William Styron’s little book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, offers vivid depictions of the suffocating gloom that in 1985 stalked his descent into major depression. He is perhaps remembered as much for this 1990 book describing his meltdown into depression as for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and for his later bestseller, Sophie’s Choice.
The memoir is only 84-pages long in its Vintage paperback edition. It’s little more than 15,000 words, the size of a long essay. Yet it became a national bestseller that lightened the stigma surrounding depression and encouraged many to seek psychological help for the disorder.
At one point, Styron’s “veritable howling tempest in the brain,” as he called it, led him to make elaborate plans to commit suicide. He finally entered a psychiatric hospital, and began to recover there during a seven-week stay. He died almost 20 years later, at age 81, of pneumonia.
In Darkness Visible, Styron strives valiantly to uncover and understand the source of his depression. He cites, for instance, influences involving his father and mother. He believes he never experienced a proper catharsis of grief following his mother’s death when he was 13, and he suspects he inherited the gloom and morbidity that had long plagued his father. Yet he also provides, if somewhat obliquely, several intriguing clues for the existence of what I believe to be a major source of all depression: the psyche’s unconscious inner conflict.
Now, 32 years after the publication of this memoir, medical science, psychiatry, and neuroscience still remain uninformed concerning the psychology of inner conflict. These disciplines are unwilling to recognize the ethereal psyche as a center of primitive, oppositional, and energetic dynamics that can stir up clinical depression. The hard science that has seized psychiatry’s high ground and chosen to focus on brain research has failed us in overlooking the psyche’s significance. Depth psychology, in contrast, resolutely contends that depression can be overcome by exposing and understanding the conflict harbored in our psyche.
Of course, factors other than inner conflict can produce depression, and they include genetics, biochemistry, family history, diet, poverty, oppression, and stress. I’m saying that inner conflict belongs on this list, probably in first place. Inner conflict, when severe, produces an appetite for emotional self-punishment, which in turn can produce major depression.
Clearly, it’s in our nature to experience some degree of inner conflict. Sometimes it’s only mildly disconcerting and not the marrow of suffering or self-defeat. Problematic inner conflict is the problem. In his memoir, Styron relates experiences of this serious dysfunction, and I’ll cite his words in making a case for inner conflict’s prime role in generating depression.
In the opening pages of Darkness Visible, Styron writes that he “was floundering helplessly” in his efforts to deal with his depression. “Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease, both physical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred … is one of the most universally experienced symptoms, and I had suffered more and more from a general feeling of worthlessness as the malady had progressed.” He was experiencing this progression even as he flew to Paris in 1985 “in order to accept an award which should have sparklingly restored my ego.”
Before further consideration of Styron’s experiences, let’s review some basics from the depth psychology I practice. Inner conflict involves largely unconscious debate and altercation in our psyche between our inner critic (superego) and inner passivity (the weak nature of our unconscious subordinate ego). The inner critic regularly attacks our character and integrity, and inner passivity produces defensive pleadings and ploys that regularly fail to neutralize the attack. In this process, we can sometimes be aware of a pale semblance of self-protection, an inner defensiveness we conjure up in our mind. We can recognize this defensiveness, as well, in our dialogue with others. This defensiveness is all a reaction to the feeling of being accused. Our inner critic, like a kangaroo court’s prosecutor, can accuse us of all sorts of nonsense. It pesters us incessantly for minor missteps and harasses us with irrational bunk. Through inner passivity, we unwittingly allow this self-abuse to be inflicted.
Often, it’s only through an awakening to the existence of our defensiveness, a process that itself involves recognizing inner passivity, that we can detect an inner critic attack and begin to effectively protect ourselves from it.
The inner critic is a psychological drive, instinct, or energy that has its genesis in humankind’s aggressive instinct for survival. The conventions and restraints of civilization prevent this aggressive drive from running amuck. Ideally, this drive is sublimated into worthy, creative, and pleasurable pursuits. But turmoil in our psyche can block this healthy option, and some measure of our inner critic’s energy is injected into our psychological bloodstream as self-mockery and accusatory scorn. While the inner critic can pose as a legitimate, benign conscience, its primitive constitution calls upon it to dominate our psyche. Our unconscious passivity makes us—in league with the speculations and considerations of our mind—susceptible to this arrangement.
