The Books: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

When Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi killed himself in 1987, much of the response was one of almost baffled hurt and incomprehension. “How could he do this?” “How could he – who had survived Auschwitz – take his own life?” People were almost angry at him. Suicide brings up that response, of course, but with Levi it was different, due to his life circumstances and what he had represented to so many. William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice (and others), was infuriated by the response to Levi’s suicide, and its implied judgment. He wrote an op-ed column about his own battle with suicidal depression, which had an overwhelmingly popular response. It was that which convinced him that he should expand that op-ed column into a book. Darkness Visible is a small book – not even 100 pages long – but became a national bestseller. Something in his language, his ability to admit that language is inadequate (he has a whole section on what to call “depression” – he doesn’t like the word, doesn’t find it adequate at all as descriptive of what the experience is actually LIKE) – makes this book compulsively readable, although it is a very tough read. It is a book of psychic anguish, and he’s such a good writer that he makes it palpable, almost understandable. It is the incomprehension of healthy people, who may have “bad days” or “get the blues”, but who never ever experience that type of psychic anguish – that grated on Styron, and made him tailspin into a wordlessness which was even more disorienting for him since he is, after all, a writer.

He does make the observation that it is no accident that suicide has come up in his books as almost an indelible THEME – many of his characters end up taking their own lives – but clinical depression did not hit him until he was in his 60s. But there was something in him that was drawn to that theme. His father had suffered from depressions. His mother had died when he was young (a common theme in the history of depression). The emotional torment that had brought up in him as a young boy had never been resolved. Depression is a hot topic, obviously, and many people feel they have the answer. Books like Styron’s are, in their very nature, controversial, although he does make the point that his experience is his experience, not meant to be representative of everyone’s experience. For him, what saved his life was hospitalization and medication. Therapy did nothing. The depression was too ingrained, too deep. He needed to be removed from the daily bustle of life, he needed all social obligations removed, so that he could heal – as would be the case with anyone who was sick. Styron talks about the indignities of those suffering from depression, and how they are expected to do things that would be virtually impossible to someone dying from a terminal illness, for example. You are expected to put on a happy face, keep going to work, show up for your family dinners … all of which exacerbate the intense feeling of dislocation and disorientation. You need help.

In 2009, I moved apartments. It was supposedly a good choice (and it was) but at the time, I moved in the middle of an intensifying brainstorm. So when the move was over, and I found myself alone in my new apartment, instead of feeling hopeful and happy I felt overwhelmed and devastated. I was not normal, that should go without saying. My thoughts were full of doom and fatalism. Self-loathing had ratcheted up to an alarming degree. I felt I myself was toxic – so my first thought, in those disorienting first couple of days in my new apartment, was: “Well. Clearly I need to move again.” I called it “bad juju”. I had already filled up my brand new apartment with “bad juju” and nothing would ever eradicate it. I cried for 19 days in July of 2009. It is hard to say that without feeling that someone will interject, “Surely you exaggerate just a tiny bit? Surely you didn’t cry every single minute of every single day …” But no, I do not exaggerate. I woke up in tears, cried the whole day, and finally started forcing myself to fall asleep at around 5:30, 6:00 – so that I wouldn’t have to be awake anymore. I took days off of work, and then when I did go to work, my kindly coworkers were sweet, and left me alone, as I sat at my desk, tears streaming down my face. I thought it would never end. I had moments when I would get off the bus to go to my new apartment, and feel, in my bones: “I can’t go back there.” But nowhere was safe. There would be no respite. Nothing would change. Ever. I know from experience that tears are often a sign of health: true depression brings you to a realm far far beyond tears. You would welcome the ability to feel ANYthing. And this was the case for me in 2009. Once the 19 days of tears stopped, then the real horror began. Nothingness broken by moments of sheer anguish. Fun!

[An additional thought: I realize now I should have been hospitalized in July of 2009. This is part of Styron’s point in his book. That type of anguish cannot be talked away. If you found your leg crushed underneath a metal structure, you wouldn’t wait it out. You’d go to a hospital and get that shit handled. There is no way on earth that I should have still been expected to go to work at that time. But what are ya gonna do. I didn’t go to the hospital. I will next time.]

