The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace

From Rolling Stone’s The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace:

David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. “I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today,” he once said, “of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it.” He wanted to write “stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.” Readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness.

His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California’s Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month, hanged himself at age 46.

 

No one saw or treated him as a genius, but at age 14, when he asked what his father did, Jim sat David down and walked him through a Socratic dialogue. “I was astonished by how sophisticated his understanding was,” Jim says. “At that point, I figured out that he really, really was extraordinarily bright.”

 

It was around this time that the Wallaces noticed something strange about David. He would voice surprising requests, like wanting to paint his bedroom black. He was constantly angry at his sister. When he was 16, he refused to go to her birthday party. “Why would I want to celebrate her birthday?” he told his parents.

“David began to have anxiety attacks in high school,” his father recalls. “I noticed the symptoms, but I was just so unsophisticated about these matters. The depression seemed to take the form of an evil spirit that just haunted David.” Sally came to call it the “black hole with teeth.” David withdrew. “He spent a lot of time throwing up junior year,” his sister remembers. One wall of his bedroom was lined with cork, for magazine photos of tennis stars. David pinned an article about Kafka to the wall, with the headline THE DISEASE WAS LIFE ITSELF.

“I hated seeing those words,” his sister tells me, and starts to cry. “They seemed to sum up his existence. We couldn’t understand why he was acting the way he was, and so of course my parents were exasperated, lovingly exasperated.”

David graduated high school with perfect grades. Whatever his personal hurricane was, it had scattered trees and moved on. He decided to go to Amherst, which is where his father had gone, too.

 

Wallace was also amazingly fast and good company, even just on a walk across campus. “I’d always wanted to be an impressionist,” Wallace said, “but I just didn’t have an agile enough vocal and facial register to do it.” Crossing a green, it was The Dave Show. He would recount how people walked, talked, held their heads, pictured their lives. “Just very connected to people,” Costello recalls. “Dave had this ability to be inside someone else’s skin.”

One afternoon, April of sophomore year […David] was pulling out of college. Costello drove him to the airport. “He wasn’t able to talk about it,” Costello recalls. “He was crying, he was mortified. Panicky. He couldn’t control his thoughts. It was mental incontinence, the equivalent of wetting his pants.”

“I wasn’t very happy there,” Wallace told me later. “I felt kind of inadequate. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to read that wasn’t part of any class. And Mom and Dad were just totally cool.”

Wallace went home to hospitalization, explanations to his parents, a job. For a while, he drove a school bus. “Here he was, a guy who was really shaky, kind of Holden Caulfield, driving a school bus through lightning storms,” Costello recalls. “He wrote me a letter all outraged, about the poor screening procedures for school-bus drivers in central Illinois.”

Wallace would visit his dad’s philosophy classes. “The classes would turn into a dialogue between David and me,” his father remembers. “The students would just sit looking around, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Wallace devoured novels — “pretty much everything I’ve read was read during that year.” He also told his parents how he’d felt at school. “He would talk about just being very sad, and lonely,” Sally says. “It didn’t have anything to do with being loved. He just was very lonely inside himself.”

 

Having his life fall apart narrowed his sense of what his options were — and the possibilities that were left became more real to him. In a letter to Costello, he wrote, “I want to write books that people will read 100 years from now.”

 

Wallace published stories in the Amherst literary magazine. One was about depression and a tricyclic anti-anxiety medication he had been on for two months. The medication “made me feel like I was stoned and in hell,” he told me. The story dealt with the in-hell parts:

You are the sickness yourself…. You realize all this…when you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face. That’s when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they’re “severely depressed;” we say, “Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!” That’s wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts…. When they “commit suicide,” they’re just being orderly.

 

[The University of] Arizona [where he was doing an MFA] was a strange experience: the first classrooms where people weren’t happy to see him. He wanted to write the way he wanted to write — funny and overstuffed and nonlinear and strange. The teachers were all “hardass realists.” That was the first problem. Problem two was Wallace. “I think I was kind of a prick,” he said. “I was just unteachable. I had that look — ‘If there were any justice, I’d be teaching this class’ — that makes you want to slap a student.” One of his stories, “Here and There,” went on to win a 1989 O. Henry Prize after it was published in a literary magazine. When he turned it in to his professor, he received a chilly note back: “I hope this isn’t representative of the work you’re hoping to do for us. We’d hate to lose you.”

