Darkness Visible (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
On a chilly evening in December, 1985, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, William Styron became convinced that he was nearing the end of the road. He had been in the grips of depression since the preceding June; by October he was barely functioning. The life had left his voice, the hope had gone from his eyes, the zest from his life.
On that December evening, Styron’s wife, Rose, had invited people to dinner, old friends. They knew Styron was having severe problems. They kept up a conversation in which he was barely able to participate. Earlier in the day, at one of his twice-weekly visits to the psychiatrist, the doctor had prescribed a new drug, Nardil. Nardil is powerful, and anyone who takes it must avoid a considerable number of foods that, if ingested, might interact with the drug to cause a stroke. By this time, Styron did not care much about the dietary restrictions; his taste buds had all but vanished as his melancholia advanced. He probably did not care much about the threat of a stroke.
Such was his frame of mind that night when, after leaving his guests and going upstairs, he took his writer’s notebook—his most sacrosanct possession—wrapped it in Viva paper towels, sealed it with Scotch tape, put it into an empty cereal box, and threw it in the garbage, which was to be collected the next morning. Styron knew enough about the unconscious mind to realize that this single act was for him the ultimate humiliation, beyond...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)
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Darkness Visible (Magill Book Reviews)
During the summer of 1985, William Styron catapulted at break-neck speed into an abyss that almost claimed his life. By October, he was barely able to function. Shortly after that, he did something that convinced him his suicide was imminent: He took his writer’s notebook, wrapped it in paper towels, stuffed it into an empty cereal box, and put it into the garbage.
This simple action, he realized, was an ultimate act of humiliation, one from which suicide must surely follow. Destitute of every vestige of self-worth, despite the awards he continued to receive and the celebrity brought to him by novels such as LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS (1951), SET THIS HOUSE ON FIRE (1960), THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER (1967), and SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979), Styron saw nothing before him but a mine field of the emotions that he lacked the will to negotiate.
Only his sense of the pain his suicide would bring his family and friends--as it had the family and friends of some of his literary associates who had committed suicide--caused Styron to demand the hospitalization that finally resulted in his shaking his tenacious despair and again being able to function.
His account of this struggle is candid and balanced. As an anatomy of the kind of severe depression that often culminates in suicide, DARKNESS VISIBLE is a deeply personal statement. Overall, however, it is optimistic. Styron lives today and is productive. He could not have predicted this outcome...
(The entire section is 345 words.)
The 1980s and Drugs in America
Styron’s mental breakdown in 1985 preceded by two years the release of Prozac, the most popular antidepressant in the history of the world. Before pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly developed Prozac, people with depressive disorders were treated with monoamine oxidase inhibitors and tricyclics such as Nardil, which Styron was prescribed. These drugs, however, often had debilitating side effects. Prozac, the brand name for fluoxetine hydrochloride, acts in a different way on the brain than the previous generation of antidepressants, regulating the action of serotonin. It needs to be taken only once daily, and its side effects, Lilly claims, are minimal. In its first ten years, Prozac was prescribed to more than ten million Americans for everything from depression and anxiety to personality disorders. Since its arrival on the market, Prozac has been a media phenomenon appearing on the cover of major magazines such as Newsweek. The drug’s continued popularity and widespread use has also been the source of much controversy rooted in issues of human identity and money. Many opponents of the drug claim that it is being overprescribed, that increasingly doctors are using it to treat personality quirks, making it the equivalent of a designer drug. They argue that, though many may recover their emotional health, they often lose their sense of self in the process. Other Prozac naysayers, such as Peter Breggin, author of...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
Darkness Visible is written from the first-person point of view and is a type of memoir. Memoirs are autobiographical accounts of a particular part of the writer’s life. They entail the narrator looking back on an experience or period of time and trying to make sense of it. The narrator is Styron himself, who recounts six months of his life when he battled severe depression, writing from the vantage point of four years later. All of the characters have relevance to the theme of the story, which is the ability of the human spirit to endure and triumph in the face of severe adversity. The story is of his depression, and all other characters and their stories have relevance to Styron’s own. Styron tells his story in a straightforward, literal manner with very little figurative language. This approach befits a nonfiction account of a medical illness.
Flashbacks are frequently used to present action or fill in information that occurred before a story begins. Styron begins Darkness Visible by ‘‘flashing back’’ to the time when he first visited Paris, some thirty-three years before in 1952. By comparing his attitude when he first visited Paris to his mood when he is visiting the city in 1985, Styron dramatizes the change in his emotional state. Whereas once he was young, curious, full of possibility and hope, now he is old, exhausted, and consumed with despair.
