PART MEMOIR AND PART ELEGY, Reading My Father is the story of a daughter coming to know her father at last. “A natural writer, fluid, and engaging” (The Boston Globe), Alexandra Styron grew up in Connecticut and on Martha’s Vineyard, where her family’s vibrant social life included writers, presidents, and entertainers. She was raised under both the halo of her father’s brilliance and the long shadow of his troubled mind. William Styron, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, was a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, Darkness Visible, searingly chronicled his midlife battle with major depression. “By turns brilliant and shocking” (The New York Times Book Review), Reading My Father is a tale of a daughter’s love and her own coming-of-age, beautifully written, with humor, understanding, and grace.
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WE BURIED MY father on a remarkably mild morning in November 2006. From our family’s house on Martha’s Vineyard to the small graveyard is less than a quarter mile, so we walked along the road, where, it being off-season, not a single car disturbed our quiet formation. Beneath the shade of a tall pin oak, we gathered around the grave site. Joining us were a dozen or so of my parents’ closest friends. The ceremony had been planned the way we thought he’d have liked it—short on pomp, and shorter still on religion. A couple of people spoke; my father’s friend Peter Matthiessen, a Zen priest, performed a simple blessing; and, as a family, we read the Emily Dickinson poem that my father had quoted at the end of his novel Sophie’s Choice.
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
My father had been a Marine, so the local VA offered us a full military funeral. Mindful of his sensibilities, we declined the chaplain. We also nixed the three-volley salute. But we were sure Daddy would have been pleased by the six local honor guards who folded the flag for my mother, and the lone bugler who played taps before we dispersed. Of military service, my father once wrote, “It was an experience I would not care to miss, if only because of the way it tested my endurance and my capacity for sheer misery, physical and of the spirit.” The bugler, then, had honored another of my father’s quirks: his penchant for a good metaphor.
A year and a half later, I was walking across the West Campus Quad of Duke University, my father’s alma mater. Passing beneath the chapel’s Gothic spire, I opened the heavy doors of Perkins Library and headed for the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. It is there that the William Styron Papers, 22,500 items pertaining to his life and work, are housed. I was at the end of my third trip to North Carolina in as many months. Before I flew home to New York that afternoon, there were two big boxes I still hoped to get a look through.
In 1952, when he was twenty-six, my father published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. The book was an immediate success, and he was soon hailed as one of the great literary voices of his generation. Descendants of the so-called Lost Generation, my father and his crowd, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, embraced their roles as Big Male Writers. For years they perpetuated, without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century literature a muscular, glamorous aura. In 1967, after the disappointing reception of his second novel, Set This House on Fire, my father published The Confessions of Nat Turner. It became a number one bestseller, helped fuel the tense national debate over race, and provoked another one regarding the boundaries of artistic license. Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979, won him critical and popular success around the world. Three years later, with the release of the film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, that story also brought him an extraliterary measure of fame. Winner of the Prix de Rome, American Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and France’s Légion d’Honneur, my father was considered one of the finest novelists of his time. He was also praised, perhaps by an even larger readership, for Darkness Visible, his frank account of battling, in 1985, with major clinical depression. A tale of descent and recovery, the book brought tremendous hope to fellow sufferers and their families. His eloquent prose dissuaded legions of would-be suicides and gave him an unlikely second act as the public face of unipolar depression.
As it turned out, the illness wasn’t finished with my father. I think we all recognized, in the aftermath of his cataclysmic breakdown, that Bill Styron had always been depressed. A serious drinker, he relied on alcohol not only to self-medicate but to charm the considerable powers of his creative muse. When, at sixty, liquor began to disagree with him, he was surprised to find himself thoroughly unmanned. For many years after his ’85 episode, he maintained a fragile equilibrium. But the scars were deep, and left him profoundly changed. He was stalked by feelings of guilt and shame. Several setbacks, mini major depressions, humbled him further and wore a still deeper cavity in the underpinnings of his confidence. It seems that my father’s Get out of Jail Free card had been unceremoniously revoked. And though he went about his business, he’d become a man both hunted and haunted.
