Out of Darkness

By Chad Galts / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007
When in October 1985 William Styron went to France to receive a prestigious literary award, the sixty-year-old novelist appeared to have it all: financial and critical success, a happy marriage, and good health. The only problem was his tendency to feel depressed in the late afternoon. While Styron was in Paris, he realized this annoying, difficult-to-describe problem with his moods might be serious. Fourteen months later he was in constant and excruciating agony; he was a shuffling, confused shadow of his former self, and he wanted desperately to die.


"Depression engenders a self-loathing that is for the most part illusory, almost hallucinatory," he told a packed Salomon Center crowd who’d come to hear his Harriet W. Sheridan lecture in early April. "It leads inexorably to a dementia that leads to self-murder." Aided by relatives and friends, Styron eventually recovered from his depression and in 1990 published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a slender, eighty-four-page distillation of the agony of his ordeal.

After his recovery, the author of Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice tried for months to write fiction based on what he had learned, but these efforts all fell flat, he said. It wasn’t until he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about his own grim experiences that he realized the best way to tell the story would be as a fully developed memoir.

Styron wrote Darkness Visible in about two weeks, keeping the book brief in order to keep it focused – "a memoir gains as much from what is left out as what is included," he said – and also to make it useful to those who might need it most. "Depression," he emphasized, "is a disease that is ruinous to mental concentration."

For all its brevity, the book is still a chillingly frank and candid account of depression. A desire to combat the idea that the disease is the result of a moral lapse or a defect of character propelled Styron throughout his writing, and the same desire has kept him on the road discussing the book for the past decade, describing his experiences again and again. When talking about depression, Styron said, "anything less than full disclosure is evasion."

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January / February 2005