DATE June 11, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Andrew Solomon discusses his new book "The Noonday
Demon: An Atlas of Depression"
TERRY GROSS, host:
(Joined in progress) ..."An Atlas of Depression." The book recounts his own
experiences and those of many men and women he interviewed. It also explains
the biology of depression, the latest pharmaceutical and alternative
treatments and how depression is understood and treated in different cultures.
Solomon is a contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. I
asked him if he's found any solace in seeing how widespread depression is, or
in better understanding the nature of it.
Mr. ANDREW SOLOMON (Author, "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression"):
There's been considerable solace in understanding depression better. I think
the more one knows about it, the more one feels in control of what happens.
And the better informed one is about depression, the more one recognizes what
one goes through.
The extent of depression was the thing that I think most startled and
surprised me as I began working on this book. If you go to parties and say to
people that you're writing a book about depression, as long as there's a group
of people, everyone laughs, but people begin to take you aside as soon as
you are with them one-on-one. And everybody I met has some kind of a
depression story, either their own affliction or the afflictions of people who
are close to them. It's just the family secret everyone has. It's a
GROSS: I'd like to ask you to describe your experience of depression. Why
don't we do the most extreme form of depression, the breakdown? And you've
had a couple of them.
Mr. SOLOMON: I have. I had my first really severe breakdown in about 1994.
I had been going along about my life and I'd been through some things that
were quite traumatic and quite difficult; the most striking one being the
death of my mother at the end of a long battle with cancer. And I was feeling
very down and very blue and rather grief-stricken. I had some additional
personal traumas. And then I began to feel really increasingly sad, and then
I began to feel sort of numb, and then I began to find that things were just a
little bit effortful and that I didn't seem to be able to muster very much
emotion about anything. And then things began to become more effortful.
And I would get home and have messages on my answering machine and I would
think, `All those people. I need to call back all of those people.' And I
would think, `I have to go out and I have to get things to eat, and I have to
get through the day.' And it all seemed like somehow more than I could manage
to do. And I thought that was very strange, but I was still able to keep up a
facade of functioning reasonably well, and I assumed that it was just a
temporary thing, and I didn't really pay very much attention to it.
And then it began to get more severe, and I began to have this feeling of
dread and anxiety, which was sort of like the feeling you might have if you
had tripped and you were about to fall, that sort of middle-of-the-air feeling
before you quite hit the ground. But it was extended, and this feeling of
dread got worse and worse. And I began coming home and hearing messages on my
answering machine and thinking not simply that I didn't want to call people
back, but that I didn't know how I ever could. I would think, `Who are those
people? How am I ever going to catch up with them? What am I ever going to
do? How am I going to'--and there were just messages from friends and people
who wanted to be in touch. And I would think, `I have to get dressed. I have
to put on my clothes. I have to put on both socks. I have to put on both
shoes.' And the whole business of ordinary daily life began to see so
effortful and so overwhelming.
And I really didn't understand what was happening to me. But I kept trying to
battle through it, still thinking, `This doesn't make any sense. This is so
weird.' And then I became more and more anxious and more and more null, and I
had more and more of this feeling that was a mix of sadness and fear until
finally I felt I simply couldn't do anything. And I found myself at last
lying in bed one day thinking, `I can't get up.' And I lay there thinking, `I
can't put the toothpaste on my toothbrush. I can't brush all of my teeth.'
It just seemed like such an overwhelming task. It seemed much more
frightening and much more overwhelming than at this point, it seems to me, for
example, to come and do an interview on National Public Radio. And I thought,
`How am I going to get out of bed?' And I lay there in bed just shaking with
fear and feeling completely unable to do anything and feeling no emotion of
any kind except that fear and anxiety. And I thought, `I have to call
someone. I have to get out of my apartment,' and I couldn't reach for the
telephone. I lay there staring at the telephone thinking, `You just pick it
up and you dial,' but I simply couldn't do it. And fortunately, someone
called me and I said, `Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with me.'
And at that point, I started going to see a psychopharmacologist and trying to
do something and begin to emerge.
GROSS: You say in your book that people are often relieved when a doctor
says, `Your depression is chemically based.' When you learned about the
biology of depression, was that any comfort to you? Did it make you think,
`Well, now this will be easier to overcome'?
