It’s not unusual for me to pause and ponder Facebook posts from my liberal friend Jerry Redfield. This is one of those days I’m blessed to have done so. It cost me my early-to-bed Plan A, which I sacrificed to write this blog post few will read. My selfish wish is that heaven works in a manner that will deliver at least one reader: the late David Foster Wallace.
A photo of a long-haired dude at a microphone accompanied Jerry’s suggestion that 22 minutes listening to a commencement address from Kenyon College would be well spent. The speaker was novelist David Foster Wallace. I’d heard his name, but knew nothing more about him. My conservative instincts said, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.”
I live nearby and admire Kenyon College and its beautiful setting in Gambier, Ohio. Occasionally, I attend programs and lectures at the exclusive liberal arts school. Typically, I leave impressed by the students’ carriage and behavior, with a slightly better understanding of what makes liberals tick, and with a slightly stronger conviction that I am not one.
Still, Jerry’s opinion matters to me. He’s retired and lives in Florida. I’m retired and live in Ohio. So we know who the smart one is. But a Kenyon commencement speech was a big ask. I’ve been there — in the glorious shade along Kenyon’s iconic Middle Path — with my idiot-proof camera and Jimmy Olson press seating. The speakers have reliably provided overdoses of liberalism sweet enough to suck the enamel off a molar.
Dammit, Jerry! I was going to climb under the covers and watch NCIS with Karen, or the Cavs if she’s crashed. But since it was you, I cued up the speech so I could say I listened to (parts) of it. Twenty two thought-provoking minutes later, I found myself Googling David Foster Wallace. I was impressed. I won’t try to encapsulate what he said, but Jerry and I encourage you to give him a listen. Wallace’s words were intelligent, insightful, clever, even practical. Rather than an idealog, he was clearly a thinker who tried to keep an open mind. I was intrigued, so I thumbed my way to Wikipedia via Android. What I found was profoundly sad and hit very close to home.
Wikipedia is great for quick and fairly reliable information, but it has no flair for the dramatic, nothing of O’Henry’s plot twists or Paul Harvey’s Rest of the Story reveals. In just four words, I was Wiki-bummed: “David Foster Wallace was …” A few years after his speech at Kenyon, he had died at just 46 years of age. Who was he, and what happened? We’ll let Wikipedia tell part of the story.
“David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008) was an American writer and university instructor in the disciplines of English and creative writing. His novel Infinite Jest was listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. His last novel, The Pale King (published posthumously in 2011) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012.”
Digging deeper, I learned we had much in common. Love of the English language and word play, serious with a broad stripe of irreverence … and mentally ill. David Foster suffered from major depressive disorder, as do I. Since the brain is poorly understood, and because complex chemical imbalances involving dopamine, serotonin and the endorphin of the day are involved, we talk around this taboo subject. Perhaps she’s melancholy, over-sensitive, blue, having a rough patch … but mentally ill?
You tell me. When a gifted and accomplished author tries therapy, every cocktail of anti-depressants imaginable, and even the ultimate bad-rapped and ghoulish sounding electroshock therapy — then meticulously plans and carries out his suicide — might that be more than a rough patch?
I’ve written one book. It sold fewer than 5000 copies and presently is displayed on two coffee tables, one of which is mine. So the last thing I want to suggest is that David Foster Wallace and I belong in the same literary discussion. Similarly, I am not planning to talk at length about my struggles with mental illness. But I know his pain. I know what it’s like to despair of a medical regimen that will get you out of bed and help you, not to thrive,but merely make it through one more day. I know what it’s like to plan and carry out a suicide: and I thank God every day that I wasn’t very good at it.
That’s where our stories diverge. Tragically, his ended in suicide. Through God’s grace, mine led to the psychiatrist who pointed me toward electroshock therapy. It was pretty much a last resort. And it worked. With only a few unpleasant residual effects, ECT was like hitting the DVR reset button and finding 400 hours of pirated movies that weren’t erased after all.
My Thursday was free until Jerry popped in on Facebook, so when least expected I’ve added two must-check-offs on my calendar. I’ll be at the Kenyon Book Store tomorrow in search of Infinite Jest. And I’ll be picking the brain of my friend Tadd at our weekly Romeo (Really Old Men Eating Out) gathering. He’s an English Lit wiz, and although Dickens is his specialty I’m betting he knows a lot more about David Foster Wallace than Wikipedia can tell me. I want to read Wallace’s stuff and try to know him better.
Meanwhile, if you or someone you love is melancholy, cut the Jane Austin crap and seek help. There is assistance available. You are more than damaged goods and you don’t have to suffer in silence or alone or for eternity.