Illuminating depression

William Styron's Darkness Visible remains, two decades on, a beacon of hope in this benighted realm of experience

Twenty years ago today, the American novelist William Styron's short but devastating memoir about his depression and near-suicide, Darkness Visible, was published in the UK. In it, he described depression as "a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description." And yet, then as now, the most striking aspect of Styron's book is just how close it gets to describing the stifling horrors of the illness.

The publication of Darkness Visible helped break the silence around depression, which many suffered in solitude. It also tackled head-on the pervasive assumption that depression is simply down to individual weakness, particularly when it drives people to suicide. And it argued from weathered experience that anyone suffering from depression must not, whatever happens, give up – indeed, its closing pages are profoundly redemptive, offering hope and guidance to anyone who has been affected by the condition.

I should say at this point that when I first picked up Darkness Visible around nine months ago, I was very depressed myself. Not to the extent that Styron describes - he was afflicted by severe, or "clinical" depression – but enough to make me feel acutely sad, anxious and lost. And it wasn't the first time; this has been happening periodically for around 15 years, and has often made romantic relationships, friendships and professional progress very difficult. So perhaps I was primed to be moved by Styron's strangely luminous description of being smothered by depression; but its appeal is by no means limited to those with firsthand experience.

The power of Darkness Visible was immediately clear on its publication. Applauded by critics and clinicians, Styron was flooded with letters from readers grateful to him for describing so clearly an illness whose very nebulousness makes it mysterious to many suffering it – let alone their friends and families. "Out of a great deal of luck and timing, I was able to be the voice for a lot of people," Styron told the New York Times.

At just 85 pages, Styron's account is piercingly concise. It starts in Paris in the winter of 1985, when the author first realised that the melancholy which had dogged him for months was descending into a deep, chaotic depression. Styron remembers his brain feeling "under siege", while his thoughts were repeatedly "engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide". He goes on to unflinchingly document his descent over several months into a bed-ridden, suicidal trance whose nadir found him minutes away from taking his own life, before he pulls himself back from the brink, and checks into a hospital, where, with the tough, tireless support of family and friends, he slowly recovers.

In some ways, Styron's account has now dated. (For example, he acknowledges that his suicidal impulses were probably magnified by the high doses of benzodiazepines prescribed by his psychiatrist; these drugs have thankfully now been largely replaced.) But its remarkable descriptions of what happens when the mind turns "agonisingly inward" make it as urgent today as 20 years ago. Styron's assertion that "the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain" is acutely well-observed. Elsewhere he protests persuasively against the word itself, saying that it totally fails to convey "the howling tempest in the brain".

It is vitally important that we celebrate the anniversary of a book which offers a vocabulary for this illness. The mental health charity Mind recently reported that men and boys are still reluctant to admit to themselves or others that they have a mental health problem; stigma remains acute. Depression affects around one in 10 people in the UK. But speak with psychologists in the NHS and they'll tell you they are braced for higher case loads, even as frontline mental services are being senselessly cut.

So it's encouraging that Darkness Visible has become the founding text of what is now a flourishing genre known as depression memoir. You can feel its reassuring hand on the shoulder of many brave and searching accounts, including Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon, Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness, and Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses.

And we need more of them. They continue to break the silence, while expanding our knowledge about an illness that remains essentially mysterious. Few conditions are as idiosyncratic – depression affects people in countless ways, and its causation can never be precisely determined. It's the accumulated weight of decades of lived experience, which have somehow tilted you towards despair. Literary accounts are no replacement for empirical studies or professional services; but they can hold up individual experience in such a way that it catches the light for others watching. They are flashlights in the dark, which can make you feel less alone in depression's deep wood.

Most importantly, what Darkness Visible offers is hope. Its message is this: depression is conquerable. Styron stresses that even if you have reached "despair beyond despair", keep going. Eventually you will be delivered back to the capacity for serenity and joy. It remains as important to repeat that now as 20 years ago – and, I'm sure, will be just as crucial 20 years hence.


Chris Cox

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Top 10 books about depression | Alex Riley
From Robert Burton’s 17th-century Anatomy of Melancholy to new insights from Ed Bullmore, these are welcome guides to one of the loneliest experiences

Alex Riley

19, May, 2021 @10:38 AM

Does melancholy literature deepen depression?

Literature about this grim condition has a long and impressive pedigree, but I sometimes wonder what it's all for

Nicholas Lezard

15, Jan, 2008 @3:52 PM

Article image
Amid depression, bleak stories can be as consoling as self-help

Rather than exhorting the depressed to help themselves, fiction can provide a welcome realisation that we are not alone in despair

Dan Holloway

04, Feb, 2013 @2:39 PM

Rhyme, reason and depression

Thirty years after the American poet Sylvia Plath killed herself in London, the literary row over why she died is still going on. While some feminists claim that Plath was the victim of an insensitive husband, she is also accused of trying to manipulate the world around her once too often. But the doctor who cared for her in the last weeks of her life claims that the debate overlooks the real villian, and the subject of most of her poems and diary - the depression that dogged her life.

Jane Feinmann

16, Feb, 1993 @6:22 PM

Article image
Just how helpful is reading for depression?
As winter blues loom, many turn to books for distraction or consolation. But these familiar balms are not always enough

Raifa Rafiq

26, Oct, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Who is the greatest American novelist? 4: Toni Morrison v William Styron

You nominated the contenders – now reader Matthew Spencer pits Morrison's The Bluest Eye against Styron's Set This House on Fire

Matthew Spencer

20, Dec, 2013 @10:44 AM

Remembering William Styron: 1925-2006

The author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice - one of 20th century's great works of American literature - was a courageous and brilliant writer, who resolutely followed his own path.

Jay Parini

02, Nov, 2006 @4:50 PM

Focus: A tale of ordinary madness: the pressure of life with dad

As a child, Martin Townsend lived with the chaotic highs and lows of his father's manic depression. On the eve of the second reading of a controversial mental health bill, he recalls his family's struggle to cope with the illness within the man they loved.

Martin Townsend

15, Apr, 2007 @8:02 AM

Article image
A Place of Refuge by Tobias Jones review – an experiment in communal living
A refreshingly honest account of one couple’s remarkable project: to open their family home to some of society’s most vulnerable people

Alice O'Keeffe

02, Jul, 2015 @11:00 AM

Article image
Understanding depression and developing empathy | Letters
Letters: Dr Annie Hickox advocates for the powerful combination of medication plus talking therapy. And Laurel Farrington highlights how empathy reduces when we are anxious and stressed


08, Mar, 2021 @5:25 PM