* * *
ONE DAY WHEN I was still a baby, not yet old enough to walk, my mother went out, leaving me in the care of my seven-year-old brother, Tommy, and nine-year-old sister, Polly. Before she left, my mother placed me in my walker. For a while, Polly, Tommy, and the two friends they had over played on the ground floor of our house while I gummed my hands and tooled around the kitchen island. Then, one by one, the older kids drifted outside. Maybe a half hour later, they found themselves together at Carl Carlson’s farm stand at the bottom of our hill. On the makeshift counter of his small shed, Carl sold penny candy; no one could resist a visit on the couple of days a week he was open. It took a little while, scrabbling over bubble gum and fireballs, before, with a sickening feeling, my siblings realized that nobody was watching the Baby. Racing back up the hill, Polly burst into the kitchen but couldn’t find me. After a minute or so, she heard a small moaning sound and followed it to the basement door. I was still strapped in my walker, but upside down on the concrete floor at the bottom of the rickety wood stairs. My forehead had swelled into a grotesque mound. My eyes were glassy and still. Cradling me, Polly and Tommy passed another stricken, terrified hour before my mother got home and rushed me to the hospital.
I’ve known this famous family story for as long as I can remember. But I was in my thirties before Polly confessed a detail I’d never known: our father was upstairs napping the whole time. Afraid for her own life as much as for mine, she couldn’t bring herself to wake him.
Until 1985, my father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one. At times querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to admit. But the same malaise that so decimated my father’s equanimity when he was depressed also quelled his inner storm when he recovered. In my adult years, he became remarkably mellow. A lion in winter, he drank less and relaxed more. He showed some patience, was mild, and expressed flashes of great tenderness for his children, his growing tribe of grandchildren, and, most especially, his wife.
He also managed, for the first time, to access some of his child-hood’s unexamined but corrosive sorrows. In 1987 my father wrote “A Tidewater Morning,” a short story in which he delivered a poignant chronicle of his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. The story would become the title of a collection of short fiction, published in 1993, that centered on the most significant themes of his youth. During these years he also wrote several essays for The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, Newsweek, and other magazines. He published a clutch of editorials; wrote thirty some odd speeches, commencement addresses, eulogies, and tributes; and traveled frequently to speak on the subject of mental illness.
As for long fiction, it was less clear what he was doing. (If there was a golden rule in our house when I was growing up, it was, unequivocally, “Don’t ask Daddy about his work.”) First and foremost, my father was a novelist. “A high priest at the altar of fiction,” as Carlos Fuentes describes him, he consecrated himself to the Novel. He wrote in order to explore the sorts of grand and sometimes existential themes whose complexity and scope are best served by long fiction. With a kind of sacred devotion, he kept at it, maintaining his belief in the narrative powers of a great story—and he suffered accordingly in the process. His prose, laid down in an elegant hand on yellow legal pads with Venus Velvet No. 2 pencils, came at a trickle. He labored over every word, editing as he went, to produce manuscripts that, when he placed the final period, needed very little in the way of revision. But, even at the height of his powers, this meant sometimes a decade or more between major works. Like that of a marathoner running in the dark, my father’s path was sometimes as murky as it was long.
* * *
THE AIR-CONDITIONED HUSH of the Duke library was, as always, a relief to me. Zach, my favorite student employee, gave me his familiar smile and nod, then passed a small lock across the circulation desk. If you’ve ever spent time in a rare book library, you know that the system for protecting its contents can be a little intimidating. You may not bring coats or hats, purses or bags of any kind into the reading room. No snacks or drinks, including water. Pencils only. And notebooks, but preferably without the complicated pockets or linings that might abet an act of smuggling, were you so inclined. White cotton gloves are provided for handling photographs. And at Duke, anyway, they’ll give you a sheet of laminated paper to use as a place marker, plus a folder for transferring documents up to the copier. When you leave, you’re subject to inspection. Notebooks are riffled, papers are stamped. It’s a polite but mandatory ritual, necessary for the safekeeping of all that is unique and fragile under the institution’s custodial care. When I started spending time at the library, I was struck by how curiously familiar it all was to me. Then I had a good laugh when I realized why: it’s a lot like the routines of a psychiatric hospital.
