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Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
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400 of 414 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2004
Format: Paperback
William Styron is perhaps best known for his bestselling novel, Sophie's Choice, which was converted to screenplay and released as an Academy award-winning motion picture starring Meryl Streep. Many critics acknowledged Styron's seemingly natural ability to evoke a sense of bitter, submerged despair through subtle understatement. The reviewers who lauded his work had no way of predicting that Styron would eventually become afflicted with a more personal misery, a depression so severe it would drive him to suicidal obsession.

Styron's harrowing struggle with clinical depression is the subject of his non-fiction bestseller, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage Books, 1992). In a mercifully brief 84 pages, Styron eloquently demonstrates how the most brutal and debilitating stages of psychotic depression often hurl patients into an existential nightmare from which the only perceived escape is death (and according to Styron, this misperception constitutes one common, potentially lethal distortion of thought in depressed patients).

Darkness Visible opens with a pointed epigraph from the book of Job. This reflects Styron's perception that like Job's trials, depressed patients are beset by something inexplicable and powerful that threatens to destroy the fruits of their life and labor, the relationships they hold dear, and their very understanding of spirituality. Like Job, depressed patients struggle to find cosmological meaning in their suffering. And like Job, depressed patients who petition God to provide this meaning for them may only receive partial answers or worse yet, a silence that reverberates from an expansive, ominous void.

For people who have never experienced the devastating depths of major clinical depression, it may be difficult to empathize with the life and death struggle these patients wage from within the depths of their spirits. Well-meaning friends and family members may mistakenly attempt to encourage the depressed patient by offering preachy platitudes and pleas that lack depth of perception and compassion, such as, "Life is hard sometimes, you can't let it get you down," or "It can't be as bad as you think," or "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps," or "Everybody gets the blues from time to time." These mistaken "helpers" often confuse clinical depression for situational depression (which is less debilitating, usually temporary, and often explicable through environmental factors, such as the recent death of a loved one). For professional caregivers and loved ones who may be struggling with their own responses to a patient's depression, Darkness Visible provides invaluable personal insights, and therefore plays a significant role in dismantling those experiential barriers that allow the "healthy" to separate themselves from the "sick."

Depression is an insidious disease. It gradually robs patients of their ability to experience pleasure. The insidious disease launches an attack on biochemical, cognitive, and emotive aspects of being. Depression may even manifest as a spiritual crisis, as it deteriorates a patient's ability to experience meaning in life. Styron conveys this quality of depression through dreamlike trains of thought reminiscent of Franz Kafka's fiction.

The disease invades the delicate, temporal realm of the empirical and sensual. The subjective lens of the depressed patient distorts shades of vivid color, fading them to washed-out grays and browns. Sensitivity to touch is often drastically reduced, and many depressed patients describe a sensation of feeling like they are enmeshed in gauze, mummified, unable to touch the world, others, or even themselves. Styron describes an associated sense of "drowning" or "suffocation."

Interpretation of sensation is another factor in depression. A warm home is perceived as a cold prison. The softness of a comfortable bed is experienced as the earthen padding of a silent, beckoning grave. And in William Styron's case, an internationally prestigious award ceremony may become an arduous exercise in endurance.

Depression assaults the emotive experiences of patients, as joyous and even celebratory events are transformed into harrowing exercises in futile endurance. In the opening of Darkness Visible, Styron describes his journey to Paris, where he was scheduled to receive a much-coveted award for his lifetime literary achievements. Despite the immense prestige and recognition, Styron was unable to enjoy the experience, and nearly collapsed in exhaustion and stupor before the conclusion of the ceremony. Worse yet, Styron is befuddled by the inexplicable nature of his gloom. He can find no demonstrable cause for his catastrophic reaction to this pinnacle event.

Depression is a psychiatric disease with social implications. When a patient goes through a sustained period of depression, well-loved friends and family members can become alien and suspect. This is compounded by the frustration of loved ones who genuinely wish for the depression to cease and for life to resume as "normal." These loved ones may add insult to injury by offering emotional encouragement that lacks empathetic understanding. When a loved one tells a depressed patient to "get over it", the effect is similar to a situation in which a gym coach screams the words, "Walk it off, sissy!" to his lead athlete, who happens to be nursing a compound fracture.

Styron makes no pretense of being a qualified physician, but he does recommend that clinically depressed patients exercise caution when utilizing pharmaceutical remedies. He focuses his concern on Halcion, a benzodiazepine that has been correlated with anxiety, amnesia, delusions, hostility, and suicidal ideations. Styron adds his name to the list of critics who claim that Halcion may exacerbate depressive symptoms in some patients, essentially reducing the therapeutic process to a cynical game of psychiatric Russian Roulette in which the only guaranteed winners are the pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders.