I don’t share this story to compare mine to Styron’s or anyone else’s. It’s not a competition. By late August, the tears had stopped, but something worse was in its place. Complete stoppage of everything. I was, as Styron calls it, “the walking wounded”. I still hadn’t unpacked my apartment. I had been living there for a month, but I was so upset about the “bad juju” that I couldn’t unpack. I also was immobilized, as anyone who has struggled with depression will understand. Simple tasks become impossibly enormous – impossible, essentially. Boxes lined the hallways. My books were unpacked. My clothes were in boxes. I was still thinking that I was going to have to move again – that clearly I had made a disastrous choice in moving to this apartment. My friend David interceded on my behalf – and suddenly, all of my friends rushed to my aid. My friend Mike offered to build me bookshelves, and then David planned a housewarming party for me (I had nothing to do with any of it, I wasn’t even included on the emails) – where all of my friends would come over and basically unpack for me. It was an extraordinary day and once my apartment was unpacked, and my pictures hung, and my books put away – a small space of clarity surrounded me. I was able to walk from A to B in my apartment without having to dodge the boxes, and at least my obsession with “bad juju” had vanished. Not just because my apartment was put in order by my friends – but because they had all come over. I had had a bunch of people in that apartment for the first time, and for the first time, instead of my howls of anguish for 19 days straight – the air in that apartment was filled with conversation, laughter, kids running around, hilarity. It was amazing what “good juju” did for me. I still had two months of crisis to endure and wouldn’t come out of my trance until the end of October – but I had found some strength. I organized a reading of my script, which went great – I actually went out on Halloween with my friend Jen, and we had a great time. I had a crush on someone, which was a miracle in and of itself. He asked me out for coffee. By the time I got laid off from my job in November 2009, I was on the road to healthy thought again. Being laid off (and given a giant severance package) was one of the biggest gifts of that crazy sad year. The money gave me freedom, yes, but more importantly – it gave me TIME. My month on Block Island in early 2010 was definitely for writing purposes and I did do a lot of writing while I was out there. But more than that: I recovered. That was the real beginning of my real recovery from those harrowing five months in 2009.

Everyone’s experience is different. This is mine. It was not so bad that I went into psychosis, or had to be hospitalized, so I do not mean to compare, or contrast. These book reviews are about my experience of said books, and as I looked through the book this morning I thought of how immobilized I was in the summer of 2009, and so I thought I would share it. Looking back, I was still posting on my blog through those months (the crisis began in mid-June – my blog started getting very weird around then), but they are mostly video clips, photos, and cryptic comments. The blog was a lifeline. It was a way to keep myself attached to the public world, to life, to the earth, but I was unable to really write. It’s painful to look back on the blog posts from that time, because they say nothing, and yet I know that behind the scenes I was crying for 19 days straight, and was going to sleep while it was still light out just to get a break from being conscious.

Darkness Visible is excruciating to read. I highly recommend it.

The book opens with a harrowing description of a trip Styron and his wife took to Paris. Styron was already in the throes of the depression at that time, but was resisting actually admitting it. He was there for a quick four-day trip to accept a literary prize, and he began to tailspin down at an alarming rate, all of this exacerbated by the obligations of the prize: he had to do interviews, go to a luncheon, go to a prize ceremony … Styron had no business doing any of this, you can see that clearly in how he describes it.

Excerpt from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

By the time we arrived at the museum, having dealt with heavy traffic, it was past four o’clock and my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world. This is to say more specifically that instead of pleasure – certainly instead of the pleasure I should be having in this sumptuous showcase of bright genius – I was feeling in my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain. This leads me to touch again on the elusive nature of such distress. That the word “indescribable” should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience. For myself, the pain is most closely connected to drowning or suffocation – but even these images are off the mark. William James, who battled depression for many years, gave up the search for an adequate portrayal, implying its near-impossibility when he wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “It is a positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to normal life.”

The pain persisted during my museum tour and reached a crescendo in the next few hours when, back at the hotel, I fell into the bed and lay gazing at the ceiling, nearly immobilized and in a trance of supreme discomfort. Rational thought was usually absent from my mind at such times, hence trance. I can think of no more apposite word for this state of being, a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by that “positive and active anguish”. And one of the most unendurable aspects of such an interlude was the inability to sleep. It had been my custom of a near-lifetime, like that of vast numbers of people, to settle myself into a soothing nap in the late afternoon, but the disruption of normal sleep patterns is a notoriously devastating feature of depression; to the injurious sleeplessness with which I had been afflicted each night, was added the insult of this afternoon insomnia, diminutive by comparison but all the more horrendous because it struck during the hours of the most intense misery. It had become clear that I would never be granted even a few minutes’ relief from my full-time exhaustion. I clearly recall thinking, as I lay there while Rose sat nearby reading, that my afternoons and evenings were becoming almost measurably worse, and that this episode was the worst to date. But I somehow managed to reassemble myself for dinner with – who else – Francoise Gallimard, co-victim along with Simone del Duca of the frightful lunchtime contretemps. The night was blustery and raw, with a chill wet wind blowing down the avenues, and when Rose and I met Francoise and her son and a friend at La Lorraine, a glittering brasserie not far from L’Etoile, rain was descending from the heavens in torrents. Someone in the group, sensing my state of mind, apologized for the evil night, but I recall thinking that even if this were one of those warmly scented and passionate evenings for which Paris is celebrated I would respond like the zombie I had become. The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.

