One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival
“Antrim’s memoir is indeed sad but also moving, insightful, and ultimately, for the writing of it, which is proof of survival, hopeful.”
Renowned novelist Donald Antrim's memoir, One Friday in April, is an investigation into his severe, life-threating depression, a recurring illness that one day, the Friday in April referred to in the title, pushed him to the brink of suicide, quite literally.
He opens the book recounting this day, which he spent most of pacing the roof of his four-story apartment building in Brooklyn, New York, and descending to the fire escape, on that brink, preparing to jump to his death. Antrim, does not call his illness "depression," though; rather he prefers the term suicide, which he describes as "a natural history, a disease process . . . an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging."
As if to illustrate what he means, his memoir is structured as a dual narrative that tracks his disease as a process occurring over time. The foreground story recalls the fraught moments on that day in April: phone calls to friends; what he sees on the ground below his perch on the fire escape ("patio littered with trash" and "a barbecue and a picnic table"), or above him (clouds, and people on neighboring decks enjoying cocktails after work); his mental machinations as he climbs from the fire escape back to the roof (he could not tell that he had been out there for five hours).
From this "present" story about his position back and forth between the roof and the fire escape, and then the ensuing weeks of treatment, he shifts seamlessly into background narrative that recalls the pain of his childhood: his alcoholic mother, who suffered from her mother's Munchausen syndrome by proxy, as well as his own childhood, during which he endured ever-changing homes, alcoholic parents, and domestic violence. "They drank and drank, my mom and dad. They drank through the night," Antrim writes, plainly, as if in a child's voice. "I can see them, sitting in chairs with their cigarettes piling up in ashtrays besides them." It is these keenly observed and haunting details from both narratives—the crux moment on that day in April and Antrim's childhood—that make the story vivid, gripping, and deeply heartbreaking.
While the day in question, that April day, is years past when Antrim writes this memoir, the account has an immediacy that transports readers into those dangerous and despairing moments as if they were unfurling in the now. There are no chapter or even section breaks; the story unspools almost as a stream-of-consciousness, his memories of childhood enjambed with present moments: riding in a car to an orthopedic clinic (for purported shoulder pain that was clearly an acute attack of anxiety and despair) evokes a memory of riding in a car at aged seven with his grandparents through the Smoky Mountains and becoming car sick. This memory segues into a contemplation of why he was with his grandparents. Had they taken him and his sister away from their parents, at a time when his parents' marriage was ending? And then quite suddenly Antrim is at the clinic for his shoulder, pleading with the receptionist to see a doctor.
A few weeks after Antrim nearly committed suicide, he enters a psychiatric clinic at the behest of an old friend from college who'd become a psychiatrist. His descriptions of being on the psychiatric unit are reminiscent of W3, a memoir by Bette Howland about her stint in a psychiatric ward, first published in 1974 and reissued in 2014. Howland's memoir is more lyrical, but less introspective than Antrim's. Yet it is this introspection—Antrim's keen desire to understand himself, his life, and his illness—that lends his story a gut-wrenching poignancy. "We don't understand, as children, that our loneliness and lack of care will become a fate," he writes, "loneliness that we will feel all our lives."
Antrim has managed to write a compelling, close-up account of his depression, from the near-suicidal moment one April day, to glimpses into his highly dysfunctional childhood, through to his struggles as an adult, with enough distance to examine cause and effect, and to give readers some relief from the relentless weight of despair. He has written a granular and thoughtful story of life-threatening depression that is not, to the reader, depressing. Instead, Antrim’s memoir is indeed sad but also moving, insightful, and ultimately, for the writing of it, which is proof of survival, hopeful.