Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Few permanent wounds

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William Styron's Darkness Visible
By far the great majority of the people who go through even the severest depression survive it, and live ever afterward at least as happily as their unaffilicted counterparts. Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds. There is a Sisyphean torment in the fact that a great number—as many as half—of those who are devastated once will be struck again; depression has the habit of recurrence. But most victims live through even these relapses, often coping better because they have become psychologically tuned by past experience to deal with the ogre. It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and that they will pull through. A tough job, this; calling “Chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough—and the support equally committed and passionate—the endangered one can nearly always be saved. Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality. It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferers of life’s worth, which is so often in conflict with a sense of their own worthlessness, but such devotion has prevented countless suicides.
  —William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

If you’re toting around a book called Drunk Mom and you happen to be seven months pregnant—which, in fact, I am—expect to be confronted. On the train to Winnipeg, working on my previous blog post about Jowita Bydlowska’s memoir, I found myself in a couple of uncomfortable conversations. One man, on seeing the cover, asked what prompted me to read the book. I braced myself for a lecture on prenatal drinking, on my responsibilities to my unborn child—instead he wanted to confide in me, confess that he was a recovering alcoholic, sober twenty years.

People want to tell their stories—they want to feel the embrace of acceptance and communal redemption. The crux of Leslie Jamison’s argument in “Confessional writing is not self-indulgent” is that, after her book came out, she became “an unwitting confessor to countless strangers,” hearing from people in mourning, people with headaches, people without homes trying to survive. The confessional mode creates a safe space. Other afflicted humans enter and feel they are understood.

Because this is my final post for Open Book, I wanted to end on a note of hopefulness, landing on a word about the social function memoir serves. It’s not always the most attractive angle—self help isn’t a revered genre, after all—but I like the idea that personal narrative can be at once tortured and courageous and helpful. I don’t believe memoir-as-manual is something that can be facilely dismissed as a consumable product, its ingestion fuelled by a cultural obsession with self-improvement. The works I’ve referenced during my tenure as Writer in Residence, for me, stand as evidence of the range of voices and approaches possible under the umbrella of confession—including a refined literary impulse, a philosophical impetus, a surreal re-making of the world, elegy, humour, reclamation.

I mentioned that Bydlowska wrote Drunk Mom to make amends to her partner, sister, and son, but I didn’t mention her third reason: “I hope it will help some of those who are struggling with similar issues, and give others a glimpse into what that struggle is like.” Likewise, William Styron’s Darkness Visible was his attempt to explain what depression entails—to describe how his first descent almost led to suicide, how he survived, and how others might learn to cope with depression themselves. Indeed, his book began as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins University at a conference on affective disorders. He went on to publish a more thorough version in Vanity Fair before fleshing out the tale even more completely and publishing, in 1989, the full chronicle of his illness. Styron worked to turn his frightening, wretched experience into a guide for others who might be afflicted with the same.

Beyond fellow sufferers—of addiction, depression, madness—the personal narrative reaches toward families and communities who have witnessed the struggles of those troubled by such torment. The passage I’ve quoted above appears near the end of Styron’s book and it’s a remarkable departure from the main tale. Here, Styron directly refers to supporters of the depressed and encourages them in their attempts to protect and fortify their ailing loved one. Styron goes a long way to objectify the process of depression, to demystify it, and in so doing he makes huge strides in offering hope to those who are fatigued, frightened, and frustrated by watching a process of deterioration they can’t control. He insists: this can pass, this will pass. I am moved by his stridency: don’t give up. Keep loving, keep loving, keep loving.

I know not everyone likes memoir. Not everyone will be persuaded by the arguments I’ve given here, in my blog posts, to support the personal narrative, to champion confession. Personally, I’ve pursued reading memoirs as a way to sustain myself through the process of writing a confessional book of poems, and I’ve searched out stories that have allowed me not only to continue to heal my grief and my self-destructive impulses but to pursue an aggressive investigation of myself and my family through my work with language. Reading writers who have masterfully handled their struggles, their sadnesses, their weaknesses—and who have courageously unveiled the most heinous and miserable aspects of their lives—has prompted me to take a fierce grip of life, to realize profound connection with strangers, and to reinvest in the possibility of kindling empathy through the wielding of words.

It’s been wonderful to write for Open Book this July. Writers I admire very much have contacted me through e-mails and personal messages to let me know they’re reading this, and that it means something. I feel gratitude, not only to the writers I’ve quoted this month, but to the readers who have identified with these entries.

As metatext, as paratext, this blog has allowed me to reinvest in the impetus that led me to write Broom Broom in the first place—a desire to create a legacy for my mother and to memorialize the hole she left in my universe. The fact that these confessions have travelled beyond me, out into the world of the disinterested reader, only provides further cause for appreciation and for celebration.

Much thanks and love.

Introductory Post: "Our lives of no interest: The compulsion to confess"
Previous Post: "Invisible damage"
Brecken Hancock WIR Main Page

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Brecken Hancock

Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.

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