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Truth Visible: a different take on "Darkness Visible"

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TRUTH VISIBLE (a take on "Darkness Visible" by William Styron) by John Bennett William Styron is the author of a number of very fine novels, among them Sophie's Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Set This House on Fire.He's been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, and a literary medal or two. In June of 1985, Mr. Styron found that his body would no longer ingest alcohol, a substance he'd been consuming on a daily basis for some forty years, and he went into an emotional tailspin. Eight months later, he was released from a hospital where he'd spent the better part of the previous two months undergoing treatment for clinical depression. He was still a little shaky, but on his feet again. In 1989, Mr. Styron published a lengthy and much acclaimed piece in Vanity Fair describing his eight-month brush with insanity, and a year later an expanded version of the Vanity Fair piece was published in book form as Darkness Visible. The dust jacket of Darkness Visible applauds Mr. Styron's remarkable candor, but I think his candor is seriously flawed by his denial, and his denial is bolstered by misguided erudition and a lifetime need for spartan control over his emotions. The illusion that he had this control was fueled by alcohol, and when his body began ejecting alcohol, Styron was left in a world of woe. He'd been buying death on the installment plan, and forty years of delinquent payments came due on the same day. "I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria...alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily--sought, also, I now see, as a means to calm my anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit." Styron began experiencing the symptoms that most alcoholics experience when they quit cold turkey after decades of hard drinking: the world around them goes flat and colorless, and they fill with anxiety, self-loathing, and a deep sorrow (grief, actually); they experience acute insomnia, and life does not seem worth living; they feel betrayed. "I was was as if my body...along with my mind...had conspired to reject this daily mood bath which it had so long welcomed and, who knows?, perhaps even come to need." Perhaps! An alcoholic drinks because alcohol locks away boogie men and shreds fear and doubt into confetti to be showered from tall buildings over his one-man parade. And then, years down the line, gradually or all at once, alcohol stops working, leaving the hapless alcoholic far up sh*t's creek without a paddle. The things he has been burying alive for decades rise up from their 80-proof grave, and it's Armageddon and mayhem on the battlefield of his ill-prepared soul. What he needs to do at this critical juncture is throw in the towel, because in truth he doesn't have weapon one with which to fight this new ogre. To not surrender is tantamount to suicide. Styron didn't surrender, and things got rough. Four months into this grueling state of affairs, he flew to Paris to receive the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca Award. He made a shambles of it and bolted home aboard the Concorde to make his first appointment with a shrink. Being a self- proclaimed autodidact, he read extensively in medical journals, and--using their authority--relegated alcohol to the status of a contributing factor in what he perceived as a more serious malaise--clinical depression of the unipolar variety. Alcohol was a factor, the fact that his work wasn't going well was a factor, the fact he'd just turned sixty was a factor, the fact that his mother had died when he was but a boy was a factor, the fact that his father had suffered from depression was a factor, and things got worse. Still refusing to surrender, Styron utilized, on the advice of various physicians, an array of anti- depressants--Halcion, Ativan, Ludiomil, Nordil, Dalmoine--in a last-ditch attempt to find a miracle medical cure. Nothing worked, and suicidal feelings began shaping into considerations of tangible options--slit wrists, carbon monoxide poisoning, hanging, self-induced pneumonia. He exhumed the specters of literary and artistic predecessors and assembled them around him like a posthumous A.A. meeting: Camus, Romain Gary, Jean Seberg, Abbie Hoffman, Randall Jarrell, van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton--suicides all, and almost all alcoholics. But nothing helped, and as Styron's anguish worsened, he committed himself more stringently to the concept of clinical depression and--even after his voice and his libido had left him and he could do nothing but sit and stare--clung to the illusion of control; he perceived himself as a separate entity, objectively monitoring the devastation that assailed his mind and body. This is the grizzly, howling madness that lies muffled under the bland word denial. What Styron did is what legions of alcoholics, each according to his or her own temperament, intelligence and style, had done before him--engage in denial. Denial is not a conscious act, denial with a big "D" is a treacherous, compacted, long-term psychological distortion that prevents the individual under its sway from being able to perceive the reality of his dilemma. It's a long process, breaking down Denial, and the first step is surrender. Denial can muck up anyone's life, but in the case of an alcoholic, it eventually becomes life threatening. I suspect that Styron was suffering fromDenial, not depression; that his ailment was first and foremost a spiritual one. It's worth considering that alcoholism and depression are symptoms of Denial, and that Denial grows up around and feeds off deep traumas, largely unacknowledged, rooted in a person's past. Willingness to have these traumas revealed, without at the time knowing how this will happen or how long it will take, is prerequisite to Denial breakdown and any consequent peace-of-mind.

Darkness Visible is candid, but not in the way the dust jacket implies. It is a book about a man desperately trying to get honest with himself using the tools he is familiar with, tools given to him by a world that refuses to look itself in the eye. Styron's turning point came while sitting alone in his Connecticut farmhouse living room late one cold December night. Wrapped in a blanket because the furnace wasn't working, he was watching a video, something about a classical musician. Suddenly the cold, dark room was filled with the strains of Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, a tune he'd often heard his mother singing around the house when he was a young boy. The music filled him with sorrow, "pierced my heart like a dagger," and he was overwhelmed with recollections of the joys he had known right there in the now barren landscape of his Connecticut farmhouse--the laughter of children, the "perennial tribe of cats and dogs and birds," the love, the work... The next day he had himself committed. Styron endured the Group Therapy conducted by an "odiously smug young shrink" who attempted to get patients to "...cough up the seeds of our misery..." and the Art Therapy run by "...a delirious young woman with a fixed, indefatigable smile..." who had Styron do a drawing of his house which turned out to be "...a square with a door and four cross-eyed windows..." His health and his humor began to return, and just before he was released, he began to dream again. His first dream had "...a flute in it somewhere, a wild goose and a dancing girl..."

*** Styron writes his way out of Darkness Visible still talking up a storm about depression, but for my money his recovery hinged on his surrender that night in the farmhouse, wrapped in a blanket listening to Brahms. I have no idea where his life went from this point, but Darkness Visible remains a portrait of anguished Denial that casts a long shadow of truth. Perhaps one day Mr. Styron will write a book called Truth Visible, and then we'll be cooking with gas. (Author's note:this essay was written in May of 1994. It has never been published. I resurrected it from its grave as they were lowering William Styron into his. William Styron died on November 4, 2006. To my knowledge, he never wrote the sequel to Darkness Visible I had hoped for.)


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