Thursday, February 17, 2005

A tempest in a ...teapot?

While noodling around looking for the wonderfully titled American Journal of Insanity (mentioned in Gracefully Insane), I found some interesting abstracts for which at some point I will hunt down the full articles. This one particularly piqued my interest: "The tempest in my mind": Cultural interfaces between psychiatry and literature, 1844-1900.

For some reason it brought to mind a William Styron book I once read for a consumer health resources class, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Not that I thought the book was particularly good; here’s the review I wrote for the class assignment. As you can see, even then I was not brimming with the milk of human kindness or suffering from a surfeit of compassion.

Styron’s book describes his bout with depression in the summer of 1985, beginning while on a trip to Paris to accept an eagerly anticipated literary award. He actively describes his depression as “a howling tempest in the brain.” He begins to feel tired all the time, a “general malaise,” and this quickly develops into a clinical depression- he cannot eat, he cannot (literally) speak, and his behavior is erratic and at times frightening to those who are around him. He briefly discusses the possibilities of the cause, never having really been a “depressive” for most of his life – his theories abound: overly liberal doses of prescription sleeping pills, an ineffective therapist, a “devastating loss” in childhood, a few other vaguely worded ideas about his work and his commitments.
He details empathetically the worst parts of depression- the hopelessness, the feeling as if you will never feel or get better, the lack of any direction or ambition, the loneliness – but this is the only instance of empathy I encountered in this book. He tends to the melodramatic; particularly noteworthy as example of this is his insistence that none of the available medications could work quickly enough (to me, this is like assuming that one bout of chemotherapy is going to cure your cancer). In fact, he contends that he is in the “distinct minority of patients whose affliction is beyond control.” He goes on to say that he doesn’t want to be “insensitive” to those people whose treatments worked (“successful treatment ultimately enjoyed” are his words, as if anything at all about depression can be enjoyed) but then he seems to positively delight in the fact that he is apparently impervious to medications prescribed and that his therapy sessions are ineffective. (Find another therapist. Try different drugs. Try different treatment. Try something, anything else, rather than just reveling in this misery, for God’s sake.)
His other melodramatic affect is a “wraithlike” second self who observes all that the depressive is enduring, and Styron himself admits at this point that this is “theatrical” and “melodramatic”. I lost patience when he gleefully described himself planning his own suicide, devilishly reviewing his delicious and gory options, but (fortuitously) he stopped himself just in time to seek help.
I truly don’t mean to demean his pain and solitude, but throughout most of the book I received the distinct impression that he was actually enjoying this experience. Even though he describes the agony and the anguish in minute detail, he relishes the horrible details and, particularly, the strains it places on his relationships - almost as if he is indeed living up to his “tortured artist” image. I might not have felt like this quite as strongly if he didn’t do everything in his power to belittle and deride the various therapies and treatments attempted by his wife, his therapists, and his doctors in the hospital in which he finally finds himself.
One of the few truthful and touching moments occurs when he describes and vaunts the immense efforts expended on his behalf by his wife – “the endlessly patient soul who had become nanny, mommy, comforter, priestess, and most important, confidante – a counselor of rocklike centrality to my existence.”
He does a thorough job describing the history of depression and its treatments and place in psychiatric history. I just didn’t see evidence of or feel the honesty or emotion I have encountered in other accounts of depression. Styron was telling a very detailed and carefully-thought-out story about something that happened to him but might just as well have happened to one of his characters (most of whom could not be described as stable, incidentally). Was it helpful, uplifting, encouraging, informative even? Not particularly. It read only like a self-indulgent diatribe against an unlucky episode in the life of the deep, (pseudo)introspective, tortured artist.

My bad - turns out Baby 81’s birthmark isn’t – it’s a mottu, a sign to ward off bad luck, applied by the nurses who helped him when he first came to the hospital. Seems like it worked.


I am halfway through one of Ayelet Waldman’s Mommy Track mysteries, Death Gets A Timeout. It reads very much like her blog – witty, funny, breezy. The mystery is sort of peripheral, really, but her characters and their lives are honestly portrayed and interesting, especially to those of us who are living somewhat similar ones, i.e. trying to maintain sanity with multiple children and ridiculous schedules. Death Gets A Timeout also has one of the most amusing covers I have seen in a while. The first Mommy Track mystery, Nursery Crimes, is waiting at the library for me to pick up; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Waldman’s work.


Gina said...

I don't even know where to begin with William Styron. I'm assuming your portayal is accurate, which means I'm assuming Styron is a self-indulgent ass.

He seems less like a depressive than a spoiled child longing for attention--almost as if he were jealous of his characters and felt that he needed to become more interesting than they were. And why am I reminded of Lord Byron, here?

Oh, and MY wraithlike second self wants to know if she can kick HIS second self's ass.

This has made me really angry and bitchy--sorry.


Three cheers for Ayelet Waldman! I finished "A Playdate With Death" last night. I don't care for mysteries, but I like Waldman's characters and voice so much that I'd want to read about them in any situation. Val's right--the mystery doesn't seem to be the point of the book; it's the characters that are engaging, not the plot.

I hope that's not insulting to Waldman--I'm guessing it isn't, because the books' titles and covers seem to be so tongue-in-cheek . . . am I wrong?

BabelBabe said...

The only thing I know of Lord Byron is his appearance (or actually lack thereof) in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. And there he suffers heavily by comparison with my beloved Septimus Hodge.

I love that Styron's second self is wraithlike. Why is no one's second self ever 300 lbs?