Mr. SOLOMON: Well, certainly, when I realized that what I had could be
explained in part biologically and that it could be treated in part
biologically, that was a great comfort. But as I continued to work on the
book and as I continued to work with my own personality and depression, I came
to believe that everything about us is to some extent chemically based, and
that personality is chemically based. And some of the time, I think people
say depression is chemically based as a sort of way out. I think you can use
chemical treatments to ameliorate depression, but I think depression itself is
a very complex phenomenon. It's chemically based. It's also a part of who
you are and a part of your character.
GROSS: I'd like you to run through some of the pills, for instance, that
you're taking now and what they're supposed to do for you in terms of changing
your body chemistry or alleviating panic.
Mr. SOLOMON: Well, my primary antidepressant now is Effexor, which I expect
that I'll be taking for a long time. It manages to keep me from getting to
that low level of being genuinely dysfunctional. It does not prevent me from
being sad, but it prevents me from getting overwhelmingly sad for absolutely
no reason whatsoever in the way I did when I was depressed.
Then I also take BuSpar, which has a mild anti-anxiety effect. And then I
take Wellbutrin, which is helpful in allaying some of the anti-sexual side
effects of the Effexor. I take Zyprexa, which is a mild anti-anxiety drug
which is also used for psychosis, though I don't take it for psychosis. And
then I also take TOPAMAX because the Zyprexa tends to cause weight gain and
the TOPAMAX, which is a mood stabilizer, tends to prevent the weight gain. So
it's a very delicately balanced cocktail.
GROSS: You must feel very dependent on these pills and very afraid to not be
Mr. SOLOMON: I feel very dependent on them. And I sort of hate being
dependent on them, but I just feel so relieved every time I look at that
handful of pills and think, `OK, if I take these, that horrible business of
depression won't happen to me again.'
GROSS: Andrew Solomon is my guest, and his new book is called "The Noonday
Demon: An Atlas of Depression."
You say in the beginning of your book that your father has worked most of his
life in the pharmaceutical industry, and you don't feel as cynical about the
industry as some people do. Some people see the pharmaceutical industry as
just this big money-making machine. You describe it as more a combination of
idealism and capitalism, and you say that based on knowing your father and
other people who work in the industry. I guess I'm interested in hearing a
little more about your mixed feelings about the industry.
Mr. SOLOMON: Well, it seems to me that people are very hard on the
pharmaceutical industry simple because it's an industry, because it does
marketing and because it seeks for profit. It seems to me that people are
seeking for profit in the plastics industry and the magazine industry and the
armaments industry and virtually any other industry that one can name. My
experience of people in the pharmaceutical industry is that they're frequently
exultant when they come up with a product that will actually effect a cure.
And the antidepressants which have been so important in effecting my own cure
from a really terrible and devastating illness were developed in industry.
And when I've talked to people at the National Institutes of Mental Health,
they've said the budgets and the dedication to the cause simply didn't exist
anywhere except in industry.
So what I would say about the pharmaceutical industry is that it's full of
people who, yes, are very keen to make a profit, but also people who are
making their profit by coming up with products that make people well. And my
own father, who was enormously helpful to me during the period of my
depression, is someone who I think has been very devoted to the cause of
increasing the level of health in the world.
GROSS: You thank your father in your acknowledgements for giving you life not
once, but twice. The second time is a reference to how he really saved you
during one of your depression breakdowns. I think he started working with
antidepressants as a result of your depression.
Mr. SOLOMON: Yes, he did. He said that he really had no idea until he saw
me coming out of my depression what extraordinary drugs they were. And at the
time, because of his work in the pharmaceutical industry, he was aware that
there was a product that was being sold in Europe which had an extremely good
reputation in Europe that was not distributed in the United States. And so he
became involved in trying to get that product distributed in the United
States, and the company where he works is now its US distributor.
GROSS: You've had psychiatrists who did talk therapy with you, and others who
took a more pharmacological approach. Are you still combining the two?
Mr. SOLOMON: Yes, I am, and I think I will permanently. And my biggest
piece of advice to people who are going through a depression is to use a
combination of therapies. I think too often, people want to take medication
and not think too much about their own personalities. I think there's strong
statistical evidence now that a combination of talking therapy and medication
is much more effective than either one of those treatments alone. I think
that when you've had a depression, you really have to come to a new
understanding of who you are.
I think one of the urgent messages of "The Noonday Demon" is that depression
feels while you're in it, and is while you're in it, a bleak, empty, barren
experience. But in fact, when you come out of it, there are many lessons that
can be learned from depression. It's an enormously intense experience. It
involves a kind of emotion that you don't necessarily experience anywhere else
in life. And part of what I would like to do is to help people to find, in
retrospect, whatever richness or whatever depth can be extracted from
depression. And I think going through talking therapy is one of the ways in
which you can discover those things about your personality that you might
never have known if you hadn't been through this particular devastation.
