Why Katharine Graham can talk about depression Malaise: Some 40 years ago, the tough former publisher of the Washington Post came face to face with an illness that had a grip on her husband. It didn't let go.

Katharine Graham doesn't think she'll be able to tell a gathering of psychiatrists, psychotherapists and other mental health experts much about clinical depression, or at least much more than they already know.

But she may be wrong. She might tell them some of the ways it can change people -- not the afflicted, but those close to them; and now and again even positively.


She has no speech prepared for her presentation Thursday to the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, but she will answer questions that relate to her particular knowledge of this insidious disease. The experience that qualifies her to speak was acquired during the nearly seven years she struggled to ameliorate its affliction of her husband, the former publisher of the Washington Post.

That struggle ended on Aug. 3, 1963, when Philip L. Graham shot himself to death.


Graham was one of the bright young men of his time: Harvard Law School, editor of the law review, clerk to the legal titan Felix Frankfurter. He was raised in moderate circumstances -- his father was a gold-mining engineer -- but became well-connected in Washington at an early age.

Graham married Katharine Meyer with a promise never to take anything from her wealthy father, Eugene Meyer, except his daughter. He wound up with the daughter and Meyer's newspaper, the Post. Meyer apparently never thought of his daughter when choosing his successor, and his only son was studying medicine. So he settled on his son-in-law.

But after Phil Graham's suicide, Katharine Graham took over as publisher.

She recounts the events of those years in her autobiography, "Personal History," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize this year.

Her observations are important for many reasons. They offer a perspective on the great progress made in dealing with this illness that cripples so many people. The American Psychiatric Association says 9.4 million Americans suffer from depression during any six months. "One in four women and one in 10 men can expect to develop it during their lifetime," reads an APA pamphlet.

It was 41 years ago when the self-effacing and reticent wife of the Post's ambitious young publisher first encountered the disease, saw it manifest itself in her husband.

"He was in real tears and desperation; he was sort of powerless, immobilized," she said recently at her Georgetown mansion, recalling that day in 1957 when her husband had what she thought of as "a complete nervous breakdown."

That was the first time.


Back then treatment for depression consisted of psychotherapy and electric shock, or both. As prevalent as it was, they were the only options: talk and electricity. Cure rates were not encouraging.

"There really wasn't much else," Graham said, as if she were speaking of times before the circulation of the blood was known, the discovery of bacteria made. That long ago.

The worse was to come. Her husband's behavior deteriorated further, his behavior worsened. Added to this was a slowly dawning realization that not only were treatment options limited, but people's attitudes toward depression -- any mental illness -- were such as to lead relatives of afflicted people to take measures not in the best interest of the patient or the family.

Like trying to keep it a secret.

This was paramount in Graham's mind and, surprisingly, something encouraged by Dr. Leslie Farber, the psychiatrist treating her husband.

The story of Farber, who even avoided using the word "depression," is vividly narrated in "Personal History." But the decision to keep her husband's illness concealed, not only from the world but from their children, raised Katharine Graham's stress to an unbearable degree. She had no one to talk to; no one to help. She was behind the door alone, with a man slowly going to pieces.


"I had no idea what to do," she said. "And what I did, which is what I was kind of pushed to do, was to talk to him. Try to talk him out of these depressions, in which he was just so desperate.

"It was out of necessity," she continued. "It was something I sort of felt my way into, because he wanted me there every minute of the time. And I was trying to help him by talking, saying, 'You're all right. You're great. You'll get over this.' Sometimes I literally would talk for eight hours at a time to him. And then he'd say, 'Now I think I feel all right,' and then in half an hour he'd be back again. And I would just start in again. It was very wearing, and not particularly productive."

So Graham talked on. Day after day, night after night. And during the years-long struggle a change came over her. Something was being born as Philip Graham was dying. Katharine Graham was learning how to talk. She learned how to present herself. In her own words, she grew up.

It's an odd thing for a woman now 80 years old to be admitting she was not grown up back then, in her early 40s. But she is not confessing here; she is relating how she suddenly realized who she was and carried that realization forth.

"Phil had really kind of deprived me in a curious way of the ability to talk because he had taken over so much," she said. "I mean I could talk to him but I couldn't talk. We'd go out to dinner and I wouldn't open my mouth. And the need to talk to him and try to talk to him and deal with this depression, made me able to talk."

Graham came out of the whole sad experience talking, and with some force and wisdom.


As she looks back to the events of so long ago, have things changed all that much in the way people think of depression, and mental illness?

People today, she says, are somewhat more accepting, but only xTC somewhat. "OK, it's an illness, they say. But they still regard it as something you should hide."

Pub Date: 4/28/98