The Shadow Behind the Halo: A Silent Second of William Styron

William Styron was in his writing office in 1989, prepared for the book about his experience of clinical depression| Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Virginia, William Styron was the only son of Pauline Styron who was a shipyard engineer in a family that held a history of slave owners. He experienced a hard childhood, as his mother had passed away of breast cancer when he was only thirteen years old; but those experiences helped shape his literary writing. When he finished college at Duke University and finished his service in the Marine Corps, he worked as an editor, but then resigned and became a novelist after his first novel Lie down in darkness (1951) was well-received. That success led him into a bright career. He continued his writing path and released excellent works, including The Long March (1956), Set This House on Fire (1960), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), and Sophie’s Choice (1979), which marked him as one of the preeminent American novelists of that time. He married a poet, Rose Burgunder, and had four children.1 Though he had achieved the milestones of a successful man—a lovely family and a dream career—a tremendous melancholy tied him up so much that he could not enjoy the privilege he possessed. As it happened, in 1985, he was diagnosed with major depression—an unwelcome guest that often ruins the happiness of many people.2

Major depression is a clinical diagnosis that is the most predominant disorder among all mental problems. Between 15 to 20 percent of all people experience this disorder at some point in their lives, especially appearing at middle age.3 The common symptoms that people with major depression experience are despondency (low-energy, low-spirits most of the time), loss of appetite (leading to weight problems), anhedonia (the inability to feel joy), sleep disorders, distractedness, unexplainable feelings of guilty, and negative moods most of the day. Moreover, the patients of major depression also experience melancholia, in which symptoms manifest a certain period of the day, and after that, they are lucid.4 Some studies show that a contributing factor to this disease is a traumatic experience with negative impacts that accumulate at a time when a person is most vulnerable to outbreaks. As the external factors affect many nerve segments causing an imbalance in the neuron system, the exact affected part is difficult to detect.

Depressed people have less neurotransmitter and receptor than normal people  | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Recent studies suggest that serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine are closely related to major depression. Serotonin plays an important role in regulating body temperature and sleep periods. Noradrenaline plays a role in regulating moods and anxiety levels. Dopamine monitors the mental and nerve systems. With depression, the imbalance and deficiency occurring in these three major neurotransmitters lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviors, and to panic attacks, and the imbalances also lead to self-destructive and suicidal intentions.5 For William Styron, the cause of his depression might have been the result of his traumatic childhood, particularly of his mother’s death; or he might have inherited depression from his father, who also suffered from depression.6

Month by month, Styron’s depression was like a sorrowful tide of ebb and flow that swirled him into a vortex of chaotic emotions that started in the summer of 1985. Until the late evenings in October of 1985, William was finally aware of the seriousness of the depression that invaded his mind for months and was getting worse and worse. It was the four-day trip that he spent in Paris to receive the prize that he was nominated for: the Prix Mondial del Duca.7 Although that moment of bliss and honor would ease somewhat the depression he felt, it turned out that the disorder was in its critical development, and he struggled throughout the rest of the journey. His symptoms were calm in the morning but returned in the afternoons and flooded him with anxiety, alienation, and fear. The damage to him was his suffering memory failure and a concentration loss that made him no longer awake. He mistook an appointment with Francoise Gallimard and Simone del Duca, inadvertently humiliating her. When he regained consciousness, he felt embarrassed and apologetic for his rude behavior, then he tried to reach out to Madame del Duca to apologize.8

The vagaries of emotion derived him that even in his sanity, he was overwhelmed. Styron was in pain and he dreaded when afternoons would arrive. He was anxious when he visited a museum with his wife Rose. Even when he had met the psychiatrist and went back to the hotel for rest, he still felt restless and sleepless as he was drowning in invisible pain. When it came to the last dinner in Paris with everyone, he confessed that the Prize check of $25,000 was lost, but it was found by others, but he was still vague and indifferent.9 The people around him ignored his abnormal behavior. He knew that they would sympathize with his disease, but it would be too abstract for them to understand. He used to be sympathetic but indifferent to his friends who had likewise suffered from this disorder, including Camus, Gary, and Jean; but now he was the one who was experiencing this.10 William Styron affirmed that: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”11