GROSS: What's an example of something like that, that you discovered after
one of your depressions?
Mr. SOLOMON: I feel like I became a kinder person because of the depression
that I'd been through. I became more empathetic. And in addition, I think I
discovered a joyfulness about daily life.
GROSS: Yeah. But at the same time, don't you feel this dread that at any
moment, the depression might come back?
Mr. SOLOMON: Yes, there's a constant dread of it. And depression is a
cyclical and a recurrent illness. And what we have for depression now are
treatments rather than cures. Once you have really serious depression, you're
never completely free of it and you're never away from the shadow of it. So
you always have to be prepared for it, and that can be a terrible burden--is a
terrible burden. One is always staving it off.
GROSS: What are some of the things that you feel you get out of talking to a
psychiatrist that you wouldn't get if you were just taking drugs?
Mr. SOLOMON: I think you come to an understanding of what the predisposing
factors are to depression so that when you begin to move toward what might be
a depression episode, you can recognize it much better and much more quickly.
You can decide whether you ought to increase some of your medications or shift
some of your medications or do something about them. You can recognize
behaviors of your own that seem to trigger some of your depressive episodes.
Because a depressive episode usually is linked both to life events and to
chemical shifts in the brain.
You come to understand yourself better and more profoundly. You understand
how you move toward depression in the course of your ordinary life. You
recognize the kinds of events that trigger your depression. You learn how to
regulate your own emotional life and have greater control over what happens in
your emotional interior so that you can steer clear of depression. You gain
greater and more profound self-knowledge.
And I think part of what happens in depression, also, is that you experience a
terrible aloneness. And I think in a really successful therapy, you have not
only the company of the therapist--which has a certain value--but you also
learn more and more about how to connect deeply and truly and honestly with
other people, with the people who are your friends or the people you are
married to or the members of your family. And that by learning how to have
those connections be more profound, less troubled and less ambivalent, you
develop the kind of connectedness and the kind of absence of aloneness that
are extremely useful in staving off the recurrence of depression and that make
it easier if you go into a depression to battle your way back out of it.
GROSS: Does your particular brand of depression come along with a degree of
Mr. SOLOMON: When I'm in the depression itself, it absolutely comes with
self-loathing. I mean, part of what you experience during a depressive
episode is a sense that your life is worthless and has no value. You begin to
feel suicidal and part of that suicidality is thinking, `I'm worthless. I'm
useless. My life is useless. The world would be just as well if I weren't in
it.' Yes, absolutely. That's a big part of what happens.
GROSS: Have you found that talk therapy has helped you through that feeling
of hating yourself?
Mr. SOLOMON: I have found that it's been very helpful in establishing really
a rational platform that I can oppose to the emotional feelings that come
washing over me. Even if I feel emotionally as though I'm worth nothing, I
have a rational piece of my mind which keeps saying, `Now you know perfectly
well that you have great value, that you have people around you, that there
are very good reasons to live.' I think it's important to have a good base
established so that your rational mind retains a certain validity when your
emotional mind seems to come washing over it with all of that negativity and
it's part of what I hope the book is able to do is to give people a sense of
how to establish that rational control so that their emotional mind doesn't
completely colonize the rest of their brain.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Solomon, author of the new book "The Noonday
Demon: An Atlas of Depression." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Andrew Solomon is my guest and he's a contributor to the New Yorker
magazine and author of the new book "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of
Depression." And it's not only about his experiences with depression but it's
a history and a cultural overview of depression.
Part of your book is devoted to your mother's suicide and you also wrote a New
Yorker article about that. Your mother had ovarian cancer and she was very,
very sick during her final chemotherapy. You describe her mouth as being one
big sore. She could hardly eat. She had no strength. She had become
allergic to nearly everything. Life was hell and she wanted to end it. She
asked the family to help her commit suicide and to be with her as she did it.
Her plan was to take Seconals--an overdose on that, which is what she did.
How did she explain wanting to involve you in her suicide as opposed to just
doing it and having you find out about it after the fact?
Mr. SOLOMON: She said that she didn't want to go through the final
indignities of dying in a hospice or in a hospital. She was someone who had
always very much cherished dignity and control. At the time that she killed
herself, she had been told by doctors that she was not treatable, that she had
a clearly terminal cancer and that she had very little time left to live. So
it was a matter of dying only a few months before she would otherwise have
died in much more extreme circumstances, in pain. And she said that she
considered committing suicide all on her own but she felt that it would be
terribly upsetting for us to find her dead and not to know what had really
happened and not to understand.