While medication can provide short-term relief from depressive symptoms, it should never be administered without careful oversight from a qualified physician. Many of the modern serotonin-oriented remedies for depression cause a plethora of eclectic side effects ranging from blurred vision and nausea to lethargy and sexual side effects (as if lack of ability to achieve orgasm would not in and of itself become a depressing factor). Additionally, pharmaceutical therapies should most often be supplemented with psychological therapy. Medications can provide symptomatic relief for qualified patients, but drugs cannot teach those patients the cognitive, emotional, and social coping skills necessary to prevent a relapse of depression.

Darkness Visible sheds light upon its dreary subject, but all is not gloom. Styron actually manages to convey a comedic sense of irony through his prose. This irony is subtle, attitudinal, submerged in his account and descriptions. This attitude is betrayed when he lists the names of several writers (Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, etc.) who have suffered from depression, himself numbering among them, as if to recount the roster of a truly elite group - melancholic writers - of which Styron is proud to be a member. By surviving to write this book, Styron is an active participant in shaping and extracting his own meaning from the experience of depression.

Depression is a disease that can produce the bittersweet fruit of lasting fellowship among those familiar with the hidden blessings of wisdom resulting from living through madness and despair. This esoteric, intimate knowledge can only be obtained by wrestling with "the dark beast within" and by working out one's own salvation (with fear and trembling, no less). Depressed readers who peruse Darkness Visible may find a valuable sense of community (in fact, the book could very well serve as a valuable therapeutic supplement for specific patients in recovery). And readers who have been fortunate enough to skirt the yawning abyss of depression will find themselves one step closer to dancing, though ever so briefly, with the specter of madness.

On a personal note... I struggled with clinical depression thirteen years ago, culminating in a suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization. I can attest that Darkness Visible is the deepest, most subjectively accurate description of this disease that I have ever read. Though the subject matter and style of the book are gloomy, I feel an extraordinary sense of optimism in the experience of completing this book. It's as if the articulation and elucidation exercised by Styron has managed to demystify, and thus disempower, the darkness he sheds light upon.
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130 of 132 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2000
Format: Paperback
When this book was recomended to me by a friend and fellow depression sufferer, I was skeptical. Depression is not easy to describe, even to my psychiatrist. As I started to read, though, I realized that not only had Mr. Styron managed to share his experience of the nebulous monster that is depression, but he was able to lead me to a greater understanding of my own struggles with it. I passed the book along to a friend who had stood by me in the long nights but had never experienced the illness first hand. His impression was very different from mine, in part because he read it as a reference, but more so because he could not personally relate. Perhaps the greatest lesson this book delivers, then, is that understanding depression may only be possible (if it is possible at all) by those who have experienced it. If you suffer from depression, this book may help to remind you that you are not alone. If you don't, it may only enable you to further understand (though not completely) the disruptive, pervasive nature of the disease.
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210 of 224 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 1998
Format: Paperback
My one-line summary is a cliche, of course, but entirely appropriate; after all, if fatigue is but one of depression's many demons, what person suffering from this affliction is going to have the energy to read a lot? (Darkness Visible is, fortunately, about eighty pages long. I think it's great fortune that the book is short.)
I think it's important that this book was written by an author of the same stature as famous writers who did take their lives. The difference is that Styron came out on the other side of this malady, saw it for what it was. At times he makes remarkable observations on depression, worthy of a clinician in a psychiatric hospital; for example, when he writes sentences such as, The physical symptoms of this affliction trick the mind into thinking that the situation is beyond hope.
As with many, Styron's physical predisposition to depression (a), led to (b) feelings of despair, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts, which further fed the symptoms and perpetuated the disease.
This literary work helps dispel the idea that depression is "fashionable" and that suicide among the literati is "cool."
His "no holds barred" discussion honors those who fight this affliction.
(By the way, the title is from John Milton's epic "Paradise Lost," "darkness visible" is one of many ways Milton described the Hell into which Satan and his demons were tossed.)
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87 of 94 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
"Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness" is an autobiographical work in which distinguished novelist William Styron recalls his battle with clinical depression. A lean 84 pages, this is a straightforward and eloquent book.
In an author's note, Styron explains that this book started out as a lecture given at a symposium sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The lecture was developed into a "Vanity Fair" essay before ultimately becoming this book.
Styron describes depression as "an insidious meltdown" of the mind, a "tempest in my brain." He reflects on the depression and suicide of other individuals whose lives had touched his. He describes in detail his own struggle with suicidal thoughts. Also covered are the medications he took, as well as his hospitalization and therapy.
Styron's book is both a fine piece of literature and a very informative window into a particular mental illness. Styron has been in the pit of despair, but has survived; I commend him for his courage and candor in sharing his experience in "Darkness Visible." Recommended companion text: Audre Lorde's "The Cancer Journals," about a poet's battle with breast cancer.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
I could not help but be comforted by the the words of William Styron in Darkness Visible. As his novels intriqued me and delighted me this account of his experience with depression gave me support. It made me realize that no one is safe from this dreaded affliction. What I felt Styron put into words. He made my craziness feel a little less crazy. Styron is a wordsmith of the highest caliber. This book should be read especially by families of those suffering from depression. It gives such vivid descriptions of what it is really like to suffer from depressssion. Sometimes it becomes more real when one so esteemed can express what it is really like. He made me feel just a little more normal and understood. I am sorry I waited so long to read this selfless and inspiring account of a disease so misunderstood. Thank you for your honesty Mr. Styron
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2001
Format: Paperback
In the mid '80s William Styron developed severe depression and lived to tell about it; the result is this very readable memoir. Styron's book is better written than almost any other autobiographical account on the subject you're likely to find, and I strongly disagree with all the complaints that the book is (1) self-serving, (2) stilted, or (3) shallow. Stryon is hardly the first to point out that writers are far more likely than Joe Average to contract severe depression, that some of the very greatest authors have suffered from this disease; and in doing so here I doubt that he's trying to impress the Nobel Committee.
Nor can I fault him for failing to explain conclusively what triggered his malady. I've gone through one major depressive episode, which I have explained to myself a hundred different ways without settling on a hard-and-fast answer. Styron does as well as one could reasonably expect. He's lucid, articulate, and occasionally (I'm thinking of his episode with Art Therapy) funny. At under 100 pages, "Darkness Visible" has plenty to offer for what little time it demands from readers.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
It is wonderful that a writer of Styron's calibre has given to us such a cogent and humane description of one of the great plagues of our times -- depression. He has truly opened his soul and showed us the agony of depression with, fortunately, a "happy" ending. At the very end there is a glimpse of hope; that commodity for which the depressed soul yearns. I cannot recommend this book too highly. After reading it I felt I became more of a member of the human race!
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
While experiencing a personal struggle with depression my wife checked this book out from the local library. As I read it I found myself finding that Styron's experience with depression matched my own, even in some of the harrowing, innermost details.

