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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Swing Low: A Life - Miriam Toews This is a memoir of a man (Mel Toews) who suffered from life long bipolar disorder, commits suicide, and then tells his story from beyond the pale (i.e. beyond the grave). Do I have your attention yet? Obviously he couldn't write his memoir after committing suicide. But his memoir did get written in his own first person voice--by his daughter. The very concept causes me to shutter from its haunted poignancy.

The day before his suicide his daughter, Miriam, asked him what he was thinking. His answer was, "Nothing accomplished." Her goal in writing this book was to prove him wrong. She did an admirable job. Miriam Toews used her skill as a writer to get inside his troubled mind to explain why he decided to end it all.

In the Prologue and Epilogue Miriam writes in her own voice. All of the rest of the book is written as private thoughts of Mel during the final days of his life while being hospitalized as a result of an apparent recent psychotic break. The narrative switches between current hospital scenes and recollections of earlier years. The reflections of earlier life are filled with interesting tales of growing up on a farm, delivering eggs, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a family in the midst of private torment. The author's writing skills transforms accounts of a rather plain life into an interesting book; I especially enjoyed the account of a six week family trip to South and Central America. The descriptions of the current hospitalization experience contains elements of suspense by mentioning blood and killing his wife. But he's not thinking clearly, and his daughters assure him that his wife is fine and has moved to the City (Winnipeg). But the cause of his most recent admittance to the hospital remains ambiguous.

At age 17 Mel had been diagnosed with manic depression (as it was labeled then). The seriousness of his disease is indicated by the following advice from his psychiatrist:
"My psychiatrist had, when I informed him that I was planning to get married, expressed no small amount of shock and dismay. He told me that those who suffer from manic depression have a lot of difficulty making marriages or any long-term relationship work, and when I told him that I was also planning on becoming a school teacher, he almost hit the roof. The responsibility, Mel, the consistency, the patience, the endurance . . . all these things are extremely difficult to maintain with an illness like yours . . . won't you reconsider?"

Mel did not take the aforementioned advice and got married and became a teacher. One could say that he proved his psychiatrist wrong by maintaining a long marriage, raising two daughters, and having a long career as a sixth grade teacher. But it can be argued that the psychiatrist had a legitimate concern. Maintaining the external appearance of normalcy was excruciating work for Mel, and his family life sadly suffered as a result.

He says in the book that he had monthly appointments with a psychiatrist and took psychiatric drugs all his life which indicates that he must have been a compliant patient. However, the following quotation from the book indicates that he didn't fully accept the concept of Freudian psychology.
"Never, ever did I admit or acknowledge even to myself that I was sick. My lapses into depression, I felt, were due to a weakness in my character, and my disappointments and failures in life, thought they were rather typical of any average life, were what I felt I deserved. And so I resolved, with steely determination, to become a better human being."

Both of his daughter's were anxious to leave their home town of Steinbach, Manitoba as soon as they finished twelfth grade. Mel admits that he modeled a life that they apparently wanted to avoid for themselves. Miriam (the actual author) had very strong feelings on the matter as indicated by the following quotation:
"She [Miriam's sister] wasn't as quick as Miriam to denounce everything about this place as being backward, soul-destroying, hypocritical, or excruciatingly dull."

I considered this to be a biography. But I found the book in the library placed in the 616 Section (diseases, within section for medical sciences). It was on the library shelf next to other books about mental health and depression.

I learned much about Miriam from this book. I had often wondered while reading her novels how much of her writing came from personal experiences and how much was imagined by her creative mind. I think I can now find traces of her life's history in all of her novels. Her novels have creatively rearranged the characters and experiences of her life into a variety of settings. But it is no accident that almost all her stories somehow involve a strained father-daughter relationship. There's more I could say here, but I'm getting off the subject of this book.

My previously mentioned haunted poignancy became stronger when I recently learned that Miriam's sister, named Marj, committed suicide near the 12th anniversary of her father's death, at the same place and in the same manner. [LINK TO STORY] I told this story to some friends recently who instead of being shocked told me that they had known of similar occurrences in other families.