Letter 32: Brief Interviews – “The Depressed Person”

Dear Dave,

You end “The Depressed Person” with two questions asked by the Depressed Person of the most trusted friend in her Support System.  She asks – she must know – what this close, trusted friend thinks of her; a bluntly honest assessment of her character.  Does she (i.e. the trusted member of the Support System) think that she (i.e. the Depressed Person) is a worthwhile human being, someone deserving of the long telephone calls late at night?  Or is she (i.e. the Depressed Person) merely a drain and a drag on all those around her?

Those questions are never answered, almost as if you (i.e. David Foster Wallace, the author of the story) are asking us (i.e. the readers of “The Depressed Person”) those very same questions.  After reading thirty-two pages describing the indescribable pain and suffering of the Depressed Person, how do we (i.e. the readers) truly feel about her (i.e. the Depressed Person)?

To be honest, my own feelings about this character (i.e. the Depressed Person) are rather ambivalent ones.  The first several pages of description felt so cold and almost clinical.  She (i.e. the Depressed Person) is never named.  The adjectives describing her (i.e. the Depressed Person) are very neutral, eliciting no real emotional response, neither positive nor negative in their connotations.  The story read almost like a case study or a therapist’s notes on the subject.  Such cold, emotionless descriptions conjured sympathy for the Depressed Person.  Who wouldn’t feel sorry for a young girl forced into the middle of her parents’ petty squabbles over things like who was to pay for her orthodontic care?

But as those first several pages went on to become thirty-two pages,[1] I (i.e. the reader) found myself burdened and overwhelmed by the depth of her emotional suffering, as I’m sure her therapist and members of her Support System did as well.[2] As I am sure members of the Support System must have felt every time their phone rang late at night, I too wanted to avoid reading on because of the emotional drain her (i.e. the Depressed Person’s) account put on me (i.e. the reader).  But alas, motivated by my stick-to-it-iveness and my dedication to this blog project (i.e. Letters to DFW), I (i.e. the reader) finished the story.

There are two things that stood out as I (i.e. the reader) read the story, the first being the role and influence of the therapist in the Depressed Person’s life.  What is meant to be nonjudgmental support and unconditional validation of the Depressed Person’s emotional needs appears more like harmful enablement.  The Depressed Person is never forced to confront her deep-seeded pain and resentment toward her parents[3] and therefore never deals with and moves on from her depression.  She (i.e. the Depressed Person) is left to wallow in her pain and suffering, becoming almost unbearable to herself and to members of her Support System.

But it is not this emotional enabling and coddling that caught my attention; it is the Depressed Person’s own admission that the therapist is the closest thing she (i.e. the Depressed Person) has to a true friend, and that she (i.e. the Depressed Person) agrees to pay her (i.e. the therapist) $90 an hour for the service of friendship.  I couldn’t help, after reading these paragraphs, but to make the connection between this paid service by the therapist and the paid services of other professionals who will, for what I am told is about the same hourly rate, pretend to be a friend or even a lover.[4] [5]

Aside from the whole therapist-prostitute connection brought about by reading this story, what else stood out to me were the opening sentences, which read:

The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.

Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain or expressing its utterness to those around her, the depressed person instead described circumstances, both past and ongoing, which were somehow related to the pain, to its etiology and cause, hoping at least to be able to express to others something of the pain’s context, its – as it were – shape and texture.

I’ve never truly been depressed,[6] but I have known a kind of pain and suffering on a plane similar to that of the Depressed Person.  I have suffered from migraines since my teenage years, and have for nearly a year now endured their pain on a much more frequent and intense basis, sometimes having two or three severe headaches in a week.  Though there is nothing physiologically or psychologically wrong with me – as far as the gamut of tests can tell – I am forced to endure sometimes excruciating pain; dizziness; nausea; sensitivity to light, sound, smells, and movement; and sometimes, while in the midst of an attack, a desire to die.   I have – for the most part – been able to manage the condition with a variety of medications, but it is a condition for which I am told there is no identifiable cause and no cure.  In other words, I’m just gonna have to live with it as best I can.

Now I realize that the symptoms, causes, and effects of migraine are drastically different from those of clinical depression.  However, what they do share is the unrelatability of the condition.  There is no way for those who suffer from migraine – or depression – to fully and accurately articulate to non-sufferers what they must endure on an often daily basis.  Equally impossible is for those who do not suffer from those conditions – or any other debilitating condition – to fully understand and appreciate what the sufferers go through.  You just don’t know – you can’t know – unless you’ve been there.[7] The sufferers will continue to wallow in the fact that no one understands what they go through, and the non-sufferers will continue to try to empathize.  But the gap between them will remain.

However, a beneficial byproduct of this gap of unrelatability is the way these conditions can bring together fellow sufferers into a sympathetic sense of community.  When one sufferer finds another, there is an instant bond that transcends age, gender, race, and socioeconomics.  There is a sense of “you know what it’s like.  You know what I’ve been through.”  And, like the Depressed Person, that is all we’re looking for, but have so much trouble finding: knowledge that someone else gets it.

