Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Prozac Americans: Depression, Identity, and Selfhood

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Prozac Americans: Depression, Identity, and Selfhood

Article excerpt

Recounting the circumstances that led to Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron claims he decided to write his memoir as a horrified response to Primo Levi's suicide in 1987, only his horror was not at the suicide itself but rather the published reaction to it. Styron claims that

it was as if this man whom [scholars and writers] had all so greatly admired, and who had endured so much at the hands of the Nazis... had by his suicide demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept. In the face of a terrible absolute--self-destruction--their reaction was helplessness and (the reader could not avoid it) a touch of shame. (32-33)

In a fit of "annoyance" with such ignorance, Styron wrote an editorial for the New York Times arguing that "the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it" and "to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer." The response was "equally spontaneous--and enormous" (33) by Styron's account. A Stonewall riots for the secretly depressed, his article expressed "no particular originality or boldness," he confesses, yet "the overwhelming reaction made me feel that inadvertently I had helped unlock a closet from which many souls were eager to come Out and proclaim that they, too, had experienced the feelings I had described." Concluding that to educate his audience about depression represented a worthwhile reason "to have invaded my own privacy," Styron decided that the time was appropriate to "chronicle some of my own experiences with the illness" (34).

Taken as a whole, Darkness Visible is defined by such moments of self-discovery and communal discovery. Its references to cancer and locked closets allude to both Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and the historic shame associated with homosexuality (and repudiated by the gay rights movement) to describe the experience of the depressed. Yet to look more closely at these two analogies is to expose an uncertainty in Styron's text. Darkness Visible represents depression as simultaneously an illness and an identity; it is at once a disease--like cancer--foreign to the individual and invasive of the self, and a way of life--like homosexuality--both essential and constitutive of one's being. While not necessarily contradictory, the two accounts suggest substantially different understandings of what depression is and how most accurately to represent the depressed. For example, invoking Sontag's Illness as Metaphor; Styron contends that depression is only properly understood as something that happens to and in spite of its victim. Sontag's account censures any description of illness that correlates the identity of the patient with the identity of the ailment, protesting that "the notion that disease expresses the character" is too easily converted into the notion "that the character causes the disease," with the result that "people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of will" (57). The analogy Sontag adopts to describe "the lurid metaphors" with which "the kingdom of the ill" has been "landscaped" harnesses images of ethnicity and identity to illustrate their inappropriateness: such descriptions, Sontag maintains, evoke "not real geography, but stereotypes of national character" (4, 3).

Of course, if any disease were to engage the unconscious desires, it seems likely that depression would be the one, but Styron, like Sontag, argues that depression disregards character, and when forced to choose among the available accounts of the disease, he favors those that emphasize biological as opposed to psychological factors. He argues that depression "strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds and classes" (35) with no regard for identity, behavior, or lifestyle, and he provides representative case histories to emphasize its eclectic reach. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.