My memories of short fiction are usually of outstanding collections. But, occassionally, a specific story will lodge itself in my brain for years to come. That occurred with a short story called “The Depressed Person,” by David Foster Wallace, in Harper’s a few years ago. The story is well-written and entertaining. But, those were not the reasons it became a cause celebre at Harper’s. Wallace caught considerable flack from some readers because he portrayed the depressed person as a sniveling, shallow woman oblivious to everyone else’s problems. That was in 1998, and the story is still with me. I’m sure many of the other original readers recall it, too.
I’ve been reading Harper’s forever. That controversy was one of the top five or so over the years. Ironically, many of the letters from depressed persons were so abusive they added support to the alleged ‘unfair portrayal,’ instead of mitigating it. Wallace was accused of insensitivity toward people having emotional problems. Most people have experienced short bouts of situational depression at one time or the other, so I don’t believe those of us who defended Wallace are cold-hearted. We just found the story to be both accurate and funny, though perhaps a bit over the top.
You must read this story. It is hilarious. I’ve located a full reprint online. I’ll start you off.
The Depressed Person
The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.
Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain itself, the depressed person hoped at least to be able to express something of its context — its shape and texture, as it were — by recounting circumstances related to its etiology. The depressed person’s parents, for example, who had divorced when she was a child, had used her as a pawn in the sick games they played, as in when the depressed person had required orthodonture and each parent had claimed — not without some cause, the depressed person always inserted, given the Medicean legal ambiguities of the divorce settlement — that the other should pay for it. Both parents were well-off, and each had privately expressed to the depressed person a willingness, if push came to shove, to bite the bullet and pay, explaining that it was a matter not of money or dentition but of “principle.” And the depressed person always took care, when as an adult she attempted to describe to a supportive friend the venomous struggle over the cost of her orthodonture and that struggle’s legacy of emotional pain for her, to concede that it may well truly have appeared to each parent to have been, in fact, a matter of “principle,” though unfortunately not a “principle” that took into account their daughter’s feelings at receiving the emotional message that scoring petty points off each other was more important to her parents than her own maxillofacial health and thus constituted, if considered from a certain perspective, a form of neglect or abandonment or even outright abuse, an abuse clearly connected — here she nearly always inserted that her therapist concurred with this assessment — to the bottomless, chronic adult despair she suffered every day and felt hopelessly trapped in.
*Harper’s Magazine online.
*An unofficial David Foster Wallace fan site.