 

The Broom of the System was published in January of 1987, Wallace’s second and last year at Arizona. The title referred to something his mother’s grandmother used to say, as in, “Here, Sally, have an apple, it’s the broom of the system.” “I wasn’t aware David had picked up on that,” his mother says. “I was thrilled that a family expression became the title of his book.”

The novel hit. “Everything you could hope for,” Howard says. “Critics praised it, it sold quite well, and David was off to the races.”

 

Howard bought Wallace’s second book, Girl With Curious Hair, a collection of the stories he was finishing up at Arizona. But something in Wallace worried him. “I have never encountered a mind like David’s,” he says. “It functioned at such an amazingly high level, he clearly lived in a hyperalert state. But on the other hand, I felt that David’s emotional life lagged far behind his mental life. And I think he could get lost in the gap between the two.”

 

He accepted a one-year slot teaching philosophy at Amherst, which was strange: Sophomores he had known were now his students. In the acknowledgments for the book he was completing, he thanks “The Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children.”

He was balled up, tied up. “I started hating everything I did,” he said. “Worse than stuff I’d done in college. Hopelessly confused, unbelievably bad. I was really in a panic, I didn’t think I was going to be able to write anymore. And I got this idea: I’d flourished in an academic environment — my first two books had sort of been written under professors.” He applied to graduate programs in philosophy, thinking he could write fiction in his spare time. Harvard offered a full scholarship.

 

Not writing was the kind of symptom that presents a problem of its own. “He could get himself into places where he was pretty helpless,” Costello says. “Basically it was the same symptoms all along: this incredible sense of inadequacy, panic. He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re a fraud.’ “

 

Various delays were holding up the publication of his short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair. He started to feel spooked. “I’m this genius writer,” he remembered. “Everything I do’s gotta be ingenious, blah, blah, blah, blah.” The five-year clock was ticking again. He’d played football for five years. Then he’d played high-level tennis for five years. Now he’d been writing for five years. “What I saw was, ‘Jesus, it’s the same thing all over again.’ I’d started late, showed tremendous promise — and the minute I felt the implications of that promise, it caved in. Because see, by this time, my ego’s all invested in the writing. It’s the only thing I’ve gotten food pellets from the universe for. So I feel trapped: ‘Uh-oh, my five years is up, I’ve gotta move on.’ But I didn’t want to move on.”

Costello watched while Wallace slipped into a depressive crisis. “He was hanging out with women who were pretty heavily into drugs — that was kind of alluring to Dave — skanking around Somerville, drinking himself blotto.”

It was the worst period Wallace had ever gone through. “It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis,” he said. “It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false. And there was nothing, and you were nothing — it was all a delusion. But you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.”

By November, the anxieties had become locked and fixed. “I got really worried I was going to kill myself. And I knew, that if anybody was fated to fuck up a suicide attempt, it was me.” He walked across campus to Health Services and told a psychiatrist, “Look, there’s this issue. I don’t feel real safe.”

“It was a big deal for me, because I was so embarrassed,” Wallace said. “But it was the first time I ever treated myself like I was worth something.”

By making his announcement, Wallace had activated a protocol: Police were notified, he had to withdraw from school. He was sent to McLean, which, as psychiatric hospitals go, is pedigreed: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton all put in residences there; it’s the setting for the memoir Girl, Interrupted. Wallace spent his first day on suicide watch. Locked ward, pink room, no furniture, drain in the floor, observation slot in the door. “When that happens to you,” David said, smiling, “you get unprecedentedly willing to examine other alternatives for how to live.”

Wallace spent eight days in McLean. He was diagnosed as a clinical depressive and was prescribed a drug, called Nardil, developed in the 1950s. He would have to take it from then on. “We had a brief, maybe three-minute audience with the psychopharmacologist,” his mother says. Wallace would have to quit drinking, and there was a long list of foods — certain cheeses, pickles, cured meats — he would have to stay away from.

He started to clean up. He found a way to get sober, worked very hard at it, and wouldn’t drink for the rest of his life. Girl With Curious Hair finally appeared in 1989. Wallace gave a reading in Cambridge; 13 people showed up, including a schizophrenic woman who shrieked all the way through his performance. “The book’s coming out seemed like a kind of shrill, jagged laugh from the universe, this thing sort of lingering behind me like a really nasty fart.”

