The author David Foster Wallace has been memorialized by scores of people since he hanged himself two weeks ago. The vast majority of these people barely knew him at all, so the online trade fair of grief, initially dominated by the McSweeney's website until Elizabeth Wurtzel's silver lame leotard threw its own shadow shiva session over at New York , has struck more than a few saddish literary men as more than a little vulgar. Oh well. Today a few people who actually did know him, including his parents, share the details of his last miserable days with Salon 's Robert Ito. He'd been clinically depressed for two decades, on "powerful" medication (and apparently also Skoal ) that made it possible for him to write — this may be vulgar but I have been too thoroughly inculcated in our compulsive culture of psychopharmacological comparison shopping not to wonder why they never tell you which — but the meds had powerful side effects, so he went off them in the summer of 2007, to apparently disastrous consequences. He tried electric shock therapy and other unspecified meds; nothing worked. He couldn't write or eat, and dropped to 140 pounds. He took a medical leave from teaching. A student is quoted saying his great genius was unrelated to his great depression. That student is wrong.
When David was 5, his mother recalls, he decided that he had two careers to look forward to. He would be a professional football player, for one. In the off-season, while the other players were recuperating or doing whatever it is that pro football players do when they're not running or passing or slamming their bodies into each other, he would be a neurosurgeon. His mother has no idea how, at 5, her son might have heard about neurosurgeons or what they were or did, but he had. The first day of his medical career, he promised his mom, he would take out all of her frayed nerves and fix them. "Somehow he knew about neurosurgeons," she says, "and he knew that my nerves needed fixing."