William Styron is probably best known for his novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. Later in life, he became another in the long line of people with “good” lives who suffer from depression. Darkness Visible is his memoir of the struggle. The book opens with Styron heading to France to receive a prestigious literary award and quickly finding the panic and dread of depression enveloping him. He theorizes that the stress of traveling and receiving the award coupled with his recent cessation of drinking all came to a head and he is left floundering. As the book progresses, Styron discusses depression at large, his own troubles with it, and the effects it had on various celebrities throughout history – particularly writers. He wonders about the perspective depression gives to so many, a perspective that gives them an outsider’s view and also a dangerously intense degree of introspection at the same time.
What separates Styron from the other writers he mentioned is that he made it through his ordeal. He credits a multitude of people and treatments for his fortunate recovery. And fortunately for the reader, this short book, which began as an article in Vanity Fair, is a rare glimpse into the depths of depression. Despite the taboo of discussing depression, much has been written on the topic. However, very little has been written first-hand by a writer as talented as Styron. The National Book Award-winning author uses his skill for description and scene-setting to give as thorough a personal account of depression as possible. Not only does his writing draw you in and help you understand but his unflinching willingness to plumb his own psyche creates a diaristic level of intimacy. He doesn't leave out the details. No matter how uncomfortable it may have made him, he gave a true reckoning of his mental state and in doing so he brought his own darkness into the light.
After reading Darkness Visible you might be ready to read Styron’s fictionalized account of mental anguish, Sophie’s Choice, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.