Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library

Other Archive Discoveries
My favorite among all the hundreds of documents I mowed down might be the few issues of Sabrina, the Amherst humor mag that Wallace edited in 1982-83 with Mark Costello, with whom Wallace later co-wrote Signifying Rappers. In Sabrina they cultivated a kind of proto-Onion vibe that owed something to Lester Bangs and the old Creem house style, and maybe a little something to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. If you go in for the fourteen-year-old-boy variety of impertinent, puerile comedy, as I do, it is irresistible stuff. As I hovered over the brittle, oversized newsprint in that silent and stately library—I had been coached to keep the pages flat, and to handle them only by their edges—I shook like a leaf, eyes watering, in a mighty effort to keep my whoops contained.

News Briefs: Professor Czap ‘not just a Pair of Eyebrows’
Prof. Czap yesterday denied reports that he received tenure principally because of his amazing furry eyebrows. In a particularly unattractive part of the interview he was heard to agonize in a small voice, “I am not an animal, I am a history professor.” Moments later the interview was abruptly ended as an enraged Czap rushed toward the camera threatening to apply the Vulcan nerve grip.

(It turns out that Amherst history prof Peter Czap was indeed possessed of a powerful set of eyebrows. Photographed in 2008, the eyebrows appear in resplendent health.)

Hadley Arkes Symposium Planned
by Dan Francheese

In the wake of sightings of Hadley Arkes in Belchertown, the Political Science department recently announced plans to fund a "Hadley Arkes Symposium." Said Professor Austin Sarat, Chairman of the Department, "We intend to sort myth from fact to determine once and for all whether Hadley Arkes exists or ever did exist." Dismissing the claims of two student workers who reported seeing Professor Arkes lurking in the B level Men's room of Frost Library as "unsubstantiated rumor," Sarat gives more credence to samples of what some faculty members believe to be Hadley Arkes droppings found on the carpet of Merrill Dining Commons. Others disagree. As Sarat says, "They could be the droppings of any faculty member really." The symposium is planned for April.

Dan Francheese gives way to Dan Trapeze and Dan Francisco. Very few of the articles are signed.

There are the Letters to the Editor, as well.

Dear Sirs:
We would like to say that the material you will publish will be profoundly offensive to us as soon as we have read it. In fact, we will never be so insulted in all our lives.
Society of Outraged Peoples (SOP)

* * *

Especially enjoyable were the three pages he wrote as an undergraduate on Pride and Prejudice. He freaking hated Miss Bingley, calling her “a mean-spirited, selfish little bitch who is so intent on grabbing Mr. Darcy for a husband that she is willing a) to be extremely obsequious and agreeable to Mr. Darcy and, b) to tear to shreds (subtly, if course) any woman in whom Darcy shows the slightest interest.”

* * *

An exam book from History 48, Japan Since 1800: Spring 1981, Amherst College 100 A+. The questions are along the lines of, "Why did the four-nation fleet attack Shimonoseki City in Chooshuu clan in 1864?" And he had to fill out the names of a whole lot of cities on a map of nineteenth-century Japan. He didn’t miss even one.

* * *

"Trying to come up with the theme of a story and then articulate it is HARD. It’s also COOL and WORTHWHILE. Kennedy, for once, states the case really well: “Trying to sum up the point of a story in our own words is merely one way to make ourselves better aware of whatever we may have understood vaguely and tentatively.”

* * *

He had a long, fun list of vocabulary words, forty-two pages long, that he seemed to add to every year. One version is thirty-nine pages long, and is called "Vocab 3/97", and then there is the forty-two page version called "vocab 1997."

Birl, cause to spin rapidly with feet
Musth, period of heightened sexual drive in elephants (Vulcans) when they’re more aggressive
Peculate, to embezzle

* * *

A wonderful correspondence between Wallace, age nine, and his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor.

Sept, 13 1971
Dear Mrs. Taylor,
I saw a great movie called on any Sunday. It was a biography of motorcyclists.
Remember to capitalize names of movies. You know how to spell very well, especially the long words. That movie sounds really interesting. I’ll have to tell one of my friends about it. She has a Yamaha 175.

Dear Miss More 9/14
Yamaha 175’s are all right but not as good as some (check consumer report) Honda 222 is best its speed recor is 138 ½ m.pn. Next time she or he is shopping for a motorcycle tell him or her that. Dave W

p.s. My hobby is motorcycle research that is why I went to the movie.
Have you seen Evel Knievel on any of the talk shows? He’s quite a character!

Dear Mrs. Taylor,
I sure did see it and I liked the 20 car jump and the Ceaser Palace wipeout. Dave
Do you think he will make it over the canyon?

Dear Mrs. Taylor 9/16
We had fun last night, we went over to our neighbors and played football.
This is football season. It’s in the air, on radio, television, on playgrounds, in parks—everywhere.

p.s. No he’ll get killed
That’s what I’m afraid of, too!

* * *

And finally, as a bonus, here is a quiz that he gave his undergraduate students.



My only stab at a guess is that these are words that can be used to describe writing itself, though I feel like "pulchritude" is kind of wrong, that way. I would love to hear other ideas.

199 Comments / Post A Comment

David Roth (#4,429)

You know how sometimes you see a headline and a topic and an author all together up there atop a piece of writing and you just kind of know that what comes after is going to be really, really good?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I saw a little "1" in the comment bubble, and thought "How the hell did someone read this so fast!"

brent_cox (#40)

I thought the same. But David is right. Week made.

David Roth (#4,429)

Sadly, I am going to have to save this one for a quieter moment. But man am I ever looking forward to it. Best + Best = Best.

skybarn (#304)

Well, that is one fine piece of writing right there. Jesus.

Paige (#21)

Seriously. This was excellent.

Bittersweet (#765)

So good.

max bread (#5,970)

Oof. I think I might go have a cry somewhere.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well. That requires a plusone run-through, and perhaps another.

I am looking at a picture of David's parents. It's from the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, 12.19.10, and it was taken at a luncheon in 2009 in CU. I am fascinated by his parents, and his upbringing, and I'm sure it's because (yeah, I've said it oft before) I grew up in the same town five years in front of him.

I always wondered about what in that upbrigning, in that place, turned the tumblers. The obsession with math, that translated to tennis. The rigid yet exquisitely playful, mazelike deployment of language: mathematical in itself, a lob shot to set you up for the dink or tke kill.

Here's another picture, of Dave at age 12. He looks like a dork.

Anyway. What a beautiful piece, Maria. I will read it again, alone.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Maria, I burst into tears in a coffee shop reading this, and I have a conflicted relationship with DFW's work, particularly his fiction. So what I'm saying is that this is great. I have feelings about literary sleuthage, and about literary sleuthage re DFW in particular, but I like writing that gets me out of my comfortable, skull-sized, tiny kingdom, and this definitely qualifies as that. Thank you.

caw_caw (#5,641)

Exactly my feeling as well

Smitros (#5,315)

This provides additional poignancy to his portrait of a tennis prodigy collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Interesting that the current embodiment of American addictive narcissism, yes, Charlie Sheen, has come out so strongly against AA and the concept that he is an normal human being. Instead he goes around calling himself a "genius" Torpedo of Truth with Tiger Blood with absolutely no humility whatsoever. It is a sad state of affairs that Mr. Two and Half Men is selling out arenas to declare his specialness, but DFW wrestled his entire adult life with the concept of his specialness.

Incredible writing as always.

Harlon (#11,065)

Good points Lockheed. It seems likely that, although he may be the last person to realize it, Charlie Sheen is going to end up a very powerful advertisement for the destructive powers of addiction, if he hasn't already. Reviews of his shows in New York City noted that he's now publicly regretting all of the things that "have been taken away from me" (meaning his show, his children, and his pets). As rich as he is, the downward spiral seems pretty obvious.

DFW's suicide, meanwhile, is powerful testimony to the AA wisdom that you don't identify yourself publicly as being in AA. The specific reason for that (I have 25 years in the program) is so that the program doesn't get hurt because someone who's identified with it in the public's mind crashes and burns. Active addicts are all too willing to write off AA because "so and so celebrity was in it and look how much good it did him." This is not to cast any aspersions on DFW at all. It's well known in the program that (as the literature puts it) alcohol is "but a symptom" — of deeper emotional/psychological problems. Self medication, in other words. I have no idea why DFW's demons got him in the end, but I can identify with the struggle. Wallace noted that some of the AA cant is hard to swallow, and an example of that in my opinion is the promise that if you follow the steps you'll end up "happy, joyous and free." It's an aspiration, but one that isn't easily achieved. But as they also say in the program, some are sicker than others. In the program that's usually said with a smile (not always). What it really means is recovery is more of a struggle for some than for others. It's not a judgment, just a fact.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

"Next time she or he is shopping for a motorcycle tell him or her that."

A nine-year-old Dave W., deftly navigating the perilous terrain of gendered pronouns.

katherine (#10,025)

I feel sick.

This has nothing to do with the writing quality — which is consistently excellent — nor with the article's existence — it's in a museum, it was public to begin with.

It's the story itself. Which is why it's worth reading.

CleverUserName (#1,910)


Parleyview (#7,337)

"…giddy, life-affirming fizz, and that fizz came undiluted and complete from his mother, Sally Foster Wallace."
Thankful for this delicious writing to be savored to this evening.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

MMK is Mary (Marlene) Karr, I think.

Mork el Pork (#8,293)

Yup. And '92 was the year that the bulk of IJ- Infinite Jest- was written.
PS, I met MMK just tonight!

Also, as a bipolar-er and under-read DFW-er, this is going to make my reading of his work quite a bit richer, so thank you MB.

KeithTalent (#2,014)

I was super gung ho to make this comment but you beat me to it.

HiredGoons (#603)

This was exactly what I needed today Maria, well done.

I wish I had taken you up on your invitation to come poke around in Austin, but I may have proved a distraction and then we wouldn't have gotten this little gem – everybody wins.

Kate Croy (#973)

Un plaisir, ma vieille.

Re: the list of words at the end. They are all words that precisely do not describe themselves.

Kate Croy (#973)

What about "pulchritude"?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

It ain't a beauty, but hey, it's all right.

propertius (#361)

Every word in Latin is ugly.

Except – maybe – "carmen".

The grammar is unsightly as well.

The miracle is that they pulled Italian and Spanish out of it. Let's not go into French.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Just how many different people are you trying to pick fights with?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Marco's right. I was so proud of myself for figuring this out, too — but I guess that's what I get for waiting a day. And honestly? "Pulchritude" is probably a noun specifically so that the answer won't be "they're all adjectives."

It's an ugly word.

Kate Croy (#973)

Well–duh. I was just wondering if you have any thoughts as to why it's "pulchritude" rather than the no-less-ugly "pulchritudinous." All the others are adjectives!

My tribute to DFW is to be a bit of a nerd here and point out that I think this is close but not quite on the mark. These words do not describe themselves but neither do words like inflamed, vertiginous, smelly, gaseous, blinding, or any word for any color (unless, I guess, you write the word in ink that matches the word itself; green written in green ink, for example). I think the list is more about words whose meaning is in direct opposition to some aspect of the word's DNA (be it length, sound, or spelling). Foreign is an English word. Not foreign at all. The word obscene is fairly proper as is vulgar. Et cetera. DFW talks about this quality of certain words in one of his works — maybe it's in the Lipsky book. It's a great reminder of how much he loved language.

roboloki (#1,724)

this was great. thank you.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

Dear god, and on the 17 anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide. I'm filled with grateful sadness. Thank you, Ms. B.

Philo Hagen (#3,619)

Kurt Cobain's suicide anniversary isn't today. It's not until the 8th. Just sayin'.

Bettytron (#575)

That's actually not true, but the "Just sayin'" flagged you as kind of a dick anyway, so it cancels out!

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Fantastic work & writing. This should be a foreword to something. Someone tell Little, Brown.

