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In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family

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John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life. This crisis provoked John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life. This crisis provoked him to search for the source of his malaise. Did it begin with him, or did it begin before, possibly even long before, with previous generations whose genes he bore? If so, how had the "family illness," as he came to think of it, shaped their lives, and come to define his? To find the answers, he launched into a full-scale investigation of his family's history—one of the oldest, and fully documented in America. It was, at once, a very personal journey of self-discovery, and a broader retracing of his family's evolution, as he pored over the many extraordinary Sedgwicks who had gone before—from the protean early Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick through to Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's muse and the 1960s "It Girl." Both a brimming family saga and a courageous narrative, the book paints a startlingly candid portrait of a man and an eminent American family.


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John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life. This crisis provoked John Sedgwick's widely praised novels introduced readers to the rarified enclave of Brahmin Boston, in which privilege and elitism, handed down from one generation to the next, come at a price. He discovered for himself just how great that price can be when, while writing his second novel, he spiraled into a profound depression that threatened his life. This crisis provoked him to search for the source of his malaise. Did it begin with him, or did it begin before, possibly even long before, with previous generations whose genes he bore? If so, how had the "family illness," as he came to think of it, shaped their lives, and come to define his? To find the answers, he launched into a full-scale investigation of his family's history—one of the oldest, and fully documented in America. It was, at once, a very personal journey of self-discovery, and a broader retracing of his family's evolution, as he pored over the many extraordinary Sedgwicks who had gone before—from the protean early Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick through to Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's muse and the 1960s "It Girl." Both a brimming family saga and a courageous narrative, the book paints a startlingly candid portrait of a man and an eminent American family.

30 review for In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family

  1. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    In an effort to understand his own manic depressive tendencies, the author John Sedgwick traces his family history back several troubled generations. The Sedgwick family, although prone to mental disorders, are a privileged bunch that include politicians, actors, and a minor founding father. I found this book to be extremely self-indulgent and more than a bit boring. The whole thing reads like one big "name drop" in which the author continually reminds the reader that one relative or another spo In an effort to understand his own manic depressive tendencies, the author John Sedgwick traces his family history back several troubled generations. The Sedgwick family, although prone to mental disorders, are a privileged bunch that include politicians, actors, and a minor founding father. I found this book to be extremely self-indulgent and more than a bit boring. The whole thing reads like one big "name drop" in which the author continually reminds the reader that one relative or another spoke to a president, socialized with the Lowells and Cabots, or hobnobbed with the social elite in New York. As a New Englander, I know quite a few people who attended the same preppie schools as the author and have similar illustrious family histories, but they do not assume that a distant relative's accomplishments somehow imbue them with greatness of their own (or that being rich and white in America is a particular accomplishment). They also do not assume that everyone wants to hear about their family history in excrutiating detail. This book was less about exploring the interesting subject of mental illness and more about the author's need to convince everyone that his family is rich and famous. It irritated me.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bry

    It took me a while to get into this book and I'm not all together positive I would have finished it had it not been for a friend buying the book at the same time. It was an interesting read but at times difficult. Wordy. But I do enjoy books about mental illness becaue I always feel sane and normal by the end. It took me a while to get into this book and I'm not all together positive I would have finished it had it not been for a friend buying the book at the same time. It was an interesting read but at times difficult. Wordy. But I do enjoy books about mental illness becaue I always feel sane and normal by the end.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Allison Nack

