He wishes there were another word for it. Brainstorm, perhaps, or mindstorm. “Depression” seems too passive and simply doesn’t convey the active agony of an affliction that feels, in his words, like “a veritable howling tempest in the brain.”
Yet if William Styron could not give clinical depression a new name, he could, and did, lay bare its face to the world. Stricken by the illness in 1985 at the age of 60, the renowned novelist recovered and this year published Darkness Visible, an unblinking account of the sufferings that drove him to the brink of suicide. He has always excelled at making fictional pain palpable—as in the wrenching concentration-camp scenes in Sophie’s Choice—and his nonfiction touch proved no less sure. Darkness stresses the crucial difference between everyday blues, which we also blithely call depression, and the blanketing darkness that transforms all pleasures into “indistinguishable ordeals of fogbound horror.” The book calls on the reader to understand suicide as a response to unbearable pain rather than an act of cowardice. Most of all it offers hope, since the vast majority of depressions can be cured.
The world was ready to listen—and own up. Some 8 million to 20 million Americans currently suffer from depressive disorders, yet the stigma of mental illness had kept most of them silent. This year, suddenly, admitting to depression no longer seemed cause for shame. Prozac, a heralded new antidepressant, made headlines across the country. In Florida, voters elected Lawton Chiles Governor even after he revealed that he had been treated for severe depression in 1989; 18 years ago, such a confession abruptly ended the candidacy of Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton. Darkness Visible became a No. 1 best-seller, and Styron’s Roxbury, Conn., mailbox overflowed with up to 50 letters weekly from fellow sufferers.
He is beginning to tire of all the attention—”I’ve become a kind of nonprofessional guru for depression,” he says—and now he would like to get on with his latest work, a novel about World War II. But he has never for an instant regretted articulating his pain. “There’s a refrain running through the letters I receive,” he says, “and it’s simply, ‘Your book saved my life.’ ”
Few writers can claim as much.