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.

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