What followed was a phased, deliberate return to the world. He worked as a security guard, morning shift, at Lotus Software. Polyester uniform, service baton, walking the corridors. “I liked it because I didn’t have to think,” he said. “Then I quit for the incredibly brave reason that I got tired of getting up so early in the morning.”

Next, he worked at a health club in Auburndale, Massachusetts. “Very chichi,” he said. “They called me something other than a towel boy, but I was in effect a towel boy. I’m sitting there, and who should walk in to get their towel but Michael Ryan. Now, Michael Ryan had received a Whiting Writers’ Award the same year I had. So I see this guy that I’d been up on the fucking rostrum with, having Eudora Welty give us this prize. It’s two years later — it’s the only time I’ve literally dived under something. He came in, and I pretended not very subtly to slip, and lay facedown, and didn’t respond. I left that day, and I didn’t go back.”

He wrote Bonnie Nadell a letter; he was done with writing. That wasn’t exactly her first concern. “I was worried he wasn’t going to survive,” she says. He filled in Howard, too. “I contemplated the circumstance that the best young writer in America was handing out towels in a health club,” Howard says. “How fucking sad.”

 

He and [Jonathan] Franzen talked a lot about what writing should be for. “We had this feeling that fiction ought to be good for something,” Franzen says. “Basically, we decided it was to combat loneliness.” They would talk about lots of Wallace’s ideas, which could abruptly sharpen into self-criticism. “I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation,” Franzen says, “his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn’t just being funny — there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, ‘Wow, he’s even more self-conscious than I am.’ “

 

Wallace worked longhand, pages piling up. “You look at the clock and seven hours have passed and your hand is cramped,” Wallace said. […]

In the summer of 1993, he took an academic job 50 miles from his parents, at Illinois State University at Normal. The book[Infinite Jest] was three-quarters done. Based on the first unruly stack of pages, Nadell had been able to sell it to Little, Brown. He had put his whole life into it — tennis, and depression, and stoner afternoons, and the precipice of rehab, and all the hours spent with Amy watching TV.

 

It can take a year to edit a book, re-edit it, print it, publicize it, ship it, the writer all the time checking his watch. In the meantime, Wallace turned to nonfiction. Two pieces, published in Harper’s, would become some of the most famous pieces of journalism of the past decade and a half.

Colin Harrison, Wallace’s editor at Harper’s, had the idea to outfit him with a notebook and push him into perfectly American places — the Illinois State Fair, a Caribbean cruise. It would soak up the side of Wallace that was always on, always measuring himself. “There would be Dave the mimic, Dave the people-watcher,” Costello says. “Asking him to actually report could get stressful and weird and complicated. Colin had this stroke of genius about what to do with David. It was a much simpler solution than anyone ever thought.”

In the pieces, Wallace invented a style writers have plundered for a decade. The unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making choices and cuts. The voice was humane, a big, kind brain tripping over its own lumps. “The Harper’s pieces were me peeling back my skull,” Wallace said. “You know, welcome to my mind for 20 pages, see through my eyes, here’s pretty much all the French curls and crazy circles. The trick was to have it be honest but also interesting — because most of our thoughts aren’t all that interesting. To be honest with a motive.” He laughed. “There’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”

The cruise-ship piece ran in January 1996, a month before David’s novel was published. People photocopied it, faxed it to each other, read it over the phone. When people tell you they’re fans of David Foster Wallace, what they’re often telling you is that they’ve read the cruise-ship piece; Wallace would make it the title essay in his first collection of journalism, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In a way, the difference between the fiction and the nonfiction reads as the difference between Wallace’s social self and his private self. The essays were endlessly charming, they were the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style. Wallace’s fiction, especially after Infinite Jest, would turn chilly, dark, abstract. You could imagine the author of the fiction sinking into a depression. The nonfiction writer was an impervious sun.

 

He was astonishingly good, quick company, making you feel both wide awake and as if your shoes had been tied together. He’d say things like, “There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.” He talked about a kind of shyness that turned social life impossibly complicated. “I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried about whether you like me.”

He said one interviewer had devoted tons of energy to the genius question. “That was his whole thing, ‘Are you normal?’ ‘Are you normal?’ I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.”

