Depression and Reflections on PETA’s ‘night, Mother’

PETA’s adaptation of Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother is an honest, harrowing take on depression and death. The almost 90-minute act is filled with the mellow sense of impending doom, accentuated by the ticking of the set’s clock. PETA’s adaptation reminds one of a deep sense of familiarity. The setting is reminiscent of most Filipino households, the kitchen-sala, the mini-altar with “Papa Jesus” and “Mama Mary” with its palaspas and other religious paraphernalia; the only thing missing is the foreboding framed picture of the Last Supper in the dining area.

The story centers on Jessie (Eugene Domingo) and her old mother, Thelma (Sherry Lara), as the former reveals her plan to take her own life that very night. Death is made the butt of comedy and tragedy in Thelma’s bid to convince Jessie not to push through with her plan. Jessie’s decision is framed against her illness-ridden, marriage-wrecked, and melancholy life. It is revealed that Jessie is struggling with chronic depression. Thelma appeals to sentiments and nostalgia, oscillates between reason and emotion, but Jessie remains unmoved, and consummates the deed. The audience is left in shock by the shot as the lights go out.

Communicating despair

The sky’s sparkle pierces my heart,

Today, once again, I look into the distance and cry.

It’s so sad, so sad, I can’t bear it,

Shall I tell someone about this miserable sadness?

~ Kanashikute Yarikirenai (I Can’t Bear How Sad It Is), 2017

‘night, Mother attempts to communicate depression, in this case, at its bleakest stage. Truth be told, the narrative opens to more questions than answers, as all cases of depression do. Jessie cites generalizations on aspects of human misery, personally and socially, but never mentions any particularity. In bits and pieces, we are made aware of the psychological and physical toll that she has already suffered from her epilepsy, her failed marriage, her failed motherhood. Could it be that depression is the sum of all miseries that has taken an all-consuming, almost physical form?

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The gamble of communicating one’s depression carries with it the risks of misunderstanding and indifference. To be able to communicate one’s despair of life, in life, one must be able to describe it, but how does one describe, in understandable human terms, a sadness so deep and painful to the body?

To give voice to despair is the first hurdle, what happens next hinges on how the hearer responds. Most of the time, misunderstanding occurs. Depression is conveniently labeled as a phase, attributed to the lack of spirituality or physical activity; worse, they call it a figment of imagination, a product of too much immersion in the realms of fantasy and reality. And so, these well-meaning, but ill-understanding people, prescribe diversions, activities, “hobbies”, to veer away the victim’s attention towards other mundane tasks; a fact that is revealed as Jessie unmasks her mother’s true intentions at letting her run their domestic affairs.

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In more unfortunate instances, the attempt to communicate one’s depression is met with indifference. Willful misunderstanding is committed by the hearer and disregards the need to address the true causes of depression. Sadness, appetite loss, withdrawal from socialization, prolonged, heavy silences are only effects. And some people, even caring family members, unable to accept the reality of the situation, and their impotence to solve it, ignore the issue, hoping it will lead to its extinction.

“Isn’t our life miserable enough? Who, in God’s name, would seek to prolong it?”, so says Edgar Allan Poe in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. Misunderstanding and indifference intensifies the isolation, and without further recourse, the victim is pushed to the abyss, to death—the inevitable, the seemingly logical solution.

The Negativity of Suicide

How should one call a victim’s death by depression? Suicide; it comes off so medical, so scientific, it becomes devoid of the personal. How about “took her own life”? too poetic; nothing is ever poetic in death. Well then, how about, “killed herself”? too vulgar; it seems as if the victim came with all barbarity against her existence. The limits of language show us the problem of interpreting death by depression.

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How should we attach meaningfulness to this kind of death? Can we even do so?

The negativity of death always looms over those who die by suicide. Some of them are deemed cowards, they gave up the fight too soon; some are called selfish: they refused to share the burden, especially with their loved ones. But, truth be told, it is the “surprise” of death, and the inability of those left behind to reconcile and accept their failure to solve it that results in these kinds of negative attachments to suicide, more so with depression-induced suicides.

The negativity of Jessie’s eventual suicide haunts Thelma: how could she, a mother, in her own home, in her presence, allow such a despicable deed? She berates Jessie for the burden of explanation that she will have to bear: what would she say to the police? to her brother? She would be under scrutiny because her impotent presence made her daughter’s suicide possible.

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Here lies an inconvenient truth: in one way or another, those who are left behind are accomplices to the victim’s suicide. Their failure to help or their apathy serves testifies against them.

Fortunately for Thelma, Jessie provides her an assuring, “socially-acceptable” excuse. “Tell them it was due to personal reasons.”, Jessie casually tells her mother. That’s right. Gloss it over with the personal, with the private; no one should dare pry on the secrets of the dead. Not here, especially not here in this country known for its hospitality and warm smiles. No, we do not talk of depression. We do not pry into its secrets. We do not want to.

