“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”

September 14, 2008 at 3:37 pm 7 comments

What do you say when your hero dies? When it’s at his own hand? I feel like he took all the important words with him, because I can’t find them. I’m devastated. 


It is no exaggeration to say that David Foster Wallace is the reason why I call myself a writer, even though the writer I’ve become is nowhere close to the writer he was. All I can really say to explain it is that Infinite Jest flipped a switch in my brain. It made me view writing in a completely different way. It wasn’t without its flaws, of course, but it was nonetheless powerful, towering, monumental. Reading it was like… discovery.

I keep writing sentences and deleting them, because they’re all wrong.  It’s all very, very wrong.


I can’t say I’m surprised. DFW wrote too intimately about depression and with too much insight for me to delude myself into believing it wasn’t a beast he struggled with, perhaps all his life, as so many writers do. His commencement speech at Kenyon College made that clear:

“It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” 


It is hard. Sometimes painfully, unimaginably hard, to slog through, even without a mood disorder. I have felt in a certain period in my life like I was at the bottom of a well, so far down I could barely see the way out. I understand how it could seem like death is the only way out of it—even though I know now how untrue that is. At my darkest, lowest moment, I was lucky. Somehow, I was able to live for the people who cared about me, though I didn’t understand why they cared, as despicable and unlovable as I felt I was. So I guess I understand, to some degree, the helplessness one feels when they are so low, they are certain happiness isn’t an option, only relief — at the end of a rope, the bottom of a bottle, or the butt of a rifle. I also recognize that perhaps the only reason I survived is because I hadn’t *really* been at the bottom, the true nadir. That perhaps there’s a place lower and darker than where I was, darker than I can imagine. I know, before I reached the point I once did, I couldn’t imagine that kind of hell.


Maybe killing oneself is cowardice and douchebaggery, as so many people are saying. Maybe. Or maybe the state one has to be in to take one’s own life is such unimaginable, seemingly inescapable hell that even the bravest person would fight his own human instincts—by which I mean, above all other instincts, the determination to survive—in order to escape it. I can’t pretend to fully understand it, but I also can’t be satisfied with dismissing it outright as pure cowardice. Acute, suicidal depression is a form of madness, to paraphrase William Styron. To reach a state wherein the mental pain becomes physical torment, and wherein your brain begins to warp and reshape reality, convincing you you’re better off dead and that everyone will be better for it, too, is insanity.


I wish someone, something, had been able to pull him out before it came to this. I wish someone had seen it coming. And yet I know how often the signs along the way are only visible when you get to the X that marks the spot. 


I’m just sad. And yet, I am determined to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out, remaining hopeful that it never becomes too hard, because as hard as it sometimes is, it’s often so wonderful.


Godspeed, D.


[Edited to add this passage from Infinite Jest:]


The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.


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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. scott  |  September 15, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I won’t even begin to say I understand where you (or DFW) have been, but as a fellow sufferer I can sympathize with the pain. Nicely put. Hang in there, it’s all we have.

  • 2. Keryn  |  September 16, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Hi. I read your post on MamaPop and wanted to comment more privately than MamaPop seems to me. Just wanted to say thank you for posting that part about the person jumping out of a window because they’re afraid of the flames. I’ve never even heard of this writer, but my little sister committed suicide two years ago, and this analogy really spoke to me. I mean, it helped me to understand a little bit better what she was going through when she made that decision. I’ve known all along it was a crazy, irrational, spur-of-the-moment decision, but reading that from David Foster Wallace gave me new perspective on it. Especially this: “It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.” Thank you.

  • 3. Black Hockey Jesus  |  September 16, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Ditto. Came from MamaPop looking for an email address.

    Hi. I’m Black Hockey Jesus. Nice to meet you.

    So the next person you hear getting all uppity and calling a suicide cowardly – I think you might need to smack them in the fucking mouth.

    Most people can’t make it 4 hours without stuffing their pathetic mouths full of carbs, let alone tying off and hanging themselves. Coward my ass.

    Just you mentioning that people are calling DFW a coward made me erupt into dry heaves.

    It’s absurd. The way morons will flap their gums with no clue in sight.

  • 4. Keisha  |  July 4, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    it has been a while since he left but i still cant believe it. to me his words are still alive. what is important is that he said them and we listened. someone who made me feel so true and gave me truth, was the last person i expected to feel the need to relieve himself of this world. a great hero indeed. but ill alway wonder…why?

  • 5. zzz  |  August 10, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    thank you

  • 6. Susan  |  November 12, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this. It’s been four years and I still miss him terribly. He was the best.

  • 7. Susan  |  March 4, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Still miss him. Thanks again.


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