 

His romantic anxieties were full-spectrum, every bit of the mechanics individually examined. He told me a joke:

What does a writer say after sex?

Was it as good for me as it was for you?

“There is, in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is gonna be,” he said. “It’s a very precious asset that really needs to be turned off sometimes. My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely.”

 

Wallace and [Elizabeth] Wurtzel didn’t really talk about the personal experience they had in common — depression, a substance history, consultations at McLean — but about their profession, about what to do with fame. Wallace, again, had set impossible standards for himself. “It really disturbed him, the possibility that success could taint you,” she recalls. “He was very interested in purity, in the idea of authenticity — the way some people are into the idea of being cool. He had keeping it real down to a science.”

When Wallace wrote her, he was still curling through the same topic. “I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am — so where does that put me?”

 

Success can be as difficult to recover from as failure. “You know the tic big-league pitchers have,” his mother says, “when they know that they’ve pitched a marvelous game — but gee, can they do it again, so they keep flexing that arm? There was some of that. Where he said, ‘OK. Good, that came out well. But can I do it again?’ That was the feeling I got. There was always the shadow waiting.”

Wallace saw it that way too. “My big worry,” he said, “is that this will just up my expectations for myself. And expectations are a very fine line. Up to a certain point they can be motivating, can be kind of a flamethrower held to your ass. Past that point they’re toxic and paralyzing. I’m scared that I’ll fuck up and plunge into a compressed version of what I went through before.”

Mark Costello was also worried. “Work got very hard. He didn’t get these gifts from God anymore, he didn’t get these six-week periods where he got exactly the 120 pages he needed. So he found distraction in other places.” He would get engaged, then unengaged. He would call friends: “Next weekend, Saturday, you gotta be in Rochester, Minnesota, I’m getting married.” But then it would be Sunday, or the next week, and he’d have called it off.

“He almost got married a few times,” Amy says. “I think what ultimately happened is he was doing it more for the other person than himself. And he realized that wasn’t doing the other person any favors.”

Wallace told Costello about a woman he had become involved with. “He said, ‘She gets mad at me because I never want to leave the house.’ ‘Honey, let’s go to the mall.’ ‘No, I want to write.’ ‘But you never do write.’ ‘But I don’t know if I’m going to write. So I have to be here in case it happens.’ This went on for years.”

 

In 2000, Wallace wrote a letter to his friend Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone contributor: “I know about still having trouble with relationships. (Boy oh boy, do I.) But coming to enjoy my own company more and more — most of the time. I know about some darkness every day (and some days, it’s all dark for me).” He wrote about meeting a woman, having things move too easily, deciding against it. “I think whatever the pull is for me is largely composed of wanting the Big Yes, of wanting someone else to want you (Cheap Trick lives). . . . So now I don’t know what to do. Probably nothing, which seems to be the Sign that the universe or its CEO is sending me.”

 

After he reported on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign for [Rolling Stone] magazine, he wrote his agent that it would show his editor that “I’m still capable of good work (my own insecurities, I know).”

Wallace had received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1997. “I don’t think it did him any favors,” says Franzen. “It conferred the mantle of ‘genius’ on him, which he had of course craved and sought and thought was his due. But I think he felt, ‘Now I have to be even smarter.’ ” In late 2001, Costello called Wallace. “He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, ‘Dave, you’re a genius.’ Meaning, people aren’t going to forget about you. You’re not going to wind up in a Wendy’s. He said, ‘All that makes me think is that I’ve fooled you, too.'”

Wallace met Karen Green a few months after moving to Claremont. Green, a painter, admired David’s work. It was a sort of artistic exchange, an inter-disciplinary blind date. “She wanted to do some paintings based on some of David’s stories,” his mother says. “They had a mutual friend, and she thought she would ask permission.”

“He was totally gaga,” Wright recalls. “He called, head over heels, he was talking about her as a life-changing event.” Franzen met Green the following year. “I felt in about three minutes that he’d finally found somebody who was up to the task of living with Dave. She’s beautiful, incredibly strong, and a real grown-up — she had a center that was not about landing the genius Dave Wallace.”

