Darkness Visible

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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,...

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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 contemplating that he was entering the seventh decade of his life triggered something in his already fragile psyche that provoked some of what was to follow—though, clearly, he had begun the downward course before his trip to Paris.

Prior to leaving for France, Styron called to schedule an appointment with a New York psychiatrist who had been recommended to him whom he calls Dr. Gold (presumably to suggest the cost of his services). He told the doctor that he was entirely willing—possibly subconsciously eager—not to go, but Gold told him he thought the trip would not harm him. Their first meeting was set for later in October so that Styron could make the trip. The account of this trip was not included in Styron’s essay, “Darkness Visible,” as it first appeared in Vanity Fair in December, 1989. The Paris section, with which this book begins, had been written, but the essay was longer than most Vanity Fair articles and therefore was excluded to conserve space. The Paris section is nevertheless important because it reveals some of the outward manifestations of Styron’s problem that help to explain the intensity of his experiences at the time.

Simone del Luca had clearly informed Styron months in advance that the late-morning awards ceremony would be followed by a luncheon in his honor. As the invited guests from the Academie Franeaise prepared to enter the upstairs dining room in the mansion, however, Styron informed Mme. del Luca emphatically that he could not stay because he had agreed to meet his French publisher, Francoise Gallimard, at a restaurant for lunch. Mme. del Luca was incredulous; she could not mask her irritation. Finally, Styron relented and stayed for the luncheon, explaining to Mme. del Luca that he was ill, that he was suffering from “un probleme psychiatrique,” his first public acknowledgment that he had a problem.

The next day, the Styrons left Paris aboard the Concorde, escaping as fast as they could to familiar territory. Before long, however, Styron knew that there was no escape, that his enemy was inside him, that it was eating away at him at every waking moment. Despite the total exhaustion he suffered at that time, he had acute insomnia, which exacerbated his already desperate situation. Simple objects began to appear to him as instruments with which he could end his life—kitchen knives, a bathtub in which he could sit and open his arteries.

His therapy with the Yale-trained Dr. Gold began almost immediately after the Paris trip. Styron, who was not an easy patient, saw Gold twice a week. He had read most of the books from which Gold was getting his information, and he was well informed about the pharmaceuticals available for someone with his symptoms. Dr. Gold put him on medication, but it was slow to act; once it acted, it remained in the system for up to two months in some cases, so that Styron suffered agonies if the drugs caused bad side effects. He also suspected that Dr. Gold, who resisted hospitalizing Styron, was overmedicating him.

As the weeks passed, Styron sank deeper and deeper into his hopeless state. He mused about Jean Seberg, former wife of his close friend Romain Gary, whose marriage could not survive her continued depressions. She eventually committed suicide by taking an overdose of drugs. Not long afterward, Gary put a bullet through his head. Styron’s mind wandered to other friends who had taken their lives: Randall Jarrell, Abbie Hoffman. Even after his illness, he became obsessed with Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who forty years afterward ended his own life, presumably breaking under the strain of caring for an elderly mother.

As Styron stood in his kitchen on that December night after pushing his packaged notebook deep into the garbage, he pondered on the grief and shame his friends’ suicide had brought to the survivors. Styron could not bear the thought of inflicting on his family and friends the pain that would accompany his suicide. He cried out for help, demanding that he be hospitalized at once. With hospitalization, his depression began almost immediately to abate. Within two months, he was able to leave the hospital, the worst of this terrifying episode behind him.

On the surface, Styron’s deep depression seemed to be triggered by the biochemical changes that made him unable to tolerate alcohol. Certainly his situation deteriorated when he reacted badly to the medications Dr. Gold prescribed. Styron, however, has sought to identify other causes for his illness. In reviewing his novels, he found that three of his protagonists had committed suicide and that depression was a fundamental part of their psychological makeups. Other characters in his novels also suffered from depression, suggesting that suicide and depression had been a part of his subconscious throughout his productive life. He pondered as well on the effect his mother’s death had on him. He had been thirteen when she died. In the book, he explains that many psychiatrists think that losing a parent—especially a mother—as a child approaches or is barely into puberty leaves an indelible mark for the rest of the child’s life, particularly if the grieving has been incomplete or unresolved, as Styron’s was.

Whatever the cause of Styron’s depression—and the full cause may never be known—this book suggests that even when one has passed into such depths of despair as to be virtually unable to benefit from psychiatric help, the depression can eventually be managed successfully, as it was in his case.

Styron has never been in better control of his writing. His metaphors and similes are never more haunting than in Darkness Visible, a title he borrowed from Milton’s Paradise Lost. This is also an extremely valuable document that offers hope to those who suffer from deep depression.

Suggested Readings

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.

Darkness Visible

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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 during the troubled days of late 1985.

Suggested Readings

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.

Historical Context

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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 Talking Back to Prozac, claim that Eli Lilly rushed the product to market even though tests were inconclusive. Breggin suggests that Lilly is more concerned with profits than human health and that adverse side effects, such as decreased libido, nausea, and insomnia, are more common than has been reported.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an increase not only in the use of new antidepressants such as Prozac but also in the use of other so-called prescription designer drugs such as Halcion, a sleeping aid, which Styron himself used and for which he in part blames his depression; the diet drug phen-fen; and, in the late 1990s, Viagara, a drug also from Eli Lilly, which treats male impotence. While Americans were flocking to prescription drugs in record numbers to improve their lifestyle, the United States government was waging a war on illicit non-prescription drugs. Cocaine, much of it smuggled in from Latin American countries such as Colombia and Peru, became the recreational drug of choice for many middle- and upper-class Americans. Crack, a smokable and very potent form of cocaine, was often used by poorer people, who became easily addicted to the drug. Ronald Reagan’s administration emphasized the danger of drug use to the family and to the moral fabric of society, as well as the cost to business. Attempting to influence consumption patterns before they happened, Nancy Reagan’s ‘‘Just say No’’ campaign targeted children. Seeking to continue where his predecessor Ronald Reagan left off, President George Bush initiated his own ‘‘war on drugs’’ in 1989 when he outlined the federal government’s strategy for ending drug use. The bulk of Bush’s $8 billion plan went toward law enforcement, whereas only 30 percent went to prevention, education, and treatment. Such emphasis has resulted in a record number of people being incarcerated for drug-related crimes, most of them victimless.

Literary Style

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Style
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.

Flashback
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.

Tone
Tone is the attitude of the speaker toward the subject matter. Styron’s tone in Darkness Visible befits the very title of the book. As he recounts his experience with depression, his language embodies the very nature of the disease. His sentences are languid, often sterile, and he repeats himself at times, as if struggling to get his mind around the very experience he is attempting to describe. But readers trust Styron’s voice because he is at a distance from the experience. Though his prose is at times sluggish, it is also measured, rational, and— as much as he can be—objective.

Setting
The setting of a story refers to the when and where of the narrative’s action. Most frequently, the setting is physical; for example, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn takes place on and along the Mississippi River in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although Styron describes a few different physical places and geographical locations, the primary setting of his story is the author’s mind itself. He describes Paris, his home in Connecticut, Martha’s Vineyard, and the hospital to which he admits himself, but these descriptions are sketchy and not important to the story’s development. What is important is Styron’s emotional health, the interplay between his behavior and the trajectory of his depression and his cure.

Media Adaptations

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• 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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Further Reading
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 lacking.

Bibliography

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Suggested Readings

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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