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Examining The Portrayal of Mental Health in the Novel Where the Crawdads Sing

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

Recently my mind repeatedly wandered back to a book I had just finished reading. It occurred to me that, like in mindfulness, I should not ignore my wandering mind, but instead acknowledge the cause of the distraction. I realized that my mind was making a connection between the book and my work as a therapist. The book that I had just finished titled Where the Crawdads Sing is a bit of a phenomenon at the moment and many of the topics and themes of the book also are squarely in the area of mental health and how we manage our own needs.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is ostensibly a story about a girl who grows up in the marshes of the south. One by one, people leave her and she is left to fend for herself. There is also an intercalary story running through about a body that is found in the marsh and the stories gradually intertwine. Arguably, the reason for the outpouring of love for this book is not because of the byline, the thing that I think is affecting people the most as they read the book, and certainly the thing that affected this therapist the most was the painfully articulate and accurate depictions of isolation and loneliness. This story is about many things, isolation, mistrust, strength, a woman’s perceived role in society, racism, sexism, classism. The part that I have found most potent is the way loneliness is depicted, it’s effects and the ways how and how-not-to manage it. The heartbreaking sincerity and the clarity with which the writer depicts the emotions of this character are at times very poignant and speak to the struggles many of my clients I have worked with over the years have shared with me. It is important to emphasize that these difficult feelings in the book were largely mismanaged and at times an outline of how not to manage them, something that reflects how difficult these things are to manage and how it is often not pretty or clean.

There are several key lines that I highlighted to revisit that speak to how well loneliness and longing are captured in the book. At one point, while the main character, who has spent years alone, asked herself, “How much do you trade to defeat loneliness?” This line highlight how desperate we can become when we feel like we have few people in our lives we are intimate with or can trust and are desperately looking for any connection. The implication is that sometimes we will do what we can just to feel any kind of human connection. Arguably, the key to this line, is the tenor of judgement she has for herself. It is only so human to want connection and be willing to give up much to get it, while we should mitigate and balance these needs the character allows herself little sympathy when she feels this pull. Unfortunately, in the case of our protagonist, she lets loneliness pull herself in some pretty unhealthy directions.

Another line that really jumped out at me was “Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a sortable size.” This resonated with me as a therapist for how so many of us take difficult feelings and try to push them down into something manageable and we hope, avoidable. Of course, this is not how feelings work. For a time, we can do that, and sometimes we have to in order to survive a difficult moment, but these feelings never stay mashed down and in a size that is “sortable.”

One can draw their own conclusions about the successes of the books themes and messages, but as a therapist I cannot help but see a well choreographed story of a lonely person coming to terms with abandonment, their own human needs, and how to find fulfillment in even the most unfavorable circumstances and in that sense the book is a resounding success.This book was not only compulsively readable for the incredible characters (shout out to Jumpin’) and fascinating story and moral exploration, but it is a rare book in that I feel it depicts loneliness, longing, and isolation, in a way that is profoundly personal and affecting. The protagonist of the book often withdrew and avoided her feelings and possible pathways to lessening her pain until it got so strong that she sought connection in problematic ways. While it can be difficult when feeling lonely and depressed, it is important to push yourself out of isolation via avenues and people you trust. One cannot help but wonder if things would have gone more positively for the protagonist if she had sought help either in the form of those who care about her or professionally. Of course, we cannot dismiss just how difficult it can be to feel able to do so and how much our circumstances can hamper our ability to do so. Please reach out if you are feeling much of what Where the Crawdads Sing depicts — loneliness, isolation, lack of direction. We have a large staff of therapists who can help you through these difficult aspects of your life.

While I highly recommend this book, I do so with trepidation, it could pull at difficult threads for those who are struggling with feelings of isolation, loneliness, abandonment, and generally heightened emotions, so I do so with a trigger warning. However, if you feel you are able to manage the incredible way the author is able to pinpoint the thoughts and feelings of a person who is deeply lonely, then I could see the book also having a positive effect.

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