Taking a spot at one of the long wood tables, I flipped through the inventory list for the call numbers of the boxes I would need that morning. Up until then, I’d spent most of my time at Duke reading my father’s correspondence, trying to shake loose some memories of this man I’d rather impetuously agreed to write a book about. Somehow, in the time since his death, I’d mentally misplaced him. I thought if I heard his voice, sifted through his epistolary remains, he’d resurface—which he did, and then some. Not only had I begun to remember the father I’d known but I became acquainted with the son, mentor, and friend he was to others. In addition to the letters, I’d trolled through scrapbooks, magazine essays, interview transcripts, journals, audiocassettes, and all sorts of other ephemera. Being neither a scholar nor a critic, I’d written off my list the enormous cache of typescripts, proofs, and fragmentary monographic work that had been published before. After several months of work, there were only a couple more boxes of curiosity to me: “WS16: Speeches Subseries, 1942–1996,” and “WS17: Unfinished Work Subseries, 1970–1990s and undated.”
* * *
IN THE EARLY 1970s, shortly after the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, my father began work on a new novel. The Way of the Warrior, its title taken from the Japanese Bushido, or samurai code of conduct, was a World War II story. In it he hoped to explore the military mind-set, and his own ambivalence about the glory and honor associated with patriotic service. Just as the civil rights movement echoed in the themes of Nat Turner, my father’s new book, conceived during the Vietnam conflict, would, he hoped, gather force from the timeliness of its subject. But the central elements of the story failed to coalesce, and Daddy grew discouraged. Then, in 1973, he awoke from a powerful dream about a woman, a Holocaust survivor, he’d encountered while living in Brooklyn as a young man. Putting aside The Way of the Warrior, he quickly began work on his new idea. Six years later, Random House published Sophie’s Choice.
Just as some people can tag a family event by remembering what bank Dad was indentured to that year or which shift Mom worked, each phase of my youth is joined in my mind to the novel my father was writing at the time. I was twelve years old when Sophie’s Choice came out. Newly arrived on the shores of adolescence, I was acutely conscious of myself and my family’s place in the world. It seemed I’d been waiting my entire life for my father to finish whatever he was doing. With only the vaguest memory of Nat Turner, I’d begun to seriously doubt my father did anything really except sleep all morning and spend the rest of the day stomping in and out through his study door. So it was a huge personal relief to me when Sophie’s Choice was completed at last, validating my father’s years of work and, in the process, me.
If the story of Sophie played in the background of my schoolgirl years, my father’s book about the Marines set the mood through my teens. In the early eighties, after the hullabaloo surrounding Sophie had died down, he returned to The Way of the Warrior with renewed vigor. The project, his Next Big Book, took on a kind of stolid permanence in our home, like a sofa around which we were subconsciously arrayed. About this time, I left home, as my siblings had before me, for boarding school. And though I knew little about what my father was writing, it was useful to have the title. For the part of myself defined by his profession—and for anyone who asked—it was enough.
In its 1985 summer reading issue, Esquire magazine published “Love Day,” billing it as an excerpt from his long-awaited novel. My father was showered with mail, from friends and fans alike, the reaction immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The world had been put on alert. Bill Styron was at it again; great American literature would live to see another day.
And then he cracked up.
These days, the characterization of my father’s illness would be readily identifiable. But this was back in the Stone Age of clinical depression. The mid-eighties was not only a pre-Prozac world but one without any of the edifying voices that would cry out from the wilderness in the years ahead. There was no Kay Jamison, no Andrew Solomon, and, of course, no Bill Styron—no one yet back from the fresh hell of depression with any cogent field notes. So, like everybody else around my father, our family was mystified by his sudden spiral. By his paralytic anxiety, his numb affect, his rambling, suicidal ideation. He had everything going for him, didn’t he? Loving family, towering talent, money, friends. When, just before Christmas, my mother admitted him with his consent to the psychiatric ward of Yale–New Haven Hospital, we had absolutely no idea what would become of him. When he emerged two months later, declaring himself cured, we were just as quick as he was to embrace the diagnosis.
For the third time, he returned to The Way of the Warrior. I don’t know for how long he worked at it this go-round. Away at college by then, I was not only uninterested in my father but determinedly on the run from him, from my mother, from the whole crazy-town scene in which I was raised. Fulfilling my long-standing efforts to grow up as fast as I could, I’d moved with my much older boyfriend into a stodgy building where I lived like someone three times my age. Like someone who neither had, nor needed, parents, especially ones as nutty as mine.
