DOWN CAME THE RAIN
My Journey Through Postpartum Depression
By Brooke Shields
Hyperion. 226 pp. $23.95
This is a sad, slim book. Its fascination lies in the celebrity of the author. Brooke Shields is Entertainment Royalty -- from the cover of Marie Claire to playtime with the Muppets, from starring in "Pretty Baby" at age 12 to performing on Broadway nearly 30 years later in "Wonderful Town," from a degree in French literature from Princeton to a family pedigree that includes the Emperor Charles V and Lucrezia Borgia. But after giving birth to a longed-for child, Shields suddenly sank into the self-absorbed, dulling despair of a common mental illness.
The purpose of her celebrity memoir is to ring the alarm on postpartum depression, a disorder that strikes 10 percent of women after childbirth. If someone "who has it all" can succumb to this disease, then it's not about personal weakness. Depression is an illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated.
This is an important public health message in a country where the rhetoric on magical motherhood is transcendent and social supports for healthy parenting are often nonexistent. Many mothers struggle alone to adjust to a baby. Many doctors are too rushed to look beyond the uterus. And many women (and men) slip into a fog of denial as depression brings them down into the abyss.
Shields had access to excellent medical care and loving support from family and friends. Her doctor prescribed antidepressant medicine two weeks after her daughter, Rowan, was born. Concerned friends brought her literature on postpartum depression. Her husband comes across as virtually perfect, her daughter as a model infant. But for many months, Shields remained trapped in the double prison of denial and depression.
"I felt like I was somehow not performing up to speed as a woman," she writes. "My body was not doing anything I asked of it, and I was starting to think I would never get the hang of this mothering business." She was beset with crying jags. She felt ugly. She didn't want to hold her baby. "What had I done? Why didn't I want to be near my baby?" She longed for an exit, "considered walking out of the front door and never coming back."
She turned to her mother, confiding: "I am so unhappy, and it will never get better. I hate myself. I am so sad, I'm just so sad. This is horrible. I just want to die." And then she turned on her mother, yelling: "GET OUT! GET OUT NOW, OR I'LL JUMP OUT OF THE [EXPLETIVE] WINDOW!"
It's a slow journey, back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, between breakdowns and triumphs, between changing medications and changing locations. Still, the official life of Brooke Shields is a fairy tale, and fairy tales have happy endings. With medication, therapy and time, she bonded with her daughter. On Rowan's first birthday, mother and daughter acted out the verse of "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and the title of her book, "down came the rain" was followed by "out came the sun."
But this fairy-tale quality is a problem in the book. When Shields talks about her newfound empathy for working mothers, for example, she sounds more like Marie Antoinette complimenting dairy maids. She lives in a world of nannies and a workplace where she can bring along her baby, arrange her own schedule, choose her assignments -- and never worry about money.
Her very controlled monologue swings between black (self-blaming quotes) and white (descriptions of child and husband) without the vivid, messy colors of reality in between that are essential to true confession. In one scene when the baby starts to howl in her grandmother's arms, Shields observes: "The fact that I meant more to [Rowan] than my mother was monumental," adding in a flat, skimming tone that dominates the book, "It is embarrassing to admit, but it is no secret that I had -- and still have, to a certain extent -- an incredibly complex relationship with my mother." Much seems to take place offstage.
Instead there are pages of mind-numbing details about getting on planes, visiting Santa at Macy's, "lugging things like a sterilizer and a Pack 'n Play" to the hotel. The narrative of her journey is as narrowly focused as the disease. As she writes, "Depression is a very self-absorbing affliction, and when you are in it, it is so overwhelming that it's hard to think of anybody else."
This extraordinary, talented woman has more to tell us about the larger journey of her life.