How The 'Great God Of Depression' Made It OK To Talk About Mental Illness And Creativity

Aug 8, 2018

A new podcast called The Great God of Depression tells the story of a famous author, his eccentric neurologist, and the links between creativity and mental illness. 

Karen Brown is a longtime reporter for New England Public Radio who covers health and mental health. She teamed up with Pagan Kennedy, book author and writer for The New York Times on the five-episode series, released by PRX's Radiotopia on its Showcase series.

William Styron was the celebrated 20th-century author who wrote "Sophie's Choice." He also wrote a memoir, "Darkness Visible," that revolutionized the conversation around depression. The other character is his brilliant doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, Alice Flaherty.

Let's start with Pagan, who narrates the podcast. I understand you've been wanting to tell this story for a long time. Can you tell us how you encountered it?

Pagan Kennedy: Yeah, sure. I've been friends with Alice Flaherty, who's a remarkable brain scientist, for more than 10 years. Actually, before I met her in the late 1990s, she was grappling with this compulsive need to write.

This compulsion was just ruining her life, because basically she wrote when she should have been sleeping and doing everything else.

Alice Flaherty, a neurologist who wrote about her own pathological compulsion to write -- even on her own body.
Credit Courtesy Karen Brown

And after she recovered from that, Alice then went on to treat William Styron, who as you mentioned, was incredibly famous at that time. And he came to her because he was convinced that his writing hand had gone dead.

When Alice told me about this, I became fascinated with their doctor-patient relationship, and the fact that they seemed to have opposite problems. She couldn't stop writing, and then he was tortured by not being able to get the words out.

Karen, you were the co-producer on this podcast. Why did this feel like the right time for a story on clinical depression from more than a decade ago?

Karen Brown: First of all, it's really just a fascinating story, I think, on the relationship of two creative and closely sort of intertwined minds. Styron died in 2006, but Alice is still very much alive, and she's still an active, practicing doctor. And she worked very closely with us, sort of explaining in great detail what went into her decisions treating this very famous complicated man.

Also depression, sadly, is a pretty timeless topic. Even while we were working on the podcast, there were two very public suicides -- Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain -- which really, sadly, underscored the fact that untreated depression can be often a fatal disease, even among people who seem outwardly to have these wonderful lives. And that was very much the case with William Styron.

There's a historical piece to this story. As you explain the significance of William Styron's 1990 memoir, "Darkness Visible," in the podcast, you are quoting historian Andrew Solomon talking about the stigma of mental illness back then.

"No one was going to keep you in your job and nobody was going to let you come to their house and play with their children if you had a mental illness. There was a tendency to lump together all the mental illnesses, and those people were dangerous. They were crazy. They were prone to possibly hurting someone and they were pathetic."

Pagan, can you talk about what finally brought William Styron to the point of outing himself as mentally ill, and why that was so important?

Pagan Kennedy: In 1988, a few years after he recovered from depression, Styron got angry about the way people were talking about suicide as a decision, or an act of cowardice. So he wrote this groundbreaking piece for The New York Times in which he confessed that he had only recently emerged from the psych ward himself.

Styron was then one of the world's most famous authors. The movie "Sophie's Choice," which was based on his novel, had won an Oscar. So the fact that such a prominent person would out himself in The New York Times -- it kind of opened the floodgates for other people.

And he, himself, received piles and piles and piles of letters from grateful readers, who told him their stories, really heartbreaking stories. And that was what inspired him to go on and write "Darkness Visible."

That book really created a new genre: the mental illness memoir, which we feel like has existed forever, but it's really a new kind of book, and a new kind of story.

After he wrote his memoir, Styron thought he had beaten depression. We have another clip in which Styron answers a fan's question at a lecture.

"Do you worry about becoming depressed again?"

"I do worry. But it's not a worry that haunts me very much. One of the things that I think destroys people when they suffer clinical depression is the fact that it's the first time it's ever happened to them, and it's so cataclysmically ghastly that they're taken unawares. If it were to happen to me again, at least I would know what I'm facing, and that would be an advantage."

Karen, was he right?

Karen Brown: He wasn't right. Much of the story we tell centers around the depression relapse that Styron experienced in the early 2000s. And because he had been held up as this icon of recovery from depression, he felt all of this guilt at falling into this second depression, which is quite heartbreaking to think about.

But he and his wife Rose never gave up. And that included looking far and wide for a doctor who could help them, who could really understand Styron's creative mind, and who wouldn't be intimidated by the fact that he was a very famous author, and that he'd written a groundbreaking depression memoir.

And that doctor turned out to be Alice Flaherty, who we talked about earlier. Here's the moment where they meet each other, described by Alice.

"So my colleague, who was this senior neurologist who tended to wear a silk ascot -- he was that kind of person -- stopped me, and said, well, I'm going to send William Styron, you know, the writer. And I said, Yes, I know. And he said, well, he was at McLean, on the psych ward, and he's started saying that he couldn't write because his right hand was paralyzed. So we hope you'll figure that out. "

Alice was confused.

"Why would you send a famous author to some, like, very recent graduate?"

She figured the senior doctor didn't want to deal with this whiny artist, and his baffling complaint. And that's how she ended up with the great god of depression.

So what do you think was different about Alice Flaherty that allowed her to understand Styron in ways that so many other doctors didn't?

Pagan Kennedy: I think the really incredible thing about Alice is that she's experienced both sides of mental illness. She's been locked inside a locked ward, and she's held the keys to actually that very same locked ward.

She really can see herself as a patient, and that's why she collaborates with patients on their cases. She really involves them in their own care. And certainly, she had a really deeply collaborative relationship with Bill Styron. I mean, obviously, he was a creative genius.

She was fascinated by the ways that he brought that genius to being a patient. And in fact, has ever since, been trying to write this book about him -- Styron and the art of illness, how illness itself can be an art.

Paradoxically, she hasn't been able to finish that book, which is why it felt like this podcast was necessary.

Listen to The Great God of Depression at Radiotopia or at NEPR.net/podcast.