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In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family    by John Sedgwick order for
In My Blood
by John Sedgwick
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

John Sedgwick refers to 'my fall' in the year 2000, when he suffered three weeks of sleepless nights, a loss of appetite, and thoughts of suicide. He tells us that prescribed med set his 'thoughts racing even faster ... stared in terror at the ceiling until morning. Then I got up and went nuts.' He was a stranger to himself, 'a crazed weirdo who'd leapt into his clothes, taken over his body, seized his brain'. At age forty-six, John was in the throes of a 'thriving writing career', married with two children. Inside he was bleak. It took a year after the depression to feel like himself again. A half-brother in his seventies told John he was 'coming down with what I had' and that 'I think we've got the family disease.'

At this juncture, John's mother had just been placed in a locked ward at McLean Hospital, her fourth hospitalization for major depression. He toyed with the idea of writing a novel about someone like his mother, but, 'Once he plunged into the novel, though, he found it difficult to cure even the woman in the book.' John Sedgwick turned to his genealogy to find out about 'the black seed', excavating his ancestral lineage through family letters, journals, and archives of varied establishments, as well as conversations with descendants, leading to this book. He traces back six generations of a New England family.

Theodore Sedgwick Jr. (1746-1813) moved from Sheffield to Stockbridge, Massachusetts building a vast estate. Theodore pledged to Pamela Williams, entering an extended social network that would put him in 'good stead politically as well as financially'. But there were wicked secrets in the Williams family line, including 'the betrayal of the Stockbridge Indians' involving Ephraim Williams Sr., whose erratic behavior intensified to dementia. As Theodore's political career thrived, Pamela was left at home in 'a state of widowhood' for long periods. She took to her bed in a time when 'psychological distress was thought to be more a province of religion than of medical science'. The dark seed that dwelt within Ephraim lay 'waiting to be awakened once more, in yet more explosive forms, in Pamela and in her offspring'. In 1806 Pamela Sedgwick committed suicide.

Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the ninth child of Theodore and Pamela, was the longest lived of her siblings. Unmarried though there were suitors, she was devoted to her brothers, especially Robert. She was 'the country's first prominent female novelist'. The author writes that 'in a time when American literature was still largely a wilderness', Catharine wrote 'ten highly observant, socially conscious novels', most still in print today. Catharine was chosen for the first volume of The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, a 'compendium of the nation's thirty-five most important figures in the half century, since its founding'.

John Shaw Sedgwick was the third child of Minturn 'Duke' Sedgwick and Emily Ames Lincoln. Sedgwick's digressions on the nation's history - such as the rebellion in the colonies over the 1765 Stamp Act, and George Washington's election as president of the Continental Congress - are deftly interwoven with family events and background. Sedgwick also writes of horrific treatments of the mentally ill, the chaining of inmates to cell walls, use of body restraints, flogging, and the immersion of patients in ice cold water. In 1789, Benjamin Rush was convinced 'that insanity was a disorder of the blood' leading to bloodletting.

The immensity of the author's project on his ancestry alone is a remarkable feat, let alone the deftness with which he writes of 'the family disease', and 'what lies in the darkness'. He ends In My Blood with the words: 'It has taken this book to discover how much I miss my father ... and mother, too, but at least I had her for a good length of time. It is that longing for my father that has led me back and back ... a quest for understanding, and for reunion. The dead live in me, and I in them.' This book was brought to my attention via a radio newscast. I recommend it, if only for reading specific chapters. Somewhere it has been written, 'Depression is eternal'.

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