A trenchant piece that almost gets to the heart of the paradox – one that is not unique to those of us who have been diagnosed as "clinically depressed" or accused of being "smart" – inherent in our consciousness ("alive right now, conscious, though no one knows why"), one that is expressed in this quote that has always nagged me:

“The mountains, rivers, forest and the elements that gird them round about would be only blank conditions of matter if the mind did not fling its own divinity around them.”

–from an article entitled Imagination and Fact (writer unknown) in Graham’s Magazine (not dated, but referenced by Walt Whitman in his Notes and Fragments and ascribed to approximately “the fifties” – that would be the eighteen fifties)

Your essay is a wonderfully written and researched piece about someone who has touched so many of his fellow humans simply because he wrote about being human in ways that were funny, painful, perspicacious, frightening, occasionally very wrong, and always challenging.

At times reading this, thinking of you alone with these materials researching, I could not help thinking of Nietzsche's quote: "…when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." Thanks for taking the risk.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

Too many of us strive to impress rather than to touch. But what's scary is that the cleverness of this distinction is impressive, so it's like you're smarting your way out of being too damn smart. And it seems like you have to drink a lot of beer before you can realize that it won't fix things. But a mind as developed and refined as Dave Wallace's knows exactly how to keep goading anything worth believing into the ether. You glean wisdom from Bradshaw or Alice Miller, and then you figure out how to outwit it, so the real, life-saving wisdom is ever Sisyphian.
Incidentally, I saw David Wallace read on my 29th birthday. He signed my copy of Infinite Jest "To XXXX, who is one year from having to think about mortality."

hockeymom (#143)

I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Taylor knew 4th grade David was something special.
Thank you, Maria.

bestestuary (#8,955)

Great, great piece.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

This is a very well-written piece. Thanks for writing and sharing it. But, am I really the only one who refuses to romanticize people who commit suicide? To me, much more ingeneous is figuring out how to live (and keep living) well.

erikonymous (#3,231)

I can't speak for anyone else here, but I was kinda romanticizing the man well before he killed himself, purely on the basis of his incredible writing and career. Tragedy, though, always feels capital-r Romantic, doesn't it? And tragedy certainly befell the guy.
I've known enough people with serious clinical depression to know that just deciding to live well and be happy is not always a possibility, and being smart not only doesn't protect anyone from serious depression, but often exacerbates it.

One of the goals of many in AA (and the plethora of other 12-step fellowships) is to live life on life's terms.

It's so easy to romanticize people who aren't actually present. Those of us who are still around may be a little too solicitous to any cute young thing, get into weird spiritualities or have that permanent quizzical expression that is the result of a not-expensive-enough face lift. Like bluesuedeshoes, I'd much rather be criticized for normal human follies than dead.

"much more ingeneous is figuring out how to live (and keep living) well."

Thank you for that condescending and misspelled admonition. If you had any experience with chronic depression, you'd know that all the ingenuity in the world can't teach a depressed person how to live well.

It's not romanticizing him or his suicide to examine Wallace's life and work in light of his problems. Nothing in this article suggests that his depression or his suicide were romantic. Unless you think addiction, rehab, failed relationships, poring over self-help books and unjustly blaming your mom for problems caused by scrambled brain chemistry are "romantic."

HiredGoons (#603)

can we talk about that haircut?

Keith Kisser (#9,714)

Am I the only one who saw the picture and thought to himself, "That's the guy from Leverage!" No? Just me then. OK. It opens up his back story on the show though. World famous novelist turned hitter and retrieval specialist, steeling from the rich and speaking in a gravelly voice, occasionally singing country songs.

Lauri (#10,588)

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

Talix (#10,922)

Thank you for this. Especially "…like all depressed persons, Wallace loathed himself in error."

This was difficult but lovely. Thank you so much, Maria.

davidwatts (#72)

What's most touching to me about all this is DFW's belief, which he shared with a lot of people, that there is something like an "answer." Some thing you can do or think or be that will fix everything, and that you can figure it out with enough work. I just don't know that that exists. But I try not to be depressed about it.

Philo Hagen (#3,619)

Brilliant piece Maria. Having worked in addiction, Bradshaw was in fact a pretty significant signpost on the road back from hell twenty years ago. Miller, however, was not required reading at all. Your highlighting of DFW's notes regarding it is incredibly revealing, so much so that I fear calling it lopsided in this case is to dismiss what your flashlight has unearthed as a pretty significant self diagnostic in eight different kinds of ink. DFW was 46 when he took his life. He never had kids. Perhaps this is testament to just how crippling this truly was for him.

o0o (#10,923)

The quiz is easy gaiz, they are all words that do not describe themselves. They are analogues of Russell's paradox, one of DFW's hobbyhorses. Each word describes a set of words that does not include the word itself.

Mork el Pork (#8,293)

That may be, but I dont know who High-class thinks she is with that hyphen around her waist, the bitch

This was remarkable, Maria. And thank you. (Am I the only one who's perplexed by — and insanely jealous of! — the number of people that seem to already possess The Pale King?)

Re: the words, I wish I knew what o0o was on about (I really do!), but my guess was that they were all things that were the object of derision to some.

Uaxuctum (#10,973)

For whatever reason Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a few other retailers started shipping online orders last week. I just got my copy on Monday.

RickVigorous (#214)

Beautiful Maria, thank you. This is going to need another pass or two.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Fantastic piece! Whenever I see a discussion of DFW's depression and suicide, I always want to point out this Rolling Stone piece on his last days by David Lipsky (that link is to a pdf, but there's also an html version on someone's blog here) which makes the case that his suicide wasn't a matter of finally succumbing to something he'd been struggling with all his life, that in fact he had his depression pretty much under control with antidepressants for most of his adult life, but then shortly before his suicide he was convinced to switch antidepressants, and found that the new meds didn't work, and his old meds had also stopped working when he tried to go back to them. If this account is true I think it sort of suggests the danger of interpreting his entire life's work through the filter of his depression and suicide (not that Maria's piece does this, just that it's a tendency that I think we all have whenever we consider the work of an artist who eventually killed themselves).

Also, on the subject of "they fuck you up, your mom and dad", I've always found interesting the work of psychologist Judith Rich Harris (Malcolm Gladwell article on her here, and a Scientific American interview here), who looked at large collections of studies of adopted children and twins raised in different families to come to the conclusion that psychological similarities between children and parents are due almost entirely to genetics, that in fact how your parents raise you has no measurable effect on your adult personality whatsoever. Her research seemed to show that adopted children are no more similar to their adoptive parents than they are to any other random adult from the same community, and they're just as similar to their genetic parents as are children who are actually raised by their genetic parents. Something to think about to counter the common pop-psychology idea that parenting style is all-important in determining how kids come out (and maybe take some of the pressure off new parents!)

margarets (#11,021)

Re: the idea that genetics rather than child-rearing account for personality differences, did this research account for abuse? Was it based solely on more-or-less functional emotionally healthy families? With adequate economic resources? What aspects of personality were studied, exactly?

People who grew up in poor or abusive or dysfunctional families will rarely say that it made no difference to how they turned out as adults.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Harris does briefly discuss abuse in her first book The Nurture Assumption (the section of the book can be seen on google books, see pages 296-298 here), she says that "severe abuse can produce physical injury–including brain damage–with long-lasting or permanent effects. Another possible long-term consequence is post-traumatic stress disorder." But as for abuse not severe enough to cause long-term physical injuries or PTSD, she says that at present there isn't enough evidence to say either way whether, for example, the increased aggressiveness of abuse victims is due to the abuse itself or due to the fact that abusive parents are more likely to have passed on genes for aggressiveness. She also mentions that abused children may be more likely to have been moved around more in childhood which could mess with peer relations, which she thinks do shape personality more than parenting. And as for your question about economic resources, I think her answer would basically be that economics influences development insofar as kids from different socioeconomic groups are likely to have different peer cultures. She discusses this in a section on p. 303 of The Nurture Assumption where she talks about why children of single-parent families tend to be worse off:

"The loss of income impacts the kids in several ways. For one thing, it can affect their status in the peer group. Being deprived of luxuries such as expensive clothing and sporting equipment, dermatologists and orthodontics, can lower kids' standing among their peers. Money is also going to play a role in whether the kids can think about going to college. If it's out of the question, then they may be less motivated to graduate from high school and to avoid getting pregnant.

"But by far the most important thing that money can do for kids is to determine the neighborhood they grow up in and the school they attend … Poverty forces many single mothers to rear their children in neighborhoods where there are many other single mothers and where there are high rates of unemployment, school dropout, teen pregnancy, and crime.

"Why do so many kids in these neighborhoods drop out, get pregnant, and commit crimes? Is it because they don't have fathers? That is a popular explanation, but I considered the question in Chapter 9 and came to other conclusions. Neighborhoods have different cultures and the cultures tend to be self-perpetuating; they are passed down from the parents' peer group to the children's peer group. The medium through which the cultures are passed down cannot be the family, because if you pluck the family out of the neighborhood and plunk it down somewhere else, the children's behavior will change to conform with that of their peers in their new neighborhood.

"It's the neighborhood, not the family. If you look at kids within a given neighborhood, the presence or absence of a father doesn't make much difference … Within an economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood, the kids who live with both parents are no better off than those who live with only one."

margarets (#11,021)

Hoo boy. Harris thinks neighbourhood cultures and peer relations influence kids but family cultures don't? Like there are no dysfunctional or abusive families in nice affluent neighbourhoods; no one who grew up with a mom and a dad and enough money was ever negatively influenced by mom and dad's dysfunction. Ask any rich kid: life at home was grand every minute. Jeez.

It sounds like Harris is trying desperately to find a way to let parents off the hook when their kids have problems. She'll accept ANY other explanation except lousy parenting. And of course bad parents will lap it up.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

"Hoo boy. Harris thinks neighbourhood cultures and peer relations influence kids but family cultures don't?"

Yes, but she "thinks" that not based on a random personal hunch, but based on what she finds in studies like the adoption studies showing no influence from families, or from a study she discusses in the above section (which I left out to keep the quote short) showing that within a given inner-city neighborhood, children from single-parent families were no different from children from two-parent families in terms of "alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress".

The thing about science is, it often proves that our "common sense" intuitions are complete nonsense, including a lot of the "folk psychology" we use to explain human behavior. Of course a lot of people think they were influenced by their parents, but the human mind isn't good at separating correlation from causation…just for the sake of argument try to imagine a hypothetical world where Harris' thesis is entirely correct, do you doubt that in this world, when people noticed how various personality traits of theirs resembled their parents (due only to the influence of genes), they would concoct false causal explanations about how their parents had influenced them growing up? This is why if you care about the truth of this matter you have to ignore folk psychology and anecdotal evidence, and just look at statistical studies which try to control for different factors like the influence of genes (controlled for in studies of adopted children) or the influence of neighborhoods (controlled for by looking exclusively at a single neighborhood as in the study above).

margarets (#11,021)

But Harris had no way of knowing what any of those families (not to mention the neighbourhoods) were really like. Statistics wouldn't tell even a fraction of the story. They certainly wouldn't get at the extent of various forms of family dysfunction and abuse, or identify which families were happy ones, for that matter.

And how can Harris possibly know what influenced the personality development of an individual she never met, when that person – according to her theory – can't be trusted to know themselves? And what about the wider culture, or historical developments? Does that make no difference?

It's preposterous. And it's bad, bad science. We don't even understand completely how genes influence physical health, yet Harris figured (in 1998!) that she had human personality all worked out? Based on a combo of genes + neighbourhood – family dynamics?

And of course, personality is in the eye of the beholder. What one person sees as career dedication another may see as workaholism. How does Harris's theory account for that?

hypnosifl (#9,470)

"But Harris had no way of knowing what any of those families (not to mention the neighbourhoods) were really like."

What does it matter? The only result being claimed there was that single parent vs. two parent families have no effect on the mentioned outcomes when you control for the neighborhood. I don't know why you bring up "family dysfunction and abuse" since this example was in the section where I was responding to your question about whether she considered socioeconomic status, as I mentioned earlier she thought there hadn't been enough of the right type of studies to draw any real conclusions about abuse.

