Still Life: A Book Review

Still LifeI read this book a while back, while it was in the publication process, because I agreed to consider endorsing it. After reading it, I did write an endorsement for it, and since then I’ve been waiting for it to be released so I could recommend it to others. I’m excited to say it’s here and to review it for you.

When I read Gillian Marchenko’s previous memoir, Sun Shine Down, I enjoyed her straightforward style and her willingness to be charmingly blunt about her experiences. This book is similar: it’s not a poetic look at depression or an attempt to paint herself as a Nice Christian Lady. It’s not a treatise on mental health; it’s an invitation into her story. And as she wrote in this book, “This story isn’t about my illness. This story is about my life” (p. 180).

We need more of these stories—stories of what life is like for real people who live with mental illness. We need to see that they are as completely human as everyone else, longing and hungry, funny and growing and full of life. Marchenko is a strong writer, and I’m glad she chose to write about this.

The book

Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression by Gillian Marchenko
(Published by InterVarsity Press, 2016)

What this book offers

Because this book is a memoir, it is focused on Marchenko’s experiences—especially in relationship to her family—rather than on educating the reader. The book contains some information about depression, its symptoms, and its treatment, but that information is presented in the context of the author’s process of developing, discovering, and facing her illness. It’s not organized in a way that’s designed to help the reader develop a comprehensive view of depression. That would be a task for a different book.

Instead, what this book does is invite us into a family and lead us to love them. It shows us how depression can change a person’s thinking and capacity for thought. It provides a picture of how mental illness can impair an individual, hurt a family, and deepen a person’s faith. Marchenko’s husband is a pastor, and this book shows the impact of mental illness on a family in ministry. Most powerfully, it illustrates the difference both treatment and faith can make.

Marchenko’s experience with depression is not merely a memory or a storyline; it’s a reality she lives with. So this book does not contain a neat arc of onset, diagnosis, and recovery. However, she has been on this journey for years, and she is able to show a helpful and hopeful progression in her understanding and management of the illness. She points us toward hope, both in treatment and in spiritual growth.

What I liked about this book

I actually loved this book. It’s written so honestly, and its tone is incredibly hopeful—yet it is not at all trite. Marchenko takes her own suffering seriously and does not dismiss it or make light of it. Yet she is not lost in it, and that combination will be a valuable one for many readers who have lived with the effects of mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one.

For me, one of the most powerful moments in the book (I’m not ashamed to say actual sobbing was involved) was in reading Chapter 18, a story of when Marchenko’s 13-year-old daughter, Elaina, confronted her and aired her complaints against her mom’s depression. It’s a tough scene for a mother to read, yet I admired Elaina’s courage in speaking up about the impact of her mom’s illness on the family. If you know that I once was a teenage girl living with the devastation of my own mother’s illness, it’s obvious why this touched me profoundly. I could relate, and I know how important it is for kids to be able to challenge the conspiracy of silence and the tiptoe culture that builds around such suffering. I was holding my breath as I waited for her mother’s response, and when it came it was loving and safe, rising from the strength of grace. Somehow it was a healing moment for me.

Marchenko acknowledges the spiritual crisis that goes hand-in-hand with her depression, as it does for so many other people. “How does one keep faith in silence?” she asks (p. 23). She doesn’t tell us the answer; instead she shows us as she walks right into it, one painful and determined step at a time.

I’m so glad this book isn’t full of pat answers or neat prescriptive packages. I’m equally glad it is full of hope—not the easy kind of hope that floats on foam and fantasy, but the kind you find at the bottom of the barrel. This story is beautiful, not because it’s pretty but because it is honest and because it radiates with hope.

What I would change about this book

That said, I would have liked to see more soul-level openness in this book. While Marchenko is honest about her unvarnished experiences, I would like to see more deeply into her personal process. She has offered us enough to draw us to her, and I want to understand more about her fears, her longings, and what has helped her move toward greater health.

As I read this book, I felt as if it was a painful project, which is completely understandable. I’m guessing Marchenko asked a lot of herself in revisiting the places her mind and heart have been, considering the impact of her illness on her family, and putting these words on paper. I hope she will grow to become even more vulnerable on behalf of the reader, with a true conviction that doing so is a service to others.

Who should read it

I probably can’t say it better than I already did. So here’s the endorsement I wrote for the book:

“Gillian Marchenko generously lets us know her and walk her journey, and in the process we grow to love her. You won’t find pat answers or bland reassurances here; you’ll find a real and courageous woman, a serious fight with mental illness, and faith-fueled hope. If you live with depression or care about someone who does, you must read this book.”

© 2016 Amy Simpson.