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Bookends: A writer’s search for the roots of depression and suicide October 16, 2014

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Bookends: A writer’s search for the roots of depression and suicide

By Dan Davidson

February 26, 2014

– 813 words –

 

What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the PastWhat Disturbs Our Blood

By James FitzGerald

Random House Canada

512 pages

$14.99

 

The title of James Fitzgerald’s memoir/history/detective story says a lot. What was there in his family’s past that needed to be redeemed?

Why, as he wrote in the essay that eventually grew into the book, did he react to the family home this way?

“As a small boy, I believed our house was haunted. In my bones, I felt that 186 Balmoral Avenue – – the gloomy, stuccoed-brick three-storey where I lived until age seven — was inhospitable to children. Sometimes, when I wandered alone through the dark rooms, I felt sure that some daunting, suppressed secret was about to burst out of the cast-iron radiators, flooding the hardwood floors.”

Why was his mother so shocked when one day, at the age of six, he announced that he wanted to change his name to Gerry?

Where had that come from? He did not know then that his grandfather’s name was John Gerald FitzGerald, that he generally went by Gerry and that he was one of the biggest names in Canadian public health history, right up there with Banting and Best, who worked out of the Connaught Labs that he founded.

James grew up in a desperately dysfunctional family, led by Gerry’s son Jack, who followed his father into medicine and had his own stellar career, though never one that equalled the heights of international acclaim his father had soared.

Indeed, jazz loving Jack would probably have been much happier running a nightclub and hobnobbing with the musicians who were frequent houseguests at the FitzGeralds.

James mother was also unhappy in her choice of career, which in the post WWII years up to the mid-1960s pretty much meant being a housewife and mother. She had other aspirations which she crushed.

James’ personal concerns probably began with watching his father fall apart in the middle of his life and end his days in a state of depression and drug induced lethargy in a small apartment, sans wife, sans children sans ability, sans self-respect. In James’ judgment, Jack was a victim of the psychology wars, where scalpel and medication were the politically correct tools of the trade and Freud was still spoken of as a Viennese quack with a dirty mind.

Much of this book, indeed, is an indictment of the profession, and James has researched it so thoroughly that he is now able to make part of his living telling auditoriums full of uncomfortably squirming doctors just what they are doing wrong.

Delving back into his family’s past he discovered case after case of depression and mental instability, and eventually found out what no one had ever told him about his grandfather, what the medical profession of the day had hidden away, that Gerry had crashed and burned in the middle of his life, too, and that his third suicide attempt had been successful.

Jack was treated unsuccessfully after his own attempt at ending it all.

James began his work this book partly out of a desire to figure out what was wrong with his family so that he could avoid the same fate.

For him, the talking cure so despised of the doctors who treated his grandfather and father, was the beginning of salvation. After that he was not quite so shocked to find that his great-grandfather was also depressed, that a great-uncle had leapt from a bridge, and that other relatives were alcoholics and manifested strange behaviors. After that, he had hope that finding out as much as he could about his forbears might be his own cure.

Aside from depression and insecurity being a family plague, James is quite convinced that there is something in the Irish temperament that rises in some families, turning into the Black Dog that Winston Churchill (who lived in Ireland as a young boy) used to complain about. Part of his research was to trace his family tree back as far as he could, only to find that there had been problems long before the FitzGeralds immigrated to Canada.

If you want to read an abbreviated version of this story, James’ National Magazine Award winning 2002 article “Sins of the Fathers” can be found on at http://www.sanofipasteur.ca/, the website of Sanofi, the company that now owns the Connaught Laboratories that his grandfather founded, where vaccines for diphtheria and other diseases as well as the discovery and refinement of insulin took place.

The book is worth the read even if you have already perused the article. It won the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and is available in both physical and digital editions.

James FitzGerald was the writer-in-residence at Berton House during the fall of 2013.

 

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