The Great God of Depression

Nearly 30 years ago, the author William Styron outed himself in these pages as mentally ill.

.. why, he asked, were depressed people treated as pariahs?

A confession of mental illness might not seem like a big deal now, but it was back then. In the 1980s, “if you were depressed, it was a terrible dark secret that you hid from the world,” according to Andrew Solomon, a historian of mental illness and author of “The Noonday Demon.” “People with depression were seen as pathetic and even dangerous. You didn’t let them near your kids.”

.. Readers were electrified by Mr. Styron’s confession in part because he inhabited a storybook world of glamour. After his novel “Sophie’s Choice” was adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1982, Mr. Styron rocketed from mere literary success to Hollywood fame. Meryl Streep ..

.. Mr. Styron had never wanted to become “the guru of depression.” But after his article, he felt he had a duty to take on that role.

.. His famous memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible,” came out in October 1990.

.. Mr. Styron’s curiosity about his own mind, and his determination to use himself as a case study to understand a mysterious disease, that gave the book its political power. “Darkness Visible” demonstrated that patients could be the owners and describers of their mental disorders, upending centuries of medical tradition in which the mentally ill were discredited and shamed.

.. His book became required reading in some medical schools, where physicians were finally being trained to listen to their patients.

.. Mr. Styron also helped to popularize a new way of looking at the brain. In his telling, suicidal depression is a physical ailment, as unconnected to the patient’s moral character as cancer. The book includes a cursory discussion of the chemistry of the brain

.. In the 1990s, bookstores were crowded with mental-illness memoirs — Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind,” Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” to name a few. You read; you wrote; you survived.

.. When he revealed his history of depression, he inadvertently set a trap for himself. He became an icon of recovery. His widow, Rose Styron, told me that readers would call the house at all hours when they felt suicidal, and Mr. Styron would counsel them. He always took those calls, even when they woke him at 3 in the morning.