There are whole books devoted to demonstrating the power of the written word to soothe pain and heal the tortured mind, the most prominent perhaps “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.”And there are studies of the brain showing how the healing happens. There’s even a name for the practice of prescribing literature for its rehabilitative effects: “bibliotherapy.”
But for a deeply personal example — powerful and searing in part because of the youth of the writer — the experience of 16-year-old Aidan Kingwell of Oak Park, Ill., who read a poem that helped convince her life was worth living at a time she doubted it, is hard to match.
Kingwell wrote about her experience with the poem as an entry in the 2015 Library of Congress “Letters About Literature” contest, in which high-school and middle-school students from across the country write letters to authors who have influenced them. Entering the contest was an assignment from her English teacher, Mary Marcotte, at Fenwick High School, a Catholic school in Oak Park.
The choice of topic, a brave one, was Kingwell’s. She addressed her “letter about literature” to the poet Mary Oliver about the poem “When Death Comes.” (Go to page 10 to read it. You can hear Mary Oliver read the poem here.)
“I had been depressed since age ten,” she wrote in her “Dear Mary” letter, “but had never received any treatment. My mind was very dark … I was someone who was simultaneously terrified of dying, and yet obsessed with the very idea. I was also suicidal, which is a state of being that I cannot well describe, because there are not words that can describe such utter loss of hope, such bitterness and pain and unrelenting sorrow. I wanted to end my life so badly that most days I could not find one single reason for living.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Kingwell said that so many of the feelings she later understood to be depression were easy to gloss over as teenage angst. She felt sad because she had switched schools — totally normal. She was withdrawn because she felt she didn’t fit in. She didn’t fit in because she dressed differently — like a boy. And she was bullied. Middle school is rough.
But inside her mind was rougher. She said she grew isolated and began to feel “hopeless.” There was “not a lot in my life that told me it was going to be okay,” she said, just “a quiet relenting acceptance that things are bad and they’re not going to get any better.”
That was about the time her English teacher assigned her Oliver’s poem. The poem was dark, Kingwell’s teacher told her, but ultimately a poem of hope.
“I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” is the final line of the poem, and the one that seems to have resonated most with Kingwell.
In her letter to “Dear Mary,” she explained: “When you spoke of not wanting to have simply visited this world, my own world turned upside down. I began to think about how horrible it would be to have only been a visitor, in the way that you said; to not have made my mark on the world, to have only passed through with no real substance. I thought of a life lived entirely in absence of beauty and amazement, a life barren of love or excitement or laughter.
“I began to realize that that was what suicide would do to me. I saw that life was fast becoming my own. I saw killing myself would take me away before I even had the chance to make something of my life. Suicide would eliminate my pain, yes, but it also closed any doors of possibility that I might have still open to me; doors that may lead to happiness in my future.”
In her interview with The Post, Kingwell chose not to answer when asked whether she ever attempted to take her life.
The poem did not suddenly turn everything around. But it seems to have opened her eyes and given her what was missing: namely, hope.
Still, at 14 she went off to summer camp in Vermont. “I would have anxiety attacks and start crying for no reason. I would feel this absolutely crushing sense of badness and hopelessness. For a few hours, I’d be okay and then it would start all over again,” she said in the interview. “When my parents came to pick me up, they realized it was something more.”
That’s when she started seeing a psychologist and, ultimately, going on medication.
The dark moods still come back, she said, and when they do, she returns to the poem, “When Death Comes,” which is framed on her wall.
She’s “in a better place,” she said. She acts in plays and competes in lacrosse, in a “quiz bowl” and on an engineering team. She’s got her eye on college and the future.
The fact that she won first place nationally in the Library of Congress competition is beside the point, as is the fact that she doesn’t know whether Oliver has ever seen the letter.
The point, she said, is the “epiphany” she had at the tender age of 13 — and the message she now wants to send three years later, at the less tender age of 16.
“I was thinking about kids who might be now like I was when I was 13,” she told The Post. “I wanted to speak directly to them, and want to say directly to them: ‘Please, I know how hard it is to be accepting of yourself when no one else is … Please keep fighting. It will get better. Things will get better. I promise.'”
And she knows, as she wrote in her letter, that “I am still alive today,” in part, thanks to a poem.
Aidan Kingwell’s entire “Dear Mary” letter is available here.