"It's preposterous. And it's bad, bad science. We don't even understand completely how genes influence physical health, yet Harris figured (in 1998!) that she had human personality all worked out? Based on a combo of genes + neighbourhood – family dynamics?"

She doesn't claim any definite knowledge of what actually shapes personality, she's just saying the current evidence suggests family dynamics is not a significant factor (analogous to showing a particular gene or set of genes does not seem to have any significant influence on a health condition, which has been done with a great number of genes and conditions in the course of trying to find genes that do influence the condition). This is just a universal method of drawing conclusions about causality using statistical methods–if there is a statistical correlation between X and Y, but the correlation disappears when you control for variable Z, that implies X has no measurable causal influence on Y (correlation is not causation). To say this general type of reasoning is "bad, bad science" puts you at odds with pretty much the whole of the scientific community, it seems to me–basically any time you hear about scientists doing a "controlled experiment" to try to test the effects of one thing on another thing, this is the sort of thing they're talking about.

paula (#10,975)

I'm a huge fan of Harris.

laurel (#4,035)

Wow. I feel like this is a thing that so needed to be written.

I've always wondered about his relationship with his mother, whom he treats so affectionately ("the SNOOT") in "Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars over Usage" v. Avril Incandenza, (the "militant grammarian") in IJ, with her obsession with her "green babies", the substantial hints at her, um, inappropriate relationship with Orin, and her borderline neglect of Mario.

I mean, it's a pretty damning portrait of a mother, especially when Hal is so clearly, as you say, a projection of DFW. What was Thanksgiving 1996 like at the Wallace residence?

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I don't think it's so strange, but I grew up under strange circumstances in which I can write both tenderly and affectionately about my father, as well as "pretty damning portrait"-type stuff.

laurel (#4,035)

I don't think it's strange, either–probably quite common, to have conflicting feelings about a parent? And one's writing is probably richer for the tension, I think.

Just, interesting. Avril isn't simply a poor parent. She's a monster.

maddieD (#9,798)

I absolutely adore my mother in my waking life but every single time I dream about her, she is doing something that enrages me.

kpants (#719)

This was lovely, Maria, wonderfully written. After just finishing reading it, I'm already wanting to reread it. Thank you.

philomene (#355)

This was really great to read. Are there any other parents out there who fear even just a little bit that they might have an effect on/be blamed by their children after reading this? On the one hand, his mother seems lovely and sympatico intellectually; on the other, she gets the lion's share of the blame for a vast mountain of unhappiness. I'm sorry if this is a little bit "My baby is special/I'm scared of my baby" for the childless. It's just that the older children get, the less control you have over the choices they make and yet the blame is still there. Fortunately, I realized when I was a child that being called 'gifted' was a shitty thing (and I was never really that gifted to begin with).

C_Webb (#855)

Won't send this to my students because I want them so badly to read it that if they didn't, I'll quit. So smart and wise and kind and good. Thank you.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

Thank you, I really appreciate this.

Hillary Rettig (#5,883)

As author of a self-help book for progressive activists (The Lifelong Activist), I was really happy to read this article, and particularly your suggestion that people like Bradford, etc., be added to the canon. There is definitely a bias against self-help among self-described intellectuals. (Although now under the rubrics of "positive psychology" and "behavioral technology" it's more accepted.) It never made sense to me – life is complex and difficult, so why not learn from others? Additionally, people on the left tend to think the whole field of self-help ignores issues of societal and institutional oppression, and some of it does, but not all of it. (In my work, I really try to help people identify the oppressive forces in their lives.)

The right, of course, has a different objection to self-help. In books like One Nature Under Therapy, they talk about how there's too much self-help, therapy, etc. – because we're all supposed to just shut up and effortlessly cope, I suppose.

Hillary Rettig (#5,883)

should be "One Nation Under Therapy" – sorry

Thank you for this.

Bettytron (#575)

This piece will be tumbling around in my head for the next few weeks, I can tell. I spent the last year reading all of his fiction and non-fiction, working myself up to IJ (I didn't want to get frustrated partway through and give up, so I wanted to make sure I was up to the task) and just yesterday ordered a copy. Wonderfully written; thank you.

thawking (#10,931)

I registered just to say how much I loved this. Wonderful, wonderful article.

Abe Sauer (#148)


Elmo Keep (#3,840)

Ten minutes of staring at this comment box and still only, wow. Just, fuck.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

Thank you for writing this.

Ms. (#10,933)

On Monday April 4th I posted DYING AND LIVING LIFE-DAVID FOSTER WALLACE on my blog http://mscomfortzone.blogspot.com/. it was a complicated construction of elements from disparate , but related sources that I hesitated to actually post because a family member has just become a follower (I wondered how they would take the conversation I was having with myself). But after two days, and hours of tweaking, I just went right ahead. After all, I only have 13 followers, no comments, and I am doing the blog because I care about what I care about. Since posting it, I have added a few extra items that seemed to belong. Now that I've read your searching, brave piece here, I am going to edit a reference to it into the post. What a touching exploration of a man who, though recently discovered, has moved me deeply. So thanks for this. Thanks very much!

holy shit, tremendous job.

Nathan Huffstutter (#10,937)

Re: the class quiz. What's the first word that pops into your head when I say 'language'?

barnhouse (#1,326)


Nathan Huffstutter (#10,937)

One of the principles of free association is that there are no wrong answers. But schmanguage is the wrong answer. In the question, I was speculating that the words in the quiz were derived from an exercise where DFW had asked a separate group to spit out the first word they thought of when he said 'language'. The individual's jumping off point will say something about the speaker, all the words in combination say something about the subject.

Bittersweet (#765)

My first thought was "arts" but I like Maria's "schmanguage" much, much better.

Nathan Huffstutter (#10,937)

It's not my quiz and I'm grossly unqualified to grade the results. But I doubt language shmanguage wins a free lunch.

Slapdash (#174)

"There is no blame to pin anywhere; there is a balance to try to achieve."

Faved and saved. Also, bravo.

James M (#10,947)

Top shelf.

Oh man. Dan "Francheese": an Illinois boy's reference to that most terrifying of Chicago delicacies, the francheezie?

Wonderful piece.

Okay… this was really enjoyable coming from someone who has always admired DFW's writing, but I have a single and, I think, important issue:

Don't you think this sort of fetishistic approach to DFW's archives only serves to ironically champion him as some great auteur of our time for rejecting auteurism and refusing to consider himself a genius? Don't you think these sort of obsessive speculations about his psyche based on what he read, or his relationship with his mother, or even the types of questions he asked his students only serve to effectively gloss-over the central point of much of his work which, as you so eloquently put it,was "to erase the distance between himself and others in order to understand them better" ?

theharpoon (#10,705)

I think you have a good point, but I thought it might also be worth mentioning that a "fetishistic" approach to authors' archives is hardly limited to DFW's collection, even among modern writers. The Ransom Center particularly specializes in modern American and British authors, but of course we've been picking writers apart pretty much as long as they've been writing.

hapax (#6,251)

I kept thinking I knew what this article was about as I was reading it, but with every paragraph you made a flawless hairpin turn into a new, amazing set of observations. Your insights about DFW are trenchant and powerful and utterly heartbreaking, but piggybacking on them are even deeper observations about depression, writing, 'genius', addiction, parenting, and the disturbing prurience of our own fascination with our idols.

I am normally the type of person who logs into a website just to tell someone that they are Wrong On The Internet, but Ms. Bustillos, this might be the best thing I've read this year. Thank you. I hope you get a fucking Pulitzer for it.

outwardbound (#10,958)

Had to create an account so I could post. Thank you for very inspiring writing and thanks to all who posted in appreciation, also inspiring. Off to work I go….

Sam duPont@twitter (#10,957)

wonderful piece, thank you. searching for the Amherst Review archives to read "planet trillaphon" now. and my stab at the quiz:

These are words to be avoided for their failure to illustrate their own meaning. Particularly "pulchritude" (has an uglier word ever been uttered?) and "S-less" (which violates itself three times). Untyped, Unwritten, Indefinable, Misspelled, Invisible, Incomprehensible likewise defy their own definitions. Big is a little word; Diminutive is big. High-class is a tacky phrase, while Obscene and Vulgar are rather dainty. And Foreign is such a common, ordinary word, so divorced from its possibility as to almost carry no meaning at all.

Yes. This. DFW actually refers to this quality of certain words and has a term for them. I can't remember it off-hand. But it wasn't necessarily negative. It was just an interesting quality that these words share — their meanings are in seeming contrast to their architecture (be it spelling or pronunciation).

Sam duPont@twitter (#10,957)

i think 'heterological' is the term…

Mike Doughty (#6,314)

I'm frustrated. There's a few things I don't think you quite have a grasp on–but I wonder if I don't have a firm grasp on the things I believe you don't have a firm grasp on. So, struggling. Blogged a response: http://mkdo.co/post/4393084913

Amazing. I was in an undergraduate class where he gave us that quiz, and I've wanted to find a copy ever since. Happened to do a search and found you'd posted it yesterday. This was great reading. Thanks!

Mike Doughty (#6,314)

Dude, dude, dude. I misconstrued stuff bigtime. Big errors in my blog. Ugh. Apologies.

Geoff1 (#10,969)

Doesn't anyone have reservations about this piece? Picking apart his depression and history, psychoanalyzing the notes he wrote in his private books and his anonymous posting – doesn't that seem wrong, like literary rubbernecking? His work stands on its own and it's what he wanted to and did express to the world.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)


Uaxuctum (#10,973)

I think the piece is well-written and carefully approaches what is definitely a delicate subject. Still, I can't help but be reminded of DFW's NY Times review of Borges: A Life, in which he expresses doubts about exercises in which biographers attempt to draw conclusions about an author's interior life from pieces of fiction they've written. And so, perhaps this should be approached with a caveat:
"A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable. In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer's personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work. The idea is that we can't correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation. That this is simply assumed as an axiom by many biographers is one problem; another is that the approach works a lot better on some writers than on others." (The whole review can be read here: http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-Borges_on_the%20Couch.pdf)

Mister Chu (#11,001)

Yes this is very much so. I am hoping that Mister Borges and Mister Wallace are sharing their own thoughts on some more elevated (or otherwise) social intercourse site available to those no longer available (to us).

Best wishes to you,
Mister Chu

paula (#10,975)

Regarding Geoff1- I understand your point. DFW kills himself and, understandably a University Library inherits his papers. I found his whole obsession with recovery and Alice Miller in particular, sad. The reading and rereading- the different markers! What a collossal waste of emotion. Regardless, what really matters, is his work. And it will endure. Biographies of writers- or biographical articles or what have you- I love to read them. But they often color my view of the work in a bad way and sometimes I regret my desire to know all about a writer. Two writers come to mind right off the bat- Philip Roth (I read his ex wife's book on him, In a Doll's House) and Jean Rhys.
That said, the author of this piece herself states her reservations on all his mother hating and need to "understand" himself in that "pychological" way which really is, let's face it, usually detrimental and eschews personal responsibility. And I also must say I found this piece sort of riveting. Such a bright, successful, loved man- and he sits around underlining crap about his inner child. Just- wow.

theharpoon (#10,705)

More accurately, they probably bought his papers; it's what usually happens these days.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I didn't have time to give this the reading it deserved when it was posted, so I got to it a day late. Now I feel like a fool for not putting off yesterday's responsibilities. The article deals with so many important topics that it's hard to pick a single highlight, but I'll just say that the examination of a depressed person's coping mechanisms was revelatory for me. Thanks.

