pulp (2006-34)

Little Bundle of Sadness

Adrienne Martini revisits the terrors of postpartum depression in ‘Hillbilly Gothic’

by Jeanne McDonald

Among women, Adrienne Martini is now legend. With her recently published book, Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood (Free Press/Simon and Schuster, $23), Martini, former arts & entertainment editor at Metro Pulse , has become an intercessor for every new mother who suffers the devastating syndrome of postpartum depression. She begins her powerful, gut-wrenching story with this breathtaking paragraph: “My family has a grand tradition. After a woman gives birth, she goes mad. I thought that I would be the one to escape. Given my spectacular failure, my hope is now that my daughter will be the one.”

Throughout this graphic and terrifying memoir, Martini spares no one, not her readers, not her relatives, and—bravest of all—not even herself. She is brutally honest to the point of evoking tears from the reader, who realizes that Martini must have shed many tears herself during the writing of this book as she relived those terrifying months after the birth of her daughter—months of guilt, fear and shame.

“This cautionary tale,” she says, “is my attempt to untangle my family’s history of mental illness. It is a story of mothers and daughters as well as a journey in search of absolution… about being at your most unbalanced when the rest of society expects you to be at your most joyful… [T]he past must be understood and, in some sense, loved, in order to be overcome.”

The mental health literature on PPD estimates that the milder syndrome, “baby blues,” affects from 60 to 80 percent of new mothers (and 10 percent of fathers, who, The New York Times reported on Aug. 6, 2006, feel “overwhelmed” or “frustrated”). Statistics for women with the more serious effects of postpartum depression number between 10 and 20 percent. Symptoms resulting from wild hormonal changes and exacerbated by previous bouts with depression include shame, sadness, suicidal thoughts and insomnia.

In hindsight, Martini fits the pieces of the puzzle together: “In many ways,” she says, “my depression was the end state of an almost perversely natural progression. My teen years had been full of undiagnosed fits of melancholy… In my early twenties, I scared the bejeezus out of a psychiatry intern by bursting into tears… and not being able to stop.”

But even in the most terrifying situations, Martini never loses her sense of humor. In her wickedly comic and conversational style, she outlines the progression that leads to what she calls “the day I admit defeat”—pregnancy, difficult delivery, failed and humiliating attempts at breastfeeding. Nonstop weeping, sleeplessness, exhaustion, the terror of being alone with her child. She doesn’t forget “those brief windows where I am in love with my Madeline…,” but as fatigue and chemical changes take over, she describes the baby’s flailing arms and legs as “tentacles from some alien species, one that mimics being human only until you turn out the lights. Then it leaps from its crib, eats your face, and sucks the life out of you. God, I’m tired.”

So it’s no surprise that Martini, after a shower involving a fantasy of razor blades and wrists, decides to check herself into the psych ward of a local hospital. (Her readers have been aching for her to do so since page two of the memoir.) There she reviews her family history of depression: “My maternal great-grandmother abandoned her kids, fell into a bottle, and was never heard from again… My mother’s mother hopped in and out of mental hospitals… My mother’s brother… killed himself after he got back from Vietnam. My cousin, after giving birth to her first baby, couldn’t stop laughing and did some serious time in the Psych Ward. [M]y grandmother darn near succeeded in killing herself… [M]y mother… was often… sobbing in her bedroom for hours on end.”

But Martini, like any good writer, uses her experience for story fodder, recording in her journal tidbits like “Angola (a patient) is running up the hallway, naked… She is pretty spry, that Angola, even if time has not been kind to her backside.” 

When Martini went home and wrote an article for Metro Pulse that formed the nucleus of this book, she received grateful mail from dozens of misunderstood women who had also experienced PPD, and now Martini has become their well-informed voice. Her MP piece won “Best Feature Story” honors in the Association of Alternative Newspapers competition that year. These days the author is a college teacher and award-winning writer living in upstate New York with her husband Scott, daughter Maddy, and son Cory, the second child she bravely dared to bring into this world, but this time with support mechanisms in place.

Pregnant or depressive or not, you must read this book. Not only is it compelling and beautifully written: It is a vital chapter in the vast compendium of human experience. And when you stand in line at the supermarket and see tabloid photos of new mother Katie Holmes, eyes flat and mouth contorted in a vain attempt to smile, you’ll want to send Tom Cruise a copy with a note attached.

Hillbilly Gothic is available here .