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Tracking 45 years of depression in notes

John Summers, an editor of the Cambridge-based magazine known as The Baffler, says the monumentally sad story in the latest issue is unlike anything you’ve ever read. And he’s right.

Called “The Endlessly Examined Life,” the piece is about writer George Scialabba’s battle with chronic depression. But what makes the 8,000-word story so remarkable is that it’s told not by a reporter or by Scialabba, but through the notes of the half dozen or so psychiatrists who’ve treated Scialabba over the past 45 years.

“I don’t think this has ever been done before,” Summer told us Tuesday. “Have you ever read anyone’s clinical diagnostic notes? People have written memoirs about depression, sure, but we found no precedent for this.”


Is your interest piqued? Summers, Scialabba, and Gary Greenberg will talk about the story — and about depression, generally — at the Lily Pad in Cambridge Thursday.

Scialabba, whom Harvard professor James Wood has called “one of America’s best all-round intellects,” is a prize-winning book critic whose reviews have appeared in the Globe, Dissent, The Nation, The American Prospect, and elsewhere. But instead of teaching or writing, he works as a clerk at Harvard.

“George is a cult figure. His writing is like caviar in an intellectual world starved for truth,” says Summers. “And he works in a basement. He’s basically been permanently disabled by depression.”

Scialabba wrote the introduction and the afterward to the Baffler piece, but the rest are the notes of doctors. Summers acknowledges they’re dry, even boring, but that’s what makes them interesting.

“George has had chronic depression since 1969, and every time he’d see a new doctor he’d tell them the same story,” said Summers. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ He’s been telling his story to someone who doesn’t have time to listen.”