In 1990, William Styron published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. The short book—84 pages total—was an unflinching account of his clinical depression, hospitalization, and recovery in the mid-1980s. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author was best known at the time for his novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. But in Darkness Visible, a national bestseller, he found new praise for his honesty and courage as well as kinship with scores of fellow depression sufferers. Moreover, he helped break the silence and erase some of the stigma surrounding mental illness in America.
His daughter Alexandra Styron published her own memoir in 2011, titled Reading My Father. In it, she paints a picture of a quick-tempered and mercurial man (“a monumental asshole to the people closest to him”). Bill Styron was one of the “Big Male Writers,” according to his daughter, who “perpetuated, without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of 20th-century literature a muscular, glamorous aura.” But ultimately, in her book, Alexandra Styron demystifies her father’s legend, revealing an even more compelling figure—a man of complexity, sensitivity, and undeniable vulnerability.
She spoke with me by phone in late June about her father—who died in 2006—his work and life, as well as the enduring legacy of Darkness Visible a quarter-century later.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Alex Nunes: What was your initial reaction to reading Darkness Visible for the first time?
Alexandra Styon: I think I was very moved by my father’s ability to articulate the agony he felt. Because my family had lived through his depression, I don’t think I was so much astonished by the piece [published in Vanity Fair] or book so much as by the extraordinary attention it got and the way in which it profoundly affected other people and allowed them to begin to talk about their own issues with mental illness. People would literally stop me on the street, or I would be introduced to people, and they would look at me, and their eyes would well up, and they’d say: “My God, you’re Bill Styron’s daughter? You have no idea how this book changed my life.”
You write that your dad was a very difficult person to live with. In your memoir, you recount being at the Duke University library, where his papers are kept in a special collection. You’re going through scores of sympathetic letters sent to him by readers after Darkness Visible was published, and you think to yourself: “PEOPLE! Do you have ANY idea who you are dealing with here?” Reading Darkness Visible, were there similar moments when you thought the narrative didn’t tell the whole story?
I don’t think that he was consciously leaving out aspects of his experience. I think that my father’s self-realization about a lot of things was probably a long-term process for him. It’s not like he’d gone through his first depression and become a completely transformed man who understood himself in some infinite way that resolved all his problems—hardly, or he wouldn’t have become depressed again. He could only tell what he himself understood at the time that he wrote Darkness Visible. He still had further to go.
In your book, you describe the mid-1980s, when your father was hospitalized, as the “Stone Age of clinical depression.” Mental illness was very stigmatized. People didn’t talk to close friends about depression, let alone go public in a memoir. What was it about your father’s character that made him want to speak out?
I don’t think he had necessarily planned to write about it. I think it was an evolution for him. It began with a response to a piece he’d read about the death of [writer and Holocaust survivor] Primo Levi and his feeling that there was an attitude about Levi’s suicide that suggested, “Why would the man kill himself? He lived through the Holocaust. How can you explain it?” I think he felt like he had an urgency of insight that he needed to express, and he did in an op-ed. I think what happens to a writer when you get hold of a subject is sometimes you don’t realize you’ve got a cat by the tail until someone points it out to you. Writing that first piece about Primo Levi made him realize that there was that interest in it and that he had a swell of emotion and thought that he could follow. I don’t think he woke up and said, “I must write about depression.” It evolved for him.
From reading his work—not just Darkness Visible but other books and essays—I got the impression your father was a fiercely independent thinker to the point of defiance. Did he have that reaction to the way the conversation in America was going about mental illness and unipolar depression in particular?
I think he did specific to the Primo Levi story, and then I think he realized he was saying something that hadn’t been said before, which is that depression is not necessarily or really often circumstantial. Your mom dies, you might become depressed. But chances are also very good that there’s no inciting incident. It’s an illness like cancer. So I think he discovered he had something to say that needed to be said that nobody had properly articulated. And that usually has to come from someone who had that experience himself.
From what I’ve read, your dad was reluctant at first about being seen as the public face of depression—he didn’t want to be a spokesman. But he did become an advocate. He spoke publicly and corresponded with fellow depression sufferers who reached out to him. In your memoir, you write that he even fielded late-night calls from police officers who wanted him to talk people back from the verge of suicide. What caused him to eventually embrace that role?
It was probably more passive than that. It wasn’t like he made a 180. It rolls along, and it was hard to turn down the opportunities he saw to help. He’d always been a man who’d been socially engaged in issues of human rights and civil rights. His social conscience was a very powerful aspect of his humanity. I think it was hard to ignore the cause that he was uniquely qualified to speak in defense of. And I think he got enormous satisfaction out of it. It’s very gratifying for anyone to discover that something you are able to write or speak about is actually transformative for others. As I said in my book, he was struggling mightily to write a new novel. The pain of not being able to complete another book weighed on him very heavily, and I think that to be able to write a piece for a magazine or to go speak somewhere and devote himself for a week to writing 20,000 words on a subject that actually had a beginning, middle, and end—and then people made him think this was something of value—was a great balm to him for all the agony of feeling like he wasn’t doing his job.
So it brought meaning to him in a way that even he didn’t expect?
I think so. I also think it was a double-edged sword because every time he took a trip somewhere or wrote another piece or devoted another chunk of his life to advocacy or speaking about depression was another day or week of fiction writing lost. It was satisfying, and it also presented its own challenges.
Did he feel a level of obligation?
