The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Gallery Books (April 23, 2019)

That’s another thing that people don’t understand about depression: we don’t want to take a shower, we don’t know why we feel this way, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make us stop feeling this way. We have lost all interest in doing anyting, especially anything that once brought us joy – because that thing will bring us joy, and we can’t bear the meaning of that.

  • Valedictorian of Being Dead

If you’re thinking this kind of book isn’t my normal fare, you’d be mostly right.

I’ve been a fan of Heather’s hugely popular blog Dooce nearly a decade, give or take. Fired from her corporate job for taking hilarious – though unappreciated – jabs at co-workers, originally she was just a snarky, damn funny writer.

After marrying and having a baby, she graduated to “mommy blogger”, going stratospheric. With her uber-honest writing about everything from the ups and downs of pregnancy (including particularly memorable sharing about constipation) to stunning photography and monthly love letters to her child, Leta, she shot up the ranks becoming one of the top 25 most influential blogs on Time magazine’s list.

Years later, dooce is still going strong, a highly personal and often funny account of parenthood, pregnancy, struggles with depression and cancer, and life as a former Mormon living among Mormons. Dooce’s strength is its unflinching honesty.

  • Time, 2009

After the publication of her first book about crippling depression, a local Chicago paper found Bluestalking – which had garnered attention through mention in The New York Times, a book about literary blogs, and winning a couple lit blog awards – and wanted to interview me about the reasons I wrote, and how it related to mental health. So, when Heather announced she was in the process of writing a book about an experimental treatment aimed at drug-resistant depression, I made time for it.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead describes in depth how and why a team of medical professionals took her brain function to near zero, then essentially brought her back life, in an effort to reset her brain. Related to ECT, this new therapy is thought to have less side effects, though it’s so new long-term data isn’t yet available.

It has so far worked for Heather, which is encouraging. She no longer wishes she were dead. Sounds like a victory to me.

Characteristic of the honesty and thoroughness of her writing, it’s not a straight relation of medical facts. Heather talks about the history of her depression, its impact on her children and family, and the evolution of She also opens up about her marriage, and the reasons for its demise.

Not as well written as I’d hoped, it was worth reading both for its explanation of this fascinating new treatment and further honest revelations about her life. I overlooked how over-written it is, occasionally cringe-worthily so. Though we’ve met and interacted only briefly, like millions of other readers of her blog I’m fond of Heather, and identify with what she’s been through.

It won’t make the shelf of iconic memoirs relating battles with mental ilness. It’s no Darkness Visible or The Noonday Demon, but fans of will appreciate hearing this part of her story. Likewise, those battling depression unresponsive to traditional treatments may find hope knowing doctors are pioneering new approaches.

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens


Not currently employed outside freelancing – not outside the home, I mean – how I spend my time is at my own discretion. A rabid reader, it’s not a stretch guessing what I’ve been doing with my free time these past seven or eight weeks.

You betcha!

Cups of coffee and toast crumbs litter my desk, books stacked on and around me acting as a fortress. It’s an apt comparison. Books have always served me well keeping harsh realities of the world at bay. They represent both passion and comfort. Between used bookshops and the wonders of the internet I’m doing a laudable job building my collection.

I’ve read some astonishingly good books lately, at least one not so great. Two of the astonishingly good have been on my TBR for years, surfacing because the Edinburgh-based book group I joined chose them. Funnily enough, I didn’t make it to discussion for either book I did manage to finish. I only made it for the one I didn’t. I read the unfinished book at least a decade ago. A classic of contemporary Scottish literature, I will finish this go ’round and write about it. I showed up for that discussion without worry the ending could be spoiled and to introduce myself to like-minded readers. I also wanted to hear native opinions about an Edinburgh-set novel so wildly popular it was later adapted to film.

