Amis’ Sister: Depression and Religion

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The Guardian points to a statement Martin Amis made in an article in the National, a paper in Abu Dhabi about his sister Sally, who died ten years ago, in which he says:

“To this day I have this wish – she was always religious and she converted to Catholicism. I wish she had converted to Islam. She might still be alive because of the continence of Islam, the austerity, the demands it makes on you. I just sort of helplessly think it every now and then. She would only be 56 now and she’d still be here.

“She might have had a chance. She would have had to embrace it earlier than she embraced Catholicism. She was such an uncontrollable girl that there was even talk of her joining the army when she was 17 or 18 because we all sensed that she needed a really tight structure, an ésprit de corps of shared belief. Islam in its way gives you that, a collectivity that she could have been a part of, which incidentally forbade alcohol and premarital sex.”

Now, the article is an interview with Amis, unsurprisingly about his writing, his latest novel and other writing projects, and the negative press he seems to accumulate. The bit about his sister comes up in discussion of The Pregnant Widow, as he says that she is the only real person on which one of his characters is entirely based. The interview then goes on to discuss his oft-repeated statements about Islamism, not to be confused with your average, everyday, non-homicidal Islam, and ad hominem attacks that appear in the press, and, briefly, his home life.

The comment about his sister is made in passing, and is probably meant to express a simple wish that his sister had found something, anything, that would make her feel like her mind and body were worthy of respectful treatment.

That said, it is a problematic idea. Aside from making a false distinction between the rules of orthodox interpretations of Catholicism and Islam, it also implies that what his sister needed was someone to tell her what to do. These religions are considered oppressive because they devalue women; they do not ‘incidentally’ forbid anything, the rules comes from a very particular perspective. Pre-marital sex is proscribed because it is considered damaging to society and the soul: all sex is bad for you, but without God-approved monogamy, it is even worse. Clothing that covers the skin and shape of the female body is considered necessary for the sake of ‘modesty’, to protect men from sinful lust and women from, I suppose, a lack of humility. Alcohol is forbidden is Islam because it makes one ‘forgetful of God and prayer’, i.e. more likely to sin.

These restrictions would not alleviate depression, which Amis implies is the cause behind Sally’s alcoholism and promiscuity. What is interesting is that rather than wish that she had, say, been able to get successful treatment for alcoholism and depression, he wishes upon her a systematic behavioral and theistic practice. Essentially, he wishes for an undeniable parent figure, the belief in which would prohibit her self-harming behaviors, while incidentally underscoring a rather patriarchal, sex-unfriendly world view.

Depression is notoriously difficult to treat, though social attitudes towards it and available treatments have improved dramatically over the past couple of decades. Promiscuity is not, of course, necessarily negative behavior; it is only problematic when it is an indication of feelings of worthlessness and an attempt to keep and maintain approval.

The rules of organized religion are based on a series of assumptions, often including the devaluation of women, superiority of men, and viewing sex as dangerous. Faith, not rules, might give depressed people hope – indeed, a kind of christianity-lite is part of the successful Alcoholics Anonymous programme – it requires a surrender to and trust in a ‘greater power’.

Even if she had adhered to a belief system in which she neither had sex nor drank, the underlying problem would still be there, and she would, in all likelihood, find another way to hurt herself.

In the book, as the character based on Sally does unsuccessfully go through various psychiatric and institutional attempts to recover, we can assume that the real Sally probably did as well. In this case, then, Amis’ desire isn’t so much that she subscribed to Islam (or a stricter version of Catholicism), but that she would have found some belief stronger than her own negative feeling, or a straight-forward Deus Ex Machina that would cure her.

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