Well, my father was also good at saying no. He could be quite brusque and curt, and he often turned down invitations because he just didn’t feel like it. He thought he could do that because he was who he was. And most people learned to live with that; it was the nature of his character. They sometimes let him get away with unpleasant behavior because he was a great artist. So in truth, I’m sure he said no a lot. But I think the things he did choose to do he did with a pretty full heart.
In his book, your dad expresses skepticism about the effectiveness of psychotherapy for the most serious cases of depression. He rather humorously refers to art therapy as “organized infantilism.” He also details several negative experiences he had with prescription medications. I imagine professionals in the mental health services field applauded him for coming forward, but do you know if he received criticism for some elements of the book?
I’m sure he did. I think—and you’ll find plenty of other people who feel—that my father was wrong about talk therapy. What was probably missing from Darkness Visible and frustrating for people was that he considered himself cured, and he didn’t want to do therapy, and he didn’t want to take any pills. He didn’t recognize that it was an ongoing illness and that it would come back to bite him in the butt eventually if he didn’t continue to maintain some level of therapy. So I do think that people criticize him for that, and I think that’s legitimate. But that was what he believed to be true at the time. It was too late for him at 75 when he was depressed again. He was, at that point, such a mess. Had he been open to therapy and willing to stay on medication, I think that he would have been in a better place later in his life.
So it wasn’t the case that he eventually came around?
He might have come around to it in theory. He didn’t come around to it in practice. He didn’t say, “Oh, let me now go to therapy at 75. I’m depressed again.” But I think that he was probably less certain of himself and his theories when depression sneaked up on him again.
Any writer who’s been blocked creatively knows the experience is its own form of mental anguish. Your father famously suffered over his work and wrote at a snail’s pace. Reading his Selected Letters, I got the sense he put an immense amount of pressure on himself. From a young age, he talks about his legacy and writing for posterity. Do you think that contributed to his depression?
For sure. He wanted to be a great writer, and he wrote a novel [Lie Down in Darkness] that got him an enormous amount of attention the first time out of the gate at age 26, which is wonderful, but, of course, sets the bar pretty high. Then he was locked into this role for the rest of his life. He wrote four big novels, three of which were extremely successful, and I think that makes it very hard. Some writers of his generation who were more prolific were able to surf the wave: “I wrote a great novel, and then two years later, I wrote a novel that nobody really liked that much. But then I wrote another one two years later, and that was a really great one.” John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer—they were able to get these books out of their systems with more frequency, and every book didn’t have to be a gem. But my dad really got himself with his back against the wall. Writing was the thing that mattered most to him, so it was terribly painful for him.
You say in the book it was a chicken and egg: Was the writing creating the depression, or was the depression making the writing worse? And then it was a snowball, the two made each other worse.
I don’t know, and I pondered that in my book. I talked about having lunch with my father’s editor, Bob Loomis, who felt adamantly that my dad was depressed and so he couldn’t write. And I was struggling with the idea that I thought it was because he couldn’t write that he was depressed. But, obviously, there is no one answer, and I’m sure it was a combination of circumstances.
One observation I had re-reading Darkness Visible is the tone is surprisingly detached. Your father speaks about depression in more physical than emotional terms. A passage that comes to mind is: “One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.” In your memoir, your dad comes across as a more vulnerable person. You include a letter he wrote to the author Peter Matthiessen, who was also his closest friend, his first night at the psych ward in 1985. Your father tells Matthiessen he loves him and that he wishes he’d taken the path Matthiessen took in life. It’s poignant, and I felt immense pity for your dad while reading it. Given the different pictures that emerge in your memoirs, do you think there was some reticence or pride on your dad’s part about the way he came across in Darkness Visible?
Yes, sure. I think the thing about not wanting to have talk therapy and not wanting to stay on drugs was the part of him that felt compromised by being as vulnerable as he was. At the end of the day, he was still a Marine, and he wanted to maintain a sense that he wasn’t wallowing in self-pity, which is human.
In 2000, your father had another bout of severe depression. People like a happy ending. In Darkness Visible, he comes out of the depression, and it gives that closure. But it’s very common for sufferers of major mental illnesses to experience a relapse or multiple relapses. Did you think it was important for people to hear that part of his story in your book?
I did. It was one of the reasons I wrote the book. I felt that the arc of my father’s story was so profound and epic and untold, and that many people who had read Darkness Visible and been so moved by it thought that was the end of the Bill Styron story—that life went on in a healthy and jolly way—and that was not at all the case. I thought it did a certain injustice to both the true legacy of my father’s story as an artist and as a man, and also to people who might feel that they somehow failed if they did not get past their episode of depression. It is an ongoing struggle and an ongoing fight for most people, and Bill Styron was no exception.
Your dad had a lot of opinions on social, cultural, and political issues. How would he feel about the way mental illness is viewed today, 25 years after Darkness Visible?
I think he’d be pleased. I’m sure there’s work to be done, but we’ve certainly come a long way. I think he could look at the landscape and see how far people have come in their comfort in talking about mental illness and the destigmatization of it. And I think he might be glad to know he played a role in that, which I think he did.
Do you think your father would have recognized his contribution to destigmatizing mental illness?
I think my father might have been glad to feel that, though writing fiction was his primary love, he had moved the needle on such an important subject. If he could have given himself enough freedom to recognize how valuable that was, he might have led a more peaceful last chapter of his life. I’m sorry that didn’t happen for him, but maybe somewhere up there he knows.