    Wow, what a major work. John Sedgwick is one of the younger members of the infamous Sedgwick family, a fixture of the East Coast bluebloods. In our generation, most of us may be familiar with the actress Kyra Sedgwick and/or Warhol girl Edie Sedwick (both are cousins of John). In this book, John takes a historic look at his ancestors, going all the way back to the 1700s, relying on published biographies, personal diaries and letters, public documents and first person accounts. Most members of th Wow, what a major work. John Sedgwick is one of the younger members of the infamous Sedgwick family, a fixture of the East Coast bluebloods. In our generation, most of us may be familiar with the actress Kyra Sedgwick and/or Warhol girl Edie Sedwick (both are cousins of John). In this book, John takes a historic look at his ancestors, going all the way back to the 1700s, relying on published biographies, personal diaries and letters, public documents and first person accounts. Most members of the family excelled in a variety of fields: politics, law, writing, athletics, etc. Excellence was expected from family members, especially the men, as each member and generation was taught to uphold the family credo. Woven through the historical account is John's discovery that an unusually high number of family members suffered from some form of mental illness, especially manic depression. Suicide runs rampant through the extended family.John is no stranger to this, having suffered a breakdown that, in part, spurred him to write this book. Most of the men in the family seemed to suffer from the biological aspect of the illness, while most of the women seemed to fall into depression after being physically and/or emotionally abandoned by their husbands, and in the earlier generations, falling apart after giving birth to up to a dozen children, many of whom died in infancy. The women who married or were born to Sedwick men were worn down by them from the promise of their youth: vivacity, beauty, talent, and ambition to desperate, addled, suicidally inclined shells of their former selves. Institutionalization was the Sedwick answer to this problem for both the men and the women, with early treatments for mental illness falling into the category of torture. Some of the family escaped this fate of course, but almost everyone seemed to exhibit some sort of aberrant or intolerant personality traits. John believes that the pressure of living up to the Sedwick reputation combined with biological tendencies towards emotional frailty resulted in the high incidence of extreme dysfunction. John, like some of his ancestors, ultimately became both depressed and hypomanic which resulted in the demise of his marriage, his wife saying that she was unwilling to live with his mood swings and expressing her need to protect their children. John receives successful modern treatment, but fully realizes that he is far from removed from the family curse. The book is unbelievably well researched and very skillfully written, blending straight history with personal accounts and details to form an absolutely fascinating account his highly unusual genealogy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    A little different from the standard family memoir, as the author's known family history reaches back to the late 1700's. He traces the family history of depression and mania through the context of the times. I'm not sure if his family is as unique as he'd like to think - if we all had access to six generations' worth of detailed family history, most of us would probably find as many sufferers of mental illness as he has. Nonetheless, the story was interesting for its peek into American history A little different from the standard family memoir, as the author's known family history reaches back to the late 1700's. He traces the family history of depression and mania through the context of the times. I'm not sure if his family is as unique as he'd like to think - if we all had access to six generations' worth of detailed family history, most of us would probably find as many sufferers of mental illness as he has. Nonetheless, the story was interesting for its peek into American history (including great local interest - Stockbridge MA is at the emotional heart of the story), and a privileged and influential family. The chapters detailing 20th century events and people reminded me of the social milieu depicted in "The White Blackbird" (a biography of painter/sculptor Margarett Sargent), and sure enough, it turns out that the author's family is cousins to Sargent's husband's family. What a small world (of the wealthy and privileged)!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Deb

    Interesting book about the Sedgwick family, a prominent American family with a history of manic depression. (Edie Sedgwick was the author's cousin & actor Kyra Sedgwick is his niece.) Has a lot of American history in it as well, which I enjoyed. The author wrote it as a way to explore his own bouts with manic depression. Sometimes reading it had a touch of "So what?" and "Why should anyone care about this family's history?" but the author acknowledges the self-aggrandizing tendencies which also Interesting book about the Sedgwick family, a prominent American family with a history of manic depression. (Edie Sedgwick was the author's cousin & actor Kyra Sedgwick is his niece.) Has a lot of American history in it as well, which I enjoyed. The author wrote it as a way to explore his own bouts with manic depression. Sometimes reading it had a touch of "So what?" and "Why should anyone care about this family's history?" but the author acknowledges the self-aggrandizing tendencies which also run through the entire family.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Diane McDonough

    As obsessed as I am with The Crazy, reading this was inevitable. While, like many others, I found the author at times unbelievably "twee", it was an intriguing story of a family and the long reaching arm of heredity. The historical aspects of the memoir were riveting to me as I am a firm believer in those who forget, repeat, a notion the author explores albeit unwittingly in some cases. A well thought out exploration of the importance of family and the impact of our ancestors even those we aren' As obsessed as I am with The Crazy, reading this was inevitable. While, like many others, I found the author at times unbelievably "twee", it was an intriguing story of a family and the long reaching arm of heredity. The historical aspects of the memoir were riveting to me as I am a firm believer in those who forget, repeat, a notion the author explores albeit unwittingly in some cases. A well thought out exploration of the importance of family and the impact of our ancestors even those we aren't aware of.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie

    Family history of the Sedgewicks - Edie, Kyra, starting with the Revolutionary War ones. After I read Edie by George Plimpton, in the 80s and became obsessed it, how could I not read this? ? He traces his family history, noting the depressive or manic depressive ones in each generation. The history stuff was interesting - I hadn't known about Shay's Rebellion - and the family dirt was good too, though the Plimpton book is better. Family history of the Sedgewicks - Edie, Kyra, starting with the Revolutionary War ones. After I read Edie by George Plimpton, in the 80s and became obsessed it, how could I not read this? ? He traces his family history, noting the depressive or manic depressive ones in each generation. The history stuff was interesting - I hadn't known about Shay's Rebellion - and the family dirt was good too, though the Plimpton book is better.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

    This memoir was riveting and enlightening. John Sedgwick honored his ancestors by rendering a balanced account of their lives. As a result John came to terms with his past as well as his personal strengths and weaknesses. His journey shed enormous lightt into the dynamics of family including the mny struggles and successes along the way. When all is said and done, it is the LOVE that stands eternal.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Heidi

    I always enjoy history, fact or fiction, and this was an rather good review of a (semi-)famous NE family. However, I got bored by the time it got to modern day, and pretty much finished with the mini-bio on Edie, skipping the autobiographical parts. The other family members were much more interesting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Andi

    Sedgwick explores the history of his famous family focusing on their mental health. We often focus on our family health history with physical diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But, mental health is just as important. I'd recommend this book only if you find mental health intriguing or have a history of mental health issues within your family. Sedgwick explores the history of his famous family focusing on their mental health. We often focus on our family health history with physical diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But, mental health is just as important. I'd recommend this book only if you find mental health intriguing or have a history of mental health issues within your family.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kristi Samber

    I really enjoyed this book, though at times I wanted to be done with it. In an effort to understand his own depression, author john Sedgwick resesrches his ancestry and a history of mental illness within his family, going back 6 generations. At the Same time it was a interesting history lesson about the birth of our country.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Maria Mangano

    So I'm a little obsessed with the Sedgwicks -- I've even been to Stockbridge Mass to see the Sedgwick Pie - and have been ever since I read "Edie" years ago. You can imagine how happy I was to get to rewad ALL about the Sedgwicks from the colonial era to the present day. This book may not be for everybody, but a pure pleasure for a groupie like me. So I'm a little obsessed with the Sedgwicks -- I've even been to Stockbridge Mass to see the Sedgwick Pie - and have been ever since I read "Edie" years ago. You can imagine how happy I was to get to rewad ALL about the Sedgwicks from the colonial era to the present day. This book may not be for everybody, but a pure pleasure for a groupie like me.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    Very intriguing history of a prominent family and the effects of mental illness on their lives. The first person he discusses was very involved in the revolutionary war and the government that followed, it is fascinating.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    I really enjoyed this book and the glimpse of the past it provided. There was certainly a great deal of research that went in to the writing and found it admirable that the author chose to include many (what I would consider to be) 'family secrets'. I really enjoyed this book and the glimpse of the past it provided. There was certainly a great deal of research that went in to the writing and found it admirable that the author chose to include many (what I would consider to be) 'family secrets'.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    A sweeping New England family saga from the 1600s to the present set against inherited madness and creativity.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kayla Stoy

    The author details the history of six generations of his family whose roots in the united states date to the revolutionary war. The members of the first two generations were interesting people and the sections about them were very interesting. Beyond that the book just labors on detailing the rest of the family who are obsessed with preserving their standing in society despite having few exceptional skills... Or even interesting personalities. The author himself seems to have a similar obsession The author details the history of six generations of his family whose roots in the united states date to the revolutionary war. The members of the first two generations were interesting people and the sections about them were very interesting. Beyond that the book just labors on detailing the rest of the family who are obsessed with preserving their standing in society despite having few exceptional skills... Or even interesting personalities. The author himself seems to have a similar obsession. I was about fifteen pages from the end and just quit reading even though I was almost done because I just didn't care about this anymore and hadn't for about three generations.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Maddy

    Really interesting. But primarily a history book and less personal that the first chapter and the cover would lead one to believe. I applaud how it's done, just not quite what I expected. Lots of history and politics and less mental health than I thought. Really interesting. But primarily a history book and less personal that the first chapter and the cover would lead one to believe. I applaud how it's done, just not quite what I expected. Lots of history and politics and less mental health than I thought.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Joel

    Somewhat interesting history, but it actually doesn’t get as much into the madness part, which would have been more interesting than WASP lives. It’s a problem in the source material that things weren’t spoken of, but the book doesn’t really live up to what it promised at the start.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Adam Swift