What remained between my father and me was our enduring common ground, and practically the only place we ever met: our shared sense of humor. The youngest of my parents’ four children by a wide margin, I was known, long past the time it was seemly, as the Baby. As a girl, I often found myself home alone with him. My sisters and brother were all gone by the time I was in fourth grade; my mother, escaping the tinderbox her marriage had become, had begun traveling constantly by the time I was five. The house where we spent most of the year, a creaky old Connecticut farmhouse bound by woods, was scary. My father was scarier. I survived by employing a child’s best instinct for getting what she needs. I didn’t whine, I didn’t demand, and I hid my multiple failings and fears behind a smooth and carefully cultivated mask of self-sufficiency. But, above all, I soothed my father’s savage breast by making him laugh—and standing up to even the most extreme of his humor in kind.
After Darkness Visible, my father was inundated by mail. Not simple fan letters but the raw outpourings of depression’s many victims—breathless fellow escapees; those still in its clutches; the grief-struck mothers, husbands, and daughters of the countless suicides who simply could not live with the pain one more day. Occasionally, his readers breached the boundaries of letter writing. People accosted him on the street, at parties, when he lectured. They spoke to him as though he were, at the very least, a supremely trained doctor, if not some divine medium who might heal them with empathy. More than once, he got a late-night call from the police. Someone somewhere was intent on committing suicide, but they kept mentioning Bill Styron. Was it possible he might try talking the poor fellow down?
My father devoted an enormous amount of time, time that might otherwise have been spent on his own work, reacting to his readers. He talked and wrote, listened and opined. Of course, not everyone who reached out to him was a fan. The day’s post often included missives from disgruntled readers who didn’t think much of his opinions on mental health, or who urged him to consider their own protocols for recovery and happy living. And some were just plain bananas (which came as no surprise to him—my father was the first to admit he himself had, during his depressive episode, been totally off his rocker). He’d always received mail from cranks and kooks—writing about slavery and the Holocaust will bring them out of the woodwork—but never as many as after Darkness Visible.
During my visits to Duke, I read through scores of these letters. Most of them are intimate, confessional, harrowing, and occasionally inspiring. Taken collectively, they are a stunning testament to the power of my father’s memoir. But they’re also completely overwhelming, a kind of paper Babel from which even the most patient psychiatrist might flee in search of quiet and sanity. As I flipped through them, I began to imagine all this material peck-peck-pecking away at my father’s still fragile psyche. Every day, year after year. I also thought, not for the first time, of the exquisite irony embedded in my father’s relationship with his readers, an irony I was still trying to reconcile as I worked to make sense of the man after his death: how could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental asshole to the people closest to him?
I felt like picking the letters up by the fistful and shouting into the silence of the library, PEOPLE! Do you have ANY idea who you are dealing with here?
In the spring of 2000, fifteen years after his first depression, my father once again heard “the wind of the wing of madness.”* Swiftly, he succumbed to a depression easily as fierce as his 1985 episode. In June, Mum admitted him to the Yale Psychiatric Institute. Thrown again into triage mode, all of us gathered around. We took turns sitting with him, monitoring his bouts of psychosis, consulting with his doctors, and walking him along the fluorescent-lit corridors of the ward. When the four kids—Susanna, Polly, Tom, and me, now adults—were alone together, we fretted and laughed and traded “you won’t believe what happened today” stories. And each of us, pushing the mute button on our ambivalent feelings, willed our father onward in the hope that he’d achieve the same kind of recovery he’d had before. Not this time. Our father left YPI later that summer, sprung by our mother after a frightful and chaotic two months, in which any improvement in his mood was entirely undone by his physical deterioration. He came home to the Vineyard, ragged, out of his mind, patched together with psychopharmaco-logical tape and thread. And then the shit really hit the fan. Though he would live another six years, the summer of 2000 undisputedly marked the beginning of the end.
