It is the price of health – one I am more than happy to pay.

Mary Cregan has done a remarkable thing in breaking the silence. We have all suffered from mental illness, or know someone who has. Read this book for them, or for yourself.

Honor Molloy is a dramatist whose plays include “Round Room,” “Crackskull Row” and “In Pigeon House” and the author of the autobiographical novel “Smarty Girl – Dublin Savage.”

For more about the book and Mary Cregan's author Q & A with the Echo, click here.