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25 Years Ago, 'Darkness Visible' Broke Ground Detailing Depression


It was 25 years ago this month that an essay in Vanity Fair magazine brought the pain of depression out into the open. It was called "Darkness Visible," a personal account by novelist William Styron. He laid out in vivid detail how a debilitating illness had taken over his life. In 1990, Styron offered this description on WHYY's Fresh Air.


WILLIAM STYRON: I think the closest I've ever been able to hit upon an analogous pain is that of suffocation or of being in prison in an intensely hot room from which there's no escape. It's that kind of sort of diabolical discomfort.

MONTAGNE: In fact, a hellish descent into a kind of madness that brought Styron close to suicide. "Darkness Visible" led to other personal accounts of depression. One of them was written by Andrew Solomon, who is also a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. Good morning.

ANDREW SOLOMON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What did Styron do by writing "Darkness Visible" that in a sense hadn't been done before by other writers, many of whom have suffered from severe depression - Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath. I mean, the list is long.

SOLOMON: It's easy for us to forget in this era in which the confessional seems to be the primary currency of literature how rare it was at one point for an author to admit to his full vulnerability. Very few people had come out and spoken directly about the experience in the encompassing way that Styron did. And mostly when people described it, they described it from the standpoint of subsequent triumph. I had this problem a long time ago, and now I'm fine. And Styron was very honest about the fact that this was an ongoing, haunting, impossible experience that he'd been through before and that he would go through again.

MONTAGNE: Well, William Styron actually hated the word depression. He called it - this is a wonderful expression - a true wimp of a word given how destructive the disorder can be. Talk to us about the words that he thought would be more appropriate.

SOLOMON: I think it's a poverty of the English language that we use the same word to describe how a 5-year-old feels when his baseball game gets canceled because it's raining and the way someone feels who's about to jump off a bridge because life has become unlivable and untenable. And I think Styron's objection to the word depression is a common objection to the word depression - that because it gets used to describe such a range of experience, it's sometimes difficult for people who are dealing with acute clinical depression to convey how different their circumstance is from the circumstance of someone who's simply sad.

MONTAGNE: Is there a moment in this essay that speaks to you about your own experience with depression?

SOLOMON: I was particularly moved by the section when he's in France and when he's receiving an award and when, in effect, everything that he wants his life to be like is what his life is like. He's there with his beautiful and charming wife. He's receiving enormous acclaim for the work that he's strived so hard to accomplish. He feels as though it's all in place. And yet not only does he not feel joy in the circumstance, he feels utter, complete, encompassing despair. I think there are a lot of people who always thought, well, if you're depressed, it's because you couldn't make your marriage work. And Styron was really quite courageous and quite lucid in saying you can have everything be completely in place, and that doesn't make the despair easier. It actually makes it harder because there's nothing to blame it on.

MONTAGNE: Twenty-five years after this essay was first published, how much did it change how we deal with depression?

SOLOMON: Styron's memoir coincided roughly with the development of Prozac and the medications that followed it. And the two things worked in concert to change the national discourse about mental illness altogether and about depression in particular. I think Styron's book did the extraordinary thing of saying, I can not only be depressed but also admit to the depression and describe the depression and still retain my essential dignity. And I think that liberated an enormous number of people to speak about their experience to themselves, to one another, to doctors who might be able to help them.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Solomon's memoir about his own depression is "The Noonday Demon." We were discussing William Styron's Vanity Fair essay "Darkness Visible" published 25 years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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