Meri Danquah’s lyrical evocation of her battle with depression Willow Weep for Me is at once alluring and off-putting. The reader is drawn in by her rich, poetic prose: “Depression offers layers, textures, noises….Most times, in its most superficial and seductive sense, it is rich and enticing. A field of velvet waiting to embrace me,” she writes in the introduction. But Willow’s self-indulgent tone is at times as repellent as its language is compelling. “Depression is a very ‘me’ illness,” Danquah writes. “Most depressives find themselves—as much to their own disgust as to everybody else’s—annoyingly and negatively self-obsessed.” After 30 or so pages, the irony of this statement becomes all too clear. But like witnessing an imminent car wreck or watching an episode of Jerry Springer, there’s a certain thrill to reading about Danquah’s downward spiral.
Willow functions simultaneously as memoir and self-help book; it is difficult to critique a book of this nature without critiquing the person who wrote it. The average reader will likely relate to Danquah’s descriptions of her depressed behavior. Who has not stayed in bed for days rather than facing the world, or cleaned house obsessively when life spins out of control? But Danquah is not writing about a temporary setback or a monthlong bout with the blues. Her cyclical depression stretches out over a period of years. Those who suffer from depression, especially black women, will easily identify with her story. It is less clear whether other readers will be able to empathize with her behavior enough to sustain interest through to the book’s conclusion.
Well structured, Willow flows easily between flashbacks of childhood and adolescence and more recent events. As a child, Danquah struggles with the cultural ambiguity of being Ghanaian-American and the self-esteem issues many black teenage girls face. But more than the typical artsy teen misfit, Danquah experiences real tragedy in her teens. In junior high, a first kiss with an older boy turns into a date-rape scenario. When she confides in her mother’s boyfriend, who has become a father figure to her, he takes advantage of her sexually. Not surprisingly, Danquah becomes withdrawn and suicidal, drinking heavily and behaving promiscuously in high school.
In her young adult years, her situation is not much better. She has a rapid romance with an older man, moves in with him, and gets pregnant. The relationship doesn’t last, and Danquah is faced with the prospect of single motherhood. This is a situation many women find themselves in, but Danquah hedges between acknowledging her depressive condition and taking responsibility for her actions. As a black woman reading this, I felt myself wanting to talk back to the book as if I were watching a movie in the ‘hood. You had a baby by him, he kicked you to the curb, and then you let him come by and get his groove on—and he wasn’t even giving you money to buy the baby some diapers?! No, you didn’t!
Part of Willow’s premise is that black women aren’t allowed by society to be depressed, which she implies is the reason it took her so long to seek treatment. Throughout the book, Danquah marvels at why doctors never noticed her depression before or took it seriously. But when close friends inform her that she is in fact depressed, she denies it. This contrasts markedly with the actions of her younger sister, who seeks out counseling and drug treatment for her depression while still in high school. While all of Danquah’s responses are understandable, there is an expectation on the part of the reader that at a certain point the book will shift to how Danquah’s life has turned around. But this is epiphany is put on hold for too long.
“Two decades of my life had been spent addicted to one stage or another of depression….I needed my depression to create, to live,” she says of her reluctance to take medication. This is the closest Danquah comes to admitting how she has romanticized her condition. Toward the end of the book, she details the trial-and-error process of finding a good therapist and suitable medication.
Willow’s final chapter, “The Infinite Power of Change,” serves as a redemptive coda. In these final dozen pages, Danquah talks about how she has had to give up some of her impulsive tendencies and take clear steps toward managing her depression, as opposed to allowing it to manage her. In addition to medication and therapy, she makes sure that her living space reflects her desire for a healthy life, filling it with plants and good music. She finds spiritual comfort through meditation and regular get-togethers with a community of black women.
It’s too bad the book doesn’t feature a deeper exploration of Danquah’s new, changed life. But Willow was a written only a few years after Danquah began to treat her depression in earnest. This is an important book for a community that needs validation it cannot find in mainstream society. Willow’s timing is right, but there’s no telling what inspirations Danquah would have been able to provide with distance and perspective added to her impressive literary skills.