suicide
Reading Time: 4 minutes William Styron at Martha's Vineyard, 1989. (William Waterway, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I read American novelist William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Sadness years ago, and I found it terribly sad at the time to learn that an author I greatly admired had long suffered from debilitating depression.

suicide
William Styron at Martha’s Vineyard, 1989. (William Waterway, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

But it’s actually a book that glowed with hope, as did Styron’s courageous campaign to destigmatize mental illness during the remaining decades of his life. But he was also candid about depression’s horrors. In Darkness, he wrote:

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”

The ‘great god of depression’

I recalled this instructive, uplifting book Friday while reading an interesting op-ed piece by contributing writer Pagan Kennedy in The New York Times, “The Great God of Depression: How Mental Illness Stopped Being ‘a Terrible Dark Secret.’” Brain scientist Alice Flaherty, a close friend of Styron’s, once referred to the writer as “the great god of depression.”

In the 1980s, mental illness was still very much stigmatized in the United States, and people who suffered everything from depression to anxiety attacks to full-blown schizophrenia were viewed not like, say, heart-attack or cancer victims (whose physiological unluckiness they shared and whose pain was similar), but emotionally weak, demonized people in need of exorcism or just more backbone. Kennedy wrote:

A ‘dark secret’

“A confession of mental illness might not seem like a big deal now, but it was back then. In the 1980s, ‘if you were depressed, it was a terrible dark secret that you hid from the world,’ according to Andrew Solomon, a historian of mental illness and author of ‘The Noonday Demon.’ People with depression were seen as pathetic and even dangerous. You didn’t let them near your kids.”

Yet the sanest, toughest, gentlest people in the world get depression, as those with the biggest “hearts,” so to speak, suffer coronaries. It’s all physiological, not a supernatural Cartesian malady somehow fully separate and uninvolved from the body. No brain, no mind, in other words. So, to argue that mental illness is somehow a thing apart is to ignore the reality that certain medications can completely disappear or greatly reduce physical symptoms of many such “mental” illnesses.

If he “mind” and brain were separate, to be sure, the drugs would induce no effect at all. I wrote about this earlier this year here.

A ‘grey drizzle of horror’

So, even as Styron in a 1988 Times op-ed described “the grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on a quality of physical pain” and that sufferers “think ceaselessly of oblivion” as an escape, Kennedy notes that he also “helped to popularize a new way of looking at the brain. In his telling, suicidal depression is a physical ailment, as unconnected to the patient’s moral character as cancer.”

A quote from esteemed literary critic Alfred Kazan in that op-ed summarized the wide chasm of incredulity then separating the understanding of psychologically healthy people and those whose psyche’s were ravaged by illness. At a symposium honoring Italian writer Primo Levi after he committed suicide by leaping into a stairwell, Kazan said:

“It is difficult for me to credit a will to blackness and self-destruction to a writer so happy and full of new projects.”

But that is the tragedy of depression. Once ensconced, it honors nothing or anyone.

Styron lamented in the op-ed that in statements of Kazan and others in attendance at the honoring symposium:

“… there was at least a tinge of disapproval, an unspoken feeling that through some puzzling failure of moral strength Mr. Levi had failed his staunchest admirers. … that the efficacy of all his words had somehow been cancelled by his death.”

Styron urged,

“To those of us who have suffered severe depression — myself included — this general awareness of how relentlessly the disease can generate an urge to self-destruction seems widespread; the problem badly needs illumination.”

And so he spent the rest of his life illuminating it, even as he occasionally “eyed the knives in his kitchen with suicide-lust.”

Snuggle up

I would encourage everyone to snuggle up with Styron’s words and a hot cup of coffee. The list of his marvelous books and articles is long and distinguished and accessible. Aside from Darkness, one of my favorite novels of all time is The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a Pulitzer-winning fictionalized account of a real-life 1831 slave uprising in antebellum Virginia. And, of course, there’s the international best seller Sophie’s Choice (1979), a story about a Jewish mother during the Holocaust forced to choose which of her children would die immediately at the concentration camp to which she was headed and which would be allowed to stay with her and live. The last novel was also made into an Academy Award-winning movie.

Although Styron eventually died of natural causes in 2006 despite struggling with depression to the end of his life, even if he had ended the relentless misery by his own hand it would hardly have cancelled the efficacy of the oceans of wise and beautiful words he bequeathed during his long life.

One important part of his legacy is that people with mental illness today are not automatically viewed as weak-minded and morally flawed, but the hapless victims of physiological diseases as natural and unavoidable as the common cold.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...