Wednesday, 26 September 2012

William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (review)

“For over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.”

So we pulled memoirs for book club this month.  I knew immediately which kind of memoir I didn’t want to read.  I wanted to avoid the memoir that is a rant of self-serving, narcissistic (practically masturbatory), overly exaggerated praises and adventures that probably never really happened.  Think along the lines of Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue or something similar to that.  Too many people write memoirs like this.  In fact, I think too many people write memoirs, period.  Contrary to what an exceptionally over-exercised ego (the type usually possessed by the so-called “famous”) might contend, most of the world probably does not want or need to read about your life and all of the great adventures you had.  It’s like drunk stories.  The only time drunk stories are good are when you are on an even playing field because you are both swapping them and are both drunk.  Reading a memoir can be a lot like having middle aged uncle tell you all about that time he got smashed and had so much fun, when you’re like twelve years old.  Hearing all about his awesome inebriated fun time is completely unrelateable, and also somewhat doubtable in terms of whether or not the tale is in fact non-fiction.

So in selecting my memoir I steered clear of the Keith Richards and Chelsea Handlers.  I searched instead for a memoir on a subject I wanted to know more about.  In this case, I wanted to know what it’s like to be living with depression.  With my husband being subject to the disease, I’ve been reading many self-help works trying to get a handle not only on what is going on in his head most of the time, but also a better understanding of my own reactions to it.

So I selected what is considered to be one of the most well-written memoirs on the subject, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness  by William Styron (famous as the author of Sophie’s Choice).

At a mere 84 pages, Darkness Visible recounts Styron’s fall into depression and culminates with the night he nearly took his life before he was hospitalized and eventually recovered. There are no unnecessary words in this eloquent and short volume, Styron does not boast or make light of the situation, but presents his story with a brutal realism and an honest description of his experience with the disease.  There are awkward moments that make the reader squirm, such as when Styron describes an attempt to skip an awards luncheon in his honor, forcing him to explain that he is mentally ill to a room of intellectuals.  I found Styron’s brutal honesty in describing his feelings and actions to be simultaneously horrifying and fascinating.  The memoir is written not only as a tale of how he survived the disease, but also as a point of advocacy for people who suffer with this terrible condition in a world that still stigmatizes people with mental illnesses.  

Take for instance this passage:
“For in virtually any other sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting.  His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained.  However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations."

For myself, I feel that I have benefited greatly from William Styron’s Memoir, and that it is certainly one worth reading.  It has given me a glimpse into a condition to which I can’t relate, but need to understand as I experience it part of my day-to-day family life.  And that is one heck of a gift for a book to give.

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