Mark802 (#10,983)

Maria Bustillos has written a fascinating and brilliant commentary on David Wallace's inner life and suffering. However, I think she tends to misrepresent somewhat Alice Miller's views. Miller's concern to "respect the feelings" of children had nothing to do with so-called permissive parenting. As Miller argued in her many books, permissive parenting is often just the flip side of authoritarian parenting. In other words, both parenting styles are often more about the parent's emotional agenda (or unmet needs) than what healthy parenting should be: To meet the real needs of the child to feel respected, understood, cared for and protected within the family. This hardly means no rules or anything goes. Nor do I agree that the intention of Alice Miller's work was to foster "mother hating" or to assign blame. That's a superficial reading of what was rather a commitment to help individuals better understand the dynamics of their upbringing for the purpose of moving through their troubled feelings to a healthier emotional life. Obviously, staying stuck in feelings of hatred for parents would be counterproductive to that goal. Then again, so is denial of such feelings. The fact that David Wallace studied Miller as he did is a testament not only to his pain, but to a searching, relentless, and obviously difficult effort on his part to understand himself better.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Hi Mark (Maria here.) Thanks for this insightful comment. I should have been clearer with respect to Miller's position regarding "permissiveness", you're right; her larger theme is that the narcissistically-disturbed parent sees the child not as an individual, his own person, but as a sort of vessel for her own imperatives. This can take the form of excessive "permissiveness" or what she calls "anti-authoritarian" parenting. What I was getting at is something outside the area of Miller's work; it's just something I've observed myself among fellow-parents, and it's not a question of reflecting one's own needs onto the child. There are parents who straight-up believe it's the right thing to do, objectively, to make the child the absolute and only center of their world. That is a distinction worth making, for sure.

As for Miller's intentions, it's very clear that she wanted to help those whom she felt had been harmed, as she had been herself, by a certain kind of parenting. And I think there is an enormous value in this book. But that value might well be undercut by focusing solely on the predicament of the injured child. There seems to be very little sympathy for the narcissistically-deprived mother in The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Mark802 (#10,983)

Maria, I'm not sure it's lack of sympathy for the mother on Miller's part as much that the focus of her polemical book was on the dynamics of the parent-child relationship as it affects the child. But, of course, the narcissistically deprived mother was herself once the victim of parents who mistreated her. Miller did recognize this and wrote often about the cycle of abuse carried from one generation to the next. But I can see your point. The tone of her writing doesn't always suggest much sympathy for the situation of the parent. Thanks again for your important, thoughtful essay.

Raymondo (#10,980)

The only person who could have saved David was ALICE MILLER, and he knew it. But even so, it proved too difficult and painful.If only we could have more sympathy for the one who took his own life, we would understand – alas too late – that suicide is ALWAYS the ultimate mean of communication (ie when all else has failed). Bradshaw (to name just one) may have been a stepping stone, a step up on the staircase of "recovery"; but when you get to the top of the stairs, you are warned and admonished by a loud voice, which clamours that "This is NOT a witch-hunt, this is NOT about blaming the parents". This is how Bradshaw introduced his latest, sum-total work(PRSD-2000) and took the wind out of your sails before you could even open your mouth in protestation. Whereas Alice Miller stayed uncompromisingly on your side, right till the end.So why are fans and experts not dwelling more on the contradictions that David's life was?"I was raised in a solid, loving, two-parent family. "But by the age of 15, he is in the grip of depression, addictions and treatment centres. Does that sound NORMAL? Some people say that he loved his mother. "His regard for her was clearly enormous, though, he told Lipsky, "My mother's the best proofreader in the world, Amy's second and I'm third, as far as I've seen." (Amy being Amy Wallace Havens, his sister.) Others see clearly how "Wallace had some complicated and deep-seated issues with regard to the subject of motherhood generally….and Avril Incandenza, "militant grammarian," is a mysterious but also a monstrous figure, whose love is suffocating, all-encompassing, intrusive, terrible…..and how David's writings ARE about himself and his mother who he despises.So why would he choose his mother to be is No1 Proof-reader, if not because he wanted to SHOW her, and her to READ in his own words, what he was TOO AFRAID TO TELL HER? Or was it about seeking approval, or love, or maybe just a whisp of attention…Of course she never acknowledged it and the true message was repeatedly dismissed. And No2 Proof-reader, his sister who was a first class witness. Just as Alice Miller shows about Nietzsche, the audience is more than happy (as here with DFW's audience) to lap up the performance, but ignore the message, rather than hearing the author's pain, and rising against the crime and injustice.Wallace's notes…..especially in Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child reveal a person who felt himself to be messed up totally and permanently. He felt particularly nailed and revealed to himself by the latter book, one in which he blames his mother for quite a lot of his suffering.

This article speaks volume for present-day dysfunctions, addictions, suicides and their respective stats and rates (of INCREASE) and how NONE of the cures on offer work. Meds have now overtaken Arms manufacturing, and the business of "RECOVERY" figures right there at the top. Except nobody is getting any better. Just as there's no need for Asthma. Or Diabetes!

All a bit simplistic? Perhaps we should all revisit Alice Miller's books and her website. Therein lie all the answers. Free and available. Now let's make sure New Mexico does away with spanking this week.

Goodbye David. I hear you…..

@Raymondo The idea that one cannot even privately characterize one's parent's style, as one truly sees it, makes this article a bit noxious to me. I came to Alice Miller by way of Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery. To Ms. B. I say, despite your self-reporting here, there is still a chance that your child took your mothering "the wrong way," and you'll look, to them, like a "bad parent." At least your children will know not to bother to discuss it with you, or let you see their private libraries. DFW's work is not that of one merely seeking, but one running from disintegration; he's constantly trying out helpful scenarios, and looking to see if he's fooled anyone. But consesnsus doesn't matter, and comparisons don't matter, either. I nearly wept earlier this week, reading about his attempt to establish a third way in a binary logic system. But I too dream that dream every night. In private, of course he was seeking. A non-believer has to try every source, and test every footfall, is plagued by uncertainty, is looking for single toeholds of axioms of truth. Sure we can know everything there is about the classification and beauty of rock, but what way in to the social world for someone so hung up on getting everything right he was trying to resolve models clearly independent of each other. It is very hard to reverse-engineer constructions of self. Alice Miller's short bio on Nietzsche was inspirational to me; the work I did following that was a mutiny against syntax itself — and finally to a new prioritization.

DavidHarp (#10,987)

What a disturbing but fascinating — in the sense that one may be mesmerized by an object of horror or danger — article. On the one hand, it's disturbing to look so closely into DFW's mind via his personal notations in self help books. On the other, it certainly lends depth to one's understanding of the man, although for me not particularly of the work of the man which I've read.

To me, if I recall correctly (and I think I do, although not near verbatim level) a particular sequence in the middle of Infinite Jest sums up most of what Ms. Bustillos came up with here. To the effect that Hal (paraphrased) realizes "…that he needs their love, but it's not about love, it's about their need to have someone come up from underdog and win, and to do it again, and again, and again, it's never enough…"
I.E. that "they" love you for what you do, not for who you are. Whereas in AA, they love you, see your humanity, just for being in the room…

Again, for me, this is the point of "The Entertainment," it's the point of all these painful, sad, musings of DFW in the Miller book, and one of the things that most people, especially those designated as "talented" early on, must deal with to be happy or fulfilled.

That all said, Ms. Bustillos, thank you for your work, I think. DFW, wherever you may be, rest in peace.

Marioninnyc (#2,702)

This was a harrowing trip, and I'm sure not easy to write. It doesn't surprise me that Wallace owned, read and desperately sought answers in those books. Our way of thinking gets set, some of it may be simply be because we are born with certain tendencies. The truth is for someone like Wallace, probably the only thing that could have kept him alive longer would have been the right combination of a trusted competent psycho-pharmacologist, a good therapist — possibly of the cognitive school — and supportive friends and family. Even then there would have been dark and desperate times.

paula (#10,975)


Wow. It's been years since I've read anything this well-written. And not just the writing – the thought behind it, the detective work, the analysis. Though perhaps analysis is the wrong word – too logical and sciency, when the article was an elaborate dance with dips and twirls that made me smile, made me gasp, made me cry. And hits so so close to home. Thank-you.

@Carole Mandryk@facebook

I too really think this is fantastic. I think a lot of things in Harper's Magazine are also fantastic, and if it's been years for you, spend the twenty dollars to subscribe for a year:)


Susan of Texas (#11,006)

Ms. Bustillos has written a lovely piece that completely misunderstands depression and therefore is fated to completely misunderstand her subject matter. What she sees as navel-gazing is an attempt to discover the source of great inner pain, and what she sees as mother-blaming (something no mother wants to read) is the need to separate reality from the confused fictions that unhappy parents inflict on their children to ease their own pain. Wallace needed to acknowledge that he was loved for his genius (if that was indeed the case) and not for himself, with all his normal human flaws, and accept that he would never have the unconditional love that children need, and that adults need to have had.

Most revealingly, Ms. Bustillos expresses her own worries about parenting in this article, further confusing her assessment of Wallace. She believes introspection is self-indulgent and paying attention to the feelings, wants and needs of one's child is indulging them. Her own insecurities as a parent come pouring out of this article. She has no idea of Miller's theories, which state that we all all individuals and need to be treated as such, not as extensions of our parents, here to provide them with unconditional love and self-esteem.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Your paraphrases of what Maria said seem to bear little or no resemblance to what I read in her article. Can you give a specific quote where you think she says anything like "introspection is self-indulgent and paying attention to the feelings, wants and needs of one's child is indulging them", for example?

Susan of Texas (#11,006)

If you indulge a child too much, "respect his feelings" too much, then you become one of those doormats who lives in a nightmare where the child is a tyrant over the house, and if you discipline him too much, he will feel sad, lonely and unloved.


Just please back away from the mirror now, because it is all bullshit in there, nothing but illusions, illusions all the way down. Sometimes I think that the principal difference between those who are in general cheerfully-inclined and those who are not is that the former know better than to even countenance their own bullshit for one instant.

Plus the general tone of the remainder of the article.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

The first quote doesn't say that all respect for a child's feelings is indulgence, it says "respect his feelings" too much, the "too much" is important, as is the fact that she put "respect his feelings" in quotes, which suggests to me she was talking more about a posture of respecting feelings by never saying "no" to any behavior, as opposed to actual respect for feelings which includes the possibility of saying "no". That sort of posture of "respect for feelings" can involve not really seeing what the child's feelings actually are (including the fact that letting the child do whatever they want at all times may not actually be making them very happy), it can be an excuse for a kind of lack of engagement with the child. This is also suggested by Maria's comment slightly earlier, "But at the other extreme of the mom-continuum is the crazily indulgent freakish child-worshipping monster who believes that her child's every Feeling is somehow Sacred—to which you're all, hoy, lady, your kid is running around this restaurant literally screaming? Such children do not ordinarily grow up to be happy or well-adjusted adults, either."

The second quote seems to just be arguing for a little humility in considering one's own psychological explanations for why one is the way one is, which I think is reasonable and doesn't mean "introspection is bad". But certainly the introspection of a depressed person can become neurotic, and being too confident about one's own explanations can make one feel trapped in personality patterns that make the person unhappy…if one "explains" a pattern in terms of something set by childhood experience, that may not inspire great hope for changing it as an adult. I also think that there's a lot of evidence from modern science that suggests we are very good at manufacturing false explanations for our own behavior, see for example the evidence discussed in this paper that the left brain (where language is centered) has a marked tendency to come up with false rationalizations for behaviors that actually originated from the right brain (and as mentioned in this paper, even tends to rationalize away paralysis on the side of the body controlled by the right brain), or the evidence from Judith Rich Harris that I mentioned in an earlier comment (scroll up a bit and look for my avatar), which suggests that parenting actually has little to no influence on adult personality and that personality similarities between children and parents are due almost entirely to genetics.

Susan of Texas (#11,006)

We are speaking of behavior, the choices we make and the way we interact in the world. Our behaviors are affected by our interactions with other people, most especially those who raise us, when we are most young, vulnerable and impressionable. Miller tells us that children whose parents withhold love grow up to crave unconditional love, that people who were belittled grow up angry, and children who were abused grow up to abuse others. If people do not care to acknowledge those rather simple facts there's not much one can do, but they could have the grace to refrain from slap-happy moralizing.