They made their debut as a couple with Wallace’s parents in July 2003, attending the Maine culinary festival that would provide the title for his last book, Consider the Lobster. “They were both so quick,” his father says. “They would get things and look at each other and laugh, without having to say what had struck them as funny.” The next year, Wallace and Green flew to his parents’ home in Illinois, where they were married two days after Christmas. It was a surprise wedding. David told his mother he wanted to take the family to what he called a “high-gussy” lunch. Sally Wallace assumed it was Karen’s influence. “David does not do high gussy,” she says. “His notion of high gussy is maybe long pants instead of shorts or a T-shirt with two holes instead of 18.” Green and Wallace left the house early to “run errands,” while Amy figured out a pretext to get their parents to the courthouse on the way to the lunch. “We went upstairs,” Sally says, “and saw Karen with a bouquet, and David dressed up with a flower in his buttonhole, and we knew. He just looked so happy, just radiating happiness.” Their reception was at an Urbana restaurant. “As we left in the snow,” Sally says, “David and Karen were walking away from us. He wanted us to take pictures, and Jim did. David was jumping in the air and clicking his heels. That became the wedding announcement.”

According to Wallace’s family and friends, the last six years — until the final one — were the best of his life. The marriage was happy, university life good, Karen and David had two dogs, Warner and Bella, they bought a lovely house. “Dave in a real house,” Franzen says, laughing, “with real furniture and real style.”

To Franzen’s eye, he was watching Wallace grow up. There had been in David a kind of purposeful avoidance of the normal. Once, they’d gone to a literary party in the city. They walked in the front door together, but by the time Franzen got to the kitchen, he realized Wallace had disappeared. “I went back and proceeded to search the whole place,” Franzen recalled. “He had walked into the bathroom to lose me, then turned on his heels and walked right back out the front door.”

Now, that sort of thing had stopped. “He had reason to hope,” Franzen said. “He had the resources to be more grown-up, a wholer person.”

And then there were the dogs. “He had a predilection for dogs who’d been abused, and unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them,” Franzen says. “Whether through a sense of identification or sympathy, he had a very hard time disciplining them. But you couldn’t see his attentiveness to the dogs without getting a lump in your throat.”

 

The Last Days of David Foster Wallace

Because Wallace was secure, he began to talk about going off Nardil, the antidepressant he had taken for nearly two decades. The drug had a long list of side effects, including the potential of very high blood pressure. “It had been a fixture of my morbid fear about Dave — that he would not last all that long, with the wear and tear on his heart,” Franzen says. “I worried that I was going to lose him in his early 50s.” Costello said that Wallace complained the drug made him feel “filtered.” “He said, ‘I don’t want to be on this stuff for the rest of my life.’ He wanted to be more a member of the human race.”

In June of 2007, Wallace and Green were at an Indian restaurant with David’s parents in Claremont. David suddenly felt very sick — intense stomach pains. They stayed with him for days. When he went to doctors, he was told that something he’d eaten might have interacted with the Nardil. They suggested he try going off the drug and seeing if another approach might work.

“So at that point,” says his sister Amy, with an edge in her voice, it was determined, ‘Oh, well, gosh, we’ve made so much pharmaceutical progress in the last two decades that I’m sure we can find something that can knock out that pesky depression without all these side effects.’ They had no idea that it was the only thing that was keeping him alive.”

Wallace would have to taper off the old drug and then taper on to a new one. “He knew it was going to be rough,” says Franzen. “But he was feeling like he could finally afford a year to do the job. He figured that he was going to go on to something else, at least temporarily. He was a perfectionist, you know? He wanted to be perfect, and taking Nardil was not perfect.”

That summer, David began to phase out the Nardil. His doctors began prescribing other medications, none of which seemed to help. “They could find nothing,” his mother says softly. “Nothing.” In September, David asked Amy to forgo her annual fall-break visit. He wasn’t up to it. By October, his symptoms had become bad enough to send him to the hospital. His parents didn’t know what to do. “I started worrying about that,” Sally says, “but then it seemed OK.” He began to drop weight. By that fall, he looked like a college kid again: longish hair, eyes intense, as if he had just stepped out of an Amherst classroom.

When Amy talked to him on the phone, “sometimes he was his old self,” she says. “The worst question you could ask David in the last year was ‘how are you?’ And it’s almost impossible to have a conversation with someone you don’t see regularly without that question.” Wallace was very honest with her. He’d answer, “I’m not all right. I’m trying to be, but I’m not all right.”

