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'Other People': A Family Portrait Of Depression

A Life Like Other People's

"Every family has a secret and the secret is that it's not like other families," Alan Bennett writes in A Life Like Other People's.  This family memoir, extracted from his 2006 autobiographical volume, Untold Stories, is at once a touching portrait of his parents, "the tenderest and most self-sufficient couple," and a sobering tale of depression and dementia.

Bennett, the British dramatist best known on this side of the Atlantic for the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, and his stage and screenplay versions of The History Boys and The Madness of King George, first uncovered a deep family secret in 1966, when he was 32.  He and his father were checking his mother into a mental hospital for depression, the first of what would be many hospitalizations.  When asked if there was other mental illness in the family, Bennett unhesitatingly answered no. "After all, I'm the educated one in the family. I've been to Oxford. If there had been 'anything like this' I should have known about it."

He was wrong. What he learned was that his maternal grandfather, William Peel, had not died of a heart attack in 1925, at 55, as he'd been told, but had drowned himself in the local canal.

His mother's paranoia and despair first emerged after his parents moved from Leeds, where they'd raised Alan and his older brother, to a house with a garden in a small village in the Dales. It was a promised land for his father, at long last retired from butchering, an occupation he'd been pushed into at 11 by his nasty stepmother. Yet if Walt Bennett resented the intrusion on his idyll by his wife's illness and being thrown into the role of caretaker, he never complained.

His son complains, however. Thirty-five years after his father's death from heart failure in 1974, Bennett repeatedly remarks that "it was conscientiousness and devotion to duty that killed him," especially driving 50 miles to and from the hospital every single day for visits. With his father gone, Bennett is left "saddled with" his mother, until his brother, "always more decent with my mother than I am," steps in to "eventually shoulder the burden." She ends up in a nursing home with dementia, where she lingers until 1995, "waiting without thought or feeling until the decay of the body catches up with the decay of the mind and they can cross the finishing line together."

Bleak? A bit. But leavened, too, by Bennett's ability to set a scene, and hints of the sly humor that made his last novel, The Uncommon Reader -- a satire about the queen getting caught up in the joys of literature -- so beguiling. Lively portraits of his unconventional aunties are classic Bennett, as is this description of seeing his grandmother in her coffin when he was 16: "[I remember] feeling that with the quilted surround and the wimpled face she'd somehow found her way into a chocolate box."

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Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.