A Family Struggles with Mental Illness Linked to History

Mar. 20, 2015

Marbles

The Girl from Human Street

By Roger Cohen

Knopf (2015)

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What does world history have to do with a mother’s depression?

The answer can be found in The Girl from Human Street  by Roger Cohen, a columnist and former foreign editor of The New York Times, who was raised in both England and South Africa.

The girl of the title was his mother, June Adler, who was born in South Africa who moved with Cohen’s father to England in 1953 when she was 24. Four years later, she experienced post-partum depression after the birth of Cohen’s younger sister.

In a column last summer, Cohen described his mother’s course of treatment: hospitalization, insulin shots and primitive electroconvulsive therapy resulting in “spasms, seizures, convulsions and comas.” Depression became a lifelong struggle, which later includeding bipolar features. In 1978, she attempted suicide.

She ultimately died in 1999 at the age of 69.

Cohen offers the view that his mother’s depression stemmed from the experience of immigration as she uprooted and moved back and forth between England and South Africa with her husband. Dislocation can strain one’s sense of identity and belonging to a community or environment. Feelings of loss or alienation in turn may affect genetic factors.

Cohen traces mental illness through both branches of his family and found several cases. But his extended family history is also enmeshed in world history. Connections and details are hard to follow because he doesn’t write in chronological order, but the story is nonetheless fascinating. It includes World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, South African apartheid and the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

The book also is about the weight of collective memory on a Jewish family. Cohen is convinced his mother’s depression was not just biological but also psychological. “It was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the twentieth century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting,” he writes, not to mention the Nazi attempt at Jewish extermination.

The Girl from Human Street is not an easy read, but then world history and mental illness aren’t easy challenges either. In all of them, however, there are insights to be had.