Managing Meds, Life, and Suicide: Claire Tomalin

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A brilliant literary editor and biographer, whose editing and writing penetrates deeply into her subjects, has fatal trouble in her own life.

Claire Tomalin is an English literary editor (Sunday Times) and award-winning biographer (of Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens), who, at age 85, has written a memoir. As she notes about one of her subjects, Samuel Pepys, he was never guilty in his diaries of “pretending that he felt as he should.” But her own memoir, titled A Life of My Own, doesn’t have this quality. As the New York Times reviewer, Dwight Garner says,

A Life of My Own has a formal quality. Occasionally there is the unhappy sense that Tomalin is viewing her own life from too great a distance, as if she were a biographer working through a stranger’s life from file cards.

Tomalin’s memoir presents long lists of people she loves: friends, neighbors, family, merchants and service providers, colleagues and bosses—even ones who harassed her, hired her after rating her legs, and undercut her contributions because she wasn’t sufficiently obedient. Indeed, the only person she consistently criticizes is her husband and the father of her four children, with whom she remained until his death.

Tomalin faced considerable difficulties in her life, some of which befell her (one son died soon after birth, one son was born with spina bifida), some of which she initiated. In the latter category, she married a man who periodically deserted her and her son and three daughters, cheated on her incessantly, yet when she had an affair assaulted her (and not only then). But she nonetheless kept this man at the center of her home and family, from the time she married him when she was 21 until he was killed when she was 40. It was only after his death that she had nearly all her great achievements.

Tomalin never analyzes why she was prone to act this way. And her steely forbearance at times serves her well and is admirable.

But not always. Some years after her husband died covering a war in Israel, Tomalin’s brilliant daughter returned from Oxford depressed, and ultimately killed herself. Tomalin is bereaved and guilt-ridden. Here is how she describes what she, and the medical-psychiatric profession, may have done wrong: “We should have protected her fiercely, and had we been given better advice (by whom, better than whose?), we might have saved her.”

But these post hoc recommendations for preventing suicide don’t make sense in this case. Tomalin did everything she could to welcome her forlorn daughter back into her home and life—while necessarily continuing to work and care for her disabled child. Like any well-educated, modern person she sought out the best psychiatric care for her daughter.

But she, no person, could be present every moment of an adult child’s life. And her daughter killed herself using the formulary of psychiatric meds she was prescribed. It would have been good for Tomalin to know what meds her daughter was taking and their schedule of administration, as well as their limitations and drawbacks.

But Tomalin’s considerable humanity and intellect don’t extend in that direction. Just as she was seemingly unquestioning about her destructive relationship with her husband, she was incapable of penetrating her daughter’s feelings and life. It is impossible to know the source of her daughter’s misery and self-destruction from this book; Tomalin never even makes a guess.

The transformation in her was unfathomable. I had thought of her as my invulnerable child. How wrong I had been.

Tomalin didn’t know what meds her daughter was taking or their dangers—“I supposed that she had saved up her pills she had been prescribed for depression and taken them all. How could such a risk have been taken (which risk?) and why had I not made sure she was taking her pills?” She assumed that she should have left these matters to the medical professionals she consulted, a decision she now rejects. But her only apparent conclusion is that she should have found better doctors.

If you are in a position where you must rely strictly on medical supervision and meds to deal with an addiction or mental illness, you will always be in arrears—just as Tomalin, who had no ideas other than following medical advice for responding to her daughter’s situation, was. (Tomalin does give credit to a non-medical therapist she consulted for helping her through her own crisis brought on by her daughter’s death.)

There is no right thing that medical professionals can guarantee in such cases. While the message that was widely propagated after Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides was that people should instantly seek psychiatric care when depressed, both had in fact done so, and Spade had been undergoing treatment for years and was taking meds for anxiety and depression when she killed herself. As Benedict Carey noted in the Times: “The U.S. suicide rate increased 25 percent from 1999 to 2016. . . [at the same time] the rates of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment also greatly increased.”

Ethan Nadelmann (founder and former director of The Drug Policy Alliance) generously noted in a prepublication quote about my book with Zach Rhoads, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy, “Outgrowing Addiction is a book of hope, and of the liberation that awaits those willing to abandon powerful but bankrupt ideologies in favor of reason, science and clear-eyed self-reflection.”

For better or for worse, there is no circumventing such self-reflection in managing one’s life and life crises. And Tomalin, an esteemed intellectual whose life was marred by a destructive marriage and the suicide of a beloved child, is incapable of applying her mind to the topic of herself and her family, as she demonstrates in her memoir.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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