Darkness Visible Summary

William Styron

Darkness Visible

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Darkness Visible Summary

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Darkness Visible is a memoir by American author William Styron, first published in Vanity Fair in 1989 and released in book form in 1990. It chronicles the author’s struggle with depression and how he eventually reached recovery. The book is based on a lecture given by Styron on affective disorders at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. It takes its title from John Milton’s description of Hell in Paradise Lost. Darkness Visible is an in-depth look at the first-hand experience of living with depression, and explores the way mental disorders are viewed by society; the relationship between creativity and mental illness; and the interaction between drug and alcohol abuse and depression. Styron said that he hoped his work would lead to greater empathy for those who end their lives due to depression. The memoir was widely acclaimed for its frankness about an issue rarely talked about. The book is frequently used as assigned reading for students studying depression or affective disorders, and remains widely read to this day.

Divided into ten chapters, Styron begins Darkness Visible talking about the first time he became fully aware of his illness in October 1985. He was traveling abroad to receive the prestigious PrixMondial Cino del Duca award for writing that aided the causes of humanism. This was Styron’s first time revisiting Paris in thirty-three years. Styron observes his odd behavior as his mind sunk into a period of deep depression. He discusses how hard it is to pin down depression and to describe to others. In chapter 2, Styron studies the cases of Albert Camus and Romain Gary. Camus was a French writer and existentialist who deeply influenced Styron, and is considered one of the fathers of existentialism. Camus died in a car accident in 1960 after a long battle with depression. Gary, meanwhile, was a friend of Styron’s and a fellow writer who committed suicide in 1980. Styron speculates on the relationship between suicide and depression, and examines the connections between these two writers and his own struggle. In chapter 3, Styron studies other cases of artistic people prone to depression who committed suicide. They include political activist Abbie Hoffman, writer Randall Jarrell—both of whom died under mysterious circumstances—and Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, whose recent death partially inspired the book. Styron argues that all were likely suicides due to depression.

In chapter 4, Styron looks at the history of the word “depression,” arguing that a better word might be “brainstorm” to describe the tumultuous chaos of the human brain while in the throes. Styron speculates about the causes for his own disorder, beginning with his sixtieth birthday and his recent decision to stop drinking, as well as his addiction to the sleeping aid Halcion. He looks at the chemical changes in the brain due to depression, and discusses his hospitalization in December 1985 after he noticed his depression getting worse. Chapter 5 focuses on Styron’s psychiatrist, the Yale-educated Dr. Gold. Styron portrays Gold as ineffectual and too focused on prescribing medication. Styron had lost hope at this point of a full recovery. Chapter 6 shows Styron continuing to deteriorate, as he appears older and can no longer drive. When he starts taking Nardil, an older antidepressant, he starts to feel as if he is being followed around by the specter of death. He starts planning for his suicide, rewriting his will and destroying his diary. This chapter is grim and filled with a sense of doom. Chapter 7, the shortest, has Styron observing the irony that Dr. Gold had helped to get him admitted into the hospital, despite Gold advising him to avoid the mental hospital at all costs, further emphasizing Gold’s ineffectuality.

Chapter 8 focuses on Styron’s seven weeks in the hospital, where he observes that his suicidal urges abated once he was taken off Halcion. He describes group therapy, where he complains about being infantilized and asked to participate in preschool-level activities, such as drawing and using modeling clay to represent his condition. Despite this, he says that this is where he began recovering from depression. In chapter 9, Styron reflects on the genetic sources of depression and examining a book by Howard Kushner, Self-Destruction in the Promised Land, which makes the case that depression is caused by incomplete mourning. Styron examines the common theme of suicide in his books and observes that his depression has been influencing him for decades. The book ends with Styron reflecting on the fact that so many people, especially those who are artistically talented, struggle with depression. He ends on an uplifting note, as he says there is an end to the suffering available for those who are willing to confront their demons.

William Styron was an American novelist and essayist, best known for his critically acclaimed novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, the latter of which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep. In all, Styron wrote five novels, a play, a memoir, and three collections of essays and other writings in his life. Following his death in 2006, an additional four collections of his writings were published. Styron was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, winning the prestigious Rome Prize for his debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, and later being awarded the St. Louis Literary Award. A strong activist for mental health awareness in his later years, he remains widely read today.