marginalia || Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

A few moments after I carefully peeled the protective plastic off William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, I wrote in my notebook: I feel like this is going to put me in the wringer. Odd to hold a slim book in your hands and think, “This is going to beautiful that it might just cause me a lot of pain.” And, as with very good books, I forgot to take notes after that–Merely frantically sticking Post-Its to many of the book’s pages.

Yes, a beautiful book. Yes, a lot of pain came with it–the kind of hurt that comes from being witness to something so dark, so true and earnest. Almost plain-spoken, and all the more profound for it. Best book on depression I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot–All the more impressive, since it’s a short book. The focus, the honesty, the disarming lyricism, that constant rueful sadness–and, yes, redemption. There isn’t any attempt to glamorize or romanticize depression–Styron even reflects on centuries of artists who seem to be inexplicably blighted by the disease. A mix of personal defeats, friends, the writing life–and how one’s existence is just permeated with the darkness. And not once does Styron get whiny or uppity or all those other traps depression-memoirists seem to fall into [I am looking at you, Elizabeth Wurtzel]. Oh, there’s just so many things I want to share, to discuss–I want to point to a page and say, “Yes, that’s true,” and then to another, “He’s right.”

I cried, yes, I did.

. . . [A] fascinating aspect of depression’s pathology . . . This concerns not the familiar threshold of pain but a parallel phenomenon, and that is the probable inability of the psyche to absorb pain beyond predictable limits of time. There is a region in the experience of pain where the certainty of alleviation often permits super human endurance. We learn to live with pain in varying degrees daily, or over longer periods of time, and we are more often than not mercifully free of it. When we endure severe discomfort of a physical nature our conditioning has taught us since childhood to make accommodations to the pain’s demands- to accept it, whether pluckily or whimpering and complaining, according to our personal degree of stoicism, but in any case to accept it. Except in intractable terminal pain, there is almost always some form of relief; we look forward to the alleviation, whether it be through sleep or tylenol or self-hypnosis or a change of posture or, most often, through the body’s capacity for healing itself, and we embrace this eventual respite as the natural reward we receive for having been, temporarily, such good sports and doughty sufferers, such optimistic cheerleaders for life at heart.

In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devistation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.

When I reached the author’s bio at the inside back cover, there was this profound regret: He had died in 2006. Haphazard research tells me that he died of pneumonia, at age 81. I felt an intense, troubling loss; midway through the book, I had already planned to pen a letter to Styron–Thank you for writing this, or I hope you are okay; know that you have saved many lives, including mine–but then, no, he was dead. I had missed something I had not even realized was so vital until it was too late.

I did wonder, though: When the depression knocked on his door again, no matter the intensity–When the depression manifested itself after this book was written, I wonder if he felt some burden, a responsibility he had placed upon himself to not succumb, to not die of his own hand. Because here is the book, the proof: It is conquerable, he himself wrote. I wonder if he wanted to take his words back, but knew that he couldn’t, because there it was, this book, a text, something concrete, a truth now.

Wherever you are, Mr. Styron: Thank you. I shall return to your book often–not as manual, not as Bible, not as inspiration. It shall be a reminder that we need not suffer our solitudes, that despair can be kept at bay, that many out there feel the same darknesses that I have and have expressed this so eloquently. Know that I will return to you when the darkness is rising, when the darkness is at its most visible. But I will return to you even on “good” days. I will return to you often.

* Picture of gray book taken on gray bed, beside rather gray and baffling doodles, erm, sketches by Robert Motherwell. I so like a theme, don’t you?

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17 comments

  1. selena · · Reply

    This sounds beautiful, Sasha. I’m glad the book found you, even if it was later than maybe you had expected.

    I’ll have to add it to my list. :)

    1. Thank you, Selena. I didn’t mention how exactly I found it, or was found by it–I’d wandered into a previously unexplored section of this large bookstore, and in one of the dusty shelves, at the very bottom, left most corner, there it was, all gray and quiet. I wasn’t familiar with Styron, with this work, but when I read the info, it somehow just felt right that I have the book. :]

  2. On my last visit to my Dr she told me to take a holiday. This is nearly two years into my latest episode of anxiety and depression. I doubt that she has ever experienced depression. It’s not as though you can leave the Black Dog at the kennels along with your pet dog, and go off and have a lovely holiday. I could not believe she said that and just sat there, quite dumbfounded.

