David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”
— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace was an ultimate wunderkind, and he bought into the idea of himself as exceptional to a devastating degree. He was a sensitive person, and sensitive people, especially sensitive smart people, can hold onto the evidence of their specialness like an armor. David Foster Wallace learned the hard way that this type of armor is made of paper, and you can only truly find that out if your dreams come true and you get everything you thought you needed to prove yourself.

David got published, got praise, and got into exclusive literary enclaves like Yaddo. At a very young age he was immersed in the high-pressure, glass-encased world of the literati, which was something he thought he wanted. But just like achieving anything, winning anything, you are still faced with living with the pain of who you are when the thrill of the win fades. Winning and being lauded doesn’t ease loneliness, it eases the craving to feel better when your bottom empties out from under you. And, one achievement leads to a pressure of the next one, of the desire to get higher, get better, to be more impressive than before, or at the very least, to hold on to whatever status you’ve gained.

Faced with mounting depression and progressive addictions to alcohol and other drugs, DFW had to figure out how to just be a human being, how to survive being himself, and how to like himself; something we’re all trying to figure out. It wasn’t through literary ecstasy, or meeting and impressing the right people that he found any sort of relief. It took embracing the 12-step philosophy (which he initially regarded as horrendously simplistic and beneath him) and living at a halfway house to come to terms with the emptiness he’d been embracing and start to confront himself. Once he went through a humbling experience he was able to create his best, most accessible work, Infinite Jest. He remembered that reading should be fun, even when it’s difficult, and it should above all connect with people in a visceral and personal way. He decided to abandon complicated, high-concept experimental literature for writing “about what it is like to be a f*cking human being.” He wanted to make people feel less lonely. He wanted to make himself feel less lonely.

We all have complex internal lives, dramas, and pains, and we need artists, we need exceptional people not to prove to us that they are exceptional, because there is no real point in that. We need exceptional people to create art that makes us feel less alone, that makes our inside world feel less divorced than the outward world of presentations.

In his 1996 interviews with David Lipsky, David comes across with blaring clarity at times, but other times he’s a brilliant mess of contradictions, of jittery cautiousness. He’s got a fragile identity that he’s still trying to figure out, but the world never stops to let you do that. He lived his youth looking down at people from less savory walks of life, with lower cognitive function, with less education, with less talent, but at 34, when he’s speaking with Lipsky, he’s disgusted with that viewpoint, disgusted with himself for having it. “I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich,” he tells Lipsky in the book of their conversations Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that’s the basis for the film The End of the Tour, “and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer.”

He talks with Lipsky about embracing himself as a “regular guy,” and of “cultivating normalcy,” indicating that his identity struggles are deep and unrelenting. Being himself, whatever that is, is the most mystifying and terrifying thing. He tried being the “genius,” and when that didn’t work, he tried to be the “regular guy.” The trouble is that he was both, and neither. The truth is the self is more amorphous than that. You can be exceptional and also ordinary in many ways. Throwing all those labels aside, you are still this strange person inside bubbling. When you’re to figure out how to live and present yourself in a comfortable and accurate way, labels can only help so much. Embracing certain labels to feel safe can give you a readmit, but it can turn into stale performances of yourself. You can’t escape “performing” as yourself, though. Identity is something we all struggle with so much, but it is magnified when you are in the public eye, when you are celebrated writer with a host of expectations thrown upon you by not only the world, but yourself.

DFW had his first revelation about how unspecial specialness is during his stint on suicide watch at McLean Hospital, and during his long stay at the Granada halfway house in Boston (where he also met his ex-girlfriend Mary Karr.) Although most of Infinite Jest is inspired by his stay at Granada, he tries to distance himself when talking with Lipsky. Lipsky’s there for a Rolling Stone feature (that actually didn’t end up being published) so it’s understandable why David’s a little skittish. It’s one thing to be candid with a human being, and it’s another to be candid with a magazine, with the unseeable public. You have to be really sure about the story you want to tell, and DFW isn’t sure. He distanced himself from his story by writing it as fiction, but he’s not ready to be open about what he’s gone through in his life, to connect the idea of himself with those experiences.

In his talks with Lipsky, he refuses to admit being familiar with AA, twelve steps, or rehab. He denies that he’s ever struggled with substance addiction, or that he’s truly depressed. In the same interviews when he’s trying to relate that he’s not that different from everyone else, wrestling with the bitter taste of his arrogance, he still paints his depression and dark times in a dense and removed philosophical light.