* * *
A COUPLE OF years before my father’s death, I caught a glimpse of his last manuscript. It was September, and my husband and I had taken our son up to the house in Connecticut, which had for months been uninhabitable. The prior spring, in a perfect metaphoric act, a prolonged stretch of rain had caused the living room floor to collapse. Inspections revealed not only water damage but termites, a dodgy foundation, and a fireplace hearth of highly questionable integrity. My mother relocated to the Vineyard place, from which my father came and went on what had become a merry-go-round of hospital stays. A crew spent the summer propping up and patching the Connecticut house, while in Massachusetts our family continued a similar project on Daddy. No one, except maybe our unrestrainedly optimistic mother, expected him to write again.
I’d been wandering around the house, checking on the state of things, when I walked into my sister Polly’s old bedroom, where, when all the kids had grown, my father had chosen to write. A thin layer of dust covered his tilt-top desk. But everything else was laid out just so, as if he’d stepped out for lunch and might come back to work any minute. On the right side of the desk lay a thick wedge of yellow legal paper, filled with my father’s script. And on top of that was a sheaf of yellowing stationery with an envelope paper-clipped to it, postmarked 1914.
“Dear Eunice,” it began. I scanned the letter, picking up phrases. “I went down to Goldsboro that Sunday expecting to see you and to hear your voice ‘for old time’s sake’ … my mind and soul tortured by the ghosts of former days, my conscience tortured by the might have beens … I can hardly say the words—your approaching wedding. … I can only hold your friendship in the shrine of memory.”
The letter, which struck me as unbearably poignant, had been written by my grandfather William Clark Styron, Sr. Though I’d never read it, I knew what it was and why it was on my father’s desk. For a while, he had worked on a novel loosely based on the life of his father, a marine engineer whose singular character had done more than anything else to mold my father’s own. I knew of this book only vaguely, having heard my mother talk about it once and maybe having read something of it in an interview my father had given some years before. As always, it was to be a “Big Book,” about the skeins of troubled history running through the American South in which he was raised. It was about War and Race. And, at its heart, it was to be a love story. I remember, when I first heard the idea, thinking of García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and how much more I would enjoy a tale of romance than the war story Daddy seemed forever bent on. That day in his study, I leaned in and began to read the manuscript’s opening paragraph, my guilt for snooping so deeply ingrained I didn’t allow myself even to follow the last sentence onto the next page. Somewhere in the basement, I could hear drills and nail guns. And suddenly I thought, This thing is just sitting here. What if someone steals it? What if the house goes up in flames? Someone ought to take better care of this stuff.
Several days later, on a fiercely rainy day, I carried the manuscript in a pink Jill Stuart shopping bag up to the offices of Random House and my father’s editor, Bob Loomis. I deposited the bag on Bob’s desk, wiping the edges with the sleeve of my shirt. We chatted for a bit about my father’s health, about our families, and about the upcoming tribute to my father being hosted by The Paris Review. Getting him there was going to be a challenge. We’d probably have to spring him from Mass General, his residence of the moment, and hire a car or something to bring him down. But then again, I said, who knew where he’d be several weeks on? He might be fine by November.
Well, not fine. Or I wouldn’t have been standing there. For what Bob and I were tacitly acknowledging, with that bag on the table, was that my father would never be fine again.
* * *
THE BOX OF speeches in the Duke library turned out to be much more interesting than I’d expected. There were nearly fifty compositions inside, including the commencement address my father had given at my high school graduation, a great recounting of how he missed out on a Rhodes scholarship, and a college address that fascinated me because, from its date, I knew he was in the midst of a depression when he delivered it. With no more than a half hour before I had to leave to catch my flight home, I finally opened the last box, that of his unfinished work.
Several fat folders dominated the box. Flipping them open, I found that the contents of each one was prefaced by an explanatory note from the man who had been my father’s Boswell of sorts, James West. Having spent a decade on his 1998 authorized biography, William Styron: A Life, Jim had gone on to become a crucial figure in the preservation of my father’s legacy. He frequently served as a conduit for the donations to Duke. And, in my father’s final years, he had begun the complex task of organizing and editing material that my father no longer had the strength for and that would, more than likely, be published after he was gone.
“THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR,” began the first note, in caps. And then it continued, “The Material in this folder appears to be part of the first effort Styron made to write a novel under this title.” Jim added some information about the material in general, concluding with qualifying testimony. “I cannot absolutely vouch for the fact that these materials are part of the first effort on Warrior,” he wrote, “but I think I’ve made the identifications correctly.”
