When I first met William Styron, in the summer of 2001, he was frail, barely back on his feet after a brutal bout with depression. I met him and his wife, Rose, at a bookstore where we read from Unholy Ghost, a collection of essays on depression I’d edited, and to which both Styrons had contributed. I was taken aback by Styron’s vulnerability. It was his ravaging sorrow that had brought us there, but still somehow his reputation as Famous Writer (and the few brusque phone conversations that preceded our meeting) had trumped his reputation as Depressed Person in my mind. As we talked, his hands gently trembled, and he spoke with a far-off quietness, as if his words were traveling from a great distance.
When Styron died last week of pneumonia at the age of 81, obituary writers scrambled to assess his literary achievements. But, while he was undoubtedly a brilliant and adventurous novelist, Darkness Visible, his concise, 84-page memoir of his own emotional descent, transformed him into a contemporary translator of the illness and, subsequently, an ardent mental-health advocate.
Styron disliked the term depression, calling it “a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.” Nonetheless, it was this word—and illness—that came to define the last third of his life. DarknessVisible began as a talk Styron gave in 1989 at a symposium on affective disorders sponsored by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Later the same year, at the urging of Tina Brown, then the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, he published a longer version of the story in her magazine. In 1990, Random House published an expanded version of the essay as a book, and it became a national best seller.
Thus began Styron’s second act as a depressed person, for which he became, in his words, “reluctantly famous.” He eventually became a crusader as well, someone who faced up to the responsibility, once the course had been set, to continue the good work his book had begun. “Almost every day, Bill is in contact with fellow depression sufferers by mail or by phone,” Rose Styron wrote in 2001; she cited several instances when her husband, a person who cherished his privacy and solitude, skillfully counseled people who contacted him in the midst of their emotional crises.
Styron spoke at readings and on panels about his struggles—an experience that can feel like torture, describing your personal life with such frequency that it starts to taste like cardboard in your mouth. And yet he was consistently genuine and patient, devoting a good deal of his time to the many who approached him for help. It is little wonder Styron never published another novel after Darkness Visible came out.
Styron was certainly not the first celebrated writer to produce a personal account of his own emotional plunge. In 1936, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald published three piercing essays about his spiritual depletion in Esquire, later collected in a book called The Crack-Up. ButStyron described his illness with a distinct lyrical clarity. He offered up the secrets of his despair but also maintained a degree of formality—occasionally trading the word I for one, as in “one does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails but is attached wherever one goes.” This choice gave his words a sense of restraint but not withholding—an elegant high-wire act. In addition, he nimbly placed depression in historical and cultural context throughout, drawing from the work and lives of Albert Camus, Abbie Hoffman, and Ingmar Bergman, among others.
Styron also wrote with unusual gratitude about being hospitalized, sidestepping the stigma so often associated with spending time in an institution. “The hospital offers the mild, oddly gratifying trauma of sudden stabilization—” he wrote, “a transfer out of the too familiar surroundings of home, where all is anxiety and discord, into an orderly and benign detention where one’s only duty is to try to get well.”
And Styron’s timing was right. He shared his experience at a moment when a sizable audience was ready to receive it. In 1990, the public awareness of and tolerance for the illness was higher; Prozac had just begun to enter our minds—literally and figuratively—two years earlier. Darkness Visible ushered in an abundant era of depression writing. It’s funny to think that Styron paved the way for Marie Osmond (to choose one of the many who have recently offered their own accounts of depression), but perhaps his point in attending those many mental-health conferences was not just to demythologize the illness but also himself: The formidable writer was simply another sufferer in that setting.
Still, no good deed goes unpunished, and even Styron’s work had its critics. In 1997, the literary journal American Scholar published an essay called Depression: Darker Than Darkness by Joel P. Smith, a former vice president of Stanford University. He described his stay at a psychiatric hospital and the friendship he struck up with a fellow resident—who later committed suicide—named Clare. In it, Smith asks Clare to read Darkness Visible.
“She called it a ‘crock,’ ” wrote Smith. “She pointed out that Styron was depressed for a few months, not many years like us. What she actually said is that he had a ‘candy-ass’ depression. … [H]e did not have to rely on anti-depressant medication, much less rely on a radical remedy such as electroconvulsive therapy; his hospital stay was at a place which is as comfortable as they come; and, crucially, he was never alone. It rankles us, no matter what the virtues of Styron’s book may be, to feel he speaks for us.” (It is worth noting: Smith and I had a brief correspondence about the possibility of reprinting his essay—which I admire for its candor and style, if not its message here—in Unholy Ghost.)
This was a short piece in a small-circulation magazine; it was hardly a public lashing for Styron. Still, the sentiment was there—you haven’t suffered enough—and it is, to a larger degree, a problem with which many depressives must grapple. The illness is not always measurable by traditional medical standards; only the sufferer truly knows the severity of his own sadness, and therefore it can be hard to validate. Ironically, it is sometimes harder to prove the legitimacy of the illness to fellow depressives, some of whom resort to measuring their own pain in numbers of hospitalizations and electric shock treatments. It is disheartening, this jockeying for position as the most downtrodden. As one reader of Smith’s essay pointed out in a letter to the editor, “We don’t have to start pushing each other out of the nest.”
In the fall of 2002, I saw Styron once more at a mental-health conference. I was taken aback again, this time by his strength. He was a different man. Or maybe he was just the man he used to be. Either way, he was there: He had returned physically and emotionally.
In the closing of Darkness Visible, Styron worries that the more optimistic message of Dante’s Inferno has been lost with so much focus on the melancholy lines, “In the middle of the journey of our life/ I found myself in a dark wood,/ For I had lost the right path.” He then resurrects the forgotten part of that passage, “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” Perhaps now we should do the same for Styron—and also remember him for his courage in the face of terrifying affliction.