And she said she felt she wanted to die quietly and peacefully at home and she
wanted us to feel that we'd been with her at the end and to understand that
this was not something she'd done in despair or something she'd done in anger
or something she'd done because she couldn't manage to get through what lay
ahead of her but rather something she'd done because she wanted peace and
quiet and dignity and that for her, it was the right choice and a happy choice
and that she had things she wanted to say to us right before she went. And,
indeed, she had an extraordinary death scene which I describe in the book
which concluded with her looking at my father and my brother and me and
saying, `I want you to know that in the course of my life, I've looked for
many things, so many things and all the time, paradise has been in this room
with the three of you.' And then she closed her eyes for the last time.
And it was a very moving and very compelling circumstance and it was very
difficult to watch her die. We didn't exactly assist her. We were just
present while she did it. But I think it was probably, for all the trauma
that was involved, a better way for me to see her go than to see her emaciated
and in pain in a hospital bed, the way that I've seen other friends die of
GROSS: You describe your mother as somebody who was always well-prepared and
often had more than what she needed of something, including the Seconals. So
there were a lot of Seconals left over after her suicide. And when you were
cleaning up after the suicide, you kept the Seconals, kind of thinking, if
things ever got too bad for you, you'd have them around. And then your father
wondered where they were and he wanted them for himself in case things ever
got too much for him. I just found that kind of interesting.
Mr. SOLOMON: Interesting is an interesting word to use for that.
GROSS: Well, yeah. I couldn't figure out the right word. Yeah.
Mr. SOLOMON: I think that in the immediate aftermath of my mother's death, we
all felt this enormous sadness and that there was a certain sense--in the
first place, we all knew how difficult it was to get those Seconal, and so we
all thought, `Well, what if I get cancer?'
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Difficult, even though your father's in the
Mr. SOLOMON: Oh, yes. My father wasn't able to get them through being in the
GROSS: OK. But you wanted these as safeties in case you got sick in the same
way she got sick?
Mr. SOLOMON: Exactly. There was a sort of feeling, because we'd all spent so
much time at that point in hospitals and around death beds, that, `Well, maybe
I'm going to get cancer next year and maybe I should have a supply of these
just in case.' I think we also all felt enormously, enormously sad and, for
me, it was in some ways a comfort to think, `If things get intolerably out of
control, I will have an easy way out.' Striking to me that when I was in my
terrible depression, even though some of the time I had a lot of suicidal
fantasy, I never went and found those pills or tried to get them out or took
them. Eventually, in fact, I threw them away. It was...
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Did you throw them away in the same way I used to throw
away cigarettes in the house when I was stopping smoking?
Mr. SOLOMON: How did you throw away cigarettes in the house?
GROSS: Well, when I was stopping smoking, I didn't want anybody's cigarettes
around because the temptation was too great. Is that why you threw away the
Mr. SOLOMON: I threw away the Seconals actually because I had told my father
that I didn't have them around anymore and when I told him that, I did have
them around. And then I thought I'd told a lie and that it wasn't really
honest and I thought I'd better get rid of them. No, I threw them away
because I decided it wasn't healthy for me to have them sitting around all the
GROSS: Andrew Solomon is the author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of
Depression." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more on depression and relief from Andrew Solomon, author
of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression." Also, rock historian Ed Ward
on the music of the B-52s.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrew Solomon, author
of the new book, "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression." It's about the
biology of depression, the latest pharmaceutical and alternative treatments,
how depression is dealt with in different cultures and Solomon's own
experiences with depression.
When we left off, we were talking about his mother's suicide after being
ravaged by ovarian cancer and chemotherapy.
You quote what your mother said to you just before she died, and she said,
"Don't think you're paying me some kind of great tribute if you let my death
become the great event of your life. The best tribute you can pay to me as a
mother is to go on and have a good and fulfilling life. Enjoy what you have."
That's really beautiful advice. Did you try to follow that?
