The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance


"[O'Brien] searches for the roots of her own treatment-resistant depression in both her immigrant Irish American ancestors and, ultimately, American culture itself. With startling honesty and compassion, O'Brien unveils family stories of desire and despair that hark back to the Irish famine of the 1840s, drawing parallels between our society's obsession with upward mobility and the quick fix and her own downward emotional spiral as she grapples with a chronic emotional illness."—Library Journal

"In The Family Silver, Sharon O'Brien offers a rewarding and thought-provoking take on what has become a bit of a cliche: a writer finding and exploring a provocative path that leads to an accepting understanding of [depression]."—Thomas McGonigle, Los Angeles Times

"The Family Silver is an eloquent and powerful book about depression and how to make sense of it in the midst of often overwhelming and seemingly irreconcilable forces of family ties, intellect, and faith. Sharon O'Brien's account of her struggle with depression ties together literature, religion, and psychology in an important and helpful way.—Kay Redfield Jamison

"The Family Silver deserves to become a classic of 'life writing.' We are all shaped by our families, and Sharon O'Brien offers a model of the work that engages us throughout our lives: sorting out where we came from and how that affects us. O'Brien's guidance in this work is enhanced by her complete absence of bitterness about how she has been hurt, complemented by her loving curiosity about how others were shaped by their hurts. The Family Silver also contains the best evocation of depression that I've ever read. O'Brien's book is, literally, the work of a lifetime."—Arthur Frank

An excerpt from
The Family Silver
A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance
Sharon O'Brien

In the Shadow of Harvard

I have grown up in the shadow of Harvard Yard.
—my letter of application to Radcliffe College

A few days after arriving in Cambridge I set out to walk to Harvard Square to get my Harvard identification card, which will allow me to use the libraries. A helpful colleague in Harvard's English department has secured my appointment as a "Visiting Scholar," a status I will share with a woman from Poland researching metaphysical poetry and a shy man from Japan who is working on Mark Twain. I am grateful for my connection to the university, tenuous as it is. I hope it will give me more than a library card—perhaps some scrap of belonging.

I walk slowly down Saville Street to Concord Avenue, trying to control my anxiety through breathing, and go past the Radcliffe Institute, a combination of retreat and think tank for women scholars. It's a hot, sunny July day, and three women in bright sleeveless summer dresses are eating lunch at a picnic table, right near the fence, talking animatedly. I watch them longingly. I want to be on their side of the fence. These women belong to a community, and they also have a status identifier at Harvard. I'm jealous of both. "Oh, I'm at the Radcliffe Institute this year," they can say when they meet people at receptions and cocktail parties, which I imagine them attending with casual regularity. I'd applied to the Institute to write my book and was rejected.

I'm having an attack of the poor me's. ("Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink," my sister and her AA buddies say.) I continue my walk.

I arrive at Holyoke Center, the glass-and-steel office building that houses the Health Center and the Infirmary—where I spent a day and a night after I skidded on wet leaves and crashed my motorcycle my senior year at Radcliffe—as well as the Financial and Business Offices and, I hope, my ID card.

"You're not in the system yet," the man in the Business Office says. Tell me about it, I think.

"Do you know when I'll be in the system?"

"Check back in a few days."


I walk back to Saville Street, too agitated to stay around the Square. I hurry past the Radcliffe Institute and then I'm out of Harvard's reach, into Huron Village, and my walk becomes more part of Cambridge. I go past St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a corner grocery, a branch of the Cambridge library, a stained-glass studio, dry cleaners, and my corner store, a Japanese lunch place specializing in sushi and ice cream. Then I round the corner onto Saville Street, walking past the kids on their skateboards, and go home, waiting to be in the system.


My father's Harvard diploma hung on the wall in my parents' bedroom, right over the bureau. Whenever I was snooping around their room as a kid, I'd always stop and look at it.

Right below Universitas Harvardiana, Cantabrigiae in republica Massachusettensium was my father's name, elevated and strange in Latin and Gothic script.

I remember noticing that "O'Brien" was the only word Harvard hadn't been able to Latinize; evidently it was just too Irish to be transformed into something grand.

