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Book Review: Darkness Visible by William Styron

The acclaimed author of Sophie’s Choice William Styron chronicles his battle with depression in his 1990 memory Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness. Being judged by the suicide of Primo Levi, an Italian writer, in 1987, Styron began his ‘public awareness campaign’ on the subject of depression and its aggravating consequences from an op-ed for The New York Times. Styron was struck by a powerful response from the readers and realizing how important the topic is given a lecture and wrote an article for Vanity Fair in 1989. Realizing that even a long article was not able to contain all his thoughts on the subject, Styron published Darkness Visible in 1990. Deciding to open up about his personal combat with the illness, people often have preconceptions and prejudices about Styron who assisted many people to learn how to deal with their own mental conditions or better understand their beloved ones who struggled with it.

Having noticed his mental condition only at the age of sixty, Styron realized that he had camouflaged melancholic states and mood swings by constant alcohol abuse, which, he believed, was an inseparable part of an artistic lifestyle of a person who earns by writing. After Styron stopped consuming alcohol, he noticed that his mental health was deteriorating rather rapidly. It was aggravated by the thoughts of suicide. Styron combated his condition on his own until he realized that eventually, he could finish like many other writers and poets who lost it and committed suicide. With the help of his wife, Styron committed himself to a mental hospital and successfully recovered.

In Darkness Visible, Styron attempts to follow the development of the illness through centuries. He remarks that the names given to the illness do not, in fact, reflect the seriousness of the condition. While ‘melancholia’ had at least some connotations of the black mental state the mind plunges into, ‘depression’ has “a bland tonality” and originally described a rut in the ground. Styron argues that ‘brainstorm’ is even better, even though already occupied by another meaning of a joined productive mental activity, but at least it better reflects a sudden change in mental functions that a person who suffers from depression experiences.

One of the reasons that compelled Styron to write about his personal struggle with the mental illness was his awareness of how little understanding a vast majority of people have about it. As a rule, people have compassion and a better understanding of such diseases as cancer, AIDS or jaundice, the ones with clearer symptoms and more physical manifestations. Meanwhile, Styron writes that depression has many faces and each case can be very different from another one. He refers as far back as to the Biblical Job and the Greek Sophocles as well as Albrecht Durer, Dante, Bach, Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman, and many others from every time period. They all had their own take on melancholia. What joins many accounts of depression is their reference to the darkness, the abyss, to something inevitable that engulfs a person who is unable to resist. Another common feature of the illness is the desire to intentionally interrupt one’s life. The anguish and mental pain depressive people experience are so strong that often they see no other way out but to commit suicide.

Being unaware of what depression does to an individual’s inner world and their sense of self, the majority of people who never dealt with it have a disregard to the condition. A common assumption is that an individual just needs to get a grip on oneself or pull oneself together. People simply do not realize that it is impossible to combat illness unassisted. Styron draws attention to the fact that no one can say who will be struck by depression. People of any age, class, profession, and race can see the symptoms of the illness. While some people can say that neither their parents’ fatal illnesses nor their own hardships had shaken their self-confidence and inner peace, others may find even lesser hardships to have detrimental effects on their mental well-being. Styron stresses that there is a combination of factors that contribute to the onset of the illness: the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior, and genetics. Plainly, multiple components are involved—perhaps three or four, most probably more, in fathomless permutations.

Another aspect of depression Styron addresses is suicides. He writes that about 20 percent of depression sufferers finish their lives by the way of suicide. Often they are people of art professions and their lives are widely documented. Therefore, even after many years, experts can follow the traces of depression in their lives, even if they were not considered the victims of depression. Now, when depression cases are widely publicized and more deeply researched, public sentiment is being changed and people have more compassion to the victims of depression and they take it more seriously. However, until recently the general assumption was that people who commit suicide are ‘sissies’ or ‘wimpers,’ while those people who acknowledged their unstable mental states were stigmatized. Styron’s task is to remove the stigma from the depression sufferers and highlight what difficulties they go through and how much they need understanding and support.

As the mental condition is extremely complex and medications have numerous side effects, not always doctors can get it right; at least there used to be a case several decades ago when depression was less investigated than it is now. Sometimes there used to be rumors that this or that celebrity committed a suicide due to the side effects of their antidepressants. Not belittling the help of antidepressant drugs for many patients, Styron claims that the medication he was prescribed, Ludiomil, not only gave him severe side effects, but also turned out rather ineffective to relieve the symptoms. Styron claims that antidepressant medications are able to help in milder cases, but they completely fail to cure severe cases of depression like his.

Styron stresses that it is possible to overcome depression with correct treatment, moral support from the family, and an expectation of recovery. However, the victims of depression need to remember that in half of the cases the recovery will not be complete. The illness will return for a period of time and they will have to pull through it again. Still, each new bout of depression will not be harder than the previous one. In fact, being better equipped for new bouts of the illness may be easier. In any case, depression is the mental condition that people can adjust to and have a fulfilling life as anyone else.

Apart from getting a captivating subject that is of interest to many people, depression sufferers as well as their relatives and beloved ones, Styron engages a wide range of examples and case studies of famous people in the field of art and literature. Describing his own struggle with the disease, Styron relies on the accounts of many other artists, writers, film directors, and poets who tell their stories through the artistic means of books, films, and pictures. As it is suitable for a medical narrative, Styron’s writing style is terse and to the point. He gives his personal account beginning with his mother’s death when he was a teenager to his abstinent periods which resulted in a severe bout of depression. Styron remembers some episodes of his life and interprets them in the light of his illness trying to explain how it sets on and progresses.

As a great master of the word, Styron’s writing has a grip on the reader and compels to read the book in one sitting. This masterpiece inspired me to write my first book review example. With occasional humor and irony, Darkness Visible examines the illness with clear-cut openness and humility of a person who experienced it all and now can help other people with some reassuring words that they are not alone and their condition can be fixed.