Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Depression is the great fact of life that Americans are most desperate to avoid. ”Have a nice day!” we cry to each other from the edge of the undiscussable void. Clinical depression is a double whammy. Witness the electorate’s violent reaction to Senator Thomas Eagleton’s revelation of his psychiatric history during the 1972 presidential race. Lincoln, that great melancholic, might not be electable today. Artists and writers are allowed to be depressed, but the malady must be somehow picturesque, glowering, ”artistic.”

William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a terse, dead-serious account of his own bout with suicidal depression in the mid-1980s, shocks us back to reality. There is nothing picturesque about the debilitating mind-storm Styron describes in this intense 84-page book. Depression, he reminds us, is a dreadful illness ”which can be as serious a medical affair as diabetes or cancer.” It can be treated, but as with diabetes and cancer, a cure is problematic. For many depressives — Styron lists ”a sad but scintillant roll call” of artists that includes Hart Crane, Primo Levi, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Diane Arbus — the only solution is self-destruction. In his usual ornate and eloquent prose but with an understandable mutedness, he tells us how close he came to that alternative, and how, with the sometimes dubious aid of drugs and psychotherapy, he managed to step back from the brink.

It is a moving and authoritative account, but not always an illuminating one. ”Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description,” Styron writes near the beginning of the book, and he goes on to make this point again and again. The very nature of the illness — a massive shutdown of the ability to think and care about much of anything — makes it dificult for the sufferer to understand his ailment, and the great chasm between the sick and the well prevents the unaf icted reader (even the occasionally depressed reader) from gaining a more than metaphorical grip on the kind of overwhelming breakdown Styron is describing.

Psychotherapeutic alliances can be illuminating for others, but in Styron’s case therapy seems to have been a dead end. Never having consulted a shrink before-despite foretastes of his depression, despite a longtime dependency on alcohol that ended only when his body rebelled — the writer began seeing a psychiatrist when he reached bottom, and here virtually savages the man for not pulling him out.

The pseudonymous Dr. Gold escorted Styron from pill to incapacitating pill, meanwhile, incredibly, counseling him against the ”stigma” of hospitalization. But once Styron had stopped just short of killing himself — brought back by the lucky accident of hearing a redolent passage of Brahms — the hospital was just where he went, and this, he says, is what saved him.

Or, rather, was where he found himself saved: ”Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the af iction runs its course, and one nds peace.”

Styron’s skill and integrity as a writer are more persuasive than this mysteriousness. On the other hand, there are signs that even now he has dif culty admitting how long depression may have been with him. He does not get around to telling us of his father’s hospitalization for depression, and of his mother’s death when he was 13, until ve pages before the end of this short book.

Yet he writes that ”after I had returned to health and was able to re ect on the past in the light of my ordeal, I began to see clearly how depression had clung close to the outer edges of my life for many years. Suicide has been a persistent theme in my books — three of my major characters killed themselves. In re-reading, for the rst time in years, sequences from my novels — passages where my heroines have lurched down pathways toward doom — I was stunned to perceive how accurately I had created the landscape of depression in the minds of these young women, describing with what could only be instinct, out of a subconscious already roiled by disturbances of mood, the psychic imbalance that led them to destruction. Thus depression, when it nally came to me, was in fact no stranger, not even a visitor totally unannounced; it had been tapping at my door for decades.”

If only he had recognized it earlier. In Darkness Visible, Styron does much to dignify depression, to bring it out of the realm of unmentionable shame. What he had apparently failed to see is how the disease had been central to his whole existence. Perhaps other sufferers, aided by his example, will make the connection more easily. A-

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
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