What a delight to open the new issue of the prestigious literary journal Rain Taxi and find such a strong review of Julie Barton’s memoir Dog Medicine. Here’s an excerpt:
To recount her struggle with mental illness, Julie Barton stitches various non-fiction forms into her first memoir, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. Unlike the extraordinary stories of other memoirists, Dog Medicine chronicles Barton’s day-to-day challenge to regain control over life after depression sweeps her from New York City back to her parents’ Ohio home. The memoir cultivates empathy for people who, though reared in suburban privilege, struggle with mental illness. Barton uses different approaches to narrate the year she succumbed to and began treatment for depression. Some chapters read like diary entries. Other sections employ flashbacks to the author’s adolescence and young adulthood to determine the cause of her illness. Finally, most chapters incorporate elements of the lyric essay: specifically, Barton searches for a bond with her puppy, Bunker, in astronomical and water metaphors. Throughout these sections, her tone oscillates between confessional and accusatorial. She reflects, for example, on her outbursts toward her mother following her meltdown: “This was our pattern. She showed up, and I punished her. She tried tenderness, but her well-intentioned attempts misfired.” Despite its various approaches, the memoir coheres into one testimonial because of Barton’s unchanging first-person perspective.
Dog Medicine resonates differently than the stories of memoirists such as Katherine Russell Rich and Cheryl Strayed. Barton cannot identify a single catalyst such as cancer for her depression, though she scrutinizes the sibling abuse and parental oversight that traumatized her childhood and young adult life. Nor does her salvation manifest in a feat of extraordinary physical strength. Rather, Barton champions quotidian treatments: therapy, medication, and above all, the unconditional love of her Golden Retriever.
Through her examination of the everyday causes of and treatments for depression,
the author creates empathy for those who live with depression despite social privilege. Returning to Ohio from Manhattan, Barton acknowledges the details of a young adult life accustomed to material comforts: multi-wing house, red convertible, college education. She wonders how these comforts could have leave her “so broken” when she relocates a second time to Seattle: “But what was it that I had been through, really? I still came back to that question.” She eventually finds the answer: the sibling violence she endured growing up amounts to domestic abuse.
Dog Medicine captures the roller coaster of recovery. Though sad and earnest, Barton also tempers her memoir’s darker scenes. One particularly humorous moment occurs when she considers taking Zoloft, “hoping for weight loss and skin improvements, but instead [finding] weight gain and loss of libido.” Barton begins treatment, but not without wondering: “There were others like me. But where?” A moving testament, Dog Medicine preempts audiences of animal lovers and those who struggle with mental illness from asking the same question. — Jake Pelini