Writing out of Darkness

Catching Up With ...William Styron

To champion others who suffer from depression, William Styron bares his private agonies.

April 21, 2002|By Michael Pakenham | By Michael Pakenham,Sun Book Editor

William Styron, one of a tiny handful of undisputedly great living novelists writing in English, is by nature and habit a private man. But this Wednesday, he is scheduled to speak in Baltimore as the very public warrior- knight of melancholia, marking 13 years of his battle to wrench the illness known as depression from the dragons of ignorance, scorn and negligence.

Styron will be the featured speaker at the 16th annual symposium of the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association (DRADA), an independent entity affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It has made a specialty of inviting as guest speakers well-known men and women who have been afflicted by that illness or who have had intense contact with it, usually through family.

In 1989, Styron gave DRADA a searing confessional about his then four-year, near-suicidal battle with depression. That talk turned into a magazine article and then a book that soared to the top of best-seller lists. His illness, from which he still suffers, is not the manic, bipolar type. It is unipolar. All down. No up.

He has written that he prefers the term "melancholia," which turns up in English as early as 1303, to "depression," which he calls "a true wimp of a word for such a major illness." This from a 76-year-old man who has borne unbearable pain and then given unsparingly of himself to ease the agonies of others, and one who knows about words.

"It's really going to be a kind of an anniversary appearance," Styron says of his visit, "in which Ray DePaulo [J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., chairman of Hopkins' Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences] will be discussing informally certain aspects of my book and the aftermath of it and that sort of thing."

The essence of his message Wednesday will be significantly different from that of 1989, he says, "because there has been a great deal of progress in terms of public understanding."

DRADA was founded in 1986 as a regional effort to inform people about mood disorders and to lead them toward effective therapy. It sponsors symposiums, publications, a high-school education program and other such efforts.

Among other illustrious visitors have been Dick Cavett, the entertainer; Mike Wallace, the television journalist; Greg Montgomery, the pro-football star punter; Art Buchwald, the writer; Katherine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post; Drew Carey, the actor; and former Sen. George McGovern, whose daughter, Terry, suffered for 25 years until her death.

In an interview, Styron speaks of his siege and its aftermath with what appears to be infinite patience. He describes his agonies in tones of command, of sureness beyond simple candor. There is a quality akin to affection as he recounts the details, an expression, it seems, of deep compassion for others who are confronted with horrors he knows well.

Those details are horrific on their own -- exhausting insomnia, losses of appetite and the capacity to work, fixation on tiny anxieties that became monsters, recurring thoughts of suicide. But, as Styron wrote and says about the whole experience, it is beyond the reach of words, even to one of the masters of the language. It was despair beyond reason or reckoning. It has meant that he has been left with a limited capacity for work -- no new book, no major project. Except to devote his mind and energies to his war against the illness, for himself, of course, but most significantly for others.

The fruits of that compassion have been provident, and very public. His influence in the continuing shift in public attitudes, Styron insists, was "rather inadvertent." But in fact it has been concentrated, highly visible and widely evidenced. The most obvious element has been Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, published in 1990 by Random House and then in paperback in 1992 by Vintage.

A disorder of mood

Styron was born in June 1925. His first, and some say still his greatest, novel, was Lie Down in Darkness, published in 1951. Its central character, a young woman in Virginia, fights unsuccessfully with madness and ultimately commits suicide. His Confessions of Nat Turner, full of the agonies of slavery, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. Another enormously important novel is Sophie's Choice, published in 1979, which ends with two of the principal characters' suicides. He has written several other novels, and many short stories and essays. Tragedy courses through much of his work, eloquently and elegantly.

In October of 1985, he reports in Darkness Visible, he was suffering from "a serious depressive illness, and was floundering helplessly in my efforts to deal with it." He was 60 when it struck him hard. It is there that he wrote how wimpish the word "depression" seems to him.

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