[1] Including footnoted asides that sometimes went on for several pages.[back]

[2] About two-thirds of the way through the story – which by the way was about the longest thirty-two pages I think I’ve ever read – I began having flashbacks to Bill Murray’s character in What about Bob? I began to empathize even more with Richard Dreyfuss’s character as Bob’s therapist who is driven into a catatonic state by Bob’s neediness and obsession with his problems.[back]

[3] However, the therapist does encourage her (i.e. the Depressed Person) to attend an Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreat Weekend, during which time she (i.e. the Depressed Person) achieves “an important emotional breakthrough.  But unable to fully cope with the emotions that were broken through, she leaves the Retreat early and ends up suffering more of a set-back from the experience than anything.[back]

[4] Just to make it clear, I do not know this from personal experience.  I finished reading SuperFreakonomics last week, in which the authors go into great detail in the opening chapter about the services and price ranges of these professionals.[back]

[5] I am also very glad that I did not read this story before having ever gone through therapy myself (I have done a few short-term rounds with a professional counselor to help with stress management).  While I have great respect for the profession and even have a close friend in that profession, making that connection while reading this story will forever taint them – ever so slightly – in my opinion.[back]

[6] There were a few instances in high school during which I went through what would now be called an “emo” phase; I felt sad and listened to sad music and made sad attempts at writing poetry.  But I’m sure I failed to meet the DSM-V’s criteria for true depression.  I have also had occasions of overwhelming stress and anxiety, but nothing that some counseling by either my pastor or a recommended psychologist couldn’t help alleviate after a few weeks.[back]

[7] This must be a similar experience for war veterans.  No matter how many books are written, – be they memoirs of soldiers or fictional accounts – or how many movies are made, we – the civilians they protect – will never truly comprehend what goes on in the war zone.[back]

Letter 30: Brief Interviews – Interview #14

Dear Dave,

I’ve only read the first “Brief Interviews” chapter and all I can say is “VICTORY FOR THE FORCES OF DEMOCRATIC FREEDOM!!”

It seems that each interviewee is more despicable and… hideous than the last, but the first is certainly the most memorable.  Most memorable because he is by far the most pathetic.  Others are more loathsome and… hideous, but interviewee #14 invokes such pity.

Number 14 begins by saying “it’s[1] cost [him] every sexual relationship [he has] ever had.”  Obviously such outbursts would probably scare any girl away, but even those who aren’t scared off by the outburst itself are shoved away by Number 14 out of embarrassment turned into anger.  Those who do stick around despite Number 14’s humiliation are seen by him as condescending or merely pretending to be understanding and are quickly shown the door.

It’s a shame that he can’t see these outbursts for what the really are: a subconscious self-sabotage of any chance he might have at genuine intimacy with another human being.[2] Why he shouts, “VICTORY FOR THE FORCES OF DEMOCRATIC FREEDOM” as opposed to something else is of little importance.  Similarly, the reactions of the women who hear it don’t matter much either.  The truly important thing is his reaction to it.  And not just the obvious embarrassment, but how he responds to the women’s reactions.  He puts the women into a lose-lose situation.  Either they are shocked and quickly leave on their own, or they respond sympathetically and he drives them away for their presumably fake sympathy.

He never allows these women to be close to him.[3] The reasons are unknown and probably don’t matter.  Number 14 has serious insecurity issues that manifest themselves through these outbursts in bed.  The ironic thing[4] is that his declaration of VICTORY is the outward expression of his defeat.  He has never “won” in the game of love; he has never known true intimacy beyond the physical, and probably never will.  And yet, he proclaims VICTORY every time he comes close.

[1] Shouting the above-mentioned “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” in the middle of intercourse.

[2] Less than twenty pages in and this can be called a “recurring” theme.  At twenty pages, most stories of similar length have barely finished introducing characters and are just moving on to the major conflict.  Here we already have a “recurring” theme.

[3] Sure there is physical closeness, but that in no way equates to genuine intimacy.

[4] Well, one ironic thing among many.  There is never just one ironic thing with your writing.

Letter 14: “Little Expressionless Animals”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a variety of lesson plans that are perfect for “those” days.[1]  Most of these lessons involve a creative writing assignment that takes up the whole class period, keeps the students engaged and entertained, but requires little or no effort on my part as the teacher.  One such lesson has a handout for students that contains four boxes, each of which contains a list of essential ingredients for a short story.  One box has a list of character types, another has different settings, and so on.  The students pick a number between one and ten, then find that numbered item in each box, and then write a story containing those four items.  The students always seem to enjoy it, and it gives me a break from the dog-and-pony show.[2]

Reading “Little Expressionless Animals” reminded me of this assignment.  It had to be either random chance or pure creative genius that came up with such an eclectic menagerie of characters and situations.[3]  How else do you explain two children abandoned along the side of a country road, a lesbian couple trying to find their true feelings and intentions toward each other, Alex Trebek free associating on his therapist’s couch, a spiteful woman taunting her husband’s ex-wife, and a reigning “Jeopardy!” champion being ousted by her autistic brother… all in the same thirty-page story?

