Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
‘In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood, / for I had lost the right path.’
There are many memoirs of depression worth reading, but William Styron’s book- not much longer than the Vanity Fair essay it was expanded from and the size of a poem in comparison to his doorstopper of a masterpiece, Sophie’s Choice- is the most pared-down, economical Lonely Planet guide available. If I had one book to give to someone who was standing near the edge of those dark trees, this would be it. Particularly because depression makes it hard to concentrate, so brevity is something of a plus.
For a writer who always seemed an alpha male, Styron has always been very good at writing women, and in Darkness Visible, he wonders wryly whether there wasn’t something prophetic in the way he wrote the female leads of his two earlier novels, and their headlong rush towards their own self-inflicted undoing; if this wasn’t something he had felt, on some cellular level, would happen to him.
As well as his undeniable talent as a novelist, Styron brings his reportage skills and his academic tussling over answers to try and investigate this seemingly indefinable storm in the brain. He looks at the stories of others with depression, not to judge them or record whether or not they survived, but to inform his own experience and to make himself, and the reader, feel less alone. The tone is sparse, unsparing- sometimes bombastic, sometimes creakily funny- and it’s hard not to feel like cheering, whatever your own mental state, as the author staggers, bloody but unbowed, out of that dark wood.