When Styron writes that he “was floundering helplessly,” he’s describing a primary symptom of inner conflict, the largely unconscious experience of being subservient to the inner critic and at its mercy. The passivity and helplessness we experience at this inner level is what we then bring, in the world around us, to our everyday situations and challenges. Styron mentions his “sense of self-hatred” and his “general feeling of worthlessness.” Elsewhere, he mentions the “stifling anxiety” that preceded his bouts with depression. Again, these are all symptoms that derive from the degree to which we absorb self-aggression from our inner critic.
The inner critic dispenses a primitive aggression that can be especially cruel. This superego is the psychological manifestation of the biological aggressiveness that made humankind a ferocious predator. It operates with rigid authority, and it maintains this “authoritarianism” largely through merciless fault-finding directed at our weak, subordinate ego. Its oppressive put-downs can be quite demeaning and hateful. This onslaught becomes semi-conscious when we experience an inner voice that alludes to our foolishness, idiocy, or worthlessness. If we’re too passive, too full of self-doubt, we painfully, unwittingly absorb these misrepresentations of reality. People can feel “stifling anxiety,” to use Styron’s words, in the moments leading up to an episode of depression as they anticipate more of the inner critic’s painful onslaught.
Styron had been a heavy drinker, and he had, as he wrote, “abruptly abandoned whiskey and all other intoxicants” just months before his depression struck. Alcohol and intoxicants can temporarily fortify the ego and neutralize the inner critic, but their overuse is, of course, an unstable, dangerous way to cope with life, let alone inner conflict. Over time, their misuse is likely to render an individual even more passive, more susceptible to inner critic attacks. When Styron abruptly stopped using these substances, both his conscious ego and subordinate unconscious ego no longer had the flimsy “protection” of intoxicants. Now his inner critic met little or no resistance in its assault upon his worthiness and integrity. Meanwhile, the psychiatric medications he had begun taking had not been effective.
Styron alludes to the presence of inner passivity when he writes of “the onset of inertia.” He wonders: Did the abrupt withdrawal from alcohol start the plunge downward?
Or could it be that a vague dissatisfaction with the way in which my work was going—the onset of inertia which has possessed me time and time again during my writing life, and made me crabbed and discontented—had also haunted me more fiercely during that period than ever, somehow magnifying the difficulty with alcohol. Unresolvable questions, perhaps.
No, not unresolvable. The vicissitudes of inner conflict were creeping up on him. Inertia had begun interfering with his productivity. Was he perhaps experiencing procrastination, indecision, or writer’s block? He doesn’t say explicitly. However, “the onset of inertia” would enable his inner critic to pester him (largely registered unconsciously) with allegations of his emotional resonance with an underlying sense of weakness and unworthiness.
Our growing awareness of such inner conflict becomes the remedy. We begin to detect the inner critic, understand its irrationality and primitive function, and thereby neutralize its allegations. We also begin to feel the presence of inner passivity and understand its ploys and reckonings. This new awareness pierces our unconscious mind to expose the dynamics of irrationality. We can see the conflict, for instance, between our conscious wish to be strong versus our unconscious readiness to identify with old emotional associations involving self-doubt and helplessness. In the act of seeing all this, we connect with our better self.
Now we can begin to step outside of inner conflict and liberate ourselves from it. We’re refusing now to identify with the passive side of the conflict. Those who are too resistant, too identified with inner passivity, simply refuse unconsciously to acquire this insight and use it to their advantage.
Instead of identifying with inner passivity, many other people, though inwardly passive, cope with inner conflict by aligning themselves emotionally with the values of their inner critic. Now they’re in danger of becoming insensitive, boorish, cruel, susceptible to authoritarian values, and unwitting defenders of the ego. Their unconscious defense proclaims, I’m not a passive person, disconnected from my better self. My aggressive hostility toward others and their values feels good and righteous.
