READING MY FATHER: A MEMOIR
By Alexandra Styron
Scribner, $25, 304 pages