An escape from a 'soul-killing cancer'

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2010 - 6:26 PM

Eric Wilson's account of how he found meaning and faith is unfailingly powerful.

It will be hard, very hard, for anyone who has struggled with mental illness to endure the first few pages of Eric G. Wilson's dark, brilliant, transcendent memoir "The Mercy of Eternity." It is a harrowing recounting of the ghastly fantasies of self-harm and heartbreaking inability to connect with others that bedeviled his outwardly success-studded youth and early middle age.

Hard, because his description of the narcissistic, "soul-killing cancer" of clinical depression is so eloquent and terrifying. Until, after many diagnosis and medication errors, a label of bipolar II illness -- alternating states of depression and hypomania -- led to proper treatment, his life was a nightmarish struggle of "limbo's listlessness," untreated illness, poisoned relationships and flailing through benumbed, torturous days.

In this raw, beautiful memoir, Wilson personalizes the themes he explored in his critically acclaimed 2008 book "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy," exploring not only his own mental illness but the intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey he embarked on that saved his life, even infused it with meaning and beauty.

With the help of the right medication, exceptionally intelligent therapy and his own remarkable intellect and desire to understand his experience of the human condition, Wilson was able to embrace a life of grappling with melancholy (a thing quite different from "the dark veil" of clinical depression) and to find a measure of peace and healing.

The title, with its invocation of grace -- "the favor that has nothing to do with merit" -- refers to Wilson's journey into Christianity, but his embrace of that faith was less a conversion than a recognition that the embrace of forgiveness and compassion and the release of narcissism and blame allow for the most profound appreciation of the self, others and life itself. For Wilson, salvation is "being brought from death to life, from Blake's 'mind-forg'd manacles' to his 'immense world of delight.'"

Once properly medicated and counseled, Wilson came to understand that his mental illness is a key part of who he is and has in fact been the source of many gifts. Again and again, in the writings of poets and thinkers from Wordsworth to Emerson to Randall Jarrell, he finds fellow travelers.

Wilson has laid bare his soul in this brief but profound book, and that could not have been easy. He has done a brave service for those suffering from mental illness, those who love them and those who think deeply about suffering and joy. You're not likely to find a more intelligent or more deeply felt book about a Christian's life than this one.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.

  • related content

  • The Mercy of Eternity by Eric G. Wilson

  • THE MERCY OF ETERNITY

    By: Eric G. Wilson

    Publisher: Northwestern University Press, 108 pages, $21.95

    Review: A deeply personal, highly intelligent account of the author's multi-faceted approach to his own mental illness that not only saved his life, but helped infuse it with beauty and meaning.

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