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart made it into my Scottish home library thanks to an itchy Amazon One-Click finger. I can never order just one book. How lonely for it to ship alone, who could bear the thought of an orphaned book. And the title of its companion … how could I resist? Then the description:

In 1857, after two years of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell fled England for Rome on the eve of publication. The project had become so fraught with criticism, with different truths and different lies, that Mrs Gaskell couldn’t stand it any more. She threw her book out into the world and disappeared to Italy with her two eldest daughters. In Rome she found excitement, inspiration, and love: a group of artists and writers who would become lifelong friends, and a man – Charles Norton – who would become the love of Mrs Gaskell’s life, though they would never be together.

In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her Ph.D. – about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century – and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.

Mrs Gaskell and Me is about unrequited love and the romance of friendship, it is about forming a way of life outside the conventions of your time, and it offers Nell the opportunity – even as her own relationship falls apart – to give Mrs Gaskell the ending she deserved.


Charles Eliot Norton

I knew little of Gaskell’s beloved Charles Eliot Norton but his name rang a small bell.

An American author, art critic and professor of art, he enjoyed friendships with a number of writers of his day including: John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf), John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) and, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Rudyard Kipling, from his autobiography:

We visited at Boston [my father’s] old friend, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, whose daughters I had known at The Grange in my boyhood and since. They were Brahmins of the Boston Brahmins, living delightfully, but Norton himself, full of forebodings as to the future of his land’s soul, felt the established earth sliding under him, as horses feel coming earth-tremors. … Norton spoke of Emerson and Wendell Holmes and Longfellow and the Alcotts and other influences of the past as we returned to his library, and he browsed aloud among his books; for he was a scholar among scholars.

Norton’s place in Gaskell’s heart was a delightful surprise, admittedly voyeuristic. Digging into his life, small wonder she found kinship in a way she couldn’t with her husband. Meeting the great thinker on a trip to Rome, what better setting to spark romance. A feeling he reciprocated made obvious through barely restrained, coded correspondence, it’s safe to assume it was never consummated considering the time and upstanding reputations of both. And when he eventually married, realizing a relationship could never be, Gaskell’s heart was crushed.

I’ve been thinking of writing just this sort of book, weaving a life’s worth of reading literature in with my experiences. I’m not old and decrepit – though the snaps, crackles and pops emanating from my leg joints suggest otherwise – but I do have enough life experience to look back with benefit of well-earned wisdom. Stevens seems a bit young to have already begun looking back, but then she’s chosen a brief window. Mine would involve looking back further along than halfway, a bigger task.

A memoir of several years of her life juxtaposed with a period of Gaskell’s sharing a

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

similar theme, it hits the ground running. I loved the first third or so, empathizing as she struggled heroically with her doctoral thesis (NOTE: I don’t have a Ph.D. but based on my Masters experience I have an inkling) and recalling the heartbreak of failed love, something we all know too well.

The material concerning Stevens’ life – as far as the love story – began running thin the further I got into the book, not quite successfully stretching to match Gaskell’s. It became repetitive; I began to drift off. I identified with Stevens mostly in the beginning, when the love was unrequited. I can’t help thinking if she’d maneuvered that period forward a bit, starting earlier in the relationship, she’d have made it to the end with more effective balance. Her struggles with scholarship provide plentiful material but it’s the romantic element binding her to Gaskell. It never felt quite matched to me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, formed my opinion and gotten through one draft of my own review, I’m at this moment revising. Safe to read the thoughts of others without them bleeding into mine, I see I’m distinctly in the minority – not uncommon at all. Reviews in big name periodicals are overwhelmingly positive, though Amazon’s readers are more mixed. A couple mention factual errors, disconcerting considering Nell Stevens is a scholar. While I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that, I’m investigating.

Enough about the book irked me I can’t give it a firm recommendation. Yes, the premise is intriguing, and yes I’m delighted to see Elizabeth Gaskell’s name brought into the 21st century, but conceits such as slipping into second person in the Gaskell sections made me grit my teeth.

Then, keep in mind I’m a hard ass reviewer. Your experiences may vary. I do recommend caution against plopping down the hardback price, though.

