Jeffery Smith's Where the Roots Reach for Water: A Personal and Natural History of Melancholia

Book Reviews

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

by Jeffery Smith

North Point Press, $24 hard

Over the past few years, memoirs about depression from writers such as William Styron, Lauren Slater, Kay Redfield Jamison, and countless others have appeared in droves. As Jeffery Smith writes in Where the Roots Reach for Water, his own account of his depression (or as he often calls it, melancholia), "Since Hippocrates, volumes upon volumes, whole libraries of clinical studies and poems and memoirs" have been published, "and still the illness remains elusive to us." Is that why such books continue to appear -- in an attempt to better understand a disease that affects so many? Or is it because writers and other creative types are hardest hit by depression and thus more apt to use their expressive skills to share their experiences? Whatever the reason, Smith's book is a worthy addition to this growing body of work.

Where the Roots Reach for Water best distinguishes itself from the pack when Smith explores the less personal elements of the disease -- the history of depression, its ties to the stars (Saturn in particular), its relation to a sense of place, and the way depression treatments differ across cultures. For instance, Smith writes that in Renaissance Europe, Elizabethan England, and to German and British Romantics, "the illness was taken as a great gift; painful and trying, yes, but on the whole a worthwhile experience -- desirable even."

Smith doesn't mince words about the way depression is treated in this country -- overwhelmingly with medication. Judging by Smith's account, it seems that antidepressants -- Zoloft, Prozac, Elavil, take your pick -- are handed out like candy at Halloween, motivated by a desire for a quick fix and, for the drug companies, big profits. Granted, the drugs can be effective for many people (a fact Lauren Slater attests to in her own Prozac Diary), but Smith considers himself a "treatment-resistant depressive." Drugs did work for Smith for a while, but they left him feeling "flat and metallic." In the end, however, the drugs failed him, and often made him feel even worse.

So the author quit his medications cold turkey and went about searching for an alternative way to deal with his illness. Eventually he finds some sort of healing through faith (both in God and in love), his hereditary roots, music, and homeopathy. His recounting of this search consumes a large portion of the book, and sometimes in these sections, Smith's writing can be flat and heavy-handed, peppered with spiritual epiphanies that almost seem too perfect. Still, what he discovered on his very personal search may yield answers for people who, like him, don't respond to drugs or traditional treatments.

Of course, no one can ever find the perfect, end-all cure for depression, but Smith closes his memoir by saying that, free of drugs, "my life did in fact feel more natural to me." Though he doesn't often feel very happy, he does feel "blessed," and that is enough to keep him alive.

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