And zombielike, halfway through the dinner, I lost the del Duca prize check for $25,000. Having tucked the check in the inside breast pocket of my jacket, I let my hand stray idly to that place and realized that it was gone. Did I “intend” to lose the money? Recently I had been deeply bothered that I was not deserving of the prize. I believe in the reality of the accidents we subconsciously perpetrate on ourselves, and so how easy it was for this loss to be not loss but a form of repudiation, offshoot to that self-loathing (depression’s premier badge) by which I was persuaded that I could not be worthy of the prize, that I was in fact not worthy of any of the recognition that had come my way in the past few years. Whatever the reason for its disappearance, the check was gone, and its loss dovetailed well with the other failures of the dinner: my failure to have an appetite for the grand plateau de fruits de mer placed before me, failure of even forced laughter and, at last, virtually total failure of speech. At this point the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur; I sensed myself turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic, and also I sensed my French friends becoming uneasily aware of my predicament. It was a scene from a bad operetta by now: all of us near the floor, searching for the vanished money. Just as I signaled that it was time to go, Francoise’s son discovered the check, which had somehow slipped out of my pocket and fluttered under an adjoining table, and we went forth into the rainy night.

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23 Responses to The Books: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

  1. jayne says:

    Excellent book. I remember reading it after it came out in paperback, and I remember being so glad, so…grateful, I think, because he understood. It’s so hard to explain – sometimes even to find words for – what’s going on in your mind, in your whole body – to someone who hasn’t been through it. And the words you do come up with so often fall short or fail, and you just sound…to the uninitiated…pathetic and lazy and whiny. Styron’s book told me someone understood.

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – totally Ow. It’s a good thing the book is only 84 pages long. You couldn’t take much more of it.

  3. sheila says:

    Jayne – I’m so glad to hear you read it too. I think the shame attached to being so debilitated is part of the problem. How do I tell people what it’s like???

    Have you read the novel Inglorious? It’s a first novel – the name of the author escapes me at the moment, it came out in the last couple of years – and it blew me away in its accurate depiction of a total tailspin. It’s unbearable at points – but the author nails it.

  4. jayne says:

    Sheila – shame, yes! In many different guises. Even when I try to describe any of it – a thought, the way things look from in the pit, the things my brain says to me – it sounds…foolish. Thin. You have to be IN it to know what the view is really like.

    I haven’t read Inglorious. I’ll look for it. Thanks. And thanks for reminding me of Styron’s book.

  5. Kent says:

    I *THINK* I could finish it, but it would take 84 days. (said with love)

  6. sheila says:

    Kent – yes, a page a day would keep the misery to a minimum! :)

  7. sheila says:

    Jayne – Yeah, it’s the story of a month or so in the life of a British woman who derails completely after walking out on her job. It’s harrowing. It’s insane. It’s quite funny at times. Amazing writing. The author really gets the craziness from the inside – how it’s like your brain chemistry gangs up on you and convinces yourself of how worthless you are. Ugh. But still: very good novel!

  8. april says:

    Thank you for this post, Sheila. I, too, have suffered from debilitating episodes of depression, although mine are more of the PTSD variety. So I know it takes a special kind of courage to try to put into words the hell that the word “depression” is so inadequate to describe. It’s an effort worth making, though, because feeling alone and unique and like no one else could ever understand is such a big part of the downward spiral. I’m sure there are many more people who will relate to what you’ve written here than will be able to comment, and that your openness will serve as a beacon as they struggle against their own demons. You are such a brave and generous woman.

  9. sheila says:

    April – well, that means so much to me to hear. Thank you so much. And thank you for sharing what you did here. Anything anyone can do to try to get rid of the stigma is good news.

  10. sheila says:

    And good luck to you, April. I know it’s hard!! :)

  11. Cara Ellison says:

    Sheila, you said:

    “William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice (and others), was infuriated by the response to Levi’s suicide, and its implied judgment.”

    I’m stuck on “its implied judgement.” I’ve read the whole piece twice and my eye still keeps seeking out this phrase. What is the implied judgement of Levi’s suicide? Can you talk about this a little bit?