If you have read or do read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover


  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (February 20, 2018)
  • Review copy, courtesy of Amazon Vine


Growing up sheltered from the outside world, her home birth unreported out of fear her father’s imagined “Illuminati” (i.e., the U.S. government) would swoop down and morally corrupt her, Tara Westover was the child of devout Mormon survivalists, marooned in the mountains of Idaho.

Physically and mentally abused by her father and brothers, semi-neglected by a mother brain-damaged by an automobile accident, she grew up with little to knowledge of the outside world. She had never heard of the Holocaust, knew nothing of historical events save the warped, grossly inaccurate versions fed to her by her father.

Tara was not allowed to attend school. Treated solely by her herbalist mother, she never saw a doctor.

Her resilience saved her. Taking control of her education, in her early teens she began buying text books. Despite no formal schooling, she met the requirements to enter Brigham Young University. Boosted by scholarships and sympathetic, influential people, eventually she would graduate from Cambridge with a PhD.

Educated is about gritty determination. All is laid bare, yet the telling is balanced. It’s an emotionally difficult read. I cringed so many times, caught up in the horror of beatings she took, horrific injuries sustained by herself and family members. She saw her brother’s severe burns fusing jeans to his legs, the same brother with a hole cracked in his skull exposing his brain, her father’s melted faced from fire he shouldn’t have survived.

Treated by her herbalist mother, survive they did.

The prose style is matter of fact, detached. This is not a negative. It avoids the distraction of emotional outbursts, tempering justifiable rage and fear. She does not allow the characters to be villainized. As in life, none are without redeeming qualities.

Despite what she endured, Tara Westover loved her family.

I wanted her to hate them. Infuriated by what she endured, my visceral wish was to see the innocent avenged. She knew best, keeping a calm head even when I couldn’t. I wondered how can she keep going back? Why is she risking her safety?

Unconditional love for family, that’s why.

Educated is Tara Westover’s story of personal strength, without the slightest bit of self-righteousness. Very like Jeannette Walls’  The Glass Castle, it’s not as lyrical but no less forthright and moving.

At its conclusion inspirational, even hopeful, Educated is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read.

Our bodies our punching bags: Roxane Gay’s ‘Hunger’

“We don’t necessarily know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that violence is as simple as it is complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt in so many terrible, intimate ways.”

– Roxane Gay, Hunger


Funny thing, protection mechanisms. Suicidal ideation is the most extreme, and believe it or not this deeply embedded impulse toward self-destruction has only good intentions. It seeks to heal the hurt in the most absolute way, its only concern saving the sufferer from pain that feels unendurable. It’s the most insidious, and most short-sighted, of survival mechanisms – which sounds ironic considering it’s actively trying to kill you. But then, what’s rational for the unconscious psyche is seldom logical.

Roxane Gay’s coping mechanism was, and is, overeating. Gang raped at age 12, the trauma lead her brain to form a groove channelling her focus toward gaining weight. Irrationally, her subconscious told her if she lost her sex appeal the danger would go away, that she’d be safe from predation. Now aware of the reason she turns to food, the addiction has taken such firm root the task of changing feels nearly impossible.

She has tried to break the cycle, dieting and losing weight only to regain as much and more. Coming from a naturally slender family compounds her sense of failure. That they’re able to eat healthily, to remain fit, makes her feel all the worse. Society, with its stress on perfection and beauty, leads to vicious backlash and prejudice from those who blame her size on laziness and greed.


Hunger is raw and naked, honest and unrelenting. Roxane Gay neither denies responsibility nor attempts to disguise her behavior.  She relates brutal stories of indignities she’s suffered as she admits to her own self-destructive behavior.

This is not a happy ending tale. Gay continues to spar with her demons; she has not found a solution. But through her writing she has found an outlet for her pain, at the same time validating the similar struggles of others.

