for David Foster Wallace

just some of the work from a short life

Today would have been David Foster Wallace’s forty-ninth birthday, a day worth commemorating on this site. With Wallace’s suicide, I began asking the questions that eventually became this forum. Today, I’d like to dedicate DefineFunctioning to his memory.

Wallace dealt with depression for the length of his adult life. He fiercely hid his diagnosis, and today I regard him as the utmost example of this world’s (mis)understanding of the high-functioning mentally ill. He gave us literature unlike what we’d read before. His was a once-in-a-generation voice. He was a genius and had a MacArthur Fellowship to prove it. Since my first reading of Infinite Jest, I’ve read everything he published in his short life. He showed me what this language could be. He gave me and many more thought-provoking joy. He took his life in September 2008. I wept and wondered.

I began to wonder what it really means to be “high-functioning.” Perhaps because it was the death of a semantic phenomenon, I began to wonder about the definition of the words themselves. To be high-functioning does not mean to be better, cured, fixed, or even in remission. It doesn’t mean to have figured out how to live with one’s illness. In many ways, the high-functioning internalize their illness differently and sometimes more severely. Trapped in a Cartesian vortex, the high-functioning’s ability to reflect may only damage the efficacy of treatment. “I think [with a broken brain], therefore I am [what?]” The will to trust the one thing I know — my brain and its thoughts — turns on me. And without that trust, I devolve into desperate anomie.

Almost daily, I redefine what it means for me to function. Almost daily, I reject yesterday’s definition. Almost daily, I wonder again if the high-functioning are, in fact, defined by a will to think just to spite the brokenness of the mind. Almost daily, I reconsider that we are no different save for how others think of us.

It is impossible to choose a single passage that might mean enough to encapsulate the work and its author. I wear a pin on my bag that reads “Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est.” I occasionally tweet that line in defiance against adversity. Still, it’s worth it to try. So, in honor of DFW’s birthday, I offer you this from pages 12 and 13 of a game-changing book over 1,000 pages long:

“‘But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions.’ … ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’

I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.'”

“‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’

I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’

DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’

‘I am not what you see and hear.’

Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.

‘I’m not,’ I say.”

  1. Meggy said:

    Hi — you commented on a post about “high-functioning” in my blog, and I’m really happy that you sent me this way, because I obviously think about this issue a lot. DFW is one of my favorite writers (I used to say, “One of my favorite living writers,” but this is sadly no longer the case); I’ve read almost everything he wrote in his too-short life, and actually own a signed copy of Brief Interviews.

    I recently listened to an interview with his sister in which she described Wallace as being ashamed of, and embarrassed by, his mental illness. I wonder if this contributed to his decision to cease taking the MAOI that was working for him. I didn’t know him personally, so that is obviously conjecture, and is probably more useful to think about in the case of a hypothetical person with an MI. It makes me wonder about the connection between being “high-functioning,” acceptance of the illness, and how one behaves in relation to these two factors.

    • said:

      Clearly, as probably evidenced by everything I’ve written on this site, I’d be lying to say that I — like an entire generation of literary people — haven’t been enormously influenced by DFW. While he was alive, I obviously had no idea that he suffered with mental illness. Since his death, though, he’s taken on an entirely different kind of inspiration for me. We (the high-functioning) have the luxury of being able to hide if we so choose. While I’m personally very grateful for that, there are times when the hiding creates a great amount of undue stress in my life and contributes to depression. I am saddened to hear of that interview, to know of the role the stigma played in his ability to cope.

      Also, partially related: If I remember correctly, Lipsky’s book says that he stopped taking the meds because he wanted to try to write with a “clear” head — as himself, as it were.

    • said:

      Given the context of this forum, I really just should’ve asked, “What the hell is water?”

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