Miller is speaking of letting a child have his own opinions, not too much sugar. Letting him have his own preference, his own goals and dreams. Not letting him run around a restaurant. Respect his feeling by not using insults, digs, put-downs or arbitrary commands. It has nothing to do with "never saying no to a behavior" and the example is ludicrous.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Maria said over-indulging a child and letting him run around a restaurant is bad, but she didn't accuse Miller of advocating this type of over-indulgence as you seem to suggest, she was just making the point that Miller focused entirely on one extreme of bad-parenting (over-controlling) and didn't discuss the fact that the other extreme (no control) could be a problem too. Her main criticism of Miller was just that she thought there was too much blaming-the-mother in her book.

Susan of Texas (#11,006)

Repetition is not a response.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Repetition of what? I had never previously addressed your claim that Maria accused *Miller* of advocating over-indulgence, I hadn't realized that was what you were arguing and there was nothing in Maria's piece that actually suggested that, if you think she did I suggest the problem is with your reading comprehension.

By the way, I notice that towards the end of this comments thread we suddenly have a bunch of people coming in specifically to defend Alice Miller from a perceived attack by Maria's piece–Mark802, Raymondo, you, Brian Roessler (all of you first-time commenters at the Awl)…just curious, are you a regular Awl reader, or has the piece been publicized at some site/blog that's frequented by a lot of Alice Miller fans?

Susan of Texas (#11,006)

You have no idea what you're talking about. Bustillos has no idea what she's talking about. Miller didn't write self-help books about parenting styles. She did not "blame the mother." She wrote how people mistreat their children because of unresolved issues that stem from childhood. She wrote how people have to stop making excuses for the abusive actions of their parents because they still want their parents' unconditional love. She wrote that one must accept the truth for what it is and stop seeking love from a toxic parent. When one does that, there are no longer any excuses for blaming anyone else for one's actions. That matter has been settled and must be left in the past where it belongs. From then on you must let go of your feelings of self-hatred and anger and resentment for what has happened to you. You stop blaming your parents because you realize that they couldn't help themselves, they are damaged people who were incapable of moving beyond their own pain, so they took it out on you. When you forgive yourself for being a victim you forgive those who victimized you as well. They were children once too.

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

I have no idea where others found this article; I came across it by chance.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

You have no idea what you're talking about. Bustillos has no idea what she's talking about. Miller didn't write self-help books about parenting styles.

I never said she wrote "self-help books about parenting styles" (neither did Maria as far as I can see), and I'm not even sure what you mean by that phrase. Certainly a type of parenting style was a major focus of her book, no? Are you denying that the book should be considered any form of "self-help", or are you making the point that the book wasn't addressed to parents, or something else?

She did not "blame the mother."

There are different senses of the word "blame". One sense is about assigning moral responsibility to someone and getting self-righteously angry at them for having done something wrong; personally, since I think people are just another type of animal doing what comes naturally to them, I can never really get too worked up about that sort of "blame", I like this quote from Einstein: I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper. (I'm also sort of drawn to Buddhism which I think takes a similar view towards self-righteous "blame" of this sort). But then there's another sort of "blame" which is simply assigning something a primary role in having caused something–for example, I can "blame" a virus for having caused a cold I'm experiencing. In this sense I think Alice Miller does "blame" parenting for causing psychological problems in adults, no? (if you read my comments to margarets above about the work of Judith Rich Harris, I think there's actually a strong scientific case that Miller is actually wrong that psychological problems of adults have much of anything to do with parenting, even though this is the common folk wisdom among psychologists and most modern Westerners)

That said, I do think Maria was talking about the former, more emotional type of blame when she wrote "I can tell you that it is a book that will make anyone detest his own mother for a week at least because that is what it is designed to do: to blame mothers." But I took this more as a statement about the effect she thinks the book has on typical readers (including Wallace, attested to by his notes) rather than some sort of definitive claim about Miller's original intent in writing her book.

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

Yes, you already said that. There's no need to be so emphatic about defending Miller from perceived "attackers", you seem to have a lot invested in the rightness of her theories but she certainly wasn't even a minor focus of the article and Maria's offhand comments about her seem to be almost entirely focused on the effect her ideas had on Wallace, not about her book itself. Similarly I have not claimed any special knowledge of Miller, I'm just defending the article from what seem to me to be your complete misrepresentations of what it actually says.

uh. so does this mean that we should think of Infinite Jest as a 1000 page suicide note now?

marty (#11,011)

Very sad account of a person who couldn't go on, who "wanted to just stop being conscious"…just wanted to stop the hurt. And with the imminent arrival of The Pale King, articles that focus on DFW's nuanced mental and emotional states will hopefully not be the last things considered about him. For, his work is not his life, though refractions of it might appear to be hidden in the text of his writings. Furthermore, his annotations should not be overly scrutinized, as if they were cryptic paths to an inner/divided/multiplied version of a self in the quest of validation and clarification. As for the undergraduate quiz: All the words listed have implied opposites.

dinah101 (#11,016)

After reading this, I couldn't help but wonder whether Mr. Wallace ever had a sponsor or worked the steps. It seems as though this was a man who was extremely isolated, despite everything. Very sad.

While there is very much to admire in this piece, and I especially appreciate the insight it shares with us via DFW's notes and thoughts about these books, ultimately I'm left with the same sense as Susan of Texas. Ms. Bustillos fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between family, depression, emotional honesty, and one's ability to have a meaningful connection with others. This is nothing to do with blaming anyone. DFW identifies the central issue on page 85 of The Pale King:

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or 'excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down.

What an amazing job, Maria. Thank you for sharing this material and for your beautiful writing about this extraordinary writer and human being. I have to agree with Brian (just above), though, that you might be misguided in your take on "The Drama of the Gifted Child" and how it affected DFW.

David Foster Wallace, the James Dean of literature.

His small ouevre has been ludicrously blown out of proportion to its significance by the postmortem exhortations of those who mistakenly assume that by pretending to like or understand his on-the-whole prosaic efforts at being clever somehow gives them more credibility.

Mental illness, coupled with being a pretentious, bloviating writer with barely two books under one's belt does not automatically apotheosize one as the Messiah to the literati.

Alsy (#11,052)

I can only assume you're trolling but want to respond nonetheless. He didn't have "barely two books" under his belt. He had two published novels, along with three short-story collections and half a dozen non-fiction books.

Whatever you think of DFW's fiction, if you've actually read even a fraction of his essay writing, I suspect "bloviating" would be the last word you'd use to describe it. Get back under your bridge.


PS "does not automatically apotheosize one as the Messiah to the literati". Pretentious? *Moi?*

What you said, Alsy. Very much. Award-winning short stories, award-winning essays, articles on topics as varied as gourmet eating to Roger Federer (which I believe also won an award), books ranging from fiction to explorations on math, hip-hop, etc. He didn't win a MacArthur Award for nothing (and certainly not posthumously).

But — for some reason — DFW brings reactions similar to Michael's out in some people. If you don't like him: fine, of course. DFW isn't for everyone. But I'd recommend his Federer article, his cruise ship essay or his "This Is Water" commencement speech before completely turning your back on him. He will go down as a very potent voice for a certain segment of the late 20th/early 21st century global population.

Of course, his was a tragic life. Need it now become a spectacle?
What's most tragic is this: in death, DFW has been given the same obsessive workover that he gave to his own characters.

Raymondo (#10,980)

Why are we not talking about the tragedy that Dave took his life? Here is a man – genius and inspiration to many – and he's dead. Is that not the only show in town? We know that " This man spent a lot of his life in terrible pain, desperate for an explanation and a way out." Why are we not talking about THAT, especially as it seems clear to everyone that this is precisely what he was writing about? It would be interesting to hear more about the details of his childhood. All we're told is that the parents were very fussy about English (plenty of "language", but zero meaningful COMMUNICATION?) and that MAMMY WROTE A BOOK… What a benchmark! But no, it's easier to talk about David's WORK, admired or unfinished, and ignore the tragedy which the WORDS THEMSELVES WANT TO COMMUNICATE. Just as with the paintings of Francis Bacon: we see the most valuable ART but choose to ignore that the images are all born OUT OF UNIMAGINABLE VIOLENCE AND ABUSE INFLICTED IN CHILDHOOD. Or with James Joyce: we celebrate Ulysses as a masterpiece, and even re-enact the whole show every year. But not a word about that the poor bastard wasn't welcome in his own country TO DIE, or that his childhood was steeped in family dysfunction thanks to his drunken father. When we choose to NOT talk about these things, we CONDONE them. So why don't we explore, and PROTEST the things that drove a bright young David to drugs and being depressed – BEFORE HE WAS 15?

paula (#10,975)

People can talk about his work because his work is- important to the world of literature. If one is more interested in his family life, then one should talk about that. As far as the things that "drove" him to depression. Hm. That just flies in the face of everything I know about depression and suicide. I happen to think that depression of his kind is a clinical, genetic variety. Certain life choices may exasperate it, but it's no one's "fault". And the whole "mammy wrote a book"- that is a seriously hateful thing, with hints of racism and just- I mean- what is wrong with her writing a book? Should she not write, because of her son? So confusing and wrongminded.
He wrote about many things, not just his depression and family. I love his essays in particular and his essays on tennis for instance. To compartmentalize his entire body of work- and to read his fiction as HIM, instead of his work, related to him, but not him- is to not understand what it means to write.
I don't condone abuse- again, so wrong to get this conclusion-but unless I were to spend large amounts of time with his family and very loving seeming wife- I can't say what the relationship really was. I think Maria treads this matter lightly- she talks about how close he was to his mother, how he even quoted her, took words from her. Simplifying him- he was abused and unloved and that is why he was depressed- goes against everything, everything, I know about the human condition.

bigpeep (#11,060)

Nice piece – I just had to take issue with your inclusion of Alice Miller in "best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation." Miller is a well-regarded serious author whose writing is both academically sound and accessible. Hardly cheesy. And your summary of the Drama Gifted Child is inaccurate. The "Gifted" in the title does not refer to the term as understood in the US (Alice Miller is Polish). As she explains in the book the "gift" is the overly sensitive child who can perceive and intuit his/her parent's emotional needs, limitations, etc. It is not "gifted" as in "high achieving." You might want to read the book before you make assumptions about how it relates to the David Foster Wallace.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

bigpeep, where did you come across this article? You're now the fifth person to post in the comments with the specific purpose of defending Alice Miller, who was a minor part of the article at best; I'm curious if this article has been publicized on some sites or blogs where a lot of Alice Miller fans are likely to congregate.

bigpeep (#11,060)

I just read it here. I think it got so much response b/c Miller was such an influential thinker and this article got it so wrong.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

Obviously you read it here, but did you find a link to it somewhere, or have you been a regular reader of "the Awl" since before this article?

Thats a lot of insight…thank you to all! Life is… for the most part…a lot of days and hours…months and years…….. yes…for many… long and sometimes messy…. …in observing people for 11 years……in my own self-help theme bookstore in California and now on the other side of the world…Oslo….observing people at the end of life….end stage care home work…..I see the struggle humans beings experience… just to get up the morning…lets not forget that many self-help and human studies books…. where written from a lot of pain..often a breach birth project…said many of the authors….when asked ….Just some simple thoughts from Oslo…and like the saying goes…Life is messy!

Thank you for opening up those parts of DFWs life to us. To me, you've well established DFW believed he cycled between performing and depressive selves and that he preferred seeing each of them from the perspective of the other self — a masochistic and profoundly undetached introspection. You've also well-established that DFW saw a release from that cycling in trying to vicariously think like selves other than his, i.e., "typical" selves in trouble as described by the self-help books. Unfortunately that also led to DFW's reliance on mirroring external views about him uncritically, perhaps as a buffer so he could mediate the efforts of well-meaning helpmeets. DFW also seems someone especially burdened by his self-perception of what Harold Bloom called anxiety of influence. It seems like he had problems distinguishing a systemic decomposition of influences from drowning in influences. But (speculatively) I think the overarching issue was that his internal critic was masochistic. If you don't aim to win, you're not going to fully work out or execute a best strategy. You'll set yourself up to lose. I wonder if DFW ever wrote about management consultants, because often they get paid extra to "do the hard decisions" and "take the blame."

