Book Review: Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace recounts in time-shifting chapters the author’s depression, pharmaceutical cure, and subsequent formative experience as a freelance war correspondent reporting from the siege of Sarajevo in 1993-4. The parallel stories are interesting and vividly told. But readers expecting something heavy, along the lines of William Styron’s depression memoir Darkness Visible, will be in for a surprise. Falk’s fast pace, breezy style and sense of humor make this relatively short book a quick and worthwhile read.

John Falk had at least two advantages over many depression sufferers. First, he had a large and supportive family. Second, his mother, having dealt with the illness previously in her family, appreciated his sufferings and tried unceasingly to help. The author’s relatively good luck is the reader’s as well, for it causes his story to shine an unusually clear light on depression’s most insidious aspect: the way it directs the victim to blame himself, to feel his pain and detachment as a personal failing rather than an illness, and to cut himself off from potential sources of help.

I knew I had a big problem… but never once did I think even the word depression. To me, it was the life I was leading, a life in serious need of an overhaul. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t different… It was my fault… I was the one who had built this prison for myself.

And when Prozac helps his sister, he reacts not with hope or even sympathy but with defensive anger:

“Sara, listen to me: I’m not taking any fucking drug… I’m not gonna cheat.” Then in the most obnoxious way I could, I whispered, “Prozac’s for losers.”

Falk’s good at giving the reader a feel for what cannot be expressed in words:

“It’s hard to describe accurately what complete hopelessness feels like because ultimately it’s a perfect void, a state of nothing. There’s nothing at stake. Reason doesn’t apply, logic is useless, and faith is something for fools.

But he’s also adept at reporting on the real world. Not coincidentally, immediately after his rescue by the antidepressant Zoloft he made a beeline for one of the worst places one could be at that time: Sarajevo, a ruined city with a terrified population surrounded by snipers. (Not a bad correlate for a depressive’s brain, actually.) Falk’s depiction of the way Sarajevo’s families tried to continue normal life under hellish conditions – constant danger, no electricity, food shortages – is both heartbreaking and inspiring. In spite of their own hardships, several families took him in, and lasting friendships resulted; Falk eventually helped three young Bosnians escape to attend school in America.

Falk writes with humor:

The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers… A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace’s living room.

and with evocative color:

The two [Bosnians] … were scheming together to sneak through the siege lines and make it to London.

“God,” the short one said to me. “Will you look at that. It’s almost pretty in a way, isn’t it?” He was pointing out the window with his Gauloises at the tracer fire I had noticed earlier, only now there were green tracers as well as red arcing across the sky.

“I believe the green are ours,” the tall one said.

But occasionally the language jars, as when Falk refers to a group of young women as “chicks,” or sacrifices grammar for colloquial familiarity: “my inner thighs burned so bad it felt as if I’d just dismounted a Brillo pad.” This inconsistency of tone is a small flaw, however, and doesn’t persist after the first few chapters. A bigger problem is that both stories – Falk’s battle with clinical depression, and his wartime adventures – seem a little sketchy. The Bosnian tales are so interesting (the most dramatic of them became the HBO film “Shot Through the Heart”) that one wishes they’d been told at greater length. And the memoir of illness and recovery, while intense and dramatic, leaves one wishing the author had gone deeper.

Of course, depression is an illness that can leave long stretches of one’s life essentially blank. It may be that we should be grateful for people like Falk who have good enough memories, and write well enough, to even partially convey what the depths of the illness are like. There are so many sufferers who can’t speak for themselves, locked in their own thoughts as they are – or dead of it.