Only six months ago, he was drowning in a harrowing mental vortex. Yesterday, William Styron, literary giant and lifelong victim of manic-depression, stood as a survivor.
“I went to places I’d never been before,” Styron said of his breakdown last year, the mild tenor of his voice belying the pathos of his words. “I’m living proof that people usually can recover — and do recover.”
More than 60 people squeezed into the Master’s Tea at Branford College on Tuesday to meet Styron, the 75-year-old author of “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. Later in the evening, Styron read excerpts of his work to students in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
Known for being one of the first American authors to delve into taboo subjects like racism, Styron openly discussed with students the art of writing and another delicate topic — his own struggle with mental illness. Styron’s memoir, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is an account of his torturous struggle with manic-depression. He called his hospitalization last year a “psyche-shaking experience.”
Easing into his chair with legs crossed and elbows propped, Styron fielded questions from the audience at the tea, which was held entirely in the format of an open forum.
Styron has written about myriad subjects and the questions were equally diverse, covering everything from the Holocaust, which was a topic of Sophie’s Choice, to his Southern background.
“Without being a Southerner,” Styron said, “I would not be a writer at all.”
Raised in a liberal family from Virginia, Styron said he was especially sensitive to the remnants of slavery as a child.
“Living through segregation was a wrenching experience,” Styron said.
This awareness of racial issues led in part to one of his most critically acclaimed — and controversial — works, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” The historical novel, which narrates the slave rebellion from the perspective of Turner, spawned an uproar from members of the black intellectual community in the late 1960s.
Styron expressed no regrets for how he approached this touchy subject.
“I was determined to break through that taboo proscription and deal with [racism] on my own terms,” Styron said. “All artists that are at the top of their form are transgressive.”
Styron also acknowledged the correlation between many artists and depression, adding that he does not completely understand how he recovered from his most recent bout.
“If I had to say something significant about depression,” Styron said, “It can always be conquered and beaten.”
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