One of the saddest stories is her bout with bulimia. Overjoyed she’d found a way to eat all she wanted without gaining weight, she taught herself to purge huge quantities of food. If you aren’t aware, habitual bulimia leads to chronic heartburn, sometimes permanent burn scars on the fingers from regular contact with corrosive stomach acid. The experience long past, she continues to bear physical souvenirs.

Roxane Gay’s book begs the question if her unrelenting battles will ever find resolution.  And yes it’s very saddening, but never self-pitying. Childhood rape left her mentally scarred, but she doesn’t pretend not to know the solution lies within.

“I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”

This isn’t an easy book to read. It hits a lot of sore places, especially for women who’ve suffered sexual abuse. It’s not only a memoir of her sadly not uncommon life experiences, but also an indictment against the ugliness of prejudice – in this case, against the obese. It reveals ugly truths about humanity.

I’m thankful she shared part of her journey. She is a brave woman with an uncommon ability to express herself. What she has to say is important. I hope it’s brought her a measure of peace.



The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (January 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074324754X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743247542


“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

The Glass Castle


Here’s the second book I managed to finish whilst sick as a proverbial dog over the weekend:

Jeannette Walls certainly doesn’t corner the market on unhappy childhoods. There are too many other similar memoirs out there for her own miserable tale to stand out for that reason alone. Where she does shine is in her style. I wouldn’t call it deadpan, but would refer to it as very matter of fact. She presents a shocking and deprived childhood in a way that doesn’t become too maudlin or in any way self-pitying. Yes, these terrible things did happen to her, but at the time Walls clearly didn’t realize there was anything wrong with the treatment she received at the hands of two of the most obtuse and eccentric parents on the planet. Maintaining her childhood innocence as she did, it took a while for it to really dawn on her that what was happening was terribly out of the ordinary.

Rex and Rose Mary Walls thought nothing of throwing their four children (including a very young infant) into the back of a U-Haul, to bounce around with what little furniture they owned, while fleeing yet another town in the middle of the night. When the doors of the truck blew open, in transit, it was the children who were blamed. The upside was after another motorist forced them to pull over and stop, the children were at least able to empty their bladders before getting back into the truck for another several hours’ drive. After spending several hours trying to get their parents’ attention in order to ask for a break, the alert motorist must have seemed a godsend for that reason alone.

Rex Walls regularly performed this sort of “skeedaddle” due to his own inability to hold down a job and stay out of debt. When he did get money he spent it on booze and prostitutes, leaving his children to starve without so much as a second thought. His children soon learned they’d have to scratch and claw for food. Pawing through garbage came to be a way of life, though it wasn’t without its sense of shame. They weren’t so shielded as not to realize this much.

At the age of three Jeannette was expected to cook her own food, as her parents were either too drunk or too much otherwise occupied to do it for her. As a result, she caught herself on fire while boiling hot dogs and had to be hospitalized. After six weeks in the hospital, and before she’d fully healed, Rex Walls performed another sort of “skeedaddle” taking her out of the hospital himself, removing her I.V. in order to bolt with her down the hall.

Another time Jeannette fell out of the family car, while on yet another move, and it took hours for her parents to realize she was missing and come back to look for her. Her father merely picked the gravel out of her face and washed her off as best he could, with no thought of having her attended to by doctors. At a later point, when Rex Walls had badly injured himself, ripping open his arm, Jeannette was enlisted to sew it up for him. Doctors were luxuries the family could ill afford and apparently didn’t believe in, anyway.

Walls tells story after story in this same matter of fact manner. Our horror, as readers, is still there but we’re able to transcend this in order to get through episode after episode of starvation, deprivation and neglect without it becoming too much a litany of horrific things. In the end we see Jeannette Walls as a survivor, though how she got through all of this alive is really a wonder. Grim as it sounds this is actually an uplifting memoir. Hopefully it’s not too much a plot spoiler to say things do turn out well in the end, and thank goodness for that.


Walls Family

Walls Family