I looked at the manuscript but found that the first page was page 5 and began in the middle of a sentence. The second page was page 11, after which the manuscript moved on sequentially till page 33. The page after that was 39, and then the numbers began to run backward, then forward again. 22, 199, 68 twice. Four different pages numbered 74. 77, 70, 1, 3, 173.
On and on it went like this. Hundreds of pages jumbled, others omitted entirely. In the order they were in, the manuscript made no sense at all, though I had little doubt that Jim and everyone at Duke had taken exquisite care of these documents, as they had with all the archives. I opened the second Warrior folder. It was much the same, except bigger—maybe 90,000 or 100,000 words of prose—and, if possible, even more disorganized. The first page was 105, the last 211. The third folder was, blessedly, organized, pages 1 to 159, and included a short note from Daddy to the library’s curator of manuscripts. It was dated February 2, 1985.
I sat for a while, trying to understand what I was looking at. What the hell had happened? Looking through the folders again, I could see it wasn’t just a matter of putting the pages in order. Even when I held up two pages so the numbers followed sequentially, the sentence fragments didn’t flow. It was like someone had taken a cabinet full of puzzles, tossed a bunch of pieces into two boxes, and thrown the rest out. Nothing fit. More unnerving still was the sheer volume. This World War II story, whatever it was, he ran at it again and again. Two hundred fifty thousand, maybe 300,000 words. Crafted sentences, polished, honed. Avenues of thought, narrative built on mountains of research. Great, long loops of memory and emotion. The edifice of a story, constructed, deconstructed, and constructed again and again over the course of years. Images of Daddy clicked through my head, a slide show cascading suddenly as urgent and disordered as the pile of prose before me. My head reeled. Was it any wonder he was depressed?
I turned back to the box, which contained several more folders. My eyesight telescoped as I began flipping through the material, a kind of fuzziness taking over the outer edges of my vision. I could actually feel all my other body functions slowing down in the service of my brain and its need to absorb the information before me. Could it be? There was not one, as I had thought, but four other books my father had started on over the years. The folder tabs, marked “Father,” “Grandfather,” “Nicaragua,” “Hospital,” hinted at the contents. Some of the manuscripts were thick, some thin, all of them produced on Daddy’s signature legal-length paper, his carefully wrought hand covering the pages from margin to margin. These, too, were disordered, filled with stops and starts, the page numbers suggestive of chunks missing, or thrown away. The whole huge pile vibrated with the strength of his effort. And with a certain madness.
I went outside to get some air. Under practically every willow oak lining the quad stood flocks of prospective students and their parents. Their young guides gestured animatedly, mouths shaping words I couldn’t hear. The sun was blazing. I wandered around the corner to the shelter of a magnolia and called Susanna on my cell phone. Though she is the eldest of my siblings, and there are twelve years between us, it is Susanna to whom I’ve grown closest over the years. We speak frequently; on that day, she knew where I was and what I was doing.
“Hi,” she answered, seeing my number on her screen.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“I don’t know,” I replied, pacing, sucking in the dense Southern heat. “It’s like A Beautiful Mind in there. There are all these manuscripts. A whole bunch of them. And none of the pages follow each other. It’s bizarre. And kind of horrible. Did you know about them?”
She did not. But, in talking to me, she put words to what I was thinking.
“Wow,” she said, after a bit. “Perfect metaphor, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “But was he depressed, and then he couldn’t write? Or was he unable to write? And it drove him completely mad.”
*William Styron, Darkness Visible (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 46, quoting Baudelaire.
© 2011 Alexandra Styron
What People are Saying About This
“Fluid and fascinating, dark and funny, Alexandra Styron’s book brings her father before us in all of his complexity, a literary lion, roaring his way through America's post-war landscape.”
—Geraldine Brooks, author of March and People of the Book
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Reading My Father includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alexandra Styron. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Written with astonishing grace and generosity, Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father, is a moving and illuminating portrait of a great twentieth century novelist and a deeply troubled man.
