Thursday, November 18, 2004

Darkness Visible

When I learned of the recent suicide of the author, Iris Chang, I was saddened because I had recently read her book, “The Rape of Nanking”.

Her death, and the manner of it, is made all the more sad since, being only in her early thirties, with a two-year old child, and being the author of three acclaimed books, with many more still to write, and regarded as one of America’s brightest young historians, she appeared to have everything going for her. Except for one important thing, which was that she was seriously ill with depression - a disease she found so unbearable that she felt compelled to end her life.

On learning of Iris Chang's death, I thought of a book I'd read some years ago, called “Darkness Visible”, by the novelist William Styron. It is his beautifully written account of his own devastating depression. I re-read it.

William says it is not known exactly what causes deep depressions. But it would appear that the loss of someone close is an important ingredient, and also heredity. In his case, his loss was that of his mother who had died when he was a child. And he remembers his father having been hospitalized for depression. William thinks he was able to keep his depression at bay until he was sixty, probably through alcohol which, one day, he found himself no longer able to drink. Shortly thereafter, his depression began in earnest.

He says:
…..the disease of depression remains a great mystery. It has yielded its secrets to science far more reluctantly than many of the major ills besetting us. The intense and sometimes comically strident factionalism that exists in present day psychiatry – the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology – resembles the medical quarrels of the eighteenth century (to bleed or not to bleed) and almost defines in itself the inexplicable nature of depression and the difficulty of its treatment………….
William emphasises that severe depressions are non-discriminatory as to whom they afflict. They can strike down anyone, and at any age. He writes:
It has been estimated that…….one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds, and classes, although women are at considerably higher risk than men. The occupational list (dressmakers, barge captains, sushi chefs, cabinet members) of its patients is too long and tedious to give here; it is enough to say that very few people escape being a potential victim of the disease, at least in its milder form. Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder – which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide……...
Then William goes on to list the many artists and other luminaries who have killed themselves because they were severely depressed. Among them were Vincent van Gogh, Primo Levi, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway. His list is much longer than I have given here, but just these few names bespeak that the high and the mighty are as likely to be severely depressed as are the plebeians.

William says over and over that the torment of severe depression is of a magnitude which is almost indescribable. He likens it to:
…….a veritable howling tempest in the brain…...
And he says:
Depression is 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. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode….
The grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain…………….comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.......
William’s troubles began in the summer of 1985, in his 60th year, when he began to feel intimations that all might not be well with him when, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he recognised that he
……had begun to respond indifferently to the island’s pleasures. I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility – as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination. And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria. Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities……….
In October of that year, he moved back to his farmhouse in Connecticut which, despite being his home for more than thirty years, took on
…….an almost palpable quality of ominousness………”, where “……….the fading evening light………had none of its familial autumnal lovliness, but ensnared me in a suffocating gloom……….
One day, while walking with his dog through the woods, William.......
………..heard a flock of Canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was finally able to acknowledge………...
Later that day he recalled a phrase by Baudelaire:
I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.
As that year went on his depression slowly deepened. He began to suffer from insomnia, which made his predicament worse because only through sleep could he obtain respite from his torment. And when he did get some sleep he no longer dreamed. Meanwhile his voice was changing into a hoarse whisper, so that it began to sound like that of a 90 year-old man.

William’s plight was not made easier in social gatherings, since he felt he should, despite his anguish:
…..present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.
One evening after dinner, while sitting in his living room, he
……experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can only describe as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible.
It was at this point that William decided to do himself in. Accordingly he began to put his affairs in order – visiting his lawyer to update his will, disposing of his confidential diary, and writing a farewell note to his wife. Then he was saved at the last moment when, from out of a movie he was watching on TV, came the voice of someone singing Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody - a song which William associated with his mother who had died when he was a child. Something whispered in his brain that he should change his plans. Whereupon he got himself admitted to hospital.

Then, very slowly, he began to recover. But there were many pitfalls along the way, among them an insensitive psychiatrist who prescribed drugs, some of which worsened his condition, and others which took a long time to kick in. However William finally recovered completely, joining the majority of depression-sufferers who do escape the pain which they had been absolutely convinced would never end, a condition which causes sufferers in their turmoil to fantasise about the manifold ways of killing themselves, the hideous fantasies which, in William’s words
…..are to the deeply depressed mind what lascivious daydreams are to persons of robust sexuality.
Because most sufferers do, like William, recover with few lasting ill-effects, the message in his book is ultimately a hopeful one, despite the sufferer in depression’s throes experiencing it as
…..a simulacrum of all the evil of our world; of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse towards death and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.
William goes on to say:
If our lives had no other configuration but this, we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish; if depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease – and they are countless – bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
Indeed, those who have clambered out of depression’s black depths have:
…….. almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.
Now we can understand something of the despair and pain Iris Chang must have been in, which caused her to end her life in the way she did. In her suicide note, she asked her family and friends to remember her as the person she was before she became ill. She must, then, have felt that the real Iris Chang had gone for ever, being, in effect, already dead. Thus putting paid to her outer shell, her physical body, would have been, in her tortured state, the only thing left to do.

So Iris Chang shouldn’t be condemned for what she did because, as William says:
……to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.
Perhaps the only glimmer of a silver lining in the dark cloud of Iris Chang's passing is that more people will now want to read her books, in particular “The Rape of Nanking”, about which she felt so passionately. Thus each new reader will add some meaning, however small, to her very sad death.