“Tell Me a Story About How Things Will Get Better”

Davidfosterwallace0919_3 It’s been almost a month since noted writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Here is the reflection I wrote the night I learned of his death and another post I did with links to remembrances and my analysis of his Kenyon College speech. My delicious page has a full listing of links.

A few days ago Pomona College hosted a memorial service for Wallace. Jonathan Franzen, himself one of the great American writers working today and a close friend of Wallace, relayed a tragic dialogue. LA Times reports:

"Tell me a story about how things will get better," David Foster Wallace asked his friend Jonathan Franzen last summer. It was a particularly dark summer for Wallace, mired in a depression that ended, on Sept. 12, in suicide….

"He was in a terrible and dangerous place as a man and a writer," Franzen told the writer’s friends and family, colleagues and students. "I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him. He said, ‘Tell me another one.’ "

A month’s time has turned raw sadness into more varied emotions. I’m wondering whether, as one friend put it to me, a brilliant mind knows that suicide is actually a rational option under certain circumstances. I’m wondering why his anti-depressants stopped working and about the pharmaceutical role in dealing with depression more generally. I’m wondering whether the death of a hero of sorts (I don’t have many) has contributed to my own periodic light funks — I have always had a high set point of happiness but the past few months have also included occasional dips that come and go but regardless are new for me.

Most of all, I have a big regret. The one class of his that I attended ended almost an hour early. A few students milled around to chat with him; most of us left. I left, thinking I’d have opportunities to chat with him more in the future one-on-one. Of course, that future is gone and I should have seized the opportunity when it was in front of me.


I’m reading McCain’s Promise — the expanded version of the DFW essay on McCain from 2000 that appeared in Rolling Stone and Consider the Lobster. Will report more once I finish. It’s obviously a pretty timely read.

8 comments on ““Tell Me a Story About How Things Will Get Better”
  • interesting how you start with DFW, yet always end up discussing yourself… a tad selfish in your grief perhaps?

  • Hey, man. Wanted to say that it sucks. I’ve lost people that I’ve cared about over the years and it’s never easy. Especially when you have regrets about your relationship and unanswered questions about their death.

    I know you don’t know me, but if you ever need someone to talk to whose also experienced loss, I’ll be glad to listen. (Sometimes it is easier to talk to strangers.) (Though, I hope that doesn’t come across as too creepy.)


  • Depression is far more prevalent than any of us know — or perhaps even want to admit. Whether one overcomes it on their own or with the aid of pharmaceutical drugs depends on the severity.

    We all know that certain things — a healthy diet, regular exercise, etc. — can help individuals steer clear of such afflictions.

    However, it seems that DFW’s plight might have run deeper. Perhaps it was genetic; maybe he ignored the symptoms for too long.

    That being said, for those of us left behind, talking can and will make the grief process go by easier — if only a little bit.

    However (and I honestly don’t mean to dishonor his memory in any way whatsoever) DFW appears to have been ill for quite some time. As such, putting so high on a pedestal of brilliance/excellence/etc. might not have been the wisest choice.

    I don’t care how rich or brilliant you are — if you’re mentally ill it’s all useless. Respecting his work is one thing, but thinking he’s such an infallible individual as not to suffer and break like the rest of us was a bit naive.

  • Jason, I certainly didn’t suggest that he was an infallible individual. I agree — depression can be genetic / biological and if you have it, it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are in the mind.

  • Ben,

    To quote you – “I’m wondering whether, as one friend put it to me, a [brilliant] mind knows that suicide [IS] actually a rational option under certain circumstances.”

    We all have our share of miseries in relative degrees of intensity. I’ve been through nasty phases in life that you can’t possibly imagine, been in seemingly irredeemable situations. But even in those “deep-in-the-mire” moments, the not so brilliant mind of mine had always been telling me to see it through and I have. So I guess, the brilliant mind should be able to do it only better and should throw several options more, suicide never being the one.

    Never give in to momentary frailties. Take time to digest and always, always reconsider options. Because, there are.

  • Indeed, ignoring the symptoms of a depression makes it run deeper, and it leads to a point where you can’t see your different options anymore.
    I think there’s no surprise in people comitting suicide despite the intake of anti-depressants. They may make you feel better for a moment but the result is a high probability to become addict.
    In my view, the best way to cure a depression is to see a psychiatrist regurlarly over a relatively long period ; and in this case, anti-depressant could be benefic in the sens that in making you feel better they could allow you to see different options for a moment and your psychiatrist could help you keeping this “better” mood, without creating an addiction.
    A psychiatrist is essential to cure a depression, while anti-depressants aren’t.

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