I read the classic Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron, the other night. It's a quick but melancholy read and takes about an hour. (What I didn't realize at the time, and it's completely tangential to his story, which is really about a four year bout the well-known author had with clinical depression, and the closeness he felt to suicide, is that Styron was a former Marine.) Styron died of pneumonia in 2006, at 81 years old.
In an obituary printed about Styron on Martha's Vineyard, where he had a home, the following information about his military service is revealed:
Following high school [Styron] joined the reserve officer training program for the United States Marine Corps, and enrolled at Davidson College. He was unhappy there and through the Marines transferred to Duke University in June of 1943. In October of 1944 he was called to active duty and in late July 1945 was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was assigned to participate in the invasion of Japan; a month later the atomic bomb attacks forced the surrender of Japan and he was discharged. ... In 1955 he published The Long March, originally a novella about his experiences in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The same obituaryalso makes clear the trajectory that led to Styron's depression, and the resultant book that introduced this highly personal experience of the author's to the American public:
[Styron] drank heavily and smoked cigars until the summer of his 60th birthday in 1985, when he decided that alcohol no longer agreed with him and gave it up. But the abstinence triggered mood disorders which required medication, and the drugs in turn brought on a deep, enduring and suicidal depression that required him to be hospitalized for more than two months. The experience prompted him to write Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness, after he had recovered.
The book earned Mr. Styron a whole new set of followers. "I think it causes people to realize two things," he told the Gazette in an interview in 2001. "That this is a pain that afflicts a lot of people; it's universal and if I could describe it in this way and people could relate to it, it meant they weren't alone; and the second thing - almost as important or more important - is stressing the truth that people can get well, and that it's not by any means fatal."
Styron's book is interesting, to a degree, mostly because of his prominence as an author at the time he wrote it, and because it is so uniquely personal: One person telling the story of his own descent into "madness." I wasn't a complete fan: it's a little hard to keep reading how marvelous Styron's life was, yet how unhappy he was within it -- true though that might be. And the entire book, while short, is one continuous slog through the same miserable territory, until his case finally improves towards the end (mostly thanks to hospitalization, it would seem.)
However, there are some intersting parts. One is near the beginning, where he quotes the French writer Albert Camus, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." In Styron's hands, the problem becomes more physiological than philosophical. He tries to put off suicide, while coping with his depression -- but first, cataloging his depression fairly exhaustively for the reader (or himself, it's never too clear.) He covers some standard themes, such as how self-medication with alcohol kept his demons at bay for years, until he cold turkey gave up drinking, and watched his depression take on form and substance. He explains how the common response of depression is to be more interested in injuring self than others (small comfort, that). And he mentions the unique aspect we discuss here from time to time, about how psychological pain can manifest as, or at least be accompanied by, physical pain. In Styron's words, about his own case:
"What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion."
Styron indulges in one of the book's only tiny moments of humor when he describes the loss of his libido, which he says happened pretty much as soon as the depression settled in. Describing a conversation with a doctor he felt 'just didn't get it,' Styron writes:
"...I wondered if he seriously thought that this juiceless and ravaged semi-invalid with the shuffle and the ancient wheeze woke up each morning from his [sleeping pill-induced] sleep eager for carnal fun."
Styron helpfully delineates his personal symptoms and by so doing, provides an example for others about what depression can look and feel like. He describes his sensations of pain, his loss of libido, his weakness, his weak and distant voice that made him sound much older than his years, etc.
He also describes his troubling experience with several doctors (he calls them "careless") who overprescribed medications to him, including sleeping pills, at levels that were dangerous and could have provoked suicidal thoughts. It's unclear whether Styron ever considering a malpractice lawsuit against these doctors, but what he describes doesn't sound good -- and it sounds like he just took it in stride and was thankful he wasn't harmed, but didn't pursue any further action. Ironically, eventually it's medication that helps him get well, once he is hospitalized. Before he commits himself, however, he reaches the end of his rope and contemplates suicide. When he finally realizes how sick he is, he heads for the hospital, and, there removed from other distractions, is able to (in his opinion) concentrate on his cure.From other things I've read since, it sounds like Styron continued to battle depression off and on for the rest of his life, and probably had struggled with it for many years beforehand, also. At no point in the book is there any indication about his military service having an effect, pro or con, on his depression. In fact, it sounds like his depression was both genetic and environmental -- but had nothing to do with being a Marine.
By page 84, the last page of the short book, there is finally a ray of at least faint light. Styron is getting better, and he sums up -- neatly mentioning Dante, the subject of a previous post here on this blog:
For those who have dwelt in depression's dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet [Dante], trudging upward an upward out of hell's black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as "the shining world." There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair."
And then he concludes with a quote from Dante, mirroring the optimism that is finally able to see in his own situation:
"E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars."
Editor's note: If you want to read more about Styron's later work, referencing this book as well, there's a good article from 2003 in the Guardian, linked here.