Mr. SOLOMON: It took me a while. I mean, as I said, there were a number of
life circumstances that precipitated my depression. The loss of my mother,
with whom I'd been extremely close, was one. The end of a relationship that
I'd been involved with was another. I went through extreme physical pain with
a very bad case of kidney stones. There were a whole catalogue of other
things with which I will not bore our listeners today. They all led into a
depression. The depression was very severe. And so there's a period,
certainly, when the bad things that had happened to me were the subject of my
life. But some people have said to me since, `Well, how did you fight your
way back out of your depression? And how did you get to the point at which
you were able to write a book about it? And how did you get to the point at
which you were living a life that you found rich and rewarding and
interesting?' And I have to say those words were in the back of my mind a
lot. I felt as though one has a limited number of days on earth, and one has
to struggle to get to the point at which one lives them well.
One of the things that I found astonishing when I was working on this book is
that there are some people who have got really relatively slight symptoms by
their own description of depression; that is, depression somehow devastates
and ruins their lives and becomes the only thing that there is in their lives.
And there are other people who have got symptoms that are unbelievably extreme
and that are almost intolerably painful, but who somehow in between episodes
and around episode, manage nonetheless to have lives in which they really
connect with other people and lives in which they themselves see considerable
value. And I became fascinated by the borderline between personality and
Now I don't particularly hold myself up as an example, but I do hold some of
the people who are in the book up as examples of those who are able, one way
or another, to have rich lives despite their depression. You can't have a
rich life during your depression. And it's a terrible mistake to take someone
who's in a depression and say, `Well, pull yourself together. Life is
wonderful. life is meaningful. Get some of the richness out of life right
now despite what you're going through.' But I think it's very important for
people who experience depression to spend the time when they're in depression
thinking of what complexity life has to offer and when they begin to come out
to try to grab on to the things that will offer some meaning in their lives.
That I think is the message of hope that there is in the end in this book.
GROSS: To just hold on till it's over, till that depression is over?
Mr. SOLOMON: To hold on till the depression is over, but then when the
depression is over, to come to terms with the depression, not to turn your
back on it, not to run away from it and not to allow the shadow of it to take
over the rest of your life.
GROSS: Through your book, you quote several poems about depression. Some of
them are from people who you know; others are from Emily Dickinson, Jane
Kenyon. I thought it'd be nice if you read us one of your favorites that
Mr. SOLOMON: I think that the one that always seemed to me to be the most
compelling description of depression is Emily Dickinson. It's the poem, "I
Felt A Funeral In My Brain."
`I felt a funeral in my brain, and mourners to and fro kept treading, treading
till I thought that sense was breaking through. And when they all were
seated, a service like a drum kept beating, beating till I thought my mind was
going numb. And then I heard them lift a box and creak across my soul with
those same boots of lead again, then space began to toll, as if the heavens
were a bell and being were an ear, and I and silence, some strange race
wrecked, solitary here. Just then a plank in reason broke, and I fell down
and down and hit a world at every plunge and finished knowing then.'
There we are.
GROSS: I should mention you know that one by heart. That was not something
you read from a page. That one you just know.
In writing about your own depression, you talk about how when you're very,
very depressed, every minute hurts. And it strikes me as being so similar and
at the same time opposite to the whole idea of meditation where you strive for
living exactly in the moment, but you're living exactly in the moment when
you're depressed. You say there's no past and there's no future; all there is
is the pain of the present.
Mr. SOLOMON: I think that's actually an incredibly good parallel, and I've
never heard it phrased quite that way. One of the people I interviewed said
to me that she felt like it was that moment when your fingers get slammed in a
car door and you're just stalled forever in that exact instant. But, yes, it
is a feeling of incredible, constant pain. And you think to yourself not,
`How am I going to get through the next 20 years?' but, `How am I going to get
through the next second of being alive?'
GROSS: In reporting on your own experiences of depression, you write a little
bit about how you've had a couple of violent episodes since your first
depression. I'm not sure exactly what you did or who you lashed out at, but
do you think of that as being a symptom of your depression, a side effect of
the drugs or just something that's inherent in your personality that has only
recently started to emerge?
Mr. SOLOMON: I think of it as being very closely related to depression. You
know, one of the popular statistics about depression is that it occurs twice
as often in women as in men, and violence, of course, occurs more frequently
in men than in women. And I've come to feel that the reason violence occurs
more frequently in men is because it's an expression of the depression that
men suffer. And I was very surprised. I was very depressed, and something
horrible had happened between me and somebody else, and I suddenly felt the
panic and the tension and the anxiety and all of those other emotions and
that feeling of being unable to tolerate the moment, all rising up to the
surface. And to my own astonishment, I found that enormous negative energy
burst out of me in a moment of violence, which I think was very
uncharacteristic of my personality as it has always been and as it always is.
