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LM Montgomery, Suicide and Depression

Recently one of my friends from church has suffered the loss of her father due to mental illness.  I thought it was very brave of my friend to be so upfront about saying this, because it takes some of the stigma away from depression and other mental health issues. 

Another family that has done an enormous public service along this vein is the Montgomery family, the heirs to Lucy Maud Montgomery who was the author of Anne of Green Gables and other beloved classics.  When Canadian television ran a documentary about suicide and depression, the Montgomery family released their long held family secret, in the hope of helping others.  LM Montgomery had succumbed to a life-long battle with depression and ended her own life.

When I read this as an adult I was truly shocked.  My two favorite authors growing up were LM Montgomery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  As it turns out, The Little House on the Prairie series was most likely written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo’s brilliant and unhappy daughter who also suffered from depression.  So now it turns out that the entire body of work (exclusive of the Bible), that was critical to my identity formation as a young tween was written by two women who suffered from mental illness.

In retrospect, the revelation about LM Montgomery makes a lot of sense.  If you have read any of her work you know that she often described what she called “white nights”.  These were times when her characters work up at 3AM and brooded; worrying so much that they were unable to fall asleep.  As an adult I can see that sure, everyone goes through tough times at one point or another and has trouble sleeping, but to actually have this happen to you so often that you name it, could be a sign of mental distress.

Another common element of LM Montgomery’s work was her characters expressing the point of view that there was only one path for them, towards happiness.  In the Emily of New Moon series, this was termed “the Alpine Path”.  As a child, I took this a gospel truth; that smart, brilliant people were hard-core and pursued their goals single mindedly whatever the cost.  Now as an adult, I can see how psychologically detrimental that narrative can be.  Happiness is a choice, not a state of being, and there are many avenues towards achieving a happy life.  When I was 18 I got turned down by Harvard, but I went to Stanford instead and that ended up being okay!  🙂

I still absolutely love all of LM Montgomery’s work.  Plot-lines, creativity, passion, funambulism with scenic descriptions… To this day, she remains one of my top five favorite authors of all time.  I would be devastated if my either of my children did not love her work as much as I do.  But when Bruce and Jenna do read Montgomery’s books someday, I’m going to have a lot of new talking points to discuss with them.  I am also saddened that LM Montgoemery did not live in a time where modern medicine could have done more to help her.


6 Comments

  1. Claire H. says:

    There’s an interesting theory that the increase in treating mental illness may be hurting creativity in our society. I had a consultation with a pediatric neurologist today for my autistic child, and we coincidentally discussed this very topic when I mentioned that my brother (who is a musician and was diagnosed with ADHD as a child) decided to stop taking Ritalin when he finished high school. She said that the very traits that can make someone seem ADHD in certain settings (like the very traditional school we attended) are actually benefits in more creative fields. The trick is finding the right balance between creativity and alleviating unnecessary suffering.

  2. jengod says:

    OK, I actually looked up funambulism. Cool word!

    My feeling on the Laura/Rose thing is that the majority of memories and descriptions are absolutely Laura’s, but Rose may have engineered the “story arcs” or decided how to parse the material. I like to give Laura more credit than is currently trendy. 🙂

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I’m torn, but the Little Town on the Prairie Fourth of July chapter/original manuscript is what makes me think that most of the credit goes to Rose. I think that Laura wrote out her memories in the first draft, and that Rose heavily edited them all beyond recognition, with the exception of the last two books. I think that The First Four Years is probably the closest to what Laura’s original writing would be like.

  3. Nicol says:

    I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was a teenager. I think of it now and it still brings very fond memories. I didn’t know that Montgomery suffered with depression or that she took her life. I am grateful to live in a time when we do have modern medicine to help with mental illness. Yes, for some it is not enough, but grateful for the help it gave me. I had severe postpartum depression after I had my second child. I don’t know where I would be today without the help of medications.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I am very glad you were born in the 1900s and not the 1800s! Think what “a better life for her family” LM Montgomery could have had if she had been born in a different era. Hopefully in upcoming years science will find out even more about depression and postpartum depression.

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