William Styron's writing and his depression dominated the Styron family landscape, and Alexandra, the youngest of four children, learned to navigate his storms in order to survive. Spanning from Styron’s Tidewater, Virginia youth and precocious literary debut to the triumphs of his best known books and on through his devastating spiral into madness, Reading My Father chronicles the epic sweep of a American artist’s life, while also telling the story of a daughter coming to know her father at last.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Consider Alexandra’s place in the Styron family as the youngest child. Could any of her older siblings have written this particular memoir? Or do you think Alexandra witnessed a different side of her parents?
- Reading My Father is largely about the way Alexandra gets to know her own father. However, it also details the complex relationship between William Styron and “Grandpop.” What did you make of this relationship? How was your reading of their bond affected by Grandpop’s lack of correspondence and his remarriage?
- Discuss Sytron’s depression. Do you believe it was caused by an inability to write, or was he not able to write because of his mental afflictions?
- Do you think it is possible to achieve familial closure through an epistolary study? Does Alexandra’s reading of her father’s letters and papers help her piece together his character?
- How did you reconcile William Styron’s volatile nature with his otherwise warm and peaceful sensibilities? Did the author’s research help bring the two sides into sharper focus?
- Based on his letters, what do you think was Styron’s most formative experience as a young author? Consider his time in Philadelphia, his short service in two wars, his romances, and his integration into the literary intelligentsia following the release of Lie Down in Darkness.
- Discuss Styron’s years in Europe, especially the Prix de Rome. How did these years affect his character? Consider his marriage to Rose, meeting Truman Capote, and the many artists he encountered during this time.
- How did you see “Albert’s” growth into an adult throughout the narrative? Did “reading her father,” lend to some form of closure or understanding?
- Were you surprised to learn of William Styron’s infidelities? How did they change or add to your perception of him as both an author and as a character?
- What did you make of Norman Mailer’s vicious attack on William Styron’s body of work? In your opinion, was the reaction part of the literary competitive environment of the time, or was it more personal? Knowing Styron to have thin skin, do you believe his critics and opponents were part of his psychological demise?
- Discuss the Styron family’s various retreats and vacations. What affect did each of these places seem to have on William Styron’s disposition? How do you relate these locales to his writing?
- Would you characterize William Styron’s life as a “war story?”
- Perform your own bit of filial detective work by re-reading the emails, letters, and notes from your family members or friends. Are you able to paint a clearer picture of the person whom you’re studying? Is there a difference between your perceived memory of the person and the character that is illustrated through these composed articles?
- Read one of William Styron’s numerous books (Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Darkness Visible) and see how Alexandra’s memoir affects your reading of Styron’s work.
- Read another memoir revolving around the writer’s relationship with his or her father. Consider Hanif Kureshi’s My Ear at His Heart, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, or Peter Birkenhead’s Gonville. How do those paternal memoirs work in comparison to Styron’s? What is it about parent relationships that make for such ripe material?
A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXANDRA STYRON
You accessed a very personal part of your father through his letters and correspondence. Was there ever a point you felt like you might be invading his privacy?
One of the nicest, and most surprising, discoveries I made while poring over The William Styron Papers at Duke was just how much courage and generosity my father showed by assisting in the archive’s creation. There are thousands of letters there, as well as unfinished manuscripts, first drafts, and almost all of his early, prose efforts. By no means does all of it reflect well on him. But I think my father recognized the value of leaving behind his whole, unvarnished story. The collection not only reveals him, but is a fascinating window into 20th century culture across the board. He had a great reverence for the power of art, and the power of truth as well. I never felt I was invading his privacy—I wasn’t looking in his dresser drawers, after all. He meant for future scholars, biographers, anyone who was interested, really, to have a 360 degree look at him. And that’s just what I got.
Who of your father’s famous confidants did you most enjoy consulting with?
When I first started this book, I thought I’d go around and interview dozens of people from all different facets of my father’s life. But after speaking with a few of his good friends, I realized that it was not as important to get other perspectives, or draw out lots of untold stories and secrets. I wasn’t writing a biography. I was writing a memoir. What really mattered was what I experienced, and what I thought. I had to trust that my own information was enough to build a strong, truthful narrative. That said, I was very energized by the insights Peter and Maria Matthiessen shared with me. And a conversation with the great film director Mike Nichols on any subject, never mind your own father, is always fun and fascinating!
Many writers use the memoir as a form of catharsis or resolution. Do you feel writing about your father’s life has been a healing experience?