When through insight our consciousness recognizes the source of random suffering, we see how we can stop the misery. We can also feel a pleasurable connection to our better self and appreciate, too, the self-regulation we’re now capable of practicing. Our will to flourish is inspired by inner truth.
Styron makes another passing allusion to inner conflict when he writes, quite impersonally, “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 [italics added] with a sense of their own worthlessness…” The inner critic does indeed demean us, while inner passivity blocks us from accessing and feeling the truth of our intrinsic value.
Styron describes in his memoir the inspiration he felt reading Nobel-Prize laureate Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. But Camus, I believe, was deeply under the influence of inner passivity. The Stranger reeks with passive undertones. The novel’s title character, Meursault, is a morose, apathetic fellow, a poster-boy for self-alienation, who never quite knows what he feels or why exactly he shot and killed a man. Languishing in prison under a death sentence, Meursault’s final act of “redemption” is to accept “the benign indifference of the universe” and to take consolation in knowing his execution will end his loneliness.
The themes and characters produced by literary writers of fiction are reflections, in large measure, of what they emotionally resonate with, and how they themselves are conflicted. Styron writes in his memoir that, after reading The Stranger while in his early thirties, he received “a stab of recognition that proceeds from reading the work of a writer who has wedded moral passion to a style of great beauty and whose unblinking vision is capable of frightening the soul to its marrow.” I would suggest it’s not the soul that’s frightened but rather the psyche and its secret stash of inner passivity that reverberates in aroused sympathy whenever its own dark secret finds literary expression.
We’re afraid of inner truth, that identification of ours with inner passivity, our enabling of the inner critic, and our furtive entanglement in inner conflict. Allusions to this deadly flaw of human nature are experienced by us as a stigma, a dishonor, an exposure to forbidden knowledge. It’s the resistance we encounter when self-knowledge comes knocking.
Styron must have had an encounter with the dark side in writing Sophie’s Choice, his 1979 best-seller that won the U.S. National Book Award for fiction. Sophie is a Polish-Catholic survivor of Nazi concentration camps who lives in Brooklyn with her lover, a purported scientific genius who (spoiler alert) turns out to be afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. Sophie ends up committing suicide with her lover, sometime after revealing to another main character that, on the night she arrived in Auschwitz, she was required to choose which of her two children would die immediately by gassing and which would continue to live at the camp.
In writing this book, Styron would have been required to resonate deeply with Sophie’s horror and helplessness. He had to be willing to put himself through the lengthy, emotional, creative process of chronicling her plight. Only an unconscious resonance with entrapment (experienced vicariously through inner passivity) and cruel oppression (vicariously through the inner critic) would have made possible a convincing rendition of Sophie’s lingering experience of such fiendish abuse. Up to this time, Styron’s brilliance as a novelist had been a successful sublimation of inner conflict. Now, it appears, he was pulled more deeply into the darkness.
Styron writes in his memoir: “I began to see clearly how depression had clung close to the outer edges of my life for many years.”
Suicide had been a persistent theme in my books—three of my major characters killed themselves. In rereading, for the first time in years, sequences from my novels—passages where my heroines have lurched down pathways toward doom—I was stunned to perceive how accurately I had created the landscape of depression in the minds of these young women, describing with what could only be instinct, out of a subconscious already roiled by disturbances of mood, the psychic imbalance [italics added] that led them to destruction. Thus depression, when it finally came to me, was in fact no stranger, not even a visitor totally unannounced; it had been tapping at my door for decades.
Styron also mentions a psychological element he considers to be particularly pertinent: “the concept of loss.” He writes: “Loss in all of its manifestations is the touchstone of depression—in the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin.” He mentions the loss of his mother, as well as the losses of self-esteem, self-reliance, and emotional resilience. The latter loss had left him acutely fearful of being alone. He writes: “Being alone in the house, even for a moment, caused me exquisite panic and trepidation.” Here he’s describing a condition of being lost to himself in terrifying self-abandonment. Describing his preparations to commit suicide, he senses himself as “a wraithlike observer” and dispassionate “solitary actor.” Dissociation of varying severity is often one of the symptoms of inner passivity and inner conflict.
