Why David Foster Wallace Killed Himself
We knew roughly that David Foster Wallace's lifelong struggle with depression pushed him to take his own life at 46 last month, but the details haven't been put together as comprehensively as they are in David Lipsky's feature in the Nov. 30th issue of Rolling Stone. Yes, Wallace hung himself in a dark room while his wife left the house for a few hours, but as Lipsky tells us, he was already dead.Excerpts detailing Wallace's difficult time fitting in at Amherst were already released, but the longer print version reveals that Wallace had a similar reaction to pretty much everything that happened in his life. His instructors at The University of Arizona MFA program didn't help:
He wanted to write the way he wanted to write — funny and overstuffed and nonlinear and strange. The teachers were all "hardass realists." That was the first problem. Problem two was Wallace. "I think I was kind of a prick," he said. "I was just unteachable. I had that look - 'If there were any justice, I'd be teaching this class' - that makes you want to slap a student." One of these stories, "Here and There," went on to win a 1989 O. Henry Prize after it was published in a literary magazine. When he turned it in to his professor, he received a chilly noise back: "I hope this isn't representative of the work you're hoping to do for us. We'd hate to lose you."
When Wallace sent out The Broome of the System to agents, he got back notes that included the line "Best of luck in your janitorial career." When success finally did come, same old Wallace:
He worked at a health club in Auburndale, Massachusetts. "Very chichi," he said. "They called me something other than a towel boy, but I was in effect a towel boy. I'm sitting there, and who should walk up but Michael Ryan. Now, Michael Ryan had received a Whiting Writer's Award the same year I had. So I see this guy that I'd been up on the fucking rostrum with, having Eudora Welty give us this prize."
This is all to show how deeply Wallace's depression entered every part of him. A bad reaction to his longtime anti-depressive of choice, Nardil, caused him to go off the drug during the summer of 2007, but that would be the beginning of the end:
That summer, David began to phase out the Nardil. His doctors began prescribing other medications, none of which seemed to help. "They could find nothing," his mother says softly. "Nothing." In September, David asked [sister] Amy to forgo her annual fall-break visit. He wasn't up to it. By October, his symptoms had become bad enough to send him to the hospital. His parents didn't know what to do. "I started worrying about that," Sally says, "but then it seemed OK." He began to drop weight. By that fall, he looked like a college kid again: longish hair, eyes intense, as if he had just stepped out of an Amherst classroom.
Twelve bouts of electroshock therapy and an aborted return to the Nardil later, Wallace couldn't find his own level:
"He was just desperate," his mother says. "He was afraid it wasn't ever going to work. He was suffering. We just kept holding him, saying if he could just hang on, it would straighten. He was very brave for a very long time." Wallace and his parents would get up at six in the morning and walk the dogs. They watched DVDs of The Wire, talked. Sally cooked David's favorite dishes, heavy comfort foods - pot pies, casseroles, strawberries in cream. "We kept telling him we were so glad he was alive," his mother recalls. "But my feeling is, even then, he was leaving the planet. He just couldn't take it." One afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor besides him: "I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor."
Wallace's belated funeral happened this past Thursday, and media coverage tended to focus on what a shock and surprise his death was to the literary community. To some, it wasn't a shock at all. The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace [Rolling Stone]