My closest encounter with the writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide last week, came when I was working as an assistant in a small literary agency. One of my jobs was to read the slush pile, the manuscripts sent in cold by hopeful writers looking for an an agent. One of the manuscripts that came across my desk was a draft of what later became Wallace's first published book, The Broom of the System. It was brilliant, entertaining, dazzling, and I wanted to take Wallace on as a client. My boss said no. "He'll never be a commercial writer," he said scornfully, and that was that.
He was wrong, of course, about that and many other things. Wallace went on to become not only critically acclaimed but to achieve some measure of commercial success. He was an original, one-of-a-kind, a writer of immense talent and heart. From the oustide, his life looked golden in every way.
He was also, we know now, severely depressed for much of his life. His struggle with depression came to an end last week when he committed suicide. And therein lies my point. It is impossible to know, from the outside, what anyone else's interior life is really like. That works both ways: The perfect-looking life may be a living hell, and the seemingly diminished life may be rich and full in ways outsiders can't imagine.
I bring this up not only because I'm mourning a writer of grace and heart; I bring it up in this blog because eating disorders, like depression, often present a golden exterior. The life of someone with an ED can look wonderful, perfect, fulfilling to an observer. Yet the person who struggles, every day, every minute, with anorexia or bulimia or ED-NOS, may be smiling through torment.
When I read about Wallace's death, I couldn't help thinking about how many people with anorexia wind up committing suicide as well. And I mourn them too--the lives that could have, should have gone a different way.
I mourn the misfire of chemicals in the brain that causes severe depression, anxiety, eating disorders. And I look forward to the day when we will know more and be able to help more.
In the meantime, go out and read one of Wallace's works, and remember this talented and tormented man.