    Interesting enough and fairly well written, but kept nodding off, I could just be extra tired lately so I'll give this one the benefit of the doubt. Interesting enough and fairly well written, but kept nodding off, I could just be extra tired lately so I'll give this one the benefit of the doubt.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Interesting, historical depiction of this real family. Would like to read something else by the author as I know now his background.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chana

    I liked the history starting with the Revolutionary War and the years afterward, which were not all peace and happiness for our country. The prominent personalities, the machinations, the in-fighting, the corruption, and the alliances in our new government, the interpretations of the Constitution and Law and how these things played out in our new country, told through the story of the early Sedgwick family, made for fascinating reading. The story kind of goes downhill from there as the personali I liked the history starting with the Revolutionary War and the years afterward, which were not all peace and happiness for our country. The prominent personalities, the machinations, the in-fighting, the corruption, and the alliances in our new government, the interpretations of the Constitution and Law and how these things played out in our new country, told through the story of the early Sedgwick family, made for fascinating reading. The story kind of goes downhill from there as the personalities in the family become less influential in American history and diluted as personalities in general. The story John Sedgwick is trying to tell is the story of the strain of manic depression that runs through his family history and through his own veins. But being a woman nearing sixty, the story I kept hearing was the one of the women who were no longer loved once they reached fifty or so, whose husband's left them alone on one pretext or another while they gallivanted around for politics, war or work and enjoyed themselves while their wives pined and wasted away; unloved, depressed and often eventually mentally ill. Oftentimes for the women this was preceded by the grief of losing children. That was incredibly sad to me. Not that the men didn't suffer from mental illness, many of them did to one degree or another. Manic behavior and dementia were not uncommon as men dealt with the stress of making money and maintaining status, while also having a predilection for manic depression. I was kind of tickled to run into Opal Whiteley again (I had read a book about her at an earlier time) and have a background in which to place Ellery Sedgwick as he was the editor of The Atlantic magazine who published her diary. It was like running into people that I already know. What I didn't like was the way the story seems to run too long. There were points when I was just tired of it. I also did not find the Sedgwick propensity toward manic depression truly that unusual, except for Francis and the terrible result his mental illness had on his children. What family history is "normal"? I realize that a lot of them were under psychiatric care; but they had the money for the care and the connections to follow the latest trends in mental health. Overall it was interesting and I am glad that I read it.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Getting through this book proved to be a workout, which was disappointing as I had been looking forward to reading it for various reasons for quite some time. The reason I was able to muscle through it, ultimately, was because it was a library book and I wanted to finish it without having to pay any overdue fines. Had I owned the book it would have ended up with a bookmark stuck in it after the first couple of chapters sitting on a shelf collecting dust somewhere in my house. The good, the bad an Getting through this book proved to be a workout, which was disappointing as I had been looking forward to reading it for various reasons for quite some time. The reason I was able to muscle through it, ultimately, was because it was a library book and I wanted to finish it without having to pay any overdue fines. Had I owned the book it would have ended up with a bookmark stuck in it after the first couple of chapters sitting on a shelf collecting dust somewhere in my house. The good, the bad and the ugly about the book from my point of view: It's long, it's wordy, it's somewhat snooty by nature and for all the research the author did on his ancestors there seemed to be sloppy and glaring errors. i.e. According to everything I've read, Edie Sedgwick died in her sleep of an accidental barbiturate overdose. In one place in the book it is said she died of a heroin overdose and on the family tree listed in the front of the book (to keep all those wacky Sedgwicks straight) it lists her as a suicide. Her brother Bobby is also listed as a suicide on that same family tree when by all reports he died in a motorcycle accident after colliding with a bus. There are also several inconsistencies between the sources I've consulted and details the author spells out about Mumbet, born a slave, who went to court to contest her constitutional right to freedom - and won. But all that aside, slogging through the history in this book was alternately interesting and deadly dull. Halfway through the book, having survived smallpox, yellow fever and madhouses with the Sedgwicks, the big family tragedy was now the fact that other people had somehow gotten more money than the Sedgwicks and therefore were building bigger houses in Stockbridge making the Old House seem less grand. Oh how embarrassing! How will they ever recover? Fortunately for me, there was a payoff in the last couple of chapters of the book where the author writes candidly about himself and briefly about the relationship between bipolar disorder and genetic influence that ties it all together. But... WHEW! I'm glad I'm finally done with this book!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Annette