And I realized that there was a sudden alleviation of some of the tension
because tension is also a great characteristic of depression. And I think
that's something that often happens with men.
And subsequently I did some extremely interesting interviews with men who were
on probation or who were in jail, in fact, for having abused their wives and
having abused other people. And I found that many of them were severely
depressed and that many of them described feelings of anxiety and feelings of
dread and feelings of fear that had somehow culminated in acts of extreme
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Solomon, author of the new book, "The Noonday
Demon: An Atlas of Depression." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon, and he's a
contributor to the New Yorker Magazine and author of the new book "The Noonday
Demon: An Atlas of Depression."
Something that really amazed me that you say about yourself is during one of
your suicidal periods you started having sex with men you didn't know in the
hopes of getting infected with AIDS. You say it's not that you wanted to die
of AIDS; you wanted to use AIDS as an excuse to kill yourself. I really found
that kind of hard to fathom.
Mr. SOLOMON: Yes. I've found that a lot of people find that particularly
difficult to understand. I had the feeling somehow that people saw me as
having a very good life, and that if I just went off and killed myself, people
would say, `Why did he do that? What on earth was the reason for it?' And I
felt as though I needed an excuse, needed to have something that people would
say, `Oh, well, he had this terrible problem and that's why he killed
You know, the difficulty of depression is that it's so invisible. And people
who have depression often say that, `If I had a broken leg, nobody would ask
me to dance, but when I have depression, people say to me, "Oh, well,
depression. What's really wrong with you? What's really going on that's so
terrible?"' And I somehow had the idea in my mind possibly because my mother
had taken her own life at the end of a serious terminal illness that if I had
something physically wrong with me that was a serious physical ailment, then I
could kill myself and people would say, `Oh, you know, he'd found out that he
was getting AIDS, so he decided to kill himself,' and it would make more sense
to other people. And I was always concerned that if I killed myself, I wanted
other people to have something they could explain it to themselves with. And
so I thought, `Well, I'll get myself infected, and then I'll be able to leave
a note that says, "I found out I was infected. I don't want to live this way,
and so I've killed myself."' And it wouldn't leave everyone so bemused or
confused. It's very bad logic. When you're very depressed, your logic gets
very confused. But somehow it seemed to me at that time to make sense.
GROSS: How did you give up on that strategy?
Mr. SOLOMON: I gave up on it for a couple of reasons. One was that I had
had a number of these unsafe encounters and then I suddenly thought, `Well, if
I am infected, it's conceivable that I would infect someone else, and that
wasn't what I wanted to do. And so I stopped partly out of concern for other
people. And I also stopped partly because I began to emerge a little bit
further from the depression I'd been in and I thought, `Wait a minute, I'm not
sure that I do want to die.' And I thought, `I actually kind of hope that I
won't die. I don't think I really do want to kill myself.' It was the
beginning of the life spark reawakening in me. And I was very relieved when
six months later I went and had a test and it turned out I hadn't infected
myself after all.
GROSS: You talk about how you wanted people to comprehend why you would take
your own life. You didn't want them just thinking, like, `He had a good life.
Why did he do that?' Did part of that fear that people wouldn't comprehend at
all and they'd think, `Well, he had a good life'--did part of that get back to
the fact that your family had been pretty prosperous. Money wasn't a problem.
You know, you lived comfortably by most people's standards, by nearly any
standard. And people not only might have been confused by your suicide but
almost resented it, like, `Well, I should have it so good as he had it.'
Mr. SOLOMON: Well, I've been lucky in that regard. I think depression
afflicts people across all kinds of boundaries of class, of culture, of
personality type, of social situation. Part of what I did in researching "The
Noonday Demon" was to look at depression in a variety of context: depression
among the Greenlandic Innuit, among survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia,
among the indigent and depressed in the United States, people in trailer
parks, all kinds of different context. And what I ultimately found was that
depression actually afflicts people in every context in very much the same
way. The difference I think is that if you're somebody who has been fortunate
enough to have a life which in its externals appears to be good and
comfortable and you feel really terrible about it, then people say to you,
`Well, why would someone like you feel so bad?' And you think, `I must have
an illness. I'll bet I have depression.' You have a life which has got a lot
of terrible external circumstances and you think, `I feel terrible. I guess
it's because my life is so bleak and terrible.'
So I would say the thing that was really different in my case was that I had a
life which had so many things in it that were so good and so pleasant and that
those were the things that made it easier for me to tell that what I had was
an illness. But I would say the things that I primarily would put in that
category really were having work that I found interesting and rewarding,
having people around me I was very close to, good friendships and close family
relationships, and having sufficient prosperity so that I wasn't constantly
afflicted by financial problems.