In December of 1985, Styron reached the peak of his depression, which almost drove him to the edge of death. The pain was accumulating both physically and mentally, putting him deeply into the sea of sorrow. Dr. Gold, Styron’s psychiatrist, was the one who gave Styron an antidepressant remedy and advised him to avoid the hospital for many months. Even though Styron had tried a number of treatments that his psychiatrist suggested, they were ineffective and his condition became even worse.12 His moments of sanity were for just brief moments, while most of the time he only witnessed a greyscale that surrounded his place. The melancholy, boredom, and irritability slowly devoured and destroyed him, so that he could not taste the food he ate nor have the inspiration to write. He rarely had a full night of sleep and never witnessed dreams for many months. Hour by hour, it was like torture for him that he nearly lost his sense of self. On one fateful night of December, while his family was asleep, he took out a film—the Brahms Alto Rhapsody—to watch. In a blurred vision, a sudden passage from the movie echoed in his ear as if arousing a feeling that seemed lost in him. Near the threshold of suicide, nearing a last act of self-destruction, with a light of sanity, Styron suddenly woke up from the gloom. He woke his wife up and later had her rush him to the hospital the next morning.13

The cause of William Styron’s disease might have been from a vulnerable childhood when his mother had passed away. It happened when he was thirteen.14 Major depression disorder is a treatable disease, with many available treatments if the depression is treated as soon as possible. In many cases, antidepressants appear to be the first option, and they are often quite effective in treating depression, but they do not always work successfully. Each person will adapt to a different type of therapy based on their doctor’s advice. Some common antidepressants are Tricyclic and Tetracyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and Selective Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).15 In some cases, Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a last option when the other treatments are not effective.

File:MECTA spECTrum ECT.jpg
Modern ECT – Mecta Spectrum 5000Q | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a therapy that uses electrical impulses through the brain to repair the neuron systems to treat disease. It was first used by two Italian doctors Cerletti and Biny in 1930 to treat schizophrenia. Now, ECT is continually upgraded and developed to treat a wider range of mental diseases from schizophrenia to major depression disorder, catatonia, and Parkinson’s disease. The overall process starts from patients that are injected with medicine that restricts the low heart rate. Next, he will go through a body check in a machine, and then receive an anesthetic injection. Electrodes are put on two sides of the head in order for the electric currents effortlessly to penetrate into the brain hemispheres. During treatment, there are two stages that cause seizures in around thirty minutes. The number of times this therapy is used depends on the severity of the disease, and usually, the results are positive. After using this therapy, most of the patients recover well.16 In addition, ETC leaves some side effects because it reduces the amount of oxygen in the brain, causing the patient to experience headaches and temporary memory loss, but they still recover afterward.17

“Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” the book that he narrated about his period crisis with depression | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When facing the last devastation of depression-waves that almost led to his suicide, the passage of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody was like a salvation light that kept him from stepping into the other world. After that occasion, the depression tide gradually retreated, and Styron recovered faster. After nearly two months in the hospital, all the depression symptoms were treated, and he was fully recovered. Now he could have dreams after several months without dreaming, and feel life coming back. The support and the care of his friends and his family, especially his wife Rose always by his side, helped him go through this disease.18 With his experience, Styron did more research about depression and released Darkness Visible—a memoir of madness, which detailed his fight with depression. In this book, he asserted the importance of family and relative’s responsibility in taking care of their member who held this disease, because there would be some periods when they would not be themselves and they might take foolish actions. William Styron released this book with the hope of helping readers understand more about the depression that negatively affects many people. This is a beautiful and worthy book. It shows that depression should not be looked down on. Depression may be mysterious, but it is treatable, and we should care more about those around us. When we suffer, don’t be afraid. Behind the dark gray cloud is the light waiting for us.

  1. “Styron, William,” Newsmakers 2008 Cumulation. accessed April 10, 2021,
  2. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 3-4.
  3. Ian H. Gotlib, et al., “Depression” in International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, accessed April 12, 2021,
  4. Danuta Wasserman, Depression, vol. 2nd ed, The Facts (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2011), 12-15.
  5. Danuta Wasserman, Depression, vol. 2nd ed, The Facts (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2011), 77-78
  6. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 79.
  7. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 5-6.
  8. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 11-15.
  9. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 16-20.
  10. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 25.
  11. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 32.
  12. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 67-68.
  13. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 62-66.
  14. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 79-80.
  15. Danuta Wasserman, Depression, vol. 2nd ed, The Facts (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2011), 99.
  16. “Electroconvulsive Therapy,” in The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health, accessed April 20, 2021,
  17. Danuta Wasserman, Depression, vol. 2nd ed, The Facts (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2011), 111.
  18. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Open Road Media, 2010), 75-76.

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One Response

  1. This article was very respectful and well-informed in its portrayal of depression. Too often, artists with mental health struggles have those struggles romanticized instead of addressed and discussed in terms of their recovery. An especially important part of the article was the inclusion of symptoms and several treatment options in order to bring awareness to those that may feel similarly. To simultaneously learn about this author as well as his struggle, support system, and eventual recovery was enlightening as well as encouraging.

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