    I haven’t read Styron, but your beautiful review makes me want to. I don’t know if I am brave enough to though, right now.

    1. I’m so sorry–I have heard similar statements like that, and it’s always enraging, if not saddening. Some people, “Oh, you’ll snap out of it.” Others, “Really?” and I know they’re thinking I’m just being a whiny teenager, then an angsty 20-yr-old. I was once told, “You don’t have the right to be depressed. We’re poor, and depression doesn’t happen to poor people.” That was from my [estranged] father.

      Styron talks about this, too, how the disease–and it really does need to be recognized as a disease–is so incomprehensible to people who don’t have it. The most they could feel, I think, is empathy–perhaps pain at seeing someone one loves suffer so much from some unseen darkness.

  3. I just bought Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.

    Amazon 1 click shopping + Kindle. Even though I don’t like eBooks much. :)

    1. Oh, wow. I was writing a reply to your previous comment when this popped up. I can’t say, “I hope you enjoy that book,” I can’t say, “Have fun.” — what we usually say when someone picks up a book we like. But Styron was different for me. So, well, here goes: I hope Styron is different for you. I hope you find in the book, in Styron’s words, whatever it is your looking for, however partly, however momentarily.

  4. This sounds interesting. I only Styron via the unforgettable movie Sophie’s Choice. I’ve never read any of his books.

    1. This is the first book of his that I read, and I only learned he was the author of Sophie’s Choice when I read his bio.

  5. Thanks for your kind words. I have read a little of the book so far, and I like Styron’s voice. I think I will just take small sips, to start with, and see how I go.

    Sorry that you too have experienced a lack of understanding about depression. I hope you are doing okay at the moment. I’m much better than I was.

    I just wish science would figure out whether depression is genetic, a chemical imbalance, a brain wiring problem, a reaction to environmental circumstances, or what? It would be easier to deal with, if we knew exactly what we WERE dealing with. :)

    1. Styron can be a little dry, sometimes, but I liked him. I really did. Love when he’s talking about his writing. Well, a lot of things about it, I love. The right book at the right moment, I suppose.

      I’m doing okay, thank you. It’s hovering, but I’m willing to run as far away from it as I can. || I guess we have to start with hoping that people in general just see depression as a real disease, “as insidious as any cancer,” as I’ve read somewhere–hand in hand with hoping that people can find a cure.

      It’s strange being able to talk about it so calmly–I tend to do that when I do–and that’s another thing people seem to think: “You’re articulate about this, are you sure it’s not all in your head?” Gahk.

  6. Great review. I do not suffer from depression, but know people close to me who do have bouts. It is confusing. I feel helpless. I want to read this to understand. Of course, I hope for a magic bullet that tells me what I can do to fix things, make them better, even as I know that is ridiculous. But maybe if I understand, my loved one will not feel quite so alone?

    And the themed picture was awesome. The doodles were the touch that really made it work (in my opinion). Great job!

    1. Thank so much, Kerry. I hope you find in the book what you need. Styron, too, talks about how people around the depressive suffers too–with a doubly amorphous and vague disease. They don’t feel it themselves, but it’s unexplainable by the one who suffers from it. I didn’t quote the passage here, but Styron speaks at length about how vital it is for loved ones to be with the depressive. That, with you guys, the darkness is conquerable. I think we all want that magic bullet, but there are many many beginnings to that. [And, on a technical level, Styron makes the science very easy to access, and his prose is clear and direct, but somehow still lyrical-but it never romanticizes the disease. It mentions how depression can and has been romanticized, but he doesn’t do it himself.]

      I was reading this book, all alone in the apartment, and I realized, everything around me was literally gray. Though artists all over might gasp at my calling Robert Motherwell’s art “doodles,” haha. Again, thank you!

  7. […] Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron. […]

  8. […] Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron. […]

  9. Thank you for writing this reflection. This book indeed saved my life. It helped me through my hard times, and made me feel less lonesome. I devoured every word of it with sublime pleasure like a starving wolf.

    1. Thanks, Daniel. Your words capture precisely what I felt when I first read this. See, I’ve been going back to this recently. Both as an oh-so-idle reader, and as someone who needs the words.

      I hope you’re okay. I hope we are. Take care.

  10. […] Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron […]

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