After my father had recovered from depression and gone back to work, he spent most of his time sitting at the card table he positioned in front of the bedroom window, next to the rusty green file cabinet given him by his brother Ray. I remember him sitting at his card table after dinner, pecking away on his Smith-Corona, the reassuring rat-a-tat-tat of the typewriter echoing in the quiet house. There he typed his business letters, soliciting work and following up on his calls; filed his onion-skin carbon copies; planned his sales trips, trying to make at least one coincide with the New England foliage. That way he could take along his binoculars and go for a ramble late on a sunny autumn day down some Vermont back road, The Field Guide to the Birds in his back pocket—his modest idea of heaven.

His bout with depression had required my father to make a bargain: sacrificing status and a high-paying job for work he could control. He knew, I think, that he'd be at risk for another breakdown if he tried to get back into the corporate world, and he was at peace with his decision.

My father's office equipment, the rickety card table, was an old hand-me-down covered with children's pencil scrawls. It was a cramped, inadequate place to work; he would have to spread his paperwork out on the bed and the floor. The card table shows my father making do with what he'd been given, learning to live with lowered expectations for his professional life, and doing so with grace. I wonder if its penciled surface also says something else: that he never found a big enough place in the world, or a way to express his gifts fully? Men need rooms of their own no less than women, and my father never had one. Even when Kevin and I moved out, leaving my parents with more disposable income and with vacant bedrooms that could have become offices, he stayed in the bedroom, working away at his card table.


What could not be taken away was his Harvard diploma. This made him exceptional, and also gave the whole family distinction. There was a particular thrill in living as close to Harvard as we did—our Belmont house was about five miles away—and when we'd drop in at Harvard Square for a family outing, perhaps for a movie at the University Theater (the "Unie") or a Sunday lunch at St. Clair's, Dad would take us for a walk through the Yard, pointing out the sights—Massachusetts Hall, Widener, John Harvard's statue—and I would be awed that he could belong to such a great university.

Unlike my mother, my father never told family stories. None of us can remember any tale told about our O'Brien grandparents, sitting around the dining room table on a Sunday afternoon. My father's stories were not about his family but about his magical days at Harvard in the 1920s when he took English courses from legendary figures like Charles Townsend Copeland and George Lyman Kittredge. My favorite was the one about the D-double-minus he got from Kittredge.

"Tell the one about the D-double-minus," one of us would say, and my father would lean back in his chair and begin.

"Well, first of all, I was a cocky son of a gun—I'd just transferred in from Holy Cross, where I'd gotten all A's, and I thought I would do well here. And I studied and studied for Kittredge's exam, I assure you, and I thought I'd done brilliantly on it. Then Kittredge called me into his office, and said, `Mr. O'Brien, sit down. I have never been required to give a D-double-minus before, but your examination has called this out of me. What is your explanation?' I told him I didn't know what had happened. I had studied the material thoroughly. I knew it cold. `Aha, Mr. O'Brien,' he said, `you indeed have studied, but did you think?'"

At this point in the story my father would always laugh. "Think?" he would say, amused by his youthful ignorance. "I had no idea what the man meant. No idea at all."

I never tired of hearing it. I liked knowing that my father, who'd graduated magna cum laude in literature, had once gotten a D-double-minus from the great Kittredge. The story made him human and fallible. But it also gave him a heroic glow in my eyes, for it meant that my father had learned how to think, and now knew what Kittredge meant about the difference between studying and thinking, which I didn't grasp at all.


When I was in graduate school at Harvard I would meet my father for lunch every couple of months at Ferdinand's, a long-vanished French restaurant on Mt. Auburn Street. When I got there—always a few minutes late—he'd be at his reserved table, reading—maybe a Civil War history, maybe a Dickens novel. Sometimes we'd get the table in the window, our favorite, and we'd sit there in the midwinter sun, perhaps sipping a glass of wine and ordering omelettes, glasses sparkling in the sunlight, talking about writers and books—by then I was immersed in Willa Cather, a writer my father loved for her Catholic themes.