Where I guess I part the ways is in your speculating about his mother. You report lots of evidence of DFW's manipulating and delighting his teachers. I doubt that was to please his mother. She and he both seem to have had monstrous charismatic talents. And he clearly had great guilt about it. What that has to do with Alice Miller eludes me, but her books have a way of taking credit away from kids and reassigning it to parents, and that sleight of hand displacement of blame seems a very American meme. Don't blame Eichmann, blame his mom. Then we'll understand.

I'm glad you brought this to us. DFW was an exceptional person. Thanks.

paula (#10,975)

well said.

As one who started on a path to self knowledge with the very same books of David's you cite; "The Drama of the Gifted Child", "The Divided Self", and John Bradshaw's on "The Family", – I can say that you grossly misstate the thrust of Millers work, and only the last might be perfunctorily lumped in a "self help" genre. Bradshaw walked the walk. He's not an ego invested Deepak or Wayne Dyer who's interest is to cover every new development in psychology and contemplative practice with their own image. Years earlier than you state, before others made it cliche, Bradshaw's "inner child" and "mobile" which dynamically modeled the family – this was a work of art – served as meaningful catalysts for many willing and able to do "the work". That task for David was greater than for most, (compounded by alcoholism) but it was clear that he made a heroic effort – and an experiential understanding of his reading material would be useful to all, not just those who write about it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Hello Pete (Maria here.) Apologies if I have given the impression that I don't think these are serious books. I do. I had read and made personal use of all three of the books you cite many (many! erf) years before I learned that Wallace owned them; that's why, in part, I was so interested in looking at his copies. I don't think "self-help" should be a slur; it isn't one to me. It is marketing-speak, though. And a lot of U.S. intellectuals do not think much of "self-help" as a literary genre, which fact I was making fun of, kind of clumsily maybe. Anyway, I agree completely that the "mobile" family concept is a work of art, one that helped probably millions of people, myself included. All that said, though, it seems we have a long way to go (with respect to medicines, therapy, psychology, philosophy etc.) before we really know how to deal with these issues in a way that can restore people to health completely, as Wallace's death sadly shows.

Ah! Marketing Speak. "Self help" is a (colloquial) slur, yet we can differentiate. One non self help book comes to mind. "A General Theory of Love". The way "to go" is always right in front of us. Through. No issues, no deal.

Not easy! Enjoyed your piece, engagement.

JD Vargas@facebook (#11,085)

Wait, this is The Awl, right? No, can't be. Jesus.

Raymondo (#10,980)

Hypnosifl: the only person I am defending here is the VICTIM, DAVID. I don't hear too much sympathy for him on the site, only the terrible loss and how much he will be missed. His audience and the World, have been robbed of a Genius, but only HE lost his life. Earlier in the text, Infinite Jest is likened to a "Paean to the 12-Steps." It may be useful to point out here, that AA ideology and Alice Miller just don't mix. Never did and never will. With regards to your concern about my visit to the site, relax: like a watchful eagle, my attention was caught by the reference in Maria's article to Alice Miller. And to say that "…she was a minor part of the article at best…" is slightly disingenuous. Both in the article, and in David's life. Here is a fresh link you may not know about http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIjS4K2mQKY

Not at all sure I buy DFW's "jes plain folks" routine — it seems kind of hairshirt-y to me.

To me he looks more like a self-lopping tall poppy.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Dylan Bryan-Dolman@facebook Hello, Maria here. Whoa that is a fine phrase you cooked up there. Makes me want to say it over and over. And yes, he suspected himself of that a lot, for sure. Both the good and bad are true, I think.

DavidHarp (#10,987)

To Maria — Thanks for commenting a few days ago. Should you have time and energy and inclination, as a fan of Alice Miller's work (and, of course, of some of DFW's), I'd be very interested in your response to those commenters who feel that your own thoughts about motherhood, and blame thereon, affects your feelings about Drama of the Gifted Child type hypotheses. Then again, asking a writer [you, let's call you #1] — who wrote about a writer's [DFW, #2] relationship to his parents in the context of his [#2's] self-help marginalia — to talk about her [#1's] relationship to another writer [Miller, #3] who writes about one's relationship to one's parents is perhaps a bit recursive…IMHO, though, you did come off as a bit defensive regarding Miller's "blaming" of parents. I'd also be very curious, in an admittedly ghoulish way, to know what other self-help books DFW had. Is a list of these available at Ransom?

barnhouse (#1,326)

@DavidHarp Hi there! Thank you for your note. I guess I have been down a very common road personally, of having "blamed" my parents quite a lot and then coming to "forgive", to see them as peers, necessarily-flawed human beings like all of us, rather than gods. Definitely though Miller's first book was VERY helpful to me as a kid. Then I had kids myself and (another common reaction) was stunned to learn how difficult it is to do right by them, and thereby gained another dimension of understanding of my own parents–? So it's a matter of judging Miller's first book in retrospect, through different prisms of age and experience. I have a lot of respect for her though I do think in the astonishment of her discoveries and the pain of her personal history, this first book was bound to be pretty ragey, as it is. Also yes, the full list of Wallace's books at the Ransom Center is here: http://catalog.lib.utexas.edu/search/X?SEARCH=david+foster+wallace&searchscope=29 .

Raymondo (#10,980)

(also, noting your earlier response on April 11 at 1h41pm)
Hello Maria, and of course THANK YOU for your article and the generous debate it has engendered. Why only refer to Alice Miller's first book of over 30 years ago, when she has written so much more, right till her death (today! April 14 2010) as well as the priceless contributions on her website by Readers and herself? Every single idea she put forward has been proved right. Out of YOUR finest universities have come the SCIENTIFIC proof / the pictures and scans, that the early-years abuse, violence or even silent neglect are causing structural changes in the developing brain, with a legacy of scars and lesions. The neuro-scientists and professors CONFIRM these findings, but unfortunately are not able to make the connection and condemn the BEHAVIOURS from adults which cause this damage in children. Of course there will be "chemical imbalances" detectable, but why should we surprised about that? In the light of these very recent discoveries, it could be argued that Alice Miller's books are not so much about Self-Help anymore, but JUST PLAIN COMMON SENSE – (supported by irrefutable evidence).

DavidHarp (#10,987)

@DavidHarp Thank you Maria for your response, and the link to DFW's self-help collection. Perhaps we need to perform a litero-psych-mathematical function and AVERAGE the "blame elements" of Alice Miller's early work with the incredibly anti-blame tirade in DFW's AA Meeting (the one where the Crocodiles" are miffed because, IIRC, a speaker at the meeting — a young woman who as a foster child was forced to see horrific behavior between her disabled foster sister and the foster parents — has had the temerity to imply that her addiction might have been CAUSED by her trauma [which, of course, said Crocodiles dismiss as "...a day at Six Flags Amusement Park compared to their own childhoods..."]). Thus Millerian Anger Plus Crocodilian Rejection of Causality might equal some sort of nuanced outlook in which we can factor in "what happened" as an partially causal element without using blame to deflect our sense of personal responsibility to act in the present…
Thanks again, david

barnhouse (#1,326)

@DavidHarp That is SUCH A GOOD POINT wow. That scene is such an iconic one, such a perfect example of the comedy/tragedy both going to 11. I am going to be thinking on these insightful comments for a long while. Thanks too to @Raymondo, so true about how Miller's instincts, clearly moving in the right direction and later confirmed by "science", fine, but where does this leave people like David Foster Wallace?

Thanks so much, everyone for these illuminating remarks.

moriah (#179,232)

@DavidHarp David, wow, don't know how much of what you wrote was directly from David Wallace but I'm guessing the AA stuff was in Infinite Jest? Crocodilian rejection of causality..great phrase. Now I am committed to reading the book

..some sort of nuanced outlook in which we can factor in "what happened" as an partially causal element without using blame to deflect our sense of personal responsibility to act in the present…

YES!! The specious blame shield doesn't work long term.
And YES, Barnhouse where does all the conjecture leave a person?
So I ask why do we deflect, blame and ignore the complexities of investigation and multifactor analysis and abnegate personal responsibility?

• Because we are overwhelmed in the face of it, mentally naked apes as individuals, personally biased, with conflicted interests on a one to one basis with others (by design with those we are closest too) and anxious in our own mortality and so we lack a bigger vision, lose energy and patience.
• We need interpersonal responsibility not only personal responsibility….a community of support in order to do a better job of understanding and treating the complexities of emotional pain.
• An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless met with equal force in an opposing direction. More than one individual created any other so it takes many more individuals to be that force encouraging another direction for an individual.
• Our brains use up more energy going in a new direction and how can we in a society that fears and experiences constant threats and acts of extradition from the community we depend upon have any energy left to do the complex work you suggest and I agree is vital for understanding and healthy evolution?
• Without a community committed to basic human rights more like what Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden and others approach it leaves people like Dave Foster Wallace alienated and the individuals and small groups who care about him helpless. Fresh air, clean water, shelter, gardens and or greenhouses in every possible neighborhood, medical care, health care, human treatment of all animals (as they are raised and as they are slaughtered even)… these things first then see if we still want or need 'happy meals' with plastic surprises inside.

I could say more here about Six Flags vs. Abuse and AA Crocs but my post is long enough as is.

Ryan P (#7,939)

My only quibble with this otherwise pretty great article would be with the suggestion that depressed people should not listen to the very self that they discredit so often. It's a suggestion that could help in many cases, I'm sure, but depression is more than constant toxic introspection, and in some cases can exist independent of it. I'm a lifelong depressive, and the sheer pain and misery certainly remains even when I have not fallen into any indulgently introspective habits for quite awhile. (Of course I have times where I do my brooding, as all do.) But if we can distinguish between thought and mood, I think depression per se is more properly associated with mood, whereas depressive self-perpetuating introspection is a kind of thinking that can accompany it. The depressive mood, in my experience, is more like a kind of mental weather, and one's thought is akin to what one does in that weather. A sleet storm may affect how you drive, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you slide off the rode and crash and die.

Actually, I'm not so sure that analogy held up. Basically I'm trying to say that I've have in the past been brutally depressed w/o being particularly wrapped up in myself. There have been days where I felt generally confident about my place in the world and my ability to contribute positively toward something (society, nature, world, whatever) greater than myself, where I felt that I loved and was loved, where I spent most the day engaged in decidedly non-introspective activities (generally trying to learn as much about the world and the people in it as I possibly could) – and yet, the ambient level of plain old sadness and pain would be so great that I was never *not* a suicide risk. I think the instinctive response to extreme pain is to find some way to end it, and when addled with the peculiar pain of the depressive one craves non-existence in the way that someone with a nasty sunburn craves a squirt of aloe vera. And it's in this way that depression can exist below/above/beside conscious depressive introspection. (And in my personal and intensely non-professional opinion, it's this sort of fucked-upedness that makes the gestures toward depression-as-heritable-disease or depression-as-result-of-screwy-neural-wiring much more persuasive. Not that I actually understand anything about the causes of depression. Just speaking anecdotally.)

Oh my god that was a lot to write about a tiny quibble. If I had the energy I would just as much about what I found so wonderful about the article.

"And Darkness was all over the Face of the Deep. And We said: 'Look at that fucker Dance.'"


artemis (#11,147)

@Ryan P
Thank you so much for putting into words how I often feel when people describe depression in terms of negative thinking. That bleak state's even more cruel in the presence of the knowledge that I'm loved and worthy and useful possessed of a good life.

elizabennett (#11,160)

Since Wallace's death, and in the wake of articles citing factual information about Wallace's childhood and distressing emotional dynamics in his family that to me dovetailed to a "T" with the perceptive and hard-won, not to say extremely un-cheesy, insights of psychoanalyst Alice Miller, I had toyed off and on with pitching and writing a think piece on Wallace, his problems and his death, headed "The Tragedy of the Gifted Child." The reading material and notes reviewed and described by the writer of this article only confirms my intuitive (and inductive) sense of Wallace's terrible dilemma, along with an accompanying sense of monumental bone-headed obtuseness by this article writer.

