In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression


229 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 0-670-86113-8
DDC 616.85'2




Photos by Richard Rhodes
Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is an associate editor of the Canadian Book Review


John Bentley Mays, art and architecture critic for The Globe and Mail
and a lifelong depressive, describes this uncompromising memoir as “an
attempt to make visible the invisible and distorting ruin.”
Interspersed with the main text, which combines narrative and
commentaries, are entries from the author’s diary. Writes Mays:
“Some of these entries are sick with rage and the chant of
self-extinction; some are so corroded by unreason that I cannot
understand more than a few words here and there.” The reader, of
course, shares his incomprehension. But it is the very incoherence of
these savage, noxious musings that gives the memoir its authority:
unmediated and unsanitized, they stand as honest representations of a
mind deranged by its horrific encounters with the black dogs.

The author’s formidable descriptive powers are on full display in his
lush evocation of his Louisiana childhood. Orphaned at an early age and
unwanted by relatives, the young Mays, like the change-hating Quentin in
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, sought stability by clinging to the
values of the dying plantation culture (sent to southern and central
Africa as a supposed liberal-democratic emissary in 1968, he found
himself “genuinely happy only among the racists”) and by becoming,
in a process whose anticipated end was self-annihilation, “the
Edwardian boy [his father] had been before being ruined.” His loathing
of modern mass democracy was matched only by his hatred of his physical

Mays’s most virulent depression came in 1968. Since then, career
success, marriage and fatherhood, aesthetic pleasures, psychotherapy,
and daily doses of Prozac have provided comfort but no cure. In his
examination of depression and its treatment as “mass-cultural
phenomena”—a study that owes much to the theories of Michel Foucault
and Martin Heidegger—Mays rejects the Brave New Worldish equilibrium
touted by Peter D. Kramer, the Prozac-pushing author of Listening to
Prozac: “to live in ignorance of ... the suffering world,” he
concludes, “would be to live as a zombie.”

Like William Styron’s Darkness Visible, this memoir stands resolutely
apart from the chatter of false hopes exuded by the self-help industry;
here can be found, in the author’s words, “writing from the
inside—a place where there are no solutions and no promises of


Mays, John Bentley., “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 20, 2024,