Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Self-Help Books Removed From Archive

In the spring of this year I wrote a piece about David Foster Wallace's self-help books that was published here in April. It appears that all the books referenced in that piece have since been removed from the Ransom Center's collection of Wallace's papers. The collection, which used to contain 320-odd books, now contains 299. The remaining book list can be searched here.

It never occurred to me that Wallace's estate would be in a position to rescind part of the sale of his documents to the Ransom Center; I wrote what I did under the assumption that these books would remain available to anyone who was interested in seeing them. I was very sorry—or rather, entirely freaked out—to learn that that will no longer be the case.

40 Comments / Post A Comment

alkali19@twitter (#42,376)

It's a good thing the Ransom Center pulled those books. It would be terrible if people somehow had an erroneous impression that DFW suffered from depression or other mental illness.

deepomega (#1,720)

Agh. Any official word on why? (Aside from the obvious bullshit reasons)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega Noop.

sullysull (#44,690)

@barnhouse did you call the estate and/or Ransom and ask?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

It was a very enterprising piece of research and it's not your fault if they got spooked. (Silver lining: Now the Awl is the sole extant source for this particular piece of literary history.)

@Tulletilsynet Dissertations everywhere will now have an Awl footnote.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

What glory. Even better, there can be bitter source-critical disputes.

hockeymom (#143)

You wrote a beautiful, factual, compelling story and this is a very sad reaction. Hopefully, they will reconsider at some point.

#56 (#56)

How odd. Has anyone checked the Strand?

Rosebud (#4,107)

@#56 More like the Co-op on Gaudalupe.

Aloysius (#1,808)

This is unfortunate. If nothing else it was an interesting idiosyncrasy, and it was to his credit that he was willing to engage pop psychology to explore the deeper significance behind its platitudes. Plus it's no shame that he explored any avenue to get some relief from the chemical sucker punching of his brain.

Those self-help books had intimate commentary on living persons. They should not have been publicly released until those persons were no longer living. I believe this was an oversight and they made the right call here. I don't fault Maria for writing the piece, but I think this outcome was predictable after its publication. (Although I'm surprised it took this long.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Marco Carbone@twitter There is much in what you say, Marco Carbone. But I am guessing that quite a number of people saw this material both before and after I did. The Ransom Center will have made copies for many of them.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Thanks for clarifying this, Ms. Schwartzburg. Why do around twenty-five fewer books appear in the online search list than did formerly?

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@barnhouse The wraith in the machine!

Rosebud (#4,107)

@barnhouse WHAT is going on? Did she delete her own comment?

iplaudius (#1,066)

@barnhouse Maybe Maria accidentally pre-empted the work of someone at UTexas, and they’re pulling the materials until that person can finish his or her book.

It’s Dr. Schwartzburg—no?—Molly Schwartzburg, who “ warmly encourages faculty and students in all fields to contact her with any questions regarding the Ransom Center.”

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Rosebud (apparently!)

@iplaudius of course you're right.

Stray Bullet (#3,237)

Am I the only one who doesn't see DFW as some sort of incredible gift?

I think the last thing in the world he would have wanted is to be deified, like he is presently.

@barnhouse Fair enough, it was indeed an irreversible screw-up. If they sent a takedown notice to The Awl, I'd feel icky, but instead they just pulled it from the archive, perhaps out of sensitivity to those living persons. For all we know they intend to restore them in the future. The Ransom Center can do what they wish with their documents, and if future participants think this is wrong they can send their archives elsewhere. But I suspect most writers will be pleased that personal commentary about their potentially living parents will be kept out of the public eye while those parents are living.

>>Those self-help books had intimate commentary on living persons. They should not have been publicly released until those persons were no longer living.<<
Possibly a HIPAA violation.

@Daria Labinsky@twitter I'm confused – I don't see how an archive comes under HIPAA. And then there is the issue of David Foster Wallace being dead…

kpants (#719)

@Daria Labinsky@twitter The commentary wasn't issued by Dr. DFW, MD, or a DFW HMO; it's the notes, marginalia and observations of DFW, a person who wrote for a living. Not sure how HIPAA would apply.

skahammer (#587)

My hope is that this development doesn't interfere with Maria's inevitable Pulitzer for that piece.

rj77 (#210)

I would *love* to see the Deed of Gift, err, Sale, for this collection.

theharpoon (#10,705)

@rj77 Holding records are supposed to be publicly available (unless, I suppose, there's some restriction in the donor agreement, which is entirely possible), you should contact the HRC and see if they'll let you look at it.

anonymass (#13,682)

Is this the wrong forum in which to say that I'm on page 490-something of Infinite Jest and really don't know if I'll be able to finish it?