Folks, notwithstanding the current vogue for seeing mental illness as a purely chemical or biological issue, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, all mental illness has a psycho-emotional component, usually rooted in experienced pain or trauma, usually (not always) experienced during the period from gestation to about age 5. Without exception. That's not to say the biochemical and/or inherited predisposition to biochemical problems are not factors. But it IS to say that the emotional pain/trauma component is ALWAYS there in all mental disorders including severe substance/addiction/compulsion issues and ranging through clinical mental illness. Wallace was no exception.

The writer of this article has performed a useful service in bringing to light the evidence as to Wallace's own thoughts and feelings along these lines. Aside from that, the article is mind-bogglingly stupid and seemingly penned by an individual who cares little for facts or evidence, beyond a reflexive, knee-jerk outrage at and defensiveness towards the psychoemotional components in mental illness and addiction.

Was the writer too stupid and lazy to seek the known evidence out there about issues in the Wallace family dynamics during Wallace's early childhood, or did the writer have this information and knowingly ignore it in this piece? I hesitate to get into it because I am reluctant to brand the Wallace parents as monsters or some such. The very nuanced writing of Alice Miller makes clear that the "gifted child" syndrome is not always created by wicked or cruel parents, and is sometimes inflicted by well-meaning "loving" parents. The writer of this article seems to have chosen to conclude that Wallace's anguished dynamic with his very disturbed and, yes, "narcissistically damaged" mother has to have been a fantasy or hallucination because, the writer shrieks, the woman wrote a delightful primer on grammar.

Go check out what I am saying. It is a known fact that from earliest childhood, David Foster Wallace was held responsible for protecting the feelings of a clinically depressed mother, was induced to "protect" his mother from his normal childish needs and emotions, and was taught (I am sure with no conscious ill intent on the part of his parents—that's the problem) that his mother was so fragile and neurasthenic that he had to literally write requests on a piece of paper and slide them under her bedroom door. He was conditioned (again–I believe with zero ill intent on the part of his parents) to gain approval and love by performing—being precociously acute and precociously grown-up. As Miller detailed so brilliantly, this conditioning is often accomplished not explicitly, but implicitly. Perceptive children—and Wallace was nothing if not hyper-perceptive–pick this up and "earn" their love accordingly, and Wallace lived this scenario to a "T," including the Miller-described circumstance in which it is often the OLDEST child in a family unit who is "appropriated" to perform for the damaged parent. Wallace's mother herself, after his death, is quoted recounting a story of him at age four or five replying to a question about what he wanted to be when he grew up by saying, a football (or some sport) player, and also a neurosurgeon, "to help my mommy's nerves" or something like that. The woman offered this quote as evidence of Wallace's precocious empathy, but it is evidence of far, far more than that.

Were these dynamics co-existent with biochemical predispositions and vulnerabilities in Wallace, inherited or otherwise? Most probably….but the dynamics were there. They are in the factual evidence to be discerned by any careful investigator. Every breakdown he had, from the "mini" breakdown in adolescence when he dropped competitive tennis, concerned PERFORMANCE—feeling "not good enough" and unworthy. Every last one. His addiction problems were meaningless in and of themselves—their real meaning was as a cover for these deeper issues, which destroyed him. In a letter (I think to Franzen) documented in his final months, he made some allusion to NOT EVER having been psychoanalyzed or having psychotherapy. And there's the rub—reading books and going to 12-step meetings, helpful those these measures may be, are not actual psychiatric talking-cure treatment. And if ever a sick person desperately needed such treatment, say, twice a day for five or ten YEARS, it was David Foster Wallace. Granted—along with, anti-psychotic medication, and along with being confined in a secure place on suicide watch long enough for a safe dosage to be found. We have not been given the complete story on why these things didn't happen. God knows, he had checked himself into facilities before—did he resist it this time? If so, why? Why, why, why did he resist participating in intense, long-term psychotherapy along with biochemical treatment? We will never know. Unlike the writer of this article, he was perceptive enough to know where the problems lay, but seemed unable to truly grapple with the problem. Therein is the Tragedy of the Gifted Child.

Ryan P (#7,939)

@elizabennett can you provide proof for these claims about his family?

Raymondo (#10,980)

Wow Eliza! where do I begin? Firstly we shouldn't be shooting the messenger: Maria provided a very useful platform with her article, both from the points of view of DFW and Alice Miller. With regards to "the current vogue for seeing mental illness as a purely chemical or biological issue", this is only so because they have FINALLY LET GO the notion of mental illnesses having their roots in genes. You are right to point out that they ALL have their origins (95 per cent) in the environment. I would be very glad to see your writings, your "think piece on Wallace, his problems and his death", especially details and anecdotes of his early experiences in childhood. The article is void of any such information and details seem hard to come by. Perhaps you would paste some links to that effect? And as for cures and treatments, unfortunately there are none coming from the Alice Miller position. With or without medication or supervision. It was doubly-difficult for him as his insights were always seeking support and validation IN A VACUUM, our present-day society, complete with therapists and professionals. He did what he could: expressed himself through his books. But same vacuum, as is evident from his readers and fans, same dead-end.

scrooge (#2,697)

@elizabennett Gosh, it must be nice to be so certain of everything.

This is so beautifully written and true. Such a worthy tribute. Thank you, Maria.

Maria-thank you for this brilliant analysis to be read and reread. Time to reread some of Alice Miller and R.D. Laing as well.

Assumptions in this article that I disagree with:

Self-help books are cheesy.
Anyone who tries to frame out family problems, thinking they can edify others is to be derided.
People who seek answers for their hurt through any and all channels are just losers.
If drugs don't fix their "chemical" problems, they should turn to puerile humor and moping.
Families are not the cause of anyone's problems; 'family' is such an important ideal that the examination of any one family is unimportant.
If one once characterized one's family as happy, one cannot say otherwise.
Abused children are irreparably damaged.
Mothers are above reproach or examination.
Narcissistic disturbance is not a family pathology.
Coinages like "screaming fantod" are near the top of the list of best things about DFW.
All depressed people are the same, and channel DFW.
So, pretty much, I am glad to know the facts of the archive, but the analysis doesn't sit right with me.

Perhaps in writing "The Pale King", DFW realized that the larger picture of humanity and civilization was as doomed as his own inner world. Hoping to live for something greater than yourself only to find that "It" is not there. This can bring a person already prone to depression to the deadly conclusion that there is no point slogging through another pointless day.

Raymondo (#10,980)

Puzzles, Cross(ed)Words and Joining-The-Dots for a rainy weekend >>> see the following link for the latest:


Raymondo (#10,980)

@Raymondo, further comment:

One would imagine that, with the world-wide access to information throught the internet, or with "a little help from their friends", the concerned individuals COULD seize the opportunity to study and scrutinize the various opinions on offer, and this way WOULD make an effort to see, hear, learn and change. No better place than the world stage to redeem oneself.

Happy those who read between the lines, and take the side of the Wounded.

In their blindness and denial, the parties concerned will only DRAW MORE ATTENTION by their censoring.

And maybe THAT is the best news of all !

This post is excellent. Depression is so terrifying, his struggle really illustrated this fact.

moriah (#179,232)

My spelling and grammar are no doubt poor but I hope to share and get some love here anyway….
Wow, excellent insights…while Wallace wrote about taboo subjects you let his real self, the sloppy search side, have posthumous liberation something he did only in a perfected literary form. Few of us would have ever seen that part of him if not for your posting this. I think he would have been impressed, relieved and perhaps felt a bit more loved could he have seen the responses to this exposure. THANK YOU!!!!!! And really that is one of the ironies of life … we need others to know us better than our selves…how frighteningly vulnerable is that particularly when our initial Gods, our parents could often not stand the sight of us?

As for mother blame…easy target cause she is home and has the initially most intimate 'bond' with the child and bares a recent history of exclusion from participation at the world at large and so is likely to cling to the small world of home inordinantly. Nonetheless, fathers are complicit, passively or other wise and just as responsible. As is community.

As for the divergent agendas of self and others the cross is a symbol of the two's brief intersection and Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents about that perpendicular relationship which only cris crosses briefly.

What I learned from Self Help books is that they are mostly helping the self that writes them. The titles are an oxymoron given the reader is reaching out for someone else's ideas for help. Moreover a reader can die of thirst reading about water. We need, I believe, the someone else, many someone elses not just the ideas laid to rest on the page. Where is the community that balances the tiny dynasty of family? We don't have a healthy community in the US compared to some other nations such as Netherlands and Denmark and Sweden.

One gripe I have with AA is that while it says drinking is a symptom the whys are treated as irrelevant, the 12 steps, meetings and the abstaining from drinking are all that matters – there was very little conversation about the why of drinking. In fact the Big Book states it doesn't matter. What AA does offer and Wallace was lacking was community but a very rigid one in many ways that mimiced the strictly confined love of his parents as does the secrecy of the struggle, the anonymity.

Saw a great tee shirt that had on it "They comment on my drink but do not ask about my thirst" or something like that. Perhaps what DFW needed was to spend a summer playing really crappy tennis and doing improve comedy? Perhaps he needed brain washing of a hundred people telling him he is fine no matter if he writes again or not and badly or not. Or perhaps a public policy and community whose fundamental tenant are such. Oh, I forgot that if a person is lost they end up homeless without medical care or proper food…its enough to make anyone want to watch instead of live….his terror of extradition was well founded in some ways.

With all due respect, you are simply not equipped to handle this material. Not only do you lack knowledge of self psychology, or of any psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory (read Heinz Kohut), but most profoundly you lack empathy with the very subject you are trying to write about—Wallace, his emotional interests and needs and his struggle with issues of identity, meaning, ideals, and self-expression (this was a man, an artist, suffering from such a sense of worthlessness he took his own life), and worst of all you narcissistically interject yourself and your own lack of understanding in a horrifyingly glib fashion.

livex (#206,268)

About the quiz with the list of words, one thing they all have in common is that each of them contains a smaller word within it without having to rearrange letters (and not counting one-letter words). E.g. 'reign' inside 'foreign.' You have to take 'bi' as a word within 'big' for that to work, but I think that's OK.
Who knows whether that's what DFW had in mind, of course.

I wonder if what the words have in common is that their meaning comes from what they're not. You have to have knowledge of a relative antecedent to understand the concepts. They have no meaning without a counterpart or an understood point of reference to compare it to. They're all like word anti-matter.

Foreign — compared to whom?
Big — compared to what?
Diminutive — compared to what?
Incomprehensible — have to comprehend something first
Untyped — gets its meaning from not being done
Pulchritude — have to have a sense of the ugly to understand beauty
S-less — it's about the absence of s–
Unwritten — defined by not being something
Indefinable — defined by not being defined
Misspelled — have to have proper spelling first
Vulgar — have to have decorum to have vulgarity
High-class — has to be in comparison to something
Invisible — need things to be visible to have this concept
Unvowelled — need to think of vowels to think of not having vowels
Obscene — need propriety to have obscenity

Or maybe he didn't have anything in mind and just wanted to pick the most entertaining guess — if there was more than one winner, would all of them go out? I like the idea of all of them having other words in them, but untyped doesn't seem to be true, and s-less seems to be cheating (also, it has two words in it in that case).

