Book review

Darkness Visible

A Memoir of Madness

by William Styron

Darkness Visible by William Styron

This is a dark book, written from a place of nightmares that so many visit, and from which the fortunate might return. In it, William Styron, an author of some considerable skill, writes grippingly of his personal experience with depression. It’s a remarkable book, made all the more remarkable by the skill of the author – for the man can write. Here he is, near the start of this slim volume, in the car on the way to collect an prestigious literary award at a ceremony in Paris:

…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 is a book from a place I have never been. Reading it was as much of an immersion in a different world for me as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. I have no personal experience of depression – I am about as annoyingly chipper as it’s possible to be (on the Big Five personality traits, I am at the first percentile on the neuroticism score – through no moral virtue on my part, I assure you, just luck in both genetics and lack of childhood trauma).

However, I read a second-hand copy of this book, and throughout it, a previous reader had marked certain passages with bright red crosses and underlines. This previous reader was my Margaret Mead: here was my guide to these difficult experiences, of which we still know so little. We don’t know how it starts, we rarely known why – and whether – it ends. Styron says:

I shall never learn what “caused” my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behaviour and genetics. Plainly, multiple components are involved – perhaps three or four, most probably more, in fathomless permutations.

As the author’s depression grows, his world folds in on itself and becomes darker still. He reads obsessively about the disease:

It has been established with reasonable certainty (after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol. Will all this upheaval in the brain tissues, the alternate drenching and deprivation, it is no wonder that the mind begins to feel aggrieve, stricken, and the muddied thought processes register the distress of an organ in convulsion.

Many people find relief with various pharmacological treatments, but the author discovers that his particular version of the disease is resistant to the standard drugs, and even, somewhat alarmingly, finds eventually that the one he has been prescribed to help with his sleep is strongly contra-indicated for men of his age.

Eventually, in this hellscape, Styron’s thoughts become blacker still.

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the fray 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 diabolic 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 becomes suicidal, and the margins of my copy gain further red crossings – this passage had two such notations:

The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.

Curiously, it is Styron’s own skill as a writer that saves him in the end. He sets out to write a suicide note one night in December, his loving and supportive wife asleep upstairs, but finds the words will not come. He cannot write to his own satisfaction, tears up the note, and in the middle of the night, wrapped in a blanket (the furnace is out), puts on a tape of a movie. In it, he hears a soaring contralto voice singing Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. He is seized by the music, and the memories it brings of happier times

All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital.

Slowly, but surely, Styron does recover. He knows he may have remissions, but he also knows that with the right help, the illness will again run its course. And my anonymous guide, of the red markings? I saw, with some relieve, their mark beside the final lines:

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.
I give this book five stars.

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