Nurture Matters: Inter-Household Conflict Mail

Imagine growing up in a family where your parents took turns reading Ulysses to each other while holding hands in bed, where the bookcase was the hero of the house, and where temper tantrums had to be channeled into written letters:

The family developed a sort of interoffice conflict mail. When his mother had something stern to say, she’d write in up in a letter. When David wanted something badly — raised allowance, more liberal bedtime — he’d slide a letter his under parents’ door.

So was the upbringing of David Foster Wallace, as recounted in what is the longest and most detailed account of his life that I’ve seen, in the October 30, 2008 Rolling Stone magazine. An excerpt is online but the full version is print only. The author, David Lipsky, draws upon a week’s worth of interviews he conducted with Wallace 10 years ago supplemented by more recent conversations with friends and family.

The piece traces the arc of his life and hits on what are emerging as dominant themes: his towering talent as a writer; his life-long struggle with clinical depression and occassional struggles with drugs and alcohol; his conflicting emotions around success and fame and feeling like he’s just “fooled” everyone; his intense devotion to his students. Well worth a read if you can get your hands on it.

One additional nugget: In an online interview with Lipsky about his reporting, he relays an interesting theory of Elizabeth Wurtzel:

She said that the flipside of depression is curiosity. I don’t know if she’s right, but I could see what she meant: I think depression is examination you can’t turn off: Once you start the examination you can’t stop it, and it kind of settles on you. But if you can somehow change the spigot you get incredible curiosity. Because if you’re examining things all the time, when you’re depressed, the hard thing is you’re examining yourself and your life and how many things can fail. The Nardil let him turn that outward. The one thing I think is reductive about that thought is I don’t think Wallace’s talent had anything to do with being medicated.

7 comments on “Nurture Matters: Inter-Household Conflict Mail
  • How terribly sad and also fascinating.

    Thinking can become a major problem if you don’t know how to manage your feelings, or if you think your feelings are all must figments of your thoughts. Anxiety, closely related to depression, is all about persistent self-attacking thought patterns.

    As a parent, I have to draw the obvious observation here that people who grow up without being loved actively by their parents (“of course I love you” doesn’t count) often fail to develop emotional self-management skills as adults, and no amount of brains or artistic genius is ever going to make up for that. You either figure out a way to get happy, or you don’t.

    Do people with more intelligent mental activity have more extreme mental experiences? Has anyone researched that?

  • A Dorothy Parker quotation springs to mind: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. ”

  • Love the Dorothy Parker quote!

    Coming of age, my father used to punish me by making me write. It began when I was only beginning to be able to make complete sentences and continued through my teenage years to include reading assignments coupled with essays.

    Instead of being grounded I was required to read a certain amount of pages from books that he approved and then write a certain amount of words about my readings and how they related to what I was being punished for. The intensity level was commiserate with the severity of the misdeed and the attained age and intellectual understanding at the time.

    The result was a growth in my own inner passion for writing and reading as an understanding of myself and pursuit of knowledge. As I am expecting my first child I think about these styles of parenting and hope to incorporate the best practices to provide for my little one.

    Great share Ben. At first read I though you were going to say this was your upbringing.

  • The most illuminating thought in the whole sequence was this quote from the author of that Rolling Stone hagiography of DFW, David Lipsky:

    “…if you’re examining things all the time, when you’re depressed, the hard thing is you’re examining yourself and your life…”

    These are the words of someone who has real insight into the nature of clinical depression.

    But unlike Lipsky, Wallace was a man who couldn’t turn off that interior self-examination and escape himself, even with Nardil– so he turned a mediation on the meaning of the events of 9/11 into a statement of his “vague but progressive feeling of alienation” from people.

    David Foster Wallace was a spiritually sick man desperately in need of ‘psychic repair’. He telegraphed his sickness in his writing, practically shouting it out:

    “Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to dislike — what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is so often a defense against pain.”

    His own words foreshadow the disintegration of his personality:

    “It takes almost all your concentration not to start giggling like a maniac at Murphy and the way the 12M all nod somberly at him and take whatever he says down in their absolutely identical steno notebooks.”

    Ironically, though, these very words remind one of the adulation showered on Wallace by the deluded.

    I would suggest that the premature end of this poor fellow’s philosophical inquiry should be taken as a warning to the wise.

    After all, we wouldn’t want the sincere student of life to forget one truth that Wallace understood very well, and become “just some weird soulless golem or nexus of interests dressed up in a suit.”

  • Wonderful post however , I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Kudos! Injustice Hack

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