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The Great God of Depression

Originally aired Summer 2018

In 1998, a brain scientist named Alice Flaherty developed a rare form of madness. She felt so compelled to write that she scrawled sentences across the walls of her house and her own skin. Alice’s quest to understand her own bizarre behavior led her to William Styron, one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century.

The Great God of Depression is produced by Karen Brown and Pagan Kennedy, with support from New England Public Radio. Music and sound design by Ian Coss. Julie Shapiro is the executive producer.

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THe team

Pagan Kennedy (Host) is a contributing writer at the New York Times and the author of eleven books. She has been a columnist for the The New York Times MagazineThe Boston Globe, and The Village Voice. In the '90s, she published a 'zine called Pagan's Head and was named the Queen of 'Zines by Wired Magazine. She has won numerous awards including an NEA fellowship, a Smithsonian fellowship, and two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships.

Karen Brown (Co-producer) is a longtime public radio reporter, print journalist, essayist, and audio documentarian, with a special focus on mental health issues. In addition to two decades at New England Public Radio, Karen has contributed to NPR, The New York Times, American Radioworks and many other national outlets. Her awards include the National Edward R. Murrow Award, The Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize, and Third Coast Audio Festival Award. For a selection of stories, visit karenbrownreports.org.

Ian Coss (Sound Designer) is an audio producer and sound designer whose work has been featured on The World, Studio 360, Life of the Law, Afropop Worldwide, Al Jazeera, and the BBC. He has produced several podcasts, including "Ways of Hearing" from Radiotopia's Showcase and “The New American Songbook” from The GroundTruth Project. More on all these projects at iancoss.com.

Thanks for additional support
 from Benjamin Brock Johnson, Whitney Light, Cathleen O’Keefe, Katherine Sullivan, Emily Jones, Abby Holtzman, Ian Fox, Audrey Mardavich, Alex Braunstein, and the PRX Podcast Garage. Thanks to Jack Gilpin, who read for us from Styron’s works, And a very special thanks to Alice Flaherty and Rose Styron, as well as to Alexandra and Tom Styron.

Archival material for the series came from the Rubinstein Library at Duke University, The DANA Foundation, a 1990 interview by NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, produced by WHYY, and the Diane Rehm Show, produced by NPR and WAMU. We also used material from the 92nd Street Y, biographer Jim West, filmmaker Joel Foreman, and the Sun Valley Writers Conference, an annual conference where readers and writers come together to celebrate ideas. Thanks to Librivox reader Stewart Wills for the Moby Dick excerpts. Sarah Shapiro designed our logo. And Michael Vitale and Shane Allesio performed additional music for the series.

 

CHAPTER ONE: THE NIGHT KINGDOM

After a personal tragedy, newly minted neurologist Alice Flaherty falls into a rabbit hole of mania, delusions and creative overload—and encounters a famous writer who revolutionized the conversation about mental illness.

 Dr. Alice Flaherty reenacts her hypergraphia, a compulsion to write.

Dr. Alice Flaherty reenacts her hypergraphia, a compulsion to write.

 Alice Flaherty would often write on anything available to her, including her own skin.

Alice Flaherty would often write on anything available to her, including her own skin.

 

CHAPTER TWO: THE ANGEL OF DEATH

On the heels of enormous literary success, author William Styron experiences a near-fatal depression and emerges as a defender of the mentally ill. Neurologist Alice Flaherty tries to balance a rare mental disorder with the birth of her healthy twins.

 A still of William Styron walking through a graveyard near his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, from Joel Foreman's 1982 documentary about the author.

A still of William Styron walking through a graveyard near his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, from Joel Foreman's 1982 documentary about the author.

 This print depicts an "angel of death," a motif often seen on gravestones, and a fascination of Styron's.

This print depicts an "angel of death," a motif often seen on gravestones, and a fascination of Styron's.

 

CHAPTER THREE: THE STOLEN BRAIN

After writing a revolutionary memoir, William Styron declares he has beaten depression, but he is wrong. A frightening repeat of madness and writers block brings on shame and desperate measures. He seeks help from brilliant neurologist Alice Flaherty, who has herself admitted to being “openly crazy.” Can she save him?

 William and Rose Styron.

William and Rose Styron.

 Alice Flaherty was being interviewed regularly in the 1990's.

Alice Flaherty was being interviewed regularly in the 1990's.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: THE WHITE WHALE

William Styron could never finish the war novel that was meant to be his masterpiece. Did that failure lead to his final depression? Or did depression stop him from writing? He and his doctor Alice Flaherty pore over the question together, trying to ward off his suicidal fears and a baffling paralysis, until his wife makes an unconventional and risky suggestion.

 William Styron in his Marine Corps uniform. He served in two wars before winning a Pulitzer Prize. Photo Credit: Special Collections. Duke University Library.

William Styron in his Marine Corps uniform. He served in two wars before winning a Pulitzer Prize. Photo Credit: Special Collections. Duke University Library.

 William Styron struggled with the guilt he felt over the bombing of Hiroshima. This is an image of the "Little Boy" atomic bomb being loaded onto the Enola Gay.

William Styron struggled with the guilt he felt over the bombing of Hiroshima. This is an image of the "Little Boy" atomic bomb being loaded onto the Enola Gay.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE SHINING WORLD

In the final episode, after years of struggle with depression, William Styron keeps his bargain with his readers, and his wife manages to keep up his will to live until the very end. Alice Flaherty emerges from her own years of madness to a happier life, albeit a less literary one.

 Alice and her twin daughters.

Alice and her twin daughters.

 Styron's grave, with a quote from his translation of Dante.

Styron's grave, with a quote from his translation of Dante.

BONUS: A VISIT WITH TONY SHALHOUB

Actor Tony Shalhoub is well known for his role as one of the few openly mentally ill characters in television – an obsessive compulsive detective on the long-running show Monk.

In this bonus episode, Shalhoub sits down with co-producer Karen Brown to read passages from William Styron's work, and share his perspective on mental illness and creativity.

 Actor Tony Shalhoub at the Paley Center for Media in 2008.  Photo by Kristin Dos Santos / Creative Commons

Actor Tony Shalhoub at the Paley Center for Media in 2008.
Photo by Kristin Dos Santos / Creative Commons

 William Styron in his writing room on Martha's Vineyard in 1989. Photo by William Waterway Marks / Creative Commons

William Styron in his writing room on Martha's Vineyard in 1989.
Photo by William Waterway Marks / Creative Commons