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Much of our prejudice against suicide is framed against the Christian worldview that frowns upon the act because life has never been ours to begin with. Therefore, to kill one’s self is an act of theft, a rebellion against the Creator. I think we regard suicide as one of the greatest sins because suicide is the human act of killing “God” in himself, or more radically speaking, suicide is the act by which God kills God in Man.

The Positivity of Suicide

Jessie’s suicide, however, was not sudden; it was planned. This is a case-in-point, one which Thelma accedes to that it would have far been easier if Jessie just left a note. It would have been easier if they just went on through their nocturnal routine, and allowed the “surprise” to just come by. The audience is made aware of the inevitable from the very start. We, the audience, we who are near are impotent to stop the bloody deed from happening. We are all Thelma at this point.

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Jessie says that she will die that night. And no, she is not sick; she feels well, clear-headed. She has waited for this moment when everything around her is stable. If the same state had occurred to her earlier, she would have gone earlier. She is composed, lucid as she states her will to carry out her own demise.

Thelma reasons out that there’s so much more to life, better days ahead: her son would turn a new leaf, her husband reconciled to her. Jessie assures her that she knows but she chooses not to. She has chosen to say “No” to the future; “No” to hope. She knows the choices, and she consciously chose death. She is set, determined; she is in possession of all her, she has set things in order, and even prepared for the aftermath.

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In the face of such audacity, such determination, who are we to stop it? To prevent it is a form of insult to the living dead, and rob her of her liberation. She who chooses to die willfully by her own hand, gives her death a positivity, a sense of magnanimity.

Suicide and the Samurai

Most people are familiar with the close relationship between the samurai, the warrior class of feudal Japan, and the subject of suicide. The ritual suicide by which these warriors became known for is called seppuku, which means literally “to cut the belly” (hara-kiri is the vulgar term less used by the Japanese). By cutting open his stomach, pulling out his intestines, and lingering out until he dies, the samurai “shows” and proves the sincerity (makoto) of his convictions. That is why even in defeat, the samurai who dies by his own hand is never considered disgraced. For, according to Bushido, no coward or unworthy samurai is able or allowed to perform the deed.

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Man should die not out of defeatist resignation and fear, but out of firm conviction. To be able to die consciously and with a lucid mind shows a deep sense of responsibility and sincerity, and therefore, has also been practiced by non-samurai as a sign of protest and resistance. The death of a sincere person is a shame to the living, and so must be rectified.

Jessie states that as she has the strength to live, so also, she has the strength to die. And she chooses to die, not out of resignation, but out of the knowledge that she is finally able to put an end to her suffering through her own means. Her suicide would be her pièce de résistance. That is why Jessie’s death should stand outside the negativity of suicide, as well as those with similar situations.

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By responsibly dying, consciously choosing it, Jessie affirms her convictions, and chooses to live/die by them. Why should she submit to the imposition of an uncertain future? Why submit to blind optimism and expected hopefulness? To a soul in depression, hope can be the most cruel form of torture.

“But Jessie or any other person are not samurai.” is an argument that misses the point. I contend that even the would-be dead have their own living convictions with which they wish to follow through even in death.

Of Living and Dying

We, the living, have the capacity to impose meaning, and so the value of death is left to our discretion. Jessie is dead. Robbin Williams is dead. Both creatures of the theater, they died willingly by their own hands due to depression.

Should we say that their deaths are poor expressions of struggle? No. Those who die by and in depression do not die a “dog’s death”. If any, they were brave, honest, to pursue the most radical solution. Unpleasant, unorthodox, yes, but a solution nonetheless.

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Present treatments of depression are of psychiatric care and medication. But, “What if death were answer?”, asks Elie Wiesel’s fellow inmate in Auschwitz. Indeed, euthanasia, or assisted death/suicide (aka, mercy killing) for the terminally ill has become a legal medical remedy in select countries. Of course, the applicability of “medical suicide” as a remedy to the “terminally depressed” is currently out of the question in this “Christian” nation. Maybe in time we will encounter it, but now, we will have to put up with drugs and therapies.

Suicide is a form of freedom. I am reminded of Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) where the heroine, to gain freedom, is instructed to secure five items, of which, the unspecified fifth item requires deep sacrifice but brings perfect victory.

Depression is a miser: it exists at the expense of its host and dies when its host expires. In death, Jessie found a sure way to end her suffering. The struggle for freedom always involves deep sacrifice, and in extreme cases, freedom demands the willingness to give up one’s life.

Editor’s Note: Mental Health is a serious issue that we have to address. Depression, on the other hand, is a condition that must be tackled sensitively.

In the Philippines, there is a national hotline for mental health assistance. For anyone who needs help, they may contact HOPELINE through the numbers 804-4673 and 0917-558-4673. 

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