GROSS: You mentioned that you went to different cultures, different countries
to understand depression there. You went to Cambodia. This is after the
killing fields, after Pol Pot had practically performed genocide on his own
people. The amazing thing there is that not everybody is depressed, that some
people kind of carry on without depression. What are some of the things that
your experiences looking at depression in Cambodia made you realize about
Mr. SOLOMON: Well, one is that I realized that people are incredibly
resilient. I mean, I discovered as I looked around at the world that there
are some people who are in poverty-stricken countries who have had entire
families die in famine, who have been through the most unbelievable,
horrendous circumstances and who nonetheless absolutely cling to life who you
see sort of doing whatever they can, eating whatever comes to hand, just in
order to stay alive. And I thought, `Look at all of the people who commit
suicide in the most supportive and prosperous and comfortable societies on
earth.' There is a difference between the people who are subject to
depression and the people who seem not to be subject to depression.
But in Cambodia, in particular, I had a really amazing experience with a woman
who treats depressed people in Cambodia and who described how she worked with
survivors of the Khmer Rouge who are severely depressed. And she said she
tried to work with them in three stages. She said they all were people whose
minds were so crowded with horror that they could barely get up and function.
She said there were women who had been through these terrible traumas at the
Khmer Rouge period and couldn't take care of their own children because they
were simply disabled to the point at which they didn't feed the infants who
were sitting next to them.
She said, `I tried to teach them three things.' She said, `First, I tried to
teach them to forget, and I did that by asking them to remember what had
happened, to talk to me about it and then to talk about other things so that I
could begin to fill up their mind with some other things that would take up
some of the space that was taken up with their terrible memories. And then,
after they had begun to forget, I tried to teach them to work.' `Sometimes
all they would be able to do was to clean up their own houses and maybe to
gather firewood in the jungle,' she said. `Whatever it was but I would teach
them to do something so they had something they could start and do and say,
"This was my thing, and I did it today,"' she said.
`And then because I was working with groups of women mostly in resettlement
camps,' she said, `I taught them to perform manicures and pedicures.' And I
said, `You taught them what?' She said, `The women of Cambodia who had been
through these experiences had been in a country in which half the country
turned against the other half of the country. And I taught them to do this
because it was a system in which they touched each others' hands and feet in a
way that was at once intimate and non-threatening.' `And in doing that, they
began to talk to each other and they were enjoying the idea that they were
being made somehow more beautiful while they did it,' she said. `And it
taught them to begin to open up to other people and to trust again. And when
they had learned to forget and to work and to trust, then I tried to teach
them that those three activities were not separate but were part of a single
sensibility. And when they had learned that, they were ready to go into the
And as I listened to what she was saying, I had a sense that here was a
culture that was really quite foreign and quite different from American
culture and a society that had been through enormous traumas but that the
basic building blocks of reconstructing personalities that had been ripped
apart by going through such enormous trauma were really quite similar to the
ones that people go through using very sophisticated Western techniques of
GROSS: Andrew Solomon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SOLOMON: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Andrew Solomon is the author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on the B-52's. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: B-52's and their music
TERRY GROSS, host:
Countless bands came and went in America in the early '80s, frozen out of the
airwaves by frightened programmers and unable to reach their audience with MTV
because it wasn't there yet. The B-52's succeeded, so it seemed at the time,
on image. But re-listening to them today, rock historian Ed Ward finds a lot
going on beneath the beehive hairdos.
(Soundbite of music)
B-52's: Party! Yeah, we just thought we'd drop in. Where's your ice box?
Where's the punch? Ooh! How fantastic. Who's to blame when the party really
gets out of hand? Who's to blame when they get 40 clams?
ED WARD reporting:
If you're going to order a cocktail called a flaming volcano, you should be
prepared for the consequences, especially if you do it in a Chinese restaurant
in Athens, Georgia. As the B-52's can testify, you might wind up doing some
odd things, like starting a band with only a couple of members who can play
and forgetting to recruit a bass player. It's true. The B-52's started out
as a bunch of friends who one night after dinner decided to form a band named
after the local slang for bouffant hairdos.
They all shared a taste for silly, campy things, which is probably why they
ordered the flaming volcanoes in the first place. And since this happened in
late 1976, they probably weren't too serious about it. But it wasn't like any
of them had anything better to do, so they rehearsed and played their first
show in a greenhouse on Valentine's Day, 1977. At first they were part of the
party circuit in Athens, but in December, some friends of theirs were off to
play Max's Kansas City in New York and managed to get them a booking, too.
