Transgenerational Haunting: Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is painful, even tragic, and yet it is also just funny and acerbic enough to keep it (or its readers) from becoming unbearably sad. In fact, I thought there was something oddly bracing about it. That’s partly because I thought it was so well done, artistically and formally, but it’s also because the novel balances its devastating portrayal of depression and anxiety with its persistent faith in basic human kindness and, especially, family love. Haslett doesn’t oversimplify the challenge of severe mental illness — not just for the people living with it, but for the people living with them, whose lives are also inevitably changed by its presence. He also doesn’t romanticize it, or offer the faux consolation of silver linings: nobody is redeemed by it, it doesn’t bring anybody transcendence or special wisdom. It just is–for everyone involved.

That’s the paradox that’s at the heart of Imagine Me Gone, really: that our connections to each other are the source of so much of what is both good and bad in our lives. At the same time, the novel powerfully conveys the intractable isolation someone like its protagonist Michael — brilliant but ultimately unable to find either stability or happiness — feels, especially when faced with people who love him but cannot understand him, who can’t give up on the idea that somehow, if they just do the right thing, they can fix him, make him like them. Their love becomes its own kind of burden, because it shades into denial. It takes Michael’s brother Alec almost the whole book (almost the whole of Michael’s life) to grasp this. “I hadn’t been listening,” he finally realizes:

not for years. I’d wanted him to be better for so long that I had stopped hearing him tell me he was sick. For the first time I saw him now as a man, not a member of a family. A separate person, who had been trying as hard as he could for most of his life simply to get by.

haslett2Michael’s illness cannot be willed away, stared down with stoicism, or held at bay by distractions or the pretense of normalcy — though even as he brings out the error, indeed the danger, of approaching it this way, Haslett is also very critical of medicalized approaches that consist largely of throwing more and more pills Michael’s way.

I did wonder, by the end of the novel, whether it goes too far in showing depression as a death sentence, not once but twice. It would be possible to interpret the novel as dangerously defeatist about mental illness. Michael’s father John calls it “the beast”; to him, suicide is ultimately his only way of defeating it:

I’ve come here so often trying to escape this monster. But now it is the one sapped, and limping. And I am the hunter. In the clearing overlooking the bend in the river, we come to a halt. . . .

Invisibility. That is its last defense. That I won’t have the courage to look it in the eye. You wretch! it cries, desperate for its life. You selfish wretch! Leaving them with nothing! But it is no good. It is my prey now.

Of course, this passage is from John’s point of view: Imagine Me Gone is not itself proposing that death is the way to triumph over depression, and Michael’s death (like his illness itself)–though inevitably associated with his father’s–has a different character entirely. This is a novel about these particular imagined people and their disease: it doesn’t claim to be a manual about depression or anxiety in any broader sense (though at least to me, as a non-expert, it seemed to have been not just deeply imagined but also carefully researched, in support of its meticulous and convincing accounts of symptoms and treatments). As with my reading of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, I was distracted a bit here by reflections on my own experience of a similar situation, through which I learned a lot about how intractable and complicated depression can be and how variously individually people experience it. Naturally, this novel does not tell my (or my friend’s) story. There are many people who (to borrow John’s metaphor) do tame the beast, whose mental illness is a chronic rather than terminal condition–but Haslett has no obligation to provide “balance” by incorporating them as well. It’s just interesting to think about the implications of the stories he did choose to tell.

haslett3Another thought-provoking aspect of Imagine Me Gone was the kinship Michael identifies between the family history of mental illness that so shapes his own individual story and the blight of slavery as foundational to America’s history. Michael is preoccupied with reparations, which for him represent a political and moral necessity that is impossible for him to separate entirely from his own tormenting belief that he is to blame for his father’s suicide. How can you right the wrongs of the past? How can you endure and survive your inheritance of suffering?

Michael becomes preoccupied with the concept of “transgenerational haunting,” which he learns about from a psychological study of “black teenagers with recurring nightmares of slavery”:

Some dreamt of being confined to the holds of ships amid the withered and dying, others of being publicly stripped and lashed. One boy, who evinced no particular knowledge of black history, had a recurring nightmare that he was being hung from a lamppost and dismembered.

The author of the study finds no pattern of “stories of enslavement among ancestors” of these “kids from the north of England.” Why would this be the stuff of their nightmares? Where did the visions come from? Michael finds his answer in “an observation that the author himself made little of”: all the boys were avid listeners to “black American dance tracks”:

No one doubted that the agony of slavery haunted generations of spirituals and gospel. Why not the latest twelve-inch? These boys weren’t listening to Mahalia Jackson sing about how she got over, but somewhere in the cut the same ghosts were being shaken loose.

Music is Michael’s passion (the sections of the novel that are in his voice nearly overwhelm with manic neepery on this topic, which, while true to his character, did become a bit tedious for me), so this sets up his own sense of being similarly haunted. He feels strongly his own complicity in racial injustice: “I owe,” he says,

The inalienable privilege of my race to the victims of the Middle Passage, a debt whose repayment has proven tricky to schedule, given the endless deferments, if not forbearances, and the way that the blood of slavery tends to run clear in the tears of liberals.

More than this, though, he feels haunted himself by the horrors of the Atlantic crossings–by, for instance, the story of the Joaquin, a slave ship on which “270 of the original 300” captives died. He is careful to disavow too close an analogy between his experience and theirs, and yet in ways he can hardly understand or articulate, he feels that the story of the Joaquin is somehow his own as well:

The fact is that when I read the story of the Joaquin, I feel understood. Not in any literal sense–the comparison of my dread to theirs would be grotesque–but in the unrelenting terror, in that schism of the mind. Which is how I know now that the dead generations don’t haunt down tidy racial lines, as if there were such a thing. The psychosis is shared. I was born into the fantasy of its supremacy. Others are born into the fantasy’s cost. But the source of the violence is the same. The work I do is for no one’s sake but my own.

Michael’s preoccupation with slavery adds a political layer to the poignant personal story that Imagine Me Gone, on its surface, seems to be. What is the implication of yoking these two kinds of hauntings together in this way–of linking a family history of one kind of trauma to a national history founded on another kind? I found myself thinking about this in terms of genre. Haslett’s novel is not overtly the same kind of book as Jane Smiley’s Last 100 Years trilogy, in which the unfolding family history is clearly tied to the story of America as a nation. But in its own way it may be doing something similar in connecting private and public life, or individual to “world-historical” events. Through Michael, Haslett characterizes slavery as America’s inherited disease, one with symptoms every bit as complex and destructive in American life as John’s or Michael’s illnesses are for them and their family.

The obvious conclusion to this extended analogy is that the nation cannot heal unless it too can find some way to treat its transgenerational haunting. Here too I don’t think Imagine Me Gone holds out much reassurance. Before John’s death, Michael suffers a menacing premonition, a vision in which “flayed bodies swarmed in front of me in a bloody contorted mass.” The horror drives him away from his family; his flight to safety, “without ever warning them,” is the immediate source of his own guilt. Is his inability to survive the life that flows from this selfish act a gloomy prediction about America’s future? Or does a note of hope prevail in the persistent efforts of those who love John and Michael? I’d like to think the latter is true. Certainly that’s where Imagine Me Gone ends: quietly invoking the remarkable optimism and tenderness of love as it faces an unknowable future.

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