Review: Darkness Visible
Author: William Styron
By Mae Anthony
Darkness Visible (1990) is the only living memoir of the American author William Styron (1925 –2006). Known best for his novels Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and most famously, Sophie’s Choice (1979), the highly acclaimed award-winning author experienced his first bout of depression at age 60, where after a period of demise and a near suicide attempt, he managed to heal, recover, and live to tell the tale. Live to tell it indeed in what appears to be the most in-depth recollection of the illness in the printed catalogue, obliterating anything the DSM-5 could ever communicate about the way the illness impacts the body and soul of a person suffering from any categorical psychiatric disorder.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide. It should be established that depression is nothing short of a disability, with symptoms so varied that no case is ever the same twice. Little can be determined from any measurable source of testing, and therefore this disease baffles the medical profession; that the causation and potential cures for the disorder reaches a realm of ambiguity similar to the baffling extent of that behind cancer is indicative of the kind of damaging effects it can bestow. Both causes and treatments are well-calculated stabs in the dark, based around common traits possessed by a subset of cases. Psychiatrists and mental health researchers are often portrayed as strange, possessing a formidable peculiarity. Perhaps there is some truth to this, one that lies in the uneasy task of trying to master a profession which involves looking at a disease that is closely comparable to a metamorphosis. How could you not be slightly peculiar if you were able to endure the energy-sucking investment of analysing something so frustrating and perplexing as the differentiating mood disorder that is depression?
Darkness Visible employs a first-person narrative perspective; Styron tells us about his first encounter with the illness, and his series of horrific realisations and inevitable denial of watching the illness convert his healthy body into a frail, trembling, shell that bore no air and left his soul suffocating and sweltering in an abhorrent, inescapable, and most notably, indescribable hell. Not only does he share his own experience, but he also explores the published medical facts and the experiences and historical reports by people who had suffered from the disease. His particular focus on artists and writers, both friends and strangers, who have experienced depression – and were, more often than not, unable to survive – provides the most articulate descriptions of the symptoms of depression it spine-tingling and chilling (a disease he prefers to term Melancholia).
He conveys the recognition of the psychiatric and scientific dissection of the illness – one that has the most unconventional presentations imaginable – something that has not seemed to progress on the whole in the last 25 years, at least not in terms of understanding the presence of its sorry existence. Turns out, majority of what has been determined about the illness had been discovered much earlier in the 20th century than I imagined.
It’s an understatement to suggest that this is an essential read for everyone. How come, you might wonder? Well, here’s some statistics taken verbatim from the Beyond Blue Australia website that might remind you of the prevalence of mental health issues in our society:
- One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition Breakdown: 26.4% of Australians aged 16 to 24 currently have experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months. This figure includes young people with a substance use disorder. This is equivalent to 750,000 young people today.
- Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents
Breakdown: 324 Australians (10.5 per 100,000) aged 15-24 dying by suicide in 2012. This compares to 198 (6.4 per 100,000) who died in car accidents (the second highest killer).
Whether you suffer from the disorder or not, it is likely you are to experience it at a time in your life, either through your own hardships, or through those of someone you know. This book offers the most impactful and informative insight into the tortured symptoms of person suffering clinically from major depressive disorder. It is touching, superbly written, and almost always, striking.