"George Scialabba is no wild man. A soft-spoken, introverted soul, he doesn’t drink or smoke; no alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drugs. Healthy, moderate eating (no red meat, and "a kind of cerebral Mediterranean diet") keeps Scialabba, at age 67, lean to a degree that is downright un-American. He has never married nor fathered children, and lives alone in a one-bedroom condo he has occupied since 1980. He doesn’t play sports ("I don’t exercise — I fidget"). For 35 years, Scialabba, a Harvard College alumnus, held a low-level clerical job at his alma mater that suited his low-profile style. For the past decade, his desk has occupied a windowless basement in a large academic building.
That’s the physical Scialabba: a bespectacled reed who could slip into any cocktail party nearly unnoticed.
The intellectual Scialabba is another story. Over those same 35 years, he has written nearly 400 essays and book reviews for The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Dissent, Grand Street, The Nation, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and many other outlets. His acuity, erudition, and polished prose have earned him thousands of readers and the admiration of some of the country’s leading minds.
Over the past 40 years, he has suffered several bouts of clinical depression, and received virtually every form of psychotherapeutic and drug treatment, with indifferent results. In 2005 Scialabba endured a midlife crisis that triggered a major depressive episode. [A midlife crisis at age 57?] "I was watching other writers of my age publishing books and writing for The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker," he recalls. "I was appearing in less prestigious places and had no books. It kind of grated on me, and I became obsessed with it." Things got so bad that Scialabba took a three-month medical leave from Harvard to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He did the same thing after another major depression in 2012.
And it worked. Although there were short-term lapses of memory, there have been no long-term effects, and Scialabba says, "I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is as desperate as I was." He’s grateful to Harvard and to his labor union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, for establishing policies that made those leaves possible.
Scialabba has been very open in print about his depressions. He wrote a first-person essay, "Message From Room 101," for Agni, and The Baffler recently published lengthy excerpts from his medical records, offering a backstage view of how therapists saw Scialabba’s plight.
It has not all worked out quite the way Scialabba envisioned, but it has worked out. "I always imagined I’d be a professor of intellectual history at some small college in Ohio or something," he says. "I didn’t have the Sitzfleisch to be a scholar."
Yet evidence of Scialabba’s strength of character goes beyond surviving his depressions. "While everything in the culture was insisting that what he does — reviewing books, writing essays — has no large value, and certainly no economic value," says Summers, "George kept on turning out his great writing for 35 years, all the while working his clerical job, arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard. To do that, you have to have grit.""