Rosebud (#4,107)

@anonymass I'm reading it on a kindle so I don't know the page #, but the location #s tell me I'm half way through. Don't quit. We can do it!

darthchewie (#12,569)

Not hard to see why Bustillo's piece caused the family pain. Bustillos highlighted Wallace marginalia that blamed his mother for his mental illness.

@alkali19@twitter, @deepomega, @Tulletilsynet, @hockeymom Those of you who are faulting the Ransom Center need to get in touch with your humanity. His mother was not a character in one of his novels. She is a real person. If you believe our right to know these kinds of details supersedes the family's right to live in peace, fine. But don't act shocked and bewildered when they move to conceal themselves from your eyes.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@darthchewie It appears that these materials were made available to the public, incredibly, before anyone had read through them for evidence of anything that might trouble those close to Wallace. This is even harder to fathom when you consider the circumstances of Wallace's death, and the fact of his having been so troubled throughout most of his adult life.

The Wallace archive had already been open for many weeks before I got there, and I was operating under the assumption that all the materials in it had already been read and duplicated many times over. I still think that this is probably the case; the whole time I was there, there were always several researchers aside from myself working with the Wallace papers. I wrote what I did assuming that others had already been there before me, and would come after. So while you make a valid point, the bewilderment is not surprising, either.

BobL (#47,604)

barnhouse (#1,326)Posted on August 30, 2011 at 5:50 pm:
Thanks for clarifying this, Ms. Schwartzburg. Why do around twenty-five fewer books appear in the online search list than did formerly?

Since Ms. Schwartzburg deleted her post "clarifying this" how about somebody clarifying it for the rest of us?

I apologize for having an attention span that has kept me wondering about this for 2 days but I really want to be less stupid about what is going on. Were books removed or not?

barnhouse (#1,326)

@BobL The word used in the original post was "restricted".

BobL (#47,604)

@barnhouse er…… okay. Is this a new form of journalism where we get a word and guess/make-up the rest of the story ourselves?

Just for the record I think the Ransom or any such institution can do anything they see fit with their collections in order to ensure such collections continue to exist and grow.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@BobL You said "removed", the orig. author said "restricted". What can I say, the orig. author chose to delete almost in the moment I was responding. In a curious echo to the rest of this strange tale.

BobL (#47,604)

Yes strange indeed. A simple and straight-forward statement from the Ransom Center was/is all that is really necessary. There is always debate, so what?

Whatever role your original excellent article may or may not have played in this I think there are two paragraphs you wrote that sum up in a particularly well the problem of trying to understand the why of someone's suicide:

"I am making an informed guess that these things that we dwell on with our therapists—they may or may not be false, but almost necessarily, they're only the tiniest part of a picture that is so very much larger. To dwell on the terrible things is to miss the point. To fail ourselves, in a sense. But when you are that sick that is just what is happening, it's you missing the point, never being able to see the beauty or good in things because you are ill. It is the illness talking, and talking, and talking.

And yet our culture is obsessed with finding the causes, with talking things through, and with getting to the bottom of our problems by thinking and talking about them a lot. With solving the problem of depression. The book The Drama of the Gifted Child, suffers very much from that "self-help", inward-turned weakness. It is a good but flawed book that tells just a small part of the story of how to do family life. There is no blame to pin anywhere; there is a balance to try to achieve."

Let's hope that DFW's literary remains continue to be available to those who wish to try to understand rather than blame and achieve some measure of that balance.

compassion0117 (#232,223)

i just read Maria's piece yesterday. #1 – the piece helped me to not only understand DFW in a deeper way…it reinforced my own work as a person trying to solve the 'family riddle'. i am sorry that the books have been pulled. perhaps the responsible party will eventually give a good reason. though it might take a major amount of courage for the family (if it is the family) to return the books…this might be a great gift…a very generous act (if possible…now or in the future). this man gave so much. part of his ability to be so vulnerable and to share his gifts must surly be tied to his work as a recovering/recovered addict and the work as a very courageous soul (the 'self-help' books..journey…attempt(s) to heal). The Journey of the Gifted Child is a gift as well from Alice Miller. i am so thankful for Maria's article (though i do have an issue of the portrayal of Alice Miller's courageous book being 'lopsided'). had she not written this piece…many of us who identify with one or more of DFW's struggles would have been deprived of a very valuable experience. as DFW valued compassion…i have compassion for him as well as his family. perhaps the people/person who is responsible for pulling the books might see an opportunity for healing in Maria's piece and/or in making the books available upon request with the option of interviewing whoever makes a request. i certainly am thankful for Maria's work and add that it has helped me in my healing process. my gut feeling is that DFW would have wanted anyone who would be a suitable candidate for healing of any kind to be able to benefit in any way from being exposed to his heart, mind and guts. this is one of the bravest souls ever to put words to paper. bless him and his family.

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