Mrsladylady@twitter (#232,392)

It is so fascinating how the lure of the facade of the narcissistic family is so strong that it sucked in as big a fan as Maria! Her read on DFW's (very private) investigation under the surface of his achiever family as a brainwashed, misguided, embarrassing mistake, totally out of character, and as selling out his mom–wow! This brilliant guy, with major experience in the emotional transformation of recovery, was also publicly very polite (good table manners I'm sure an understatement) and so deeply tied to his public interactions portraying himself as this well behaved good son type. This kind of investigation and acceptance of truth of the hidden traumas of a narcissistic family (it is pretty textbook, actually) would have been very private for a "good son" achiever and something that only a great deal of pain would have led him into. It would have taken so much reading and review to really grasp the narcissistic truth under the facade and use that truth to start to unravel the depression. It probably feels shaky to assume DFW was just deluded & kinda dumb& cheesy in pursuing this path? Because he was so not dumb or cheesy!!And because it was not a deluded thing to do. His search into the horrible damage of a publicly acceptable but privately narcissistic family makes total sense. I love his recovery writing the most of all of it, and this search into hidden narcissism's tragic effects is in that vein. His missteps in life and as a writer were in avoiding the emotional stuff, the "cheesy" stuff, and his greatest work was in venturing there, away from the brainiac, risk- less, showy white man stale male Yale hipster writing. Anyone thinking that him questioning his mother & family is somehow a mild brainwashing or at great odds with his genius should feel alarmed.

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blog001 (#234,182)

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I think I got the quiz answer. What they all have in common is that they are "not themselves." I think that he meant for it to be answered idiomatically like that.

You're supposed to get hung up on s-less (shitless) by thinking, wait, it IS shitless because he threw the hyphen in there. But it remains true, because the new word means something different in this abbreviated form if read more literally; it means "lacking an 's'".

Also, "pulchritude" functions to debunk the answer that they are all words that don't describe themselves, that's sort of obvious because of the fact that pulchritude is a noun and can't describe anything, technically, which means that's not the best way to word the answer. The attention to detail to place a noun on the list leaves only one best answer: "They are not themselves."

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I have no idea if we are related, but I would not doubt it. I am a Reeves-Wallace from the Graham and Loving, Tx. area. I just wanted to let you know that I have a facebook page dedicated to the Woolly's, Wallace's, Reeves and Hammock's. I have recently lost all my family except husband, and I am the end of the branch. So I have all the photo's. Smith Franklin Wallace was my Great Grand dad, and Floy Wallace Reeves was my Grandmother. So, consider a friend request sent to you if you think you might be related.Thanks, Tracy Reeves-Cutaia

adiktao (#236,903)

Interesting stuff in here.

uprock49 (#238,014)

I was introduced to Miller's text in therapy for intense anxiety disorder + various schizoid-spectrum related conditions. Many folks are missing the point by focusing on the mother or the child as reified organisms, rather than the mother-child-context system that includes the organisms, their interactions, the various information flows into and out of each one and the error correction that takes place when something goes awry (for discussion see G. Bateson, an interdisciplinary thinker and early cybernetician that Wallace was surely acquainted with (see various discussions of scenarios dripping with Double Bind Theory (a GB invention), situations in DWF's work, e.g., Infinite Jest (IJ))… Wallace understood GB's Double Bind theory that Bateson had laid out in seminal ranging papers e.g. "Double Bind 69", and the "Cybernetics of Self" (the latter of which dealt with addiction and recovery via AA, but peered through the lens of type theory, systems theory and cybernetics to unpack the logic of AA's first 3 steps…)). The solution is not corrective action on the mother's part but the recognition and participation (as a humble component) in the larger family dynamical system that the mother is but of a part. Eliminate reification (the project that The Pale King set to tackle, is the inevitable byproduct of thinking carefully about such systems, understanding that the Occidental dualism of mother/child is a false categorization that only serves to foster alienation and damage, and to create a situation in which the mother-child-context-error-correction-(…) system can unfold in a more natural fluid manner, with less attention paid to the individual participants and more to the system that hovers a frame up (just out of reach if the mother is signalling in such a manner to create a double bind (BTW, using frame is a cheeky way here as it is a piece of technical vocabulary utilized by GB but also, obviously, a tip of the hat to DFW's meta-frame narrative roots)).

The case Miller outlines is the classical example of double bind signalling (which GB contended could lead to schizo-spectrum disorders, or in less egregious cases (genetically and environmentally) poets, writers, artists, theoreticians). In the classical DB, the mother signals with one gesture (lingual, physical motion, facial expression) that she loves her child (for example, assume she looks down at the child and says, "I love you."). That is the primary signal which needs to be frustrated in order to create the double bind. Further assume that the mother makes a strong grimacing facial expression and looks away after speaking in a distant, cold manner. Here we have the elements of a classic double bind, that is, the child is signaled to believe that the mother loves her/him, but simultaneously is signaled that the mother does not love her/him, but in fact, that the mother actually dislikes the child (this signal is communicated extra-lingually as is often the case). Thus, the child has two incompatible ideas about the world, a part of the world that is important and, as such, threatened by this incongruity. The only way for the child to rectify the situation, bring the world back into a focus that makes logical sense, is to "pop the frame" and move up in the hierarchy of nested "frames" that we are all always embedded in, especially when using language, and that form a set of Venn diagram Russian Dolls that the child must now mitigate. The easiest method the child can activate to bring the upsetting split world back into coherence is to pop up a frame and ask, in a candid reasonable way, why mommy makes terrible faces when asserting her love for the child. Assuming a thoughtful non-abusive mother that has the capacity (mentally and emotionally) to deal with such exchanges, she follows her child up a frame in the narrative and answers the query to her child's satisfaction (e.g. "I'm sorry sweetheart, I DO love you, however, I got momentarily distracted from our discussion by an issue that I have to deal with at work." or "Well honey, I love you but I am conflicted about you and my love for you and it causes me much grief and resentment when I verbally articulate my love for you and you are so filled with joy, while I feel empty inside. (Admittedly, this last one is a but harsh and pretty mature casual conversation but what with all the advances in pre-K pedagogy and our culture's emphasis on teaching our children to handle quite sophisticated problems (be they from problem sets or the "real world") at an early age, it might not seem so far fetched… And it seems a helluva lot more reasonable than raising a child in a stilted, stunted, communication-tangle where noise and feelings of terror and grief predominate, rather than one in which adults speak candidly to children and raise them to be a part of a larger system, to feel pride in taking a stand against reification, and opening up, dilating the information pathways that link the individual elements (child, parent, toy, cookie) into a system in which the participants are in a constant dance of creative becoming. All this is to say, I think DFW, having backed his familiarity with GB out of various jargon and scene elements (most notably the previously mentioned "The Cybernetics of Self," which introduces double binds, the map-territory distinction, a reading of the crucial first three steps of the 12 steps of AA, read via a cybernetics/information theory driven epistemology and a whole host of other conceptual machinery and theoretical thingys that DFW relies on heavily throughout IJ. Ex-reified mother-child-(…), there is no "problem," in fact, the possibility for it vanishes structurally. We have the system, unified, acting and interacting, dancing on the stage… We also have, if you spend a little time and do the reading, a tight theoretical framework from which to parse and understand one of the best novels of the late 20th century: Infinite Jest.

If a certain reviewer from the NYT (cough, the paper of record) had done a little homework and actually made an attempt to engage with IJ on IJ's fairly heavy terms, she might not have missed the whole point and penned such a heavily misread, sloppy, facile review of a piece of literature that not only created a new voice, that not only contained interesting formal "stunt-pilotry" and linguistic pyrotechnics (enough to entertain but not so much that it comes off heavy-handed), that not only took Gass' footnote tricks and Puig's (…) dialogical ellipses, Pynchon's funny names and eye for overarching structure, but that took all that the previous generation of pomo black humorists and technical grammar-weenie typological maneuvers and brought them into something that none of DFW's pomosapian predecessors (with the possible exception of Barthelme (whose prose is quite moving… in an keep it at arm's length with a tirade of erudition sort of emotion on the end of a fishing pole sorta thing) could accomplish (Pynchon's characters were intentionally (and awesomely) flat, Barth felt too much like doing a math problem (which I happen to love), Gass' prose was exquisitely academic which t-boned flavor-like into DFW's more populist aesthetics and Gaddis' ornate, flawless, research-rich, dialogue-driven, slices of polished verbage that absolutely astound, but again, in a manner that, strikes a higher (golden) register than DWF. Perhaps only Beckett, Barthelme's lexical father, rings through directly, rhyming with his (self-proclaimed) protege while finding his own anxious nerves to influence in the bramble of intertextual nods, burning originality, attention to detail, comic genius and quite possibly (and still decades on…) the most important themeatics that an American novel can (and should) sink it's Times New Roman teeth into: ADDICTION. If there is a place where writers might be of service her in the US, it is sitting at the nexus of the neurally ancient "GO" reward system, and the relatively new (in biological evolutionary time) "STOP" system that resides in the frontal lobe and puts the check on our animal impulses to fight or make for the hills, where science still hasn't quite put together all the details and where even if all the white lab coats were completely cognoscent of every single tiny inner machination of the reward/pleasure/memory/rational thinking gray matter conundrum, even then, the writer would still be morally obligated to take a crack at the single most important issue in the collective consciousness of the USA (and indeed all credit-flush, hedonistic, post-industrial, late-capitalist states), that is, our preoccupation with feeling good, great, extatic, for a price, even in the face of overwhelming catastrophic consequences for the individual and the complete divorce of the agent/individual/organism from the natural "intertwingledness" (to bring back a Ted Nelsonism – Computer Lib!!!) of all of evolutionary creation, a profound disconnectedness with the environment, with context, with our own sensors and actuators, with the flows that impinge and that we emanate, a divorce from all the rich connection that life has to offer, for the "chance to cop a buzz" or to "feel good for a sec," to "unwind," "have a good time" or "relax."

That is, we trade our connectedness and the reality of our beautiful relationship with our context and all the signals and response, for the next hit… of tennis, academic achievement, sticky hydroponic dank, of TV, of the movies, of stimulus that is empty and dark and atavistic, of a shot of dope or a hit of crack, we trade all of our humanity and our ability to interact with it, for a tiny slice of unreality. We go in circles chasing it, spiraling downward, accelerating, annular… We allow our "education" to reify us from our ecosystem, our home, and move to the dance of jingles, edgy anti-authoritarian ads for premium denim in just the right "wash," the treated fabric defining exactly who we are, signaling our cohabitants on this planet that, we are distressed, that we are torn and rubbed thin in just the right places (but rubbed thin in advance by machines or sweatshop labor, but never by the honest movements of our own body), the places that will get you access to the happening entertainment spots, the best wine, the sink herb, the cracklin'est crack, our frontal lobes completely removed from the flow, driven by a pure ejection of bile and product and emptiness; but an emptiness that with perseverance and hard work can be eliminated by retraining ourselves, clearing the cache and wiping the hard drive clean, by listening and learning how to be right-sized, to be humble, to be driven to find the correct area for us to do our part and contribute, without fanfare and ticker-tape in the air, just working honestly, for the good of the system, our ecosystem, the network of life spread out all across the globe, to fit just perfect into the gears of Mario Savio's famed beast and with just a few quick hacks, creative, technically adroit impulses of effort and thought, we repurpose the machine and with it, the future of the human race.

Pay attention, when a writer as gifted as DFW writed a 1000+ page tome on addiction and then, gives it his best to figure out how to be a cog, to allow onself to be beatifically bored (or perhaps focused on a task so familiar that it envelopes us like a warm glove). We've got a post-industrial late-capitalist problem, created by decades of post-war consumption engineered by the planners to keep America #1, to keep all the lawns green and the houses well maintained, all we know how to do is to spend most of our time doing something that we hate (or at best tolerate) so that we can inebriate and anesthetize ourselves of DVDs, PCP and promotion (contra person… at the risk of trading our humanity for that next Grand Theft Auto Deluxe Edition). David Foster Wallace was trying to point out the problem, in all of its myriad forms, and then work toward a solution, a life for people that includes a sense of purpose, a right-sized humility and a deep understanding that you belong, here, now…

Corey0616 (#241,800)

As a huge fan of Wallace's work, this was an interesting and enlightening article to read. At the same time though, it displays a disturbing disregard for any right to dignity or to privacy that the Wallace family had. I mean, is Wallace's mother still alive? If so, this is morally abhorrent. Even if she isn't, it's still pretty terrible of the author.

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I know I'm a little late to the party, but I think the answer to the quiz he gave his undergraduates is that each word signifies his feelings about the word preceding it…

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