Loss of David Foster Wallace to Suicide
To get to know the funny, warm-hearted, thoughtful, complicated writer David Foster Wallace in the film “The End of the Tour” is to wonder, one too many times, how and why we lose these kind, sensitive, brilliant souls to suicide. Maybe it’s more than wondering. It’s the stunning loss of a man of talent, courage and uniqueness, a light to so many others – a loss so tragic because it’s by his own hand.
Even though Wallace died by suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 at the age of 46, the recently released film makes it current. Perhaps the sense of loss generated by this close-up view of Wallace in the final days of his book tour for his novel Infinite Jest is compounded by the lingering shadow of the suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams on Aug. 11, 2014.
The simple reason for these two suicides is depression, but that’s a complex subject that varies with the complicated life of each person who falls into this abyss of despair. Each one of these losses is equally important to family, friends and community, as well as an equal cut into the spiritual ties that bind the human family.
Chris Hewitt, in a review of the film in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, said, “..a complex performance that convincingly conveys Wallace’s charisma and sweetness, as well as the crushing weight of his depression. Ultimately, ‘End of the Tour’ feels like a sensitive portrait of a good man struggling to deal with depression and fame, as well as a tender depiction of what a towering talent and decent person that awful disease snuffed out.”
Depressed Since College
An article by D.T. Max in The New Yorker in 2009 delved into some details of Wallace’s depression, which was diagnosed when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. Wallace later studied at Harvard and at one point was treated at Mclean, the psychiatric facility in Belmont, Mass.
“In the late eighties, doctors had prescribed Nardil for Wallace’s depression. Nardil, an antidepressant developed in the late fifties, is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that is rarely given for long periods of time because of its side effects, which include low blood pressure and bloating. Nardil can also interact badly with many foods,” said Max.
The article points out an instance when Wallace became ill after eating at a Persian restaurant in 2007 and how the doctor thought Nardil might be responsible. Wallace also worried that the drug dampened his creativity and he stopped taking the antidepressant. Family members said he had been in a deep depression for months before he took his own life in 2008.
The New Yorker article discusses a piece by Wallace titled, “The Depressed Person,” a short story about an unhappy, narcissistic young woman. In that story, Wallace wrote, “Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT, during a two-week voluntary inpatient course of treatment at a regional mood disorders clinic, Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil, both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.”
The New Yorker article said, Wallace “… never published a word about his own mental illness.”
In the pieces written about Wallace and in the film, one consistent goal attributed to him is to look into American life, with its addictions to drugs and entertainment, and try to share with readers thoughts on how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life.
Good writing should help readers “become less alone inside,” said Wallace, who often mentions a sense of emptiness and aloneness in the film, which is taken from recorded conversations Wallace had with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky during the book tour.
It’s not necessary to be familiar with Wallace’s writing to get from the film a sense of the complexity and elusiveness of the depression that shadowed his brilliance and his passionate exploration of the meaning of life. The New Yorker titled its piece about Wallace “The Unfinished.”
Like too many others lost to depression and suicide, Wallace’s life was, to those left behind, an unfinished life.
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.
It affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. A person experiencing depression may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities and may sometimes feel as if life isn’t worth living. More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness and people can’t simply “snap out” of it.
Depression may require long-term treatment. Most people with depression feel better with medication, psychological counseling or both.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Ponsoldt, James, “The End of the Tour,” July 31, 2015
Max, D.T., “The Unfinished,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2009.
Hewitt, Chris, “Jason Segel Brings it Home in ‘The End of the Tour’,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 6, 2015.
Rose, Charlie, “Interview with David Foster Wallace,” Part 1 of 4, March 27, 1997.