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David Foster Wallace and Depression

November 10, 2012

photo by Mary McAvoy

My son has been an enthusiastic reader since he was three years old, when he discovered Calvin and Hobbes. He and I have a long history of suggesting books and authors to one another (we’ve just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, his suggestion), sharing books with one another, and when we lived under the same roof, slyly fighting over time with a single copy of a book we both had interest in simultaneously.

For a couple of years my son has been talking to me about the author David Foster Wallace. As he (my son) read Infinite Jest he’d periodically set the book on my desk, a paperclip marking a section for my suggested reading. I was seriously impressed with the writing and storytelling, as well as Wallace’s use of extensive and anything but dull footnotes.

Last spring, after meeting my son for dinner in Cambridge, Mass., he handed me DFW’s book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, with the suggestion, “Just read the essay about the cruise,” from which the book derives its title.

So, I read the cruise essay and again I loved Wallace’s thinking and his intuition and his humor and his self-deprecating humanness, laid bare in his engaging writing, which often made me laugh out loud. But every night in the course of my reading I died a small death as an especially thoughtful thought he shared struck me as spot-on and then I’d remember that he’s no longer in this world to help keep us thoughtful about how we live and why we live and how he viewed his world and our world. Then I’d remember, too, that he died by his own hand and my thoughts about depression and suicide and the heartbreak of genius people who die of suicide would overwhelm me into my own sadness. So, I set the book aside – but not till I finished a second and a third essay, including “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, Wallace’s excellent stream of thoughts about his youthful time on the tennis court (which he saw as a grid of lines and vectors and intersections, cut and crosscut by the path of the ball, and on which regional weather thwarted or enhanced (in his case) the player’s game).

Now, three months later, my son has read and, in a recent visit when I was not home, left on my desk the newly released biography of David Foster Wallace, titled Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story – A Life Of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max. I’ve read the cover, front and back and inside flaps, twice. I’ve looked often at Wallace’s photo on the front. I think about reading the book but I haven’t yet started it. And my son has warned me that it’s terribly sad. He says not to worry if I never get around to reading it.

Human tragedy of the David Foster Wallace proportion saddens me to the core. I stagger under the weight of it while trying to make sense of it. Lost genius is tough enough, but lost genius caused probably by genius itself confounds me.

I have a theory that what we call “depression” in people is the collective human mind in a growth spurt. In my theory, there are people all around us who are in the process of advancing the brain power of humanity. But as they do, they don’t fit in comfortably with humanity, now. This world becomes too painful for them. They suffer for their sensitivity to what they know or intuit or clearly see or can’t clearly enough see. Their pain is raw, like the scrapes you might remember from a fall from your bike. But for them, the pain is pervasive, through their entire being. They cry from the weariness of bearing the pain, caused not by a fall from their bike, but from living.

Based on my theory, I wish there were a place for “depressed” people, an oxygen rich place where the sun shines to perfection. A place where the woes of life do not exist. A place where by whatever it takes, both inner and outer peace would sustain them and free them from suffering and keep them alive and healthy. I’d like to see “depressed” people elevated to a place in society that values their keen sensitivity as invaluable to our survival.

Anyway, I haven’t started to read the biography yet. I know that to read of Wallace’s struggle with depression and to think of the loss of his life and his potential work will be heartbreaking and frustrating. But I also hope that in his story I find some better understanding of depression or a clue to what it might take for us to help others like him to live. So, maybe I’ll tip toe through it, a few pages at a time.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2013 1:41 am

    Beautifully written, Mary. The sensitivities of the depressed may, indeed, be very important for humanity’s survival or at least, the next step in our evolution. People who are very sensitive to their surroundings are usually very good at seeing the “whole” picture rather than just a piece of the puzzle. That can also be cause for a great deal of suffering when they realize that each piece is trying to “be” the picture rather than complete it.
    I’ll have to take a look at David Foster Wallace’s work. It saddens me greatly to hear about someone who has committed suicide, but I honestly understand why someone would and cannot criticize or judge a single person for having done so.


    • August 8, 2013 1:54 am

      Re: “It saddens me greatly to hear about someone who has committed suicide, but I honestly understand why someone would and cannot criticize or judge a single person for having done so.”
      I agree totally.



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