Bibliotherapy, Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery, Depression and Suicide

search    Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables

Kate Macdonald Buter, L.M. Montgomery’s granddaughter

Yesterday I read a Kindle sample of Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables edited by L.M. Montgomery experts Irene Gammel and Benjamin Lefebvre.  I am a tremendous fan of Anne of Green Gables, which was written by L.M. Montgomery and published in 1908.  I was intrigued by the Anne’s World book description because it contains an essay written by Irene Gammel titled “Reading to Heal: Anne of Green Gables as Bibliotherapy”.

Gammel’s chapter introduces how Anne of Green Gables can be used as a tool to counteract depression.  I am very curious to read her theories, and I’m even skeptical.  Despite the fact that I’m a massive Montgomery aficionado, if I’m given a choice between Anne of Green Gables or anti-depressants, I’m going to go for the pill!  (Sorry L.M. Montgomery…)  Gammel probably recommends Anne of Green Gables in addition to medication and therapy.  I’ll find out soon, as I splurged on Anne’s World even though it costs a whopping $16.17 on Kindle.

When it comes to purchasing anything Montgomery-related, I can usually rationalize its cost. I’m such a Montgomery uber-fan that I convinced my husband to name our two daughters after names found in Montgomery’s book.  My eldest daughter is Avonlea, the fictitious town on Prince Edward Island, Canada where the story takes place.  My younger girl is Marilla.  Marilla is named for the spinster in Anne of Green Gables who, along with her elderly brother Matthew, adopts Anne Shirley and comes to love her like her own daughter.

I first read this book as a pre-teen over three decades ago.  Since then, when I was sick with a cold or depressed (or both!) I’d turn to Montgomery’s classic book for comfort.  But Anne could only do so much to alleviate my down moods.  I like the general concept of bibliotherapy that defines certain kinds of reading as a healing experience.

The ancient Greeks believed that literature was psychologically and spiritually important and I wholeheartedly agree with them.  They would post signs above their libraries’ doors describing the literary sanctums as “healing places for the soul”.  I formerly believed that bibliotherapy meant that one could read any uplifting book to benefit.  Today I discovered that the definition of bibliotherapy is more clinical.  Within a therapeutic setting, a counselor selects reading material that is relevant to her client’s life situation.  Bibliotherapy also includes the use of self-help manuals and/or a book that encourages a psychological catharsis.

Thanks to Wikipedia I learned that the bibliotherapy concept includes:

“the human inclination to identify with others through their expressions in literature and art. For instance, a grieving child who reads about another child who has lost a parent may feel less alone in the world.”

I will cover the nuances of bibliotherapy found in Anne of Green Gables tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to read Gammel’s chapter in Anne’s World.

After experiencing so much enjoyment from Montgomery’s numerous books, it hit me particularly hard when I learned tragic facts about her life from two analytical works and her own granddaughter.

A few years ago I purchased The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery – Volume III: 1921-1929 edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, which was highly acclaimed. In it, Montgomery’s numerous journal entries revealed that her husband, the Reverend Ewen Macdonald, suffered with what was called religious melancholia and bipolar disorder. Macdonald felt he was “damned to hell” no matter what good deeds he performed through the church.  He would spend days with an odd handkerchief wrapped around his head moaning, and he completely shut down.  Montgomery came across to me as a single parent.

Based on Montgomery’s entries in this book, Reverend Macdonald sounded like sheer hell to live with.  The psychiatric treatments available during his lifetime in the 20th century were abysmal.  Medications used were often dangerous (laudanum, anyone?) and treated symptoms rather than problems with brain chemistry.  Frankly, it was depressing to read most of that journal for Montgomery often expressed her own depression and wrote about an awful-sounding, unfulfilling marriage.

Another book that revealed even greater depths to Montgomery’s depression was Mary Rubio’s excellent book Lucy Maud Montgomery – The Gift of Wings.  I couldn’t believe how dark my favorite author’s life was.  I know I was naive (and I still am naive at age 43!) but I expected a better world for this famous writer whose books brought joy to millions of her readers.

Kate Macdonald Butler, Montgomery’s granddaughter, revealed the third, most terrible fact about L. M. Montgomery to the world in September, 2008.  I was depressed at the time, but not so down that I couldn’t get out of bed.  I was surfing the internet and I found that Butler (pictured above holding a photo of her grandmother) decided to make it public that her grandmother committed suicide at age 67, and that Montgomery had suffered with depression.

Montgomery died of a drug overdose; originally a cover-up was done to hide that disturbing truth from the world.  Her doctor wrote that she died of a coronary thrombosis. Montgomery, through her final piece of writing, left a suicide note that said in part,

“I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells.  May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand.  My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it.  What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

Butler’s poignant letter printed in The Globe and Mail (link below) explains why she chose to share what happened to her grandmother.  I commend Butler so much for wanting to break apart the stigma associated with mental illness. even at her own expense.  There was a media storm following Butler’s revelation, and while there was massive public support, there was also a backlash as well….mainly by people who feared the mentally ill.

One of my favorite Butler quotes in the article is:

“I have come to feel very strongly that the stigma surrounding mental illness will be forever upon us as a society until we sweep away the misconception that depression happens to other people, not us – and most certainly not to our heroes and icons.”

The moment I realized that L. M. Montgomery took her own life, my eyes flooded with tears.  I was truly shocked and deeply saddened that she felt driven to suicide.  Of course I completely understood where she was coming from, as I’ve been suicidal numerous times. How I wish she had the options of good shrinks, modern-day medications, ECT, or TMS to help her through those “depths as despair”, a phrase she often used in her Anne books.  No one deserves to feel that way, dammit, but especially not her.  It pisses me off right now to think of her death.  Life isn’t fair, I know that.

After an antidepressant medication (amitryptyline/Elavil) and a life event (the death of my Dad) made me suicidal so that I asked to be hospitalized both times, I would never regard anyone who took her own life the same way again.  I could never judge a suicide, unless that person hurt someone else in the doing.

Suicide just sucks beyond the beyond.  No one should ever feel that way.  Ever.

I’ll return tomorrow with a more hopeful-themed post about how reading Anne of Green Gables can lift mood – it will be fun to learn how an expert explains how a book can do that. In the meantime, I’m going to take a deep breath and say a little prayer for L. M. Montgomery.  I hope she is in the place depicted in one of my other favorite books of hers, Emily of New Moon, in which she describes “the flash” or veil leading to a heavenly place.  If anyone deserves to be there, it’s her.  I wrote about the flash here:

Thanks for reading!