At the end of lunch I'd hand over some of the books he'd requested from Widener—one of them, I remember, was The Life of Archbishop Lamy, the clerical biography that had sparked Cather to write Death Comes for the Archbishop—and he'd give me a couple to take back. The waitress would bring the check. By then money was not the terrifying lack in my father's life it had once been, although from long habit he would scrutinize the bill carefully. "This one's on me," he'd say, and I'd enjoy having my father treat me to lunch. Then we'd walk out into the winter light together, me off to the library, my dad off to the Co-op bookstore "just for a browse."


I'm trying again to get my Harvard ID card. I walk into Harvard Square by my usual route down Concord Ave and Garden Street, passing the spa where I buy the Globe and talk about the weather and the Red Sox (in first place at the moment, tormenting us with midsummer hope), then passing the Radcliffe Institute. I try not to stare at a group of women picnicking on the grass—could it be the same ones?—and tell myself that it's really much better that I'm on my own. After all, Thoreau didn't have a think-tank at Walden, did he? Willa Cather doesn't send her artist-heroine Thea off to an artists' colony for her spiritual and creative transformation, does she? No, she sends her off—alone—to the Southwest.

I pass the Harvard Registrar's office where my father's college file is kept, packed away in some dusty basement with the other records of long-ago Harvard men. Then through the Cambridge Common, going past the new statue to the Irish Famine, and my favorite route through Harvard Yard, the one that lets you enter right next to Harvard Hall where I took my Master's written examination in 1970 and tried to fake my way through a translation of Havelock the Dane.

The anxiety that's accompanied me everywhere for my first month here nudges its way into my consciousness, penetrating my "All will be well" mantra with its usual doubting questions. This anxiety's view of the world is really deplorable: it doesn't trust anything; all it can see are promises made to be broken, commitments forgotten, stony, indifferent people. "What if the paperwork hasn't been done?" the niggling voice says. "What if nobody's ever heard of you? What if you'll never be in the system?"

"All will be well," I breathe as I walk into Holyoke Center and wait for the elevator. I get off at the fourth floor and go over to the window that says "Harvard Identification—Faculty and Guests." It's the same man behind the counter. He asks for my social security number, taps it into the computer, then asks "Sharon O'Brien?" It feels as if the keel of the boat has just scraped the shore. Social security, I now know what that really means. He takes my picture, and I know I look bad: flyaway hair, eyes glinting a little maniacally, forced smile that shows the age lines I try to hide.

"I could take it over," the man says tactfully as we look at the computer screen together, but I say no, it's okay. In a few minutes I'm given my shiny plastic maroon and white card with this slightly dotty middle-aged woman staring out at me, but at least it has my name on it, and they've got the O-apostrophe right. I now have a Harvard ID number. My validation will last until 6/30/97.


Holyoke Center is a familiar place. When I was in graduate school, I had a cubicle office on the fifth floor where I held tutorials. I remember guiding undergraduates through senior theses on Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Henry James, and Hollywood in film.

My favorite tutee was the Hollywood-in-film writer, a scrawny senior living in Dunster House known as "Mouse." Mouse was convinced he'd never finish his thesis—he was a B student, and he thought he might be overreaching by going for honors. "Plus," he said, "you have to know this about me, I always turn in papers late, so I'm worried I'll never make the deadline." The deadline for honors thesis was infamous: you had to have your thesis, all bound and scrubbed, to Warren House by 5:00 on the due date—or the door would be locked and the thesis unacceptable. No extensions. "So do you want to go for it?" I asked. "I think you can do it." "Okay," he said. "I'll give it a shot."

I kept teasing him and bugging him and told him right up front that we were going to employ behavior therapy to get him through. Mouse was a beer aficionado and I told him that he had to write two pages a day before he could reward himself with a beer. Intrigued, he agreed to try this method. I made him sign a pledge. I promise my tutor that I will write two pages every day and will drink not even one sip of beer until I have done so. Signed, this 2nd day of February 1973, Mouse. After Mouse turned in his thesis at ten minutes to five (he would graduate cum laude in English) he and his roommate took me to Charlie's Kitchen and treated me to a cheeseburger, fries, and a pitcher of beer. It was one of the few times I remember in grad school when I thought that maybe, after all, I was in the right business.


