Darkness Visible

darkness visibleIn 1989, Vanity Fair published William Styron’s account of his struggle with deep depression, suicidal ideation, hospitalization, and eventual recovery. Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness is an expanded version of this piece, beginning with a trip he took to Paris to accept an award for his writing. On that trip he was already suffering from depression, but thought he would be able to cope, particularly with the help of his wife. Instead, the brain fog and bewildering isolation that accompany the disease caused him to make several major blunders (including mortally offending the person giving him the award, and losing the $25,000 check.) He was able to realize that things not only weren’t right, but were getting substantially worse, and on his return to the US, he saw a doctor to try and get some help.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs about depression and other mental illnesses, but most of them were written more recently than Styron’s. I get the impression that Darkness Visible is one of the first pieces — not to talk about depression itself, that’s been going on for a long time in one form or another — but to talk about it as a chemical and neurological illness, something to be unashamed of and to seek treatment for like any other illness. He compares his case to the (sadly, many) other writers who have suffered from depression and committed suicide over the years. I don’t need to give you the long list; I’m sure you can fill in the blanks yourself. He says that when Primo Levi committed suicide, and there was a pervading sense of shame that someone who had come out of the Holocaust with such resilience could succumb to depression in such a way, that he wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that this just means that people don’t understand the true grimness of what depression is really like.

Styron’s tone is about as detached and even clinical as you can be when talking about your own utter wretchedness and despair. He talks about how difficult medicating depression can be, and how careless prescription of Halcion probably made his depression much worse. He talks about how many people depression affects — not just writers! — and how platitudes didn’t help, but hospitalization did. There weren’t the passages I’m used to in memoirs like this, about the roots of the depression, childhood pain and suffering or  reckless behavior, but Styron’s language is wry and vivid nonetheless. It’s full, throughout, of sparks like this:

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

The title of this book comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all, but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

Of course, it ends well. Styron gets the help he needed, and comes out of his depression, though with the knowledge that it could return. It’s far from the usual battle/triumph metaphor you sometimes see in illness memoirs; more like the darkness becoming invisible again, for a time, and being profoundly grateful for that.

This book is very short — only 80 pages, which I suppose is what you’d expect from something that was first published in Vanity Fair. I found it fascinating, troubling, beautiful reading.

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11 Responses to Darkness Visible

  1. Elle says:

    I seem to recall a beautiful passage from this wherein Styron is pulled back from the brink of suicide by a piece of music – it’s either an alto aria or something like a clarinet or oboe; I can’t remember, and my copy is at my parents’ house in the States. Does that ring any bells to you?

    • Jenny says:

      Yes! He’s about to commit suicide, and he sits down to watch a film, and there’s a contralto aria from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. All of a sudden he thinks about his home, and his friends, and all the joys he’s known, and he realizes he can’t commit this “desecration” on himself, so he wakes up his wife and they make some phone calls, and the next day he’s admitted to the hospital. It is a beautiful passage.

  2. When I first saw the title of your post, I assumed that it was a post about William Golding’s book “Darkness Visible.” Thanks for alerting me to the fact that there is more than one book by that title. Styron’s book sounds like a fascinating read too.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I read this back when I was reading all that Styron wrote, and so it was my second experience of what depression feels like, after The Bell Jar.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read The Bell Jar, just her poetry (which is also not a bad experience of what depression feels like.)

  4. Mary Grover says:

    I read a very compelling article arguing that Primo Levi’s death was more probably an accident than a suicide. It is well worth reading. It was published in the Boston Review on June 1, 1990 and was written by Diego Gambatta.

    • Jenny says:

      While I believe that it would be worth reading and compelling, I also think that it’s probably part of that wave of wishful thinking that happens around the suicide of famous and well-beloved figures. We don’t want them to be “weak” enough to do such a thing, especially if they were strong and inspiring in other contexts. But, as Styron says, that’s because we don’t really understand the torment of depression.

  5. Oh that’s such a good description of depression, the overheated room thing. After a while of it, you’re so used to it that it’s hard to remember what cool feels like, except that it’s definitely a thing you want and can’t have. It’s not tolerable, but you get good at tolerating it, and that’s good enough or it isn’t. I don’t care about William Styron but I do care about depictions of mental illness in mass media so OKAY I will read this then.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s only 80 pages, you can read it in a sitting. I thought it was pretty good. (And I liked the overheated room image, too.)

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