  12. sheila says:

    Cara – sure. I went into it in more detail here in my post about Primo Levi’s memoir. Basically, Primo Levi was a brilliant writer who survived Auschwitz. He was there even after the Germans had abandoned it. It is a miracle he survived. He came back to Italy and lived and worked as a chemist for forty years. In his last year, he was taking care of his paralytic mother, and struggling with depression. While his death is still under some dispute, it is generally believed that it was a suicide. He died in 1987, I think. When he died, the response was, yes, sad, but also outraged. How could this man who had survived so much kill himself? How could he CHEAPEN what his life MEANT to millions by choosing to opt out of it? Styron thought that the response was idiotic and a complete misunderstanding of the reality of crippling depression. He wrote an op-ed column in defense of Levi – not actually saying “he had a right to kill himself” – but saying: “How dare you judge someone when you obviously have no idea what agony suicidal depression actually is?”

    He goes into it in some detail in Darkness Visible – and also has a couple of other examples – Abbie Hoffman being another symbolic figure who took his own life, “disappointing” many people. Styron writes in defense of anyone who has struggled with depression. To those who understand its horror, suicide obviously seems like a viable option. But because Primo Levi was a Holocaust survivor – there was a lot of judgment towards him in the response to his death. How dare he. How dare he survive Auschwitz and then live for FORTY YEARS only to KILL HIMSELF???

    Does that make sense? It outraged Styron.

  13. Kerry says:

    Love you, Sheila.

  14. sheila says:

    I love you too, Kerry!

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    Yep, makes total sense, especially after I went back and read the post about Levi’s memoir.

    Thanks for that.

  16. Lou says:

    Thanks for this post, Sheila. It brought back some bad memories, but ultimately cheered me up (if that makes any sense). : )

  17. Sean O says:


    Thanks for sharing some of your darkness. For some reason there is some small measure of comfort to know others too have suffered and have some understanding of the madness, the unreality and despair of depression. It is like a poison or weed that overwhelms and chokes off the life of the soul. How can one turn off one’s brain or consciousness, escape from one’s self? Anyone who has battled depression knows that desire. Descriptions help capture some of depressions contours, but it does remain mysterious and inexplicable all the same.

    Your site is excellent. You are quite prolific.

    I found you recently reading something about Oscar Wilde.

    Thank you.

  18. sheila says:

    Sean – your comment moves me more than I can say. I relate very much to it which is one of the reasons why I am drawn to “depression memoirs” (by good writers) because sometimes they say something that actually captures just a tiny bit of what it might be like – and it’s helpful to ME because so much of the darkness (as it sounds like you understand) is way beyond words.

    Hope you come back and comment again. Oscar Wilde is a neverending topic for me. :)

  19. I find that good writing can make anything bearable, while bad writing can make even the most joyous experiences painful. It’s one reason I read your blog: you are of the former category. :-)

  20. sheila says:

    Greg – I’m not sure good writing can make “anything” bearable. In the time I describe in this post – 2009 – I couldn’t read it all I was in so much anguish. Nothing comforted me. I had been launched into a comfortless universe, all doors of ease and solace closed to me. hard to explain unless you’ve felt it.

    But thank you for the compliment nonetheless.

  21. I was referring to describing such an event, not living through it. For example, watching Grave of the Fireflies is depressing as hell, but there’s small comfort in the fact that, since it’s so well made, it makes the viewer FEEL, even if much of what one feels is numbing sadness. Now, if you happened to live through the firebombing of Tokyo, I don’t think reading a book would help you cope with such an event. I do know, however, that books and movies can help when times are bad, just as I know that there are some events that are so horrible NOTHING can alleviate them while they are occurring. To not feel, to not want to feel, to be trapped in nothingness–approximations of what you felt in 2009, but I understand what you’re saying about not wanting to read or do anything during that time, even if I’ve never reached that level of despair.

    I’m glad, though, that you got through it and are still writing. Here’s to friends who care.

  22. sheila says:

    Greg – Yes, I see what you mean. I think that’s why a well-written grief memoir (like Year of Magical Thinking) can actually help someone who CAN’T express themselves so accurately – not feel so alone. Or a trauma memoir. Or depression literature, of which I have a ton. I am always looking for the person who can describe it perfectly. I’ve done my best here, and in other places. Still ahven’t been able to tackle 2009 – but the novel I mention in the comments section here – Inglorious – comes the closest I’ve ever seen. That book is pretty much exactly what it was like. Shivers. But I sure am grateful someone wrote it down for me. Gives me courage to keep trying to express my own experience with that kind of sickness.

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