I keep persuading myself that I've entered some spiritual zone where the worldly values no longer matter, but I get exposed here for the fraud I am. I feel obscure in Cambridge, unfamous, invisible. Partly it's sheer wounded narcissism, but even more it's the feeling that without a real role or identity here, I don't exist. It's being on the fringes of Harvard without a real place to be that's tough—close enough to see everyone at home in a place where I used to belong. I find myself getting that feeling of littleness I used to have as a grad student, like when I was telling a professor which of my friends had just gotten jobs—"Amy got hired at Williams, and Susan at Smith"—and he interrupted me and said "No, no, how are the men doing?" Now Harvard has several important feminist professors, and no one would ever say, of graduate students, "How are the men doing?"

I email a couple of famous Harvard scholars. I hope they'll be free for lunch or a drink. "Just too busy this semester." "Let's definitely get in touch in the spring." I understand. They're busy, and they don't know me personally, and they have lives. "Maybe you're not well-known enough to show up on their radar screen," the niggling voice says. "You're only a one-book person. You're not hot anymore."

I try to quash the voice, but it's hard to cope with the hierarchies at Harvard, the lists of who counts and who doesn't. I count at Dickinson but here I don't count. I have to get over letting that bother me and be a Buddhist about all this—but I'm not and it does.


By the early fall I have found two Harvard buddies: Lynn and Bill are my friends and mentors. They're both assistant professors, on the other side of the status line, and they're sweet and generous. We have fun hanging out together.

One night they invite me to dinner with other faculty and graduate students. Bill's going to be giving a talk on Cather later, and I want to cheer him on. I join a group of ten or so people at a long table in a Chinese restaurant near the Square. I say "hi" to the grad students I know and Lynn and Bill, and I'm introduced to Z, a famous literary scholar. She's seated in the middle of the table, the center of gravity. When we're introduced she doesn't say anything in response to my greeting. I get pissed and say "So how are you, Z?" People hang on her answer. "Fine," she says. "Just fine."

During dinner I talk with the grad students at my end of the table. When there's a lull I hear Z saying "Boston just really isn't a city, compared to New York.…I'm just not really myself in Boston—I'm myself in New York and L.A., and of course Paris. . . ."

"What about Italy, Z?" someone asks.

"Oh yes, how could I forget? I'm myself in Tuscany," she decides, and I'm thinking I don't care where you are your fucking self. (Later I wish I'd chimed in with "As for me, I'm really myself in Carlisle and Elmira and—of course—Lowell," but of course I don't say anything.) Then we all walk over to the lecture hall and Lynn introduces me to Y, a well-known scholar visiting from Yale. "And Sharon wrote that really wonderful biography of Willa Cather," Lynn says protectively, and Y says, vaguely, "Oh yes," as his eyes drift around the room to see who's there who matters.


When I'm walking home I think what an uncomfortable evening this has been. Over the years Harvard has given me many good things—in different ways and at different times I have been nourished here and recognized and helped beyond measure by my teachers and mentors. But tonight is the epitome of what I dislike—and fear—about the place.

I'm vulnerable to Harvard's elitism right now because I'm on such shaky ground. I think about my father, so soon after his breakdown and unemployment, writing his Reunion essay and then taking his wife and children (except for me—too young) to his twenty-fifth reunion, not staying away because he'd be surrounded by men more successful than he. I don't think I could have done that.


My father loved Harvard as a real place, but it was the icon Harvard that gave a glow to my father, a glow from the past; it also allowed him to be considered by others an intellectual, which he in fact was. He did not know anything about power tools or home repair and cared not a whit for sports, except for golf, a slow, meditative game that allowed him to walk and sniff the breeze and be in nature. He loved poking around in bookstores and libraries and going on reading crusades—deciding, for example, that he had to find out everything about some obscure Civil War battle, getting the requisite books out of Widener, and then actually reading them. He'd write me about his finds.

