Reading Memoirs of Depression

Since William Styron’s groundbreaking Darkness Visible (1990), the depression memoir has become a common literary subgenre. You can fill a bookshelf or two with first-person accounts, some very well-written and insightful, of what it’s like to be depressed.

If you suffer from depression, you’re probably ambivalent about reading other people’s memoirs of depression.

On the one hand, you might find valuable insights into your condition in these books. You might want to support the authors’ work toward demystifying and destigmatizing depression. You might feel inspired by people who battled depression and still managed to lead fulfilling lives and accomplish great things (like writing books, for example). Some find it reassuring to know they’re not alone.

On the other hand, when you’re truly struggling with depression, you might choose to avoid immersing yourself in pain and despair, even someone else’s pain and despair. Reading a depression memoir might be counterproductive to your own daily efforts to keep the demons at bay and feel more hopeful, energetic, calm, focused, positive.

Both are perfectly valid choices. Reading Darkness Visible in the 1990s helped me understand myself and motivated me to take some positive steps. Nowadays I tend to avoid bleak books and movies, whether fiction or nonfiction, especially when my depression is at a low point. Maybe this filtering process means I’m missing out on some great works, but so be it.

The ideal audience for depression memoirs might be friends and family of people suffering from depression. If you love someone with depression, you might find yourself confounded by their behavior. Reading a good first-person account of depression might help you understand what that person is going through.

So if you want to read a depression memoir, or give a copy to someone trying to understand you, what are some good ones? My strongest recommendation goes to Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) by William Styron, which thoroughly deserves its reputation.

The renowned novelist experienced a severe bout of depression around age 60. After hospitalization and gradual recovery, he wrote a two-part essay for Vanity Fair, later expanded into Darkness Visible. At just under 100 pages, it’s a fairly quick read. Styron describes the agony of depression in honest, unflinching terms, but he also writes with gentle humor and detachment.

Many great writers and artists have committed suicide. Styron came close. His account thoroughly de-romanticizes the mythos of the self-destructive tortured artist, and offers a more inspiring alternative. He managed to work through the worst depths and achieve a livable melancholy, and his book holds out hope that others can too.

Also worth checking out is the anthology Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (2001) edited by Nell Casey. It collects pieces by 24 writers including Jane Kenyon, Russell Banks, Ann Beattie and Larry McMurtry. There’s an excerpt from Styron’s Darkness Visible as well as a companion essay by his wife Rose Styron. The anthology format allows you to sample without spending too long in anyone’s head.

Then there are numerous other such books on which I can’t comment because I haven’t read them:

Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression by John Bentley Mays
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression by Brooke Shields
Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival by Christopher Lukas
Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton
Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression
Les Murray
The Beast: A Journey Through Depression by Tracy Thompson
Step on a Crack: Overcoming depression — a memoir by Jill Byrne
Struck by Living: From Depression to Hope by Julie Hersh
Trouble in My Head: A Young Girl’s Fight with Depression by Mathilde Monaque
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace by Eric Wilson
The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance by Sharon O’Brien

I’m sure this list is incomplete. Have you read any of these? Do you recommend or not recommend them?

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