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 which life could not be endured.
Viva towels, Scotch tape, an empty cereal box, and consignment to the garbage—these props and this act mirrored the utter lack of self-worth that had grown persistently in Styron since the previous June. Suicide loomed before and above him, a spectral and beckoning presence, a somber and enticing possibility.
Something unusual happened to Styron in June of that year, when he turned sixty.
Without warning, the author, usually a regular and heavy drinker, lost his tolerance for alcohol. When he drank, he became ill. He had no choice but to abstain. One lapse in August when he drank a glass of Scotch during a commercial flight to New York left him so ill that he knew he could never drink again.
During the summer of 1985, something was happening inside Styron that he could not fully identify and something he was hard put to discuss. He found himself
increasingly sinking into a depressive state that affected every aspect of his life: his
concentration, libido, memory, ability to work, association with others, sense of taste, even his judgment. He spent the summer, as usual, at his home in Martha’s Vineyard, but that year he became, at best, indifferent to the island’s encompassing, unspoiled nature that had initially drawn him there; at worst, it became menacing and made him fearful to the point of panic. His hypochondria was running out of control.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that he could find no words to describe what he was going through. His was not the kind of depression that afflicts some people after a dented fender or five successive days of rain; it was more intense even than the kind one feels after the death of a child or a spouse.
Ever sensitive to the nuances of language, Styron rails against the term “depression,” which he equates with the ridge left on a soggy lawn after a vehicle has passed over it. What he was suffering was much greater than a small declivity in the earth; it was, in his words, “a howling tempest in the brain.” Because Styron could not directly communicate the intensity of his psychic pain, he became more and
more isolated from anyone who could help him.
Styron’s situation had reached a critical stage by late September or early October. He and his wife were scheduled to fly to Paris so that Styron could receive the Prix Mondial Cino del Luca, an award established by Simone del Luca in memory of her late husband, publisher Cino del Luca. This was a high honor: Previous recipients included Andrei Sakharov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Anouilh. Only one other American, Lewis Mumford, had been so honored.
Arriving in Paris on a gray October day, Styron was whisked from the airport to his hotel, the plush Pont-Royal. As the car rode through streets that glistened with autumn rain, there came into view the run-down H6tel Washington, where Styron had stayed in 1952 on his first trip to Paris. Perhaps seeing this hotel so unexpectedly, remembering, and...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)