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February 23, 1992|Charles Solomon

DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron (Vintage: $8). In 1985, the author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" found himself increasingly debilitated by a black, almost suicidal depression. In this frank memoir, he chronicles his battle with the poorly understood mental illness that afflicted Virginia Woolf, Randall Jarrell, Primo Levi and Vincent Van Gogh. Styron prefers the medieval term melancholia to depression, which he dismisses as "a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness." The grim syndrome that Styron describes, which afflicts uncounted thousands of people, has long remained hidden due to the shame associated with mental illness in America: His plea for understanding and aid for those who suffer from it is brave, and even daring in its honesty.

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