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Review of "The Family Silver"

By Sharon O'Brien
University Of Chicago Press, 2004
Review by Sue Bond on May 23rd 2006
The Family Silver

This is such a rich and profound book that I feel I could read it again and again and still find more each time.

Sharon O'Brien, who is a professor in American Studies and English and has written a biography of Willa Cather, writes about her depression in the context of her family, her Irish forbears, her education and work, and American culture. She hones in on fear of abandonment as a major factor in the depression that afflicts her and her family members, but also the pressures that arise from the pursuit of the American dream.

The family silver of the title is a magnificent and extravagant set of silver cutlery called Repoussé, consisting of twenty place settings with eighteen pieces for each setting, and engraved with a capital Q for Quinlan. It was purchased by O'Brien's paternal grandfather, Dan Quinlan (he changed his name from Cullinan), an actor and minstrel, and his wife wept when it arrived because they had no money otherwise. It represented for him a distancing from the poverty of his upbringing as the child of Irish immigrants, a wiping away of the memory of the Great Famine.

And from this delving into her Irish background, O'Brien gathers evidence of how she comes to suffer from depression. Her mother's family displayed anxieties and phobias, prolonged mournings, practiced the silences upon each other that effectively acted as banishment of the other person. And fear of abandonment stands out as a major cause of melancholy and anxiety in the family. The author's grandfather banished one daughter for marrying; the author's mother banished a daughter for the same reason.

This manipulation of children by their parents is another dominant feature of O'Brien's concern. She notes Alice Miller's true and false self, how a child will hide their true self in order to conform to a parent's demands, and present to the parent only the false self that does what they want. She also notes Jung's statement that the 'Greatest burden of a child is unlived life of the parent'. She tried to be the 'good daughter', but didn't always succeed, falling into the gap, satisfying neither herself nor her parents. Her mother's tyranny over the children comes across as frightening and unreasonable, and the author comments that the banishing of her sister was an event that 'changed her life', leaving her unsure of which sort of behavior might cause her to be similarly cast off, 'wandering in the darkness somewhere outside the lighted circle of my family' (29).

Her father's family also lived with depression. He is a more sympathetic figure than her mother, almost noble, and deals with the years in which he was struck down with the illness in a dignified manner. He was not afraid to discuss the fact that he was ill, and wrote about it in his essay for the 25th reunion of his Harvard class. Silences came into play again when he was dying, both literally and emotionally, as he is unable to speak from his physical illness and his wife does not want him to know the full extent of his prognosis. This is a traumatic time, and O'Brien writes of it with grace and frankness, in a way that enlightens the reader, takes them into the pain of the experience.

O'Brien is especially critical of the pursuit of the American dream, success and upward mobility: she 'wanted to understand how our depressions, shared and unshared, were linked up with American culture' (152). She understands why her forbears would want to escape the poverty of Famine Ireland, but sees how the constant striving for material success and improvement can put damaging pressures upon people. And if they don't happen to succeed, or are driven off course by illness, as her father was, then the result can be devastating.

Her writing is easy to read, engaging, imaginative, thoughtful. Her language for depression is expressive: 'dark clotted lake', 'enormous toad', 'soul-crusher'. She uses metaphor intelligently and convincingly. The chapter entitled 'The Book of Lists' contains a moving examination of her mother's disjunction with her times, how she made herself small and wrote in cheap, 'narrow-ruled' notebooks, how even her name was diminished, from 'Regina' the queen to the weaker 'Jean'. O'Brien writes:

'Regina coeli is the famous Catholic poem-prayer to Mary, the "queen of the skies." I kept wondering what skies my mother could have flown in if she'd only been born at a later time, a time when women were allowed to soar.' (142)

There is so much contained within this memoir that it is difficult to fully convey its depth, compassion and delight. It is not only a book beautifully written and shaped, but one of immense value to all who struggle with depression (and life generally) and seek to understand.


© 2006 Sue Bond


Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland,  Australia.

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