There were only 17 people at the show, but somehow word got around and they
were soon invited back. The next thing was to make a record, so they borrowed
some money from Danny Beard(ph) who had a record store and went into the
(Soundbite of "Rock Lobster")
B-52's: Da-do-da! Do. Da-do-da! Do. Da-do-dah! We were at a party, and
his earlobe fell in the deep. Ro--rock lobster. Aa-aa-aa-ah! Rock Lobster.
Aa-aa-aa-ah! Rock Lobster.
WARD: "Rock Lobster" and 52 girls put the B-52's and Beard's DB Records on
the map. Along with their increasingly frequent visits to Max's, it caught
the attention of Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, and he signed them
to a deal and produced their first self-titled album.
(Soundbite of music)
B-52's: She came from Planet Claire. I knew she came from there. She
drove a Plymouth Satellite. I'll bet they bend the feet a lot.
WARD: As befitted a band with an image like theirs, vocalist and keyboardist
Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson wore outrageous wigs, and front man Fred
Schneider was as lounge-lizardy as a guy in his 20s can be. Nobody took them
too seriously. But despite no air play in the US, they were still selling
records, and those records were showing up at parties and on club sound
systems. You see, by about 1980, the backlash against disco was abating
somewhat and the word `dance rock' began to make the rounds. The B-52's were
frequently mentioned as leaders in the field, and they proved they deserved it
with their next album "Wild Planet."
(Soundbite of music)
B-52's: Woo-hoo-oo-hoo-oo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo hoo!
You're living in your own private Idaho, living in your own private Idaho. On
the ground like a wild potato. Don't go on the patio. Beware of the pool,
the bottomless pool. It leads you straight right through the gate that opens
on the pool. You're living in your own private Idaho. You're living in your
own private Idaho. Give up the past.
WARD: They were hanging out more and more in New York, where the art
crowd loved them, so did the Japanese. Cindy and Kate and the Japanese
rockers the Plastics did a one-op project as Melon(ph) in 1981, while the
B-52's were recording an EP called "Mesopotamia" with David Byrne as producer.
They also toured a lot. The live act was spectacular in a low-rent kind of
way, which was just as they intended it. But they also realized their
audience was changing as they themselves were. Certainly this track from
their 1983 album "Whammy" is a bit different.
(Soundbite from "Whammy")
B-52's: I want to be the ruler of the galaxy. Want to be the king of the
universe. Let's meet and have a baby now. Want to be the empress of fashion.
We want to be the president of Moscow. Let's meet and have a baby now.
WARD: In fact, they were about to confront a terrible situation. Guitarist
Ricky Wilson, Cindy's brother and the architect of the band's unique sound,
had AIDS. The band took 1984 off to figure out how to deal with this and
didn't return to the studio until the summer of the next year. In October,
1985, Ricky died. Without him, the band struggled along, although they
continued to record. Then, in 1989, they released their first album without
Ricky, "Cosmic Thing"
(Soundbite from "Love Shack")
B-52's: If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says, `Fifteen
miles to the Love Shack.' Love Shack, yeah. I'm heading down the Atlanta
highway looking for the love getaway. Headed for the love getaway. I got me
a car as big as a whale, and we're heading on down to the Love Shack. I got
me a Chrysler...
WARD: "Love Shack" became a top 10 hit, as did the album. The band toured,
and Rolling Stone gave them a comeback of the year award. But things were
falling apart. Cindy Wilson left and they recorded their next album as a
trio. More hits didn't come, and as the '90s faded, so did mentions of the
B-52's. The greatest hits album released in 1998 had two songs by a new line
up but they weren't impressive. And the last time I checked their Web site,
it was pretty empty.
It's OK. Listening to their records today, there's a lot more there than you
might have figured when they first came out. Kate and Cindy's vocal work is
spectacular. Just check out the fish imitations at the end of "Rock Lobster"
and think of Yoko Ono. And Ricky Wilson and drummer Keith Strickland got a
lot of mileage out of very little and make it seem easy. More than that, they
personified a particular place in time, and nobody can take that away from
GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
B-52's: Roam if you want to, shooting through every degree. Oh, girls, dirty
and dusty trails. Take it hip to hip, rock it through the wilderness. Around
the world the trip begins with a kiss. Roam if you want to. Roam around the
world. Roam if you want to.
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