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A Book Review of "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness" by William Styron

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Beginning in 1985, Styron's depression lasted for six months, a period of time I believe was unusually short.  But for what it lacked in longevity, the depression made up for in intensity.  Styron subtitled his book a memoir of "madness," and in it he writes of brain storms and mental chaos.  Before his torment ended he was hospitalized, which was an unusual and drastic treatment for the malady even at that time; the usual treatment for it today is psycho-active medications and psychotherapy.

My depression lasted for years and was never as intense as William Styron's was. It began in the summer of 1960 and was not purely unipolar.  I experienced several weeks of mania each spring.  My depression's “defining moment” – which are my words - was not a musical piece I loved, like Styron’s was; it was the conviction that the problem was not something I had and would recover from, but something I was and always would be. These different defining moments may account in part for the different endings of our maladies (I also never took medications or experienced hospitalization).  A full year or so after my defining moment occurred in 1969, my depression began lifting like a poisonous gas, to my indescribable happiness and everlasting relief.  And to this day, I attribute that defining moment to my increasing political radicalization.

In the first part of Darkness Visible, Styron takes great care to emphasize the variation in symptoms from person to person.  Then he discusses with compelling readability and anecdotes the symptoms of the disease with particular reference to those he suffered.  I loved his calling "self-loathing" just that - which is exactly what it is - not "low self-esteem" as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases called it as late as 1990.  (With such symptomatology, medical science would probably characterize viral pneumonia as a bad chill.)  

People who have never been depressed must try to understand that the moods Styron describes are very different from, and much worse than emotions like sadness, loneliness, or regret.

With regard to causes, Styron is as cautious as he is about symptoms. He writes that he lost his mother as a young teen and that he was withdrawing from longtime alcohol abuse when he became depressed. These are two commonly identified precursors of depression, but of course, with what degree of confidence can conclusions drawn from depressives who seek professional help be attributed to the many more depressives who do not?  Styron also writes that loss is probably always involved.  I strongly agree.  But wouldn't the object of the loss vary as much from person to person as the symptoms of the malady do?  I think that what I lost was my hope for a future world I'd expected to excel in; but it’s difficult for me to even imagine this sort of loss being what William Styron endured.

For me, the most moving passage in Darkness Visible is one in which Styron recounts an analogy that had been told to him about how far we have to go in understanding the disease.  We're Europeans still in the Caribbean of Christopher Columbus, with this enormous, unexplored continent before us.

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Darkness Visible is a wonderful but still greatly under-read and underappreciated book.  In fact, it should be read by everyone, because anyone may be struck down by the disease some time in their lives, like William Styron was or like I was. 

(Written in 2006 and 2008)

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
 

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