by Elizabeth Musser
I just launched my new novel, When I Close My Eyes, last week at the Atlanta History Center, a novel about mental illness and God’s grace. The novel opens with a hitman failing in his attempt to assassinate a middle-aged novelist. No one has ever tried to assassinate me, but I share a lot in common with that novelist because she deals with depression, and so do I.
During my speech at the History Center, I told this true story:
In September at the end of our church service in France, a middle-aged man came up to me. I’ll call him Jean-Claude. I don’t know Jean-Claude well, but I know that he tends to trap you in a corner and talk for a long time. He’s got a reputation for coming up to the preacher or worship leader in any church he attends and giving ‘constructive criticism’ about the worship style or sermon.
Well, somehow Jean-Claude found out I was a novelist. Side note #1: In French there are ‘écrivains’—which means highbrow author—and there are ‘romancière’—a novelist. I never claim to be an ‘écrivain’. I try to fly below the radar in France so that my fragile ego doesn’t get shot down. After all, I’m not published in French.
Side note #2: Our church of about forty people is using a room lent to us by the mayor while we construct our modest building. We previously met in a storefront, but it is being torn down. Anyway, we have to bring all the supplies, sound equipment, stuff for kids, etc. every Sunday morning and then empty the room after each church service.
On the Sunday morning in question, my arms were piled high with boxes to load into the church van. I was in this condition when Jean-Claude found me. And by the look in his eyes, I could see he was intent on giving me some ‘constructive criticism’.
“What’s your new novel about?” he asked.
Maybe I was itching for a fight, or maybe I just couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. I could have said something innocuous like, “Well, it’s part whodunit and part family drama.” But instead, I said, “Well, it’s about depression. I think it’s very important for Christians to address the question of depression.”
Jean-Claude thought for a moment and responded, “You know, I’ve never understood how a Christian can be depressed. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
If my husband had been standing beside me, he would have noticed the warning signs that I was annoyed by this comment. But he was across the room. To my credit, I didn’t punch Jean-Claude. I simply asked, “Have you ever been depressed?”
Of course he said, “No. Maybe a little anxious, but never depressed.”
“Well, I think it’s hard to understand depression if you haven’t been through it.”
Jean-Claude was not convinced. “I think depression is wrong for Christians.”
My hackles went up, but again, to my credit, I tried to keep my voice even. I asked, “Have you ever read the Psalms? David was certainly depressed. Many of the psalms are about lament and depression.”
“Hmm,” Jean-Claude said. I thought he was going to agree with me, and I could leave. My arms were getting a bit tired, piled with those heavy boxes. But Jean-Claude was oblivious to my discomfort. He got a glint of victory in his eyes and said, “True, David was depressed, but that was because of his sin.”
That did it! I may or may not have sounded slightly condescending when I responded, “Have you ever read the verses about how King Saul was trying to kill David? How relentlessly he pursued him? David had done nothing wrong and yet Saul wanted him dead. And David became depressed.”
Jean-Claude actually appeared to consider this, but I knew I could not trust myself in case of a negative rebuttal. Fortunately I was standing near the door, my arms still filled with those boxes. So I said as calmly as I could, “I’m sorry, but I need to go.”
Maybe I appeared calm on the outside, but inside I was fuming. But I was also thankful for my conversation with Jean-Claude. Because it confirmed to me how often mental illness and depression are misunderstood in society at large and also in the church.
I was inspired to write When I Close My Eyes, yes, to give entertainment for the soul, but also to challenge the stigma in the church that goes along with depression. If you’re a Christian and depressed, then something is really the matter with you.
Of course there’s something the matter with me, just like there’s something the matter with every one of us. We’re all just broken people in need of God’s grace. And He gives it. Freely.
Here’s my question for you, fellow novelist: how much of yourself do you dare include in your novels?
Elizabeth Musser writes ‘entertainment with a soul’ from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. Her new novel, When I Close My Eyes, just released in November of 2019. Find more about Elizabeth’s novels at www.elizabethmusser.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and her blog.