“I drank a lot in grad school, I drank a lot at Yaddo. But everybody did,” he says, downplaying what was actually a devastating alcohol addiction. “You know? It’s real weird. I don’t know what–maybe it was a little different five years later, but he young writer deal, the things as to go out and pound ’em with people and trade bon mot. And feel pleased at how successful we all were.”

He insists he didn’t have a drinking problem, but “it was more like, I got more and more unhappy. And the more unhappy I would get, the more I would notice that I would be drinking a lot more. And there wasn’t any joy in the drinking. It was more like–it was literally an anesthetic. I mean, I just wanted to be dulled and blunt all the time. But the reasons for being unhappy I don’t think had very much to do with drugs or alcohol.”

He says his wanting to die was not a chemical imbalance like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s issue, but more of a spiritual battle where he realized that everything he had staked his worth on was nothing, and recognizing it as nothing made him feel even smarter than everyone else in the room. This sort of philosophical embrace of despair about meaninglessness, and feelings of superiority over anyone who could be stupid enough to ever enjoy themselves or find meaning in life, is a common part of depression. It is an illusion, a self-protective story.

Although it’s still not completely understood, we do know that there is a biological element to depression. When you are deeply depressed feeling better isn’t an option, but other brains are also in different places biochemically, and watching them feel better than you can hurt. Our hurt brain can see anyone who’s not feeling what you’re feeling as disingenuous, or just not observant enough to understand. Bojack Horseman succinctly sums it up in his evaluation of Mr. Peanutbutter’s exuberance, “He’s so stupid he doesn’t realize how miserable he should be. I envy that.”

DFW knows that he was being the disingenuous one by dismissing others who aren’t in his down state, but it’s something he’s still trying to work out. He’s trying to figure out how much he can trust his exceptional and, in many ways, superior brain. He’s trying to work out how to be a smart person, a smart depressed person, without being an asshole. As in control as we feel we are, and as much as we wish there was a disconnect between mind and body, our minds are fragile, fallible body parts, even among the most intelligent. We are all at the mercy of small neurological changes, of our DNA, of hormonal or chemical imbalances. We can engage in healthy behaviors that help keep our brains happier, but our brains, which have evolved to make sense of the world so we can survive, aren’t exactly truth and accuracy machines. What they are is meaning machines, ego protecting machines, storytelling machines. A lot of smart people get depressed, maybe disproportionately to the rest of the population, but depression is not an elevated state of consciousness. It makes us feel a little better, though, to tell ourselves it is when we’re in it.

DFW eventually opened up about what his time at the halfway house really meant to him several years after the Lipsky interview. He did it anonymously, but DFW experts agree that it was him who wrote an eloquent, self-revealing testimonial on the Granada House website. The dates all line up to David’s own timeline, and the writing hums with his voice.

He describes himself as a long-term substance abuser who, at only age 27, found himself as a
“late stage alcoholic and drug addict.”

“On the one hand, I knew that drugs and alcohol controlled me, ran my life, and were killing me. On the other, I loved them–I mean really loved them, as in the sort of love where you’ll do anything, tell yourself any sort of lie to keep from having to let the beloved go. For most of the late 80s, my method for “quitting” drugs was to switch for a period from just drugs to just alcohol. Then I’d switch back to drugs in order to “quit” drinking. The idea of months or years without any chemicals at all was unimaginable.

I both wanted help and didn’t. And I made it hard for anyone to help me: I could go to a psychiatrist one day in tears and desperation and then two days later be fencing with her over the fine points of Jungian theory; I could argue with drug counselors over the difference between a crass pragmatic lie and an “aesthetic” lie told for its beauty alone; I could flummox 12-Step sponsors over certain obvious paradoxes inherent in the concept of denial. And so forth.

but the fact of the matter is that my experience at Granada House helped me, starting with the fact that the staff admitted me despite the obnoxious condescension with which I spoke of them, the House, and the l2-Step programs of recovery they tried to enable. They were patient, but they were not pushovers. They enforced a structure and discipline about recovery that I was not capable of on my own: mandatory counseling, mandatory AA or NA meetings, mandatory employment, curfew, chores, etc. Not to mention required reading of AA/NA literature whether I found it literarily distinguished or not.”

  • Enrique Freeque

    David Foster Wallace means more to me than any other writer. “Infinite Jest” was like my soul mate the first time I read it, if that makes any sense. Maybe it still is. Thank you for this fantastic piece!