Author Benilde Little chronicles her battle with depression after the death of her mother in her new memoir, “Welcome to My Breakdown.”
Chester Toye

Author Benilde Little wants black women to know it’s OK. It’s OK to let go. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to break down.

In fact, in her new memoir, Welcome to My Breakdown, she welcomes black women doing so, becoming vulnerable and confronting their pain.

In Breakdown, Little recounts her life as someone whom her mother described as one who “feels too much.” After her parents became older and infirm, with her mother eventually dying, Little found herself lost in the fog of severe depression. Yet the roots of that depression reached deeper than grief; she was at a loss of self. Death only made her lingering sadness more profound.

“Before I lost my mother, I lost a part of myself because I wasn’t writing,” Little said. “I wasn’t working. I wasn’t producing. That made me more vulnerable to the deeper depression when she died.”

Little, who saw success with her first novel, Good Hair, then dealt with the ups and downs of writing, publishing and living, knows about the fantasy of “making it” and also that all your problems being prologue isn’t real.  

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A book ends, but life goes on.

“I was in my mid- to late-40s when [my mother] died,” Little said. “I had written four novels. The first one was huge, the second was successful but the second two weren’t nearly as big. Once I finished that [book] contract, I wanted to take a break.”

But with that break—during which she focused on her family, helping her ailing parents and raising her children—returning to the world of writing became more difficult.

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Of her career she thought: “What’s next? What do I write about? When you’re [depressed], even when it’s mild, it’s kind of hard to get excited.”

Little hadn’t intended to write Breakdown. “It wasn’t a conscious decision,” she said, a phrase she would repeat throughout her talk about her book with The Root. “I never thought I would write a memoir.”

Calling memoirs self-indulgent (“Really, who gives a s—t?”), Little says Breakdown began because she was trying to write through her pain, using her strongest talent to fight one of her biggest battles.

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“At first, it’s like you can’t get out of bed, then you’re taking drugs [antidepressants]. A lot of times you’re just going through the motions. Slowly, the fog cleared a bit, and I thought, ‘What the hell?’ I’d lost my mother. That kicked off the whole thing.”

Little found herself wanting to write about her mother, desiring to “introduce her to the world.”

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“I thought she was pretty amazing and also kind of a representation of a lot of women of her generation, particularly black women,” Little said. “I wanted to add her and women like her to the pantheon of representations of black women.”

Little recalled that in the 1980s, there was an abundance of books about motherhood but that none seemed to capture the type of woman who raised her: a working-class black woman who dealt with the emotional sensitivity of her daughter by treating it as a practical matter, not a problem. She didn’t want to change her; she wanted to teach her how to better protect herself in a world that cared little about the vulnerabilities of little black girls.

“She didn’t make me feel bad about it. It was kind of like, ‘OK, this is how you are. How are we going to make it through the world as a black girl?’” Little said. “You gotta be this, you gotta be that. You gotta be strong. I’m hoping people read this book and realize this trope is bulls—t. The idea of the ‘strong black woman.’ We hold each other up, and that’s beautiful. We have sisterhood. But it’s time to take the mask off and show who we really are. That’s where the power really is. How ‘I got this s—t over here that’s not cute.’ Those people are the really strong ones and that’s the message.”

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So Breakdown came to be about everything Little was feeling: the personal and professional; mental illness and motherhood; being lost and found and lost again; learning to control the darkness inside and fighting to see the light again.

“There’s not a whole lot about our struggle with grief [as black women]. … We don’t have this,” Little said, adding that she hopes her story will lead to more women “owning” their “stuff,” no longer being afraid to speak about their flaws and fears.

“The whole idea of perfection is a prison,” Little said. “Then you add black on top of it, being a black woman. The standard is harder for us. Can a sister get a break? And we need to give each other a break, and the way to really do that is to be vulnerable.”

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Little will soon embark on a book tour for Breakdown. She hopes she’ll be able to have conversations with other women, listen to their stories and let them know: “You’re not alone. You know you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. You’re not weird. Or you are, but you are and I am, too. That’s what I’m hoping for, something of a revolution. That’s what we need because we’re dying on all kinds of fronts. This mental illness is real. We’ve got to stop being ashamed.”