    IN MY BLOOD : SIX GENERATIONS OF MADNESS IN AN AMERICAN FAMILY turned out to be a very interesting book. Author John Sedgewick explores six generations of his family history with letters and journals of the original members, going back to the days of George Washington. A number of relatives were institutionalized or committed suicide. Sedgewick chronicles the times and circumstances in an orderly story of his family ties and tiffs. After 25 years of marriage, Sedgewick's divorce led him to his o IN MY BLOOD : SIX GENERATIONS OF MADNESS IN AN AMERICAN FAMILY turned out to be a very interesting book. Author John Sedgewick explores six generations of his family history with letters and journals of the original members, going back to the days of George Washington. A number of relatives were institutionalized or committed suicide. Sedgewick chronicles the times and circumstances in an orderly story of his family ties and tiffs. After 25 years of marriage, Sedgewick's divorce led him to his own downward spiral and flirtation with suicide.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    This was an interesting yet dense read. I couldn't just sit down and devour it even though I found the subject fascinating. I enjoyed hearing the family history and the corresponding history of the US and Stockbridge, Mass. as well. I felt there was almost too much history for some of the earliest relatives and others were barely glossed over. That may be due to the available information. Some of it was overly repetitive. It was an very interesting read. This was an interesting yet dense read. I couldn't just sit down and devour it even though I found the subject fascinating. I enjoyed hearing the family history and the corresponding history of the US and Stockbridge, Mass. as well. I felt there was almost too much history for some of the earliest relatives and others were barely glossed over. That may be due to the available information. Some of it was overly repetitive. It was an very interesting read.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Trixie Mcbimbo

    I love reading about the families that seem to be the closest to aristocracy as one can get in the United States. This book eloquently shows how deeply routed mania, depression, and manic depression can be in one's genes, especially manic depression (many Sedgwick's refer to it by its nickname, "the Sedgwick family disease"), It shows what enormous damage the sickening label "mental illness" can do not just to someone's life, but to future generations. I love reading about the families that seem to be the closest to aristocracy as one can get in the United States. This book eloquently shows how deeply routed mania, depression, and manic depression can be in one's genes, especially manic depression (many Sedgwick's refer to it by its nickname, "the Sedgwick family disease"), It shows what enormous damage the sickening label "mental illness" can do not just to someone's life, but to future generations.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Glorianne Roccanova

    i really enjoyed this book...as a sufferer of mental illness, I related to this book in so many ways. I learned more about the disease from this book, then the countless medical books I have read on the subject. I like the fact that the book had a historial backdrop, and the treatments that were available at the time. I do have to say that I think more of the illness came from the minturn side of the family. if you want more thoughts on this book, please read through the comment section.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maggie

    Pretty interesting and thick tome about the Sedgwick family of Western Massachusetts, written by one of their own. Intertwines historical facts and personal details. I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick when I was in high school; it was one of my first introductions to a really alternative lifestyle. While I didn't finish this book I did get nearly to the end and I do recommend it. Pretty interesting and thick tome about the Sedgwick family of Western Massachusetts, written by one of their own. Intertwines historical facts and personal details. I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick when I was in high school; it was one of my first introductions to a really alternative lifestyle. While I didn't finish this book I did get nearly to the end and I do recommend it.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Meh. I got an interesting glimpse of colonial American life and learned about an ancestress of WEB Dubois who was responsible for generating some colonial legal precedents against slavery. But other than that I just wanted to slap the author and most of his antecedents. Probably I'm just jealous. Meh. I got an interesting glimpse of colonial American life and learned about an ancestress of WEB Dubois who was responsible for generating some colonial legal precedents against slavery. But other than that I just wanted to slap the author and most of his antecedents. Probably I'm just jealous.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Cristina1961

    I started this book months ago but then put it aside at a time when I was caught up in stresses of life, family, friends, and work. Just needed to concentrate on wellness and remember that is priority. So, my plan is to digest this book in parts.

  30. 4 out of 5

    MountainShelby

    The Wall Street Journal called this distinctive memoir "a lurid inversion of the American Dream." I agree. And the lurid parts are by far the most interesting. Overall, a memoir that takes root and clings like the Sedgewick family graveyard. The Wall Street Journal called this distinctive memoir "a lurid inversion of the American Dream." I agree. And the lurid parts are by far the most interesting. Overall, a memoir that takes root and clings like the Sedgewick family graveyard.

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