I tend to think of catharsis, perhaps wrongly, as a kind of wringing out process. Like the psychotherapy I engaged in in my 20s, where you talk about your childhood feelings till you’ve cried enough and gotten angry enough that you can put your feelings away and move on. The experience of writing this book was nothing like that. But, having finished, I’m definitely more resolved, and possess a certain lightness, vis a vis my feelings about my father. Exploring this material was like being a detective. Or maybe just like being a biographer. I was able to put so many pieces of my father’s personality together, and to look at the picture detached from my filial self. In the end, I think my empathy is much stronger than any residual anger. I’m glad for that. Carrying grudges, I’ve discovered, can really wrench your back out.
Which of your father’s books is your favorite? Are there any that you have trouble reading?
I like most of my father’s work a great deal. Sophie’s Choice is simply remarkable. It’s a true page-turner, devastating but also funny as hell. I guess I’d say it was my favorite. Set This House on Fire is, in my opinion, totally underappreciated. And though I think The Confessions of Nat Turner is absolutely extraordinary, I’m not sure I could read it again. It’s upsetting in a way that just about wrecked me. As a short introduction to my father’s work “A Tidewater Morning,” is excellent, charming and transportative.
What advice would you give to someone battling with depression and anxiety?
Well, I’m no doctor. I would never presume to give any real advice on a disease as both amorphous and pernicious as clinical depression. But I guess, if there’s one observation I had the misfortune of making, it’s that “recovery” is rarely complete and permanent. With the right help, depression can usually be managed. Often, it can be driven off aggressively enough to give sufferers a whole new run at a happy life. But ongoing therapy and medication are really important. My father was very old school. After his first depression, he believed he was cured and didn’t want any more help. So he didn’t do much in the way of maintenance. Eventually, of course, the disease came back. With a vengeance.
Having read Sophie’s Choice, how do you view the modern environment of Brooklyn?
The Brooklyn my father describes in Sophie’s Choice is a vanished place. In 1947, he lived in what is now known as the Prospect Park South neighborhood (the realtors who eventually gave it that name probably weren’t even born yet). The whole country, the planet, was still recovering from WWII; Brooklyn was the nexus of the European Diaspora. I imagine for my father, a southern boy whose ancestors had settled North Carolina, Brooklyn must have felt to him as alien as the streets of Minsk or Cracow. Now that neighborhood is home to another wave—Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans. The change would have stunned my father. But probably not as much as the transformation of the part of Brooklyn I live in, a mere fifteen minute walk from his old corner. It’s pretty and quiet and safe, and everyone is either a writer or a documentary filmmaker. Had it been that like this 60 years ago, I bet he’d never have left. And I’d be a Brooklyn native!
Your father seemed to be a tremendously political man. Do you believe there are strong ties between politics and art? Were your father’s leftist leanings an important aspect of his authorship?
I grew up with a very strong sense that art and politics were sort of cultural Siamese twins. They share some of the same organs, rely on and enhance one another with their expressive power. During my childhood, my mother’s human rights work focused largely on prisoners of conscience, i.e. people living under oppressive regimes whose writings had led to their imprisonment. And, more often than not, my father’s work was propelled by his political and moral convictions. Artists, I learned, are often exceptionally brave and truly important people. With their grab-bag of tools—words, paint, musical instruments—they can circumvent even the most authoritarian regimes, galvanize whole nations, and all with the trick of metaphor. I think my father’s devotion to the novel was also a devotion to politics; he wanted to wake people up, make them think, remind them of their history so they would not be condemned to repeat it. It’s probably what I admired about him above all else.
You have devoted an entire book to examining your relationship with your father. If you were limited to describing him in just one word, what would it be?
I might have to go to the thesaurus for this one. Unquiet, perhaps.
Do you plan on writing another novel now that this memoir is complete? Do you feel you’ve inherited your interest in writing from your father?
I would like to return to the novel I was working on when I began this memoir. I put a lot of time into it, and believe I have a strong theme, the kind that would hold up to my father’s scrutiny. But I’m taking a breather right now and focusing on some shorter, less intense projects. I learned a lot by observing my father. Not only the value of a well-turned sentence, but that truly good work takes time and faith.