This book, along with one by Dr. Archibald Hart ("Unmasking Male Depression") convinced my that I was, indeed, suffering from depression. It seems that the symptoms of male depression are generally somewhat different from female depression (on which most of the traditional diagnostic symptoms are based). While female depression turns anger and other neagative emotions inwardly against self, male depression generally turns anger and other negative emotions outward against others, especially those closest to us emotionally (such as wives and girl friends).

I owe Styron and this book a big vote of gratitude. I am writing this review in the hopes that it may encourage some suffering wife, mother, child or girl friend of a man you suspect of suffering from undiagnosed depression to buy this book. Give it as a gift and encourage him to read it.

I read it. I'm glad I read it. Thank you, William Styron. RIP
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
I have suffered from episodic depression since I was a boy. I have had insulin shock in 1966, and electric shock in 2000. Both times, I had become suicidal. In between, I drank heavily for some 20 years. When I quit, the depression returned, and I wish Styron had written more on that particular phenomenon. I am convinced alcohol abuse is unintended self-therapy for depression.
Othewise, the book is a gem. It describes as well as any work I have seen, the despair, confusion, and feeling of uselessness that attend this serious malady. Only after reading this, and two other books recommended by my psychiatrist, have I come to see that depression is an illness that can be treated, not a shameful lack of courage and discipline that can be used to further aggravate the condition itself. I hope never to go back where I've been, but books like Mr. Styron's have taught that help is there before things get out of control, if I do.
The highest possible recommendation is given, not only to sufferers but to their families and friends.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
When I read Darkness Visible, I was in a 14-16 day black hole of madness and depression. Styron's memoir moved me to begin exploring more deeply and honestly the degree of loss I have experienced in my life and how it has affected me mentally. The book helped lift me out of the my dark bout. Later it helped me be more open and knowledgeable with both a colleague and a student suffering from depression. I gave Styron's book to both of them. They were both very grateful and both passed the book on to others. I was especially happy that my student enjoyed the book -- from the point when she read it until the end of the quarter she seemed liberated, more confident, and certainly more open. I think Styron opened her eyes to possibilities for herself as a sufferer of depression that she hadn't seen before.
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