Despite his struggle, Wallace managed to keep teaching. He was dedicated to his students: He would write six pages of comments to a short story, joke with his class, fight them to try harder. During office hours, if there was a grammar question he couldn’t answer, he’d phone his mother. “He would call me and say, ‘Mom, I’ve got this student right here. Explain to me one more time why this is wrong.’ You could hear the student sort of laughing in the background. ‘Here’s David Foster Wallace calling his mother.’ ”

In early May, at the end of the school year, he sat down with some graduating seniors from his fiction class at a nearby cafe. Wallace answered their jittery writer’s-future questions. “He got choked up at the end,” recalls Bennett Sims, one of his students. “He started to tell us how much he would miss us, and he began to cry. And because I had never seen Dave cry, I thought he was just joking. Then, awfully, he sniffled and said, ‘Go ahead and laugh — here I am crying — but I really am going to miss all of you.’ ”

His parents were scheduled to visit the next month. In June, when Sally spoke with her son, he said, “I can’t wait, it’ll be wonderful, we’ll have big fun.” The next day, he called and said, “Mom, I have two favors to ask you. Would you please not come?” She said OK. Then Wallace asked, “Would your feelings not be hurt?”

No medications had worked; the depression wouldn’t lift. “After this year of absolute hell for David,” Sally says, “they decided to go back to the Nardil.” The doctors also administered 12 courses of electroconvulsive therapy, waiting for Wallace’s medication to become effective. “Twelve,” Sally repeats. “Such brutal treatments,” Jim says. “It was clear then things were bad.”

Wallace had always been terrified of shock therapy. “It scares the shit out of me,” he told me in 1996. “My brain’s what I’ve got. But I could see that at a certain point, you might beg for it.”
In late June, Franzen, who was in Berlin, grew worried. “I actually woke up one night,” he says. “Our communications had a rhythm, and I thought, ‘It’s been too long since I heard from Dave.’ ” When Franzen called, Karen said to come immediately: David had tried to kill himself.

Franzen spent a week with Wallace in July. David had dropped 70 pounds in a year. “He was thinner than I’d ever seen him. There was a look in his eyes: terrified, terribly sad, and far away. Still, he was fun to be with, even at 10 percent strength.” Franzen would sit with Wallace in the living room and play with the dogs, or step outside with David while he smoked a cigarette. “We argued about stuff. He was doing his usual line about, ‘A dog’s mouth is practically a disinfectant, it’s so clean. Not like human saliva, dog saliva is marvelously germ-resistant.'” Before he left, Wallace thanked him for coming. “I felt grateful that he allowed me to be there,” Franzen says.

Six weeks later, Wallace asked his parents to come to California. The Nardil wasn’t working. It can happen with an antidepressant; a patient goes off, returns, and the medication has lost its efficacy. Wallace couldn’t sleep. He was afraid to leave the house. He asked, “What if I meet one of my students?” “He didn’t want anyone to see him the way he was,” his father says. “It was just awful to see. If a student saw him, they would have put their arms around him and hugged him, I’m sure.”

His parents stayed for 10 days. “He was just desperate,” his mother says. “He was afraid it wasn’t ever going to work. He was suffering. We just kept holding him, saying if he could just hang on, it would straighten. He was very brave for a very long time.”

Wallace and his parents would get up at six in the morning and walk the dogs. They watched DVDs of The Wire, talked. Sally cooked David’s favorite dishes, heavy comfort foods — pot pies, casseroles, strawberries in cream. “We kept telling him we were so glad he was alive,” his mother recalls. “But my feeling is that, even then, he was leaving the planet. He just couldn’t take it.”

One afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor beside him. “I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor.”

At the end of August, Franzen called. All summer long he had been telling David that as bad as things were, they were going to be better, and then he’d be better than he’d ever been. David would say, “Keep talking like that — it’s helping.” But this time it wasn’t helping. “He was far away,” Franzen says. A few weeks later, Karen left David alone with the dogs for a few hours. When she came home that night, he had hanged himself.

“I can’t get the image out of my head,” his sister says. “David and his dogs, and it’s dark. I’m sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry.”

[From Issue 1064 — October 30, 2008]

 

 

 

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