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Topics for Further Study
• Styron suggests that the onset of his severe depression came after he stopped drinking alcohol. Research the links between alcoholism and depression and discuss the ways in which the former may contribute to the latter.
• Write an essay exploring common psychological or physical diseases commonly associated with artists and writers.
• After interviewing people afflicted with emotional illness, write a short essay comparing their pain to the pain of those afflicted with physical illness. Draw on your own experience or that of people you know, if possible.
• Research the lives of Virginia Woolf, Randall Jarrell, and Vincent Van Gogh, then discuss what you see as the relationships between their emotional illnesses and their creative lives. In what ways do they influence each other?
• Read one of Styron’s novels such as Lie Down in Darkness or The Confessions of Nat Turner. Describe the tone of these novels. What, if any, connections can you make between Styron’s depression and the novels themselves. Keep in mind that Styron wrote that a dark mood has accompanied him through most of his life.
(The entire section is 179 words.)
• Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice was made into a motion picture in 1982, starring Meryl Streep as the survivor of Nazi concentration camps and Kevin Kline as an American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.
• Styron has a bit part as an actor in the 1994 comedy Naked in New York.
• Styron’s daughter, Susanna Styron, directed the 1999 film Shadrach, adapted from one of her father’s short stories. The film stars Andie MacDowell and Harvey Keitel and was released by Columbia Pictures.
• Dick Cavett interviewed William Styron on PBS in 1979. The tape is available from the Public Broadcasting System.
(The entire section is 98 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
• The Stranger (1942), Albert Camus’ classic existentialist novel, illustrates the terrors of human decision-making in a godless world. Styron names this book as a major influence on his own writing.
• Marty Jezer’s 1992 biography of 1960s’ rebel and Styron’s friend Abbie Hoffman, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, attempts to reconcile Hoffman’s public persona with his personal life. Styron speculates that Hoffman’s death was a suicide linked to mental illness.
• Howard Kushner’s 1991 study, American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration, explores the cultural fabric of American life and speculates on its relationship to the phenomenon of suicide in the United States.
• Hermione Lee’s exhaustive 1999 biography, Virginia Woolf, provides theories and accounts of Woolf’s bouts with depression.
• William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (1951) chronicles the lives of a southern family and describes the events that culminate in the suicide of Peyton Loftis. This is Styron’s first published novel.
• Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1997 memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, chronicles the life of a young and privileged woman suffering from depression who is treated with Prozac, an antidepressant.
• Psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s book Listening to Prozac (1997) explores the status of the antidepressant Prozac in America....
(The entire section is 211 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Breggin, Peter, and Ginger Breggin, Talking Back to Prozac: What Doctors Aren’t Telling You about Today’s Most Controversial Drug, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Prescott, Peter S., ‘‘Journey to the End of Despair,’’ in Newsweek, Vol. 116, No. 9, August 27, 1990, p. 60.
Saari, Jon, Review in Antioch Review, Vol. 49, Issue 1, Winter 1991, p. 146.
Sheffield, Anne, How Can You Survive When They’re Depressed, Harmony, 1998.
Sheppard, R. Z., ‘‘Page Fright,’’ in Time, Vol. 136, Issue 10, Sept. 3, 1990, p. 73.
Shuman, R. Baird, ‘‘Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,’’ in Magill Book Reviews, Salem Press, 1990.
Styron, William, Darkness Visible, Vintage, 1990.
Ross, Daniel William, ed., The Critical Response to William Styron, Greenwood, 1995. This collection of criticism offers essays from the 1950s to 1995 on novels such as Lie Down In Darkness, The Long March, and Darkness Visible. The essays treat themes such as Styron’s place in the literary canon and the influences on his work.
West, James L. W., William Styron: A Life, Random House, 1998. In this definitive biography of Styron, West details the creative process behind each of Styron’s novels. The attention to Styron’s life outside of writing, however, is...
(The entire section is 188 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Booklist. LXXXVI, July, 1990, p.2043.
Chicago Tribune. September 2, 1990, XIV, p.3.
Commentary. XC, November, 1990, p.54
Cronkite, Kathy. On the Edge of Darkness: Conversations About Conquering Depression. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Karp, David Allen. Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Library Journal. CXV; August, 1990, p.127.
Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1990, p. El.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV; August 19, 1990, p.1.
Newsweek. CXVI, August 27, 1990, p.60.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, July 13, 1990, p.46.
Time. CXXXVI, September 3, 1990, p.73.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, August 26, 1990, p.1.
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