Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Swados, Elizabeth. My Depression: A PICTURE BOOK. New York: Hyperion, 2005. 6 x 9. Not paginated. Illustrations on nearly every page. Hardcover 1-401-30789-2. $16.95.

Reviewed by Alex Lubet, University of Minnesota

Elizabeth Swados is a renowned and talented musician, theatre artist, and author. She is also a person who has long lived with major depression and who has spent many years searching for effective strategies for negotiating life with her impairment. My Depression: A PICTURE BOOK tells her story in words and illustrations.

This is a cartoon book. Swados' talent as an illustrator does not remotely compare with her other formidable creative skills, but is ultimately effective in the task at hand. The book can be read in no more than half an hour.

While I enjoyed Swados' work greatly, it took some contemplation to determine precisely its intended goals and target audience(s). It is an engaging read, even for those with no personal or professional connection to depression. It will resonate deeply with those who have shared her situation. While it has only a little clinical information, for which Swados makes only modest, self-deprecating claims, it is primarily about how depression feels, impacts one's life, and how it may, for many, be addressed with considerable success.

From my own perspective, as one who has lived with bouts of depression for decades and, like Swados, has had both bad and good experience with treatment, it rings enormously true. Amateur reviews on Amazon.com and elsewhere indicate that clinicians have found it extremely useful in their practices, with clients. While I trust that would be true, I think it would have even greater value in explaining depression to those who have not had that experience.

My enthusiasm for My Depression (doesn't that sound strange?) is only mildly cautious and less a critique of the author than a concern for how her work might be received. The considerable degree to which her experience with depression resembles mine may owe to our common occupations, cultural background, and other demographics (we are both middle-aged Jewish, musician/theatre artist/authors), which is one reason I so wanted to read and review this book. For me, the most obvious and useful difference was the degree to which both her depression and her adjustment strategies are gendered female. It is entirely possible that readers with very different backgrounds will connect less effectively.

But the potential — and inevitable — limitations of the book's cultural and demographic contingency are at least as much a strength as a limitation. The greatest virtue of My Depression is its point of view. It is written entirely from the perspective of a person with depression and for the benefit of others who live with depression. Far too little has been expressed publicly from that perspective. That she is a celebrity, an extraordinary talent, and a remarkable wit is all to the good. That her work, like any personal narrative, is so rooted in her idiosyncratic history should be viewed as a clarion call for other writers and potential writers, as well as those who express themselves in other idioms, to follow suit and continue the conversation.

There are numerous reasons that, while depression has high visibility clinically and commercially, there is insufficient work available that seriously chronicles the lived experience, in the forms of personal narrative, biography, or serious fiction. Numerous television commercials for SSRI antidepressants (some even cartoons) aside, there is still plenty of social stigma for both the condition and for seeking medical treatment. Outing oneself continues to carry personal and professional risk. Finally, perhaps obviously, even with a strong support network, depression is painful, often to the point of being overwhelming, and can render writing about anything, let alone this most intimate of disability experiences, absolutely daunting.

In My Depression, Swados has risen to the challenge of providing a multivalent and aesthetically rich personal narrative that appears already to have proven itself valuable to those who live with the condition, their friends and families, and those who treat them. In closing, she indicates that she is cautiously optimistic for her own situation and, for the time being, doing well. If, as it seems, she wrote the book in no small part as a form of personal catharsis, she is greatly entitled to whatever benefits it has brought her. This book is highly recommended for anyone who might benefit from a splendidly written personal narrative of major depression.