Darkness Visible by William Styron

James Patrick has great literary taste and is quite adept at giving the reader a feel for the book. CS2 will continue to publish his reviews as they become available.
Many writers have suffered through depression, either over something in their past or because they are simply not able to write anymore. No writer goes through their lives without a period of dryness, when there are no words to come out of the pen or (in more recent times) onto the word possessor. Ernest Hemingway is one of the prime examples of “writers block” depression. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest authors of all time; one whose books will live on long after we have all taken our last breath. That’s why it’s hard for me to understand what happened to him. What lead to his breakdown and violent suicide in 1961? We can only guess, for we were not there to witness his downfall because he did not want to let us in.

In 1990, William Styron (author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner) wrote a memoir that might help to explain those authors who cannot continue life as it is, Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness.

After Sophie’s Choice was released in 1979 to widespread critical and public acclaim, Styron found himself suffering from mood swings, insomnia, irritability, memory loss, writers block and a variety of other symptoms. It begins with him telling the reader that he first took notice of the symptoms when he was in Paris, accepting an award.

In this book, Styron presents us with confessions from his depression. Peppered with examples of other writer’s depression as well, Styron compares himself to other writers with a beautiful form of writing, blending imagery and research.

In chapter two, his thoughts turn towards Nobel-Prize winner Albert Camus (the famed philosopher and author of The Stranger) and his untimely death in a car crash in 1960. Styron ponders:

“…[Camus] supposedly knew the driver, who was the son of his publisher, to be a speed demon; so there was an element of recklessness in the accident that bore overtones of the near-suicidal, at least of a death flirtation…conjectures concerning the event should revert back to the theme of suicide in the writer’s work.”

Styron’s style continues like this for the rest of the book, cropping up with examples of other writer’s depression. In one scene from the book (where Styron makes an attempt to write a suicide note) he thinks back to Italian author Cesare Pavese’s suicide note, the simplicity of it and how it communicated everything he wanted to express in three small sentences:

“No more words. An act. I’ll never write again.”

Throughout the book, Styron floats between madness and anxiety. As he contemplates such an irreversible act as suicide, he laments that therapy and medication are not working for him. He talks about doing something that might just help him seal his doom: destroying his notebook, thus erasing a piece of himself for good. After debating with himself, he finally throws the notebook into his trashcan during a dinner party.

Time passes, and Styron is plagued by images of death. One night, after watching TV, he tells his wife that he has thought so often of death and darkness:

“I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day, I was admitted to the hospital.”
* * *
Styron paints a vivid picture of his depression, but he ignores one large piece of the puzzle: the reactions of his family. He almost completely shrugs off the idea of his family’s feelings though the whole book. To find out what his family thought, we must turn to other sources, particularly his daughter Alexandra and her essay for the New Yorker, “Reading my Father”:

“My father’s first episode of depression… in the fall of 1985, had driven him almost to suicide. Away at college at the time, I had received reports from my mother… on Daddy’s “blues” … I was unaware of the magnitude of Daddy’s troubles until mid-December, when my mother admitted him, with his consent, to the psychiatric unit at Yale New Haven Hospital.”

Styron kept his family unaware of his depression as long as he could, but (like most people) he could not hide it forever.

William Styron did what many artists who have gone to the edge and back do; he took his suffering and turned it into what the New York Times called a “compelling new memoir”. The book has its faults, but so do all books. It is certainly no worse than any other memoir on the subject of depression, be it by a professional author or otherwise. Styron has done what very few authors can do or ever could do: he has documented his own depression and put it out into the world.

The best way of summing up the book comes straight from the book. It is the epigraph, which comes from the King James Bible in the Book of Job. (The verses in question are from Chapter 3, Verses 25-26.) This epigraph is not vague, but rather it is direct and lets the reader know what they are in for:

“For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.

I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.”

As you can see, the epigraph pulls no punches and helps to set the perfect compass for the many stormy seas ahead that the reader will encounter in this brilliant and breathtaking book.

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