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On Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library

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.

Posted on April 15, 2011 at 2:22 am 0