I went to Widener yesterday and enjoyed myself hugely. I had no trouble in locating a journal of Charlotte Forten, mentioned in Wilson's Patriotic Gore, the colored girl who taught in the South Carolina sea-island area during the war at the Union-occupied bases, where she came in contact with my friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commanding the first (I think) negro regiment recruited in the South, about which he wrote Army Life in a Black Regiment.

I also stumbled into a section at Widener where almost half a shelf had books devoted to Sherman's March to the Sea, which has always fascinated me, and from which I picked up a book by an unknown that I'm going to try out.

Widener is a wonderful offshoot for literary whims! Strange offshoots, and a lot of fun…wouldn't you say?

Yes, Dad, a lot of fun. Just pure intellectual curiosity, just following the trail wherever it leads, and then sharing your finds with others. Harvard helped me to do that too. That's the best of what the real place can do. I remember experiencing what Sherlock Holmes called "the thrill of the chase" when I was in grad school, but Widener still seemed grim and imposing; to my father, clearly, it was a giant sandbox.


My father had ideas, and could converse. The businessmen he saw during his road trips, starved for good conversations about books or politics or history, looked forward to his sales visits the way rural Catholics in the Southwest looked forward to the twice-yearly visit from the priest, who'd come and hear everyone's confession, baptize all the babies, and bless the crops. The guys from Sylvania and Corning Glass would take him out for three-hour lunches, and his galvanizing presence allowed them to talk about ideas. "Guess it takes a Harvard man to lift our minds up from the gutter," they'd say, "get us to talk about something besides office politics and cost-benefits." "Give your blessing for our minds, Norb, before you go," and he'd laugh and make a cross in the air.

When I was a kid I knew he was different from other dads—I just didn't have the language to describe it. No words, then, like "gender role" or "masculine identity." Sometimes it embarrassed me that he wasn't coaching Little League baseball or repairing broken sinks or making big bucks. But I was proud of him. He was a Harvard man, and he knew how to think.

The difficulty was, because Harvard was the sign of his worldly and intellectual success, there was no measure of success for me besides Harvard. Other schools, other destinies, were inferior. When I reached my senior year in high school, there wasn't any choice: Harvard was the locus of desire in our family. I applied to Radcliffe early decision because I wanted to become part of a tradition my father had started. Going there meant he'd passed on what was best about him.


I have to make one thing clear: I didn't go there just for my Dad. I also went for myself. I knew Radcliffe was a great school—okay, the best—and I loved school. I've always loved school.

When I was a kid, I loved all the equipment of school—clean pads of paper, boxes of yellow pencils. I loved sharpening pencils, seeing the curly wooden squiggles that dropped from the lead, the sharp point: what was a sharpened pencil but the freshness of starting over? I loved the new school sets you would get at Woolworth's right before Labor Day, the plastic ruler and protractor, the scissors, pencil sharpener. At school I loved the supply room, the neatly stacked pads of paper, the divine smell of mimeographing fluid on the freshly minted page, the jars of paste, thick, gooey, and white, that smelled so good I'd have to taste it, the new boxes of chalk.

School was where I felt at home. I felt competent there: I knew what to do. I was always three or four grades ahead of myself and teachers would give me extra assignments to keep me busy. The principal would call my parents to say "Sharon is reading at a tenth grade level" when I was in fifth grade. As the grades rolled on I became aware that being singled-out smart wasn't good for a girl, it interfered with your popularity with the boys, and I desperately wanted to be popular, but I couldn't give up being smart. Being smart was just too much fun. If I knew the hard Latin passage no one else did, I'd raise my hand. It wasn't that the teacher's praise was sweet, although it was, it was simply that I could do it and I couldn't resist. Looking at a Latin phrase on the board, just crying out to be translated, was irresistible—it must be the feeling a car mechanic has, peering into an engine along with a distressed customer. "I have no idea what's wrong," the customer says, but the mechanic sees right away there's a dead sparkplug, he can't resist popping it out and replacing it and hearing the satisfying roar of the engine. Not to fix it would be against nature.

