MIKE WALLACE died this month at 93, presumably of old age, but his life might have ended years before. One of the most successful newsmen of his generation, he had once felt drawn to suicide; “lower, lower, lower than a snake’s belly’’ was how he described the feeling, while testifying to a Senate committee in 1996 about the need for more federal funding for research into depression.
Obituaries of Wallace noted that he shared a history of depression with two famous friends, the columnist Art Buchwald and the novelist William Styron. Meeting for mutual support, they dubbed themselves “the blues brothers.’’ Each man’s troubles showed that, far from immunizing someone against despondency, both fame and wealth came with grave pressures of their own.
Art Buchwald, who was hospitalized for depression at least twice, once joked that he resisted the temptation to suicide “because I was afraid I wouldn’t make it into the New York Times obituaries.’’ He died of kidney failure in 2007. For William Styron, the sight of kitchen knives provoked fears of what he might do to himself. The hugely admired author of such novels as “Sophie’s Choice’’ described those fears in his 1990 memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.’’ He wrote, “To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.’’ Styron died of pneumonia in 2006.
Depression is not well understood. Women seem more vulnerable to it than men. Heredity may be a factor. Biology can play its part, and so can socioeconomic stresses, like feelings of uselessness that come with long-term unemployment. Sadness at the suffering built into the human condition can be normal, while some depression can follow from identifying with the struggles of others. Guilt and anger can be appropriate and constructive, but they can also destroy self-esteem. Freud famously wrote, “In mourning, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.’’
Wallace, Buchwald, and Styron were unusual for being men who went public with their self-punishing disorders. That three icons of the American success story should have so struggled with crippling misery might prompt reflection on what that story actually entails. Perhaps, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every happy person is alike, but every unhappy person is unhappy in his or her own way. Buchwald, the clown who wept inside, emphasized the legacy of a troubled childhood. Styron focused on unfinished grief - his mother died when he was 14 - but was also entangled with substance abuse. Wallace reported being nearly undone by a dread of disgrace tied to the infamous libel suit by General William Westmoreland. But in each case, there was something else.
What is success? Don’t we imagine that achieving our most fevered desires will make us successful? We want the love of parents, the esteem of peers, the wealth that will secure us in our sense of self worth. Wallace, Buchwald, and Styron won all the prizes. That their empathetic rendezvous occurred on Martha’s Vineyard points to the level of attainment they shared. Yet they seemed tormented by fears of downfall - with the fears themselves taking on enough reality to make any actual downfall anticlimactic. The depressive’s self-undercutting anguish was caught by Mark Twain: “I am an old man, and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’’
But is happiness more than the absence of imagined fears? I once heard the poet Donald Hall define happiness as absorbedness, the experience of being so taken up by the project of, in his case, writing a poem that he lets go of everything else. Absorbedness like that defines the bliss of satisfying work - and, also, the contentment of being in love. For a time, you forget yourself. This release from self-consciousness can seem the antidote to the hyper-obsession with the self that may, ironically, be the cruelest burden of depression.
When Wallace, Buchwald, and Styron put their unwilled self-obsessing aside to bring their depression into the light of public discussion, they were thinking of others. They wanted fellow sufferers to know that they were not alone; that the disorder is a condition that can be treated; and that the sense of despair can dissipate. In speaking of the blues, these brothers struck blows against them.
James Carroll writes regularly for The Globe.