And yet it all worked flawlessly.

What really drew me into the story, though, was Julie and Faye’s (the lesbians) relationship.  Throughout the story they seemed to be living in this strangely ironic illusion of intimacy.  The first time they are introduced as a couple,[4] they are making love in Faye’s window-walled penthouse apartment.  They are physically exposed to each other and to the world that is outside those glass walls.  Yet in the midst of this physical intimacy, they share very little of themselves.  Their conversation is limited to small talk about vague abstractions and generalities.

The next scene of them together finds them sitting on a nude beach in Los Angeles.  As they watch the surf, Julie explains the three phases of relationships: a transition from exchanging anecdotes to an expression of personal beliefs to a marriage of beliefs and actions.  Apparently, Julie and Faye are still in the “exchanging of anecdotes” phase after twenty months of being together.  Again, physically exposed to each other and to the world, they talk mostly in abstractions.  But Julie does share about her autistic brother and her dedication to taking care of him as they grew up.  Toward the end of the scene, they tell the other that they love each other for seemingly the first time. 

This scene, too, is riddled with irony.  Once again they are physically exposed, but neither is exposing much beyond her body.  Julie shares stories from her past, but they are just that – stories.  They say they love each other, but are still – according to Julie’s own standards – in the beginning phase of their relationship.  There seems to be no real intimacy beyond the physical.

As Julie’s fame begins to grow,[5] she can only venture out in public in disguise.  Her hair is already short, so men’s clothes and a fake mustache seem to be enough to hide her from fans.  In one particular scene, she and Faye go for a walk and have perhaps the most personal and intimate conversation of their relationship to that point.  Faye seems to be struggling with whether she is truly a lesbian or just strangely attracted to Julie. Grappling with her sexuality comes out in her asking Julie how to respond to questions of why she is attracted to women.  Faye is showing genuine fear and concern as she wrestles with this part of her life, seeming to be entering the second phase of a relationship.  Julie, instead of engaging in this soul-searching with her partner of many months, gives her some easy answers: ones that require little honesty and invite few questions.

Once again, the irony of the moment strikes me.  The couple is fully clothed – Julie is in disguise – and they are now finally having a truly personal conversation of real substance.[6]  But it seems to be only Faye who is actually revealing anything of herself in the conversation.  She is verbalizing her internal struggles and the external consequences of those struggles.  But Julie is deflecting her questions, and advising Faye to do the same when asked the questions she fears will come her way.  Perhaps this points to Julie’s own insecurities; Faye is attempting to take the relationship to a deeper, more intimate level, but Julie seems to be resisting at this point.

It is not until near the end that Julie catches up to Faye and is willing to reciprocate the vulnerability that Faye shows earlier in the story.  Right before Julie is to make her final appearance on “Jeopardy!” she tells Faye she has another story to tell people if they ask her why she is attracted to women.  Julie then tells the story of being abandoned as a child on a deserted country road by her mother and mother’s boyfriend.  Through this conversation, they venture together into that third phase of the relationship in which beliefs and actions are one.  They see each other for who they truly are.  Both are willing to be real, to be intimate.

As before, what takes place between these characters is ironically juxtaposed with their surroundings.  Julie is in the make-up room about to go onto the “Jeopardy!” set.  It is while fully clothed and made-up and in a very public setting that this couple shares their most intimate moment.

Julie and Faye’s story got me thinking about the ideas on intimacy and relationships.  The story begins by showing them being physically intimate with each other, yet very distant and impersonal.  As their relationship becomes intimate on deeper, more personal levels, they become physically separated by clothes and make-up and even disguises. 

This seems very backward to me.[7]  But it seems to be the status quo.  We seem very willing to be physically intimate with someone we hardly know,[8] yet we keep secrets from those who are closest to us.  Why is that?  Why do we willingly accept this illusion of intimacy, and yet keep those who want to know us on a truly personal level at arm’s length?

[1] “Those” days being the Friday before Christmas or Easter Vacation; or a day after the end of the unit, but there is only a day or two before the end of the quarter so there isn’t time to begin a whole new unit; or a day that I just don’t feel like teaching.

[2] And a chance to update my Facebook status.

[3] My money is on the pure creative genius.

[4] Julie – although unnamed at the time – is introduced in the opening paragraphs as one of the children who is abandoned with her brother by their mother and her boyfriend.

[5] She is the aforementioned reigning “Jeopardy!” champion who is eventually ousted by her autistic brother.  The ousting turns out to merely be an exploitative publicity stunt on the part of the producers.

[6] Why do they have to be clothed to have a real conversation?  Why do their physical intimacy and depth of conversations share an inverse relationship?

[7] But that could just be my conservative, traditional, Judeo-Christian upbringing.

[8] All it takes sometimes is some alcohol, a hot tub, and a reality show cameraman to get two people in the mood.