It was against nature for me to look at some mangled Latin on the blackboard and not want to fix it. Somebody would have made a hopeless botch of a passage from Caesar, and Miss Steurwald would say, "is there anyone else who can translate it?" and I'd wait, because I didn't want to be a pill, but when no one raised their hand, I finally would, and Miss Steurwald would say "Then go to the board, Sharon," and I'd pick up the chalk and start erasing and writing and making the sentence work, as satisfying as plunging your hands into that greasy engine and fixing what was wrong. Then all the cases would agree, the subjunctive would be right, the engine would purr, and I'd walk back to my seat not so much with a feeling of triumph—more like the contentment and peace you feel when you've decided to go with the current instead of fighting it.

Let me make another confession: I loved homework too. Other kids complained, but when I opened a book, whether a novel or a geometry book or The Aeneid, I was in another world, a world that made sense to me, a world where I felt safe and skilled, like a riverboat pilot heading into a familiar port, knowing how to negotiate the currents and sandbars. I still remember the pleasure of translating Latin—my bedside lamp would shine a circle of light on the page and on my notebook, illuminating this breathing circle of words, Latin words becoming English words, words in a dead language entering a living one. But it seemed to me that all the words were alive.


I get a copy of my Radcliffe file. It's thin—grades, tutors' reports (they view my college self as smart and eager and capable of original work, but "unsure of herself intellectually"), and my letter of application stamped "OCT 15 1962." I had to write "a statement which you believe will be helpful to the Committee on Admissions in assessing your qualifications." I have no memory of writing this essay.

I have grown up in the shadow of Harvard Yard and have heard much about Harvard from my father who graduated in 1927. What I have heard, I have liked.…I have a feeling in advance for the intangibles of the College, and for the spiritual and emotional impact it can have upon a student—an important aspect of screening, I think, over and above sheer scholastic ability, although I believe I have that as well.

I have to laugh a little at this seventeen-year-old telling the Committee of Admissions the truth: that her source of knowledge—and desire—was not their catalogue or their history or their worldwide reputation as the best university in the United States, but her father's stories. And indeed, this writer feels she can, quite competently, make a judgment about this august university, weigh its advantages and disadvantages critically, on the basis of these stories. I'm amazed at the coolness of "What I have heard, I have liked," and glad that this self-possessed young writer uses the word "shadow" so innocently.


When I finally get my father's file and read his letter of application (written from Holy Cross, asking to transfer into the sophomore class), I see that the source of his desire to attend Harvard was different from mine. He was the trailblazer who first had to answer the question, Why do you wish to come to Harvard?

At present I am inclined towards journalism or teaching. In either case, the many and attractive English courses at Harvard afford a good foundation. Even if I should not follow either of these two professions, I am more interested in English than any other subject. I also realize what it means to a man to have won a degree at Harvard, a degree which is an Open Sesame in worth-while walks of life.

I find my father's tutor's reports and eagerly read them, feeling a little guilty, as if I'm going to be interrupted and reprimanded. "He has been a hard, faithful worker, and has combined with this a good deal of intelligence," his junior tutor says. "Widely read, especially in the classics. Has an agreeable personality. Would do well as a secondary school teacher." "He seemed to me a nice-mannered, nice-tempered youth, moderately intelligent, but not the type to become a profound scholar," his senior tutor decides. "He was thinking last year of journalism or teaching; in either field, I believe his pleasantness and interestedness will stand him in good stead."

Only "moderately" intelligent? My brilliant father? Part of me is a little pleased—could I be winning this competition between us?—and another part wants to smack this supercilious little twerp of a tutor around. "Not the type to become a profound scholar." And what makes you so goddam sure of yourself?

I look back at my father's letter of application, written by an eighteen-year-old boy I never knew. It makes me feel tender: how sweet, this Irish boy's faith in the power of a Harvard degree, the "Open Sesame" that would cause closed doors to open and allow him to enter the realms of gold.

Reading these words also makes me a little sad, because I know something the young writer doesn't. I know his life isn't going to work out that way.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 184-95 of The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance by Sharon O'Brien, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Sharon O'Brien
The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance
©2004, 356 pages, 28 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-61664-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Family Silver.

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