It’s true, loss is a primary experience of depression. However, it’s not, as Styron suggests, the origin or source of depression. The origin resides in inner conflict, our psyche’s disunity and sometimes civil war. Inner conflict is the source of self-alienation, self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-hatred. The loss that Styron felt so acutely, as he clearly implied, was the loss of the sense of a stable, resilient self. He quotes Dante: In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood / For I had lost the right path. Yes, Styron had lost the path home to himself. He wasn’t there for himself. He was, at this point, disconnected emotionally and psychologically from his better self and from a workable ego-identity. It appears that his unconscious, subordinate ego was overwhelmed by his inner critic, while his conscious ego crashed from the loss of the familiar coping mechanisms of alcohol and writing.
With inner conflict we’re torn between wanting to be our best self versus being identified with the delicate, pain-prone ego that jitters about in our psyche. Do we know our own mind or are we identified with the hijacked mind that does the psyche’s bidding. Do we garner the insight that resolves inner conflict or do we remain ignorant of it, thereby at the mercy of the psyche’s turmoil and its capacity for mischief, suffering, and evil. As Joseph Campbell defined it, we go through this dark side—on the hero’s journey through a treacherous underworld—to find and resurrect the self.
Concluding his memoir, Styron mentions Ingmar Bergman’s film, Through a Glass Darkly, in which a woman experiencing psychotic depression has an hallucination of a monstrous spider attempting to violate her sexually. Styron, noting that Bergman “suffered cruelly from depression,” mentions the spider in the context of humankind’s struggle “to give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia.”
A literary writer’s “proper expression” is often, of course, in symbolism. The spider is a suitable symbol for the desolation of depression—and also for the inner critic. The menacing inner critic is plenty creepy. It can sneak in upon us, venomously, soundlessly, unseen. We anticipate being violated by it, and we can quickly feel helpless to fend it off. The sexual connotation (the spider violating a helpless woman) might refer to what Freud warned us about, our psyche’s willingness to absorb and libidinize (sugarcoat masochistically) the superego’s incoming aggression. This supposition was incorporated into Freud’s Eros-versus-Thanatos and pleasure-versus-displeasure theories of inner conflict, which inform us that our entanglement with the dark side is compulsive and perhaps masochistic. Psychologically, the noble savage is us.
Why did Styron recover during his seven-week stay in the hospital? Even with an everyday neurosis that evades depression, the inner critic has a tendency to back off—once we have suffered enough with guilt and shame. Styron observes that the hospital “where I had found refuge was a kinder, gentler madhouse than the one I’d left.” He alludes to an “ultimate capitulation” to his situation, a begrudging acceptance of his helplessness that perhaps fended off his inner critic (as happens with members of Alcoholics Anonymous).
He might also have been able to displace some of his self-aggression onto “an odious smug young shrink, with a spade-shaped dark beard” who during group therapy sessions “was alternately condescending and bullying…” Styron also experienced ongoing “humiliated rage” at “a delirious young woman with a fixed, indefatigable smile” who conducted art therapy classes and who he later became fond of, “in spite of myself.” Was Styron casting off upon others some of the harsh criticism that his inner critic inflicted upon him? People with a particularly harsh (worse than average) inner critic tend to be judgmental and scornful of others.
In his memoir, Styron refers to depression as a disease, with the implication it’s more a medical problem than a psychological disorder. I imagine he was conflicted between adopting, in his mind, a psychological versus a medical interpretation of his agony. Using the disease concept to explain major depression, alcoholism, and other addictions appeals to our largely unconscious psychological defenses. It enables us to deflect the inner critic’s allegations that we’re passive, weak-willed, and unworthy: I’m not to blame for my plight. I’m simply an innocent victim of my disease.
It’s a feat of integrity and courage to begin to explore our psyche, breach our ego-identification, and recognize the rowdiness and perversity of inner conflict. With literary prowess and an honest man’s search for understanding, Styron gave it his best shot. How honest now can we be in facing our hidden madness, a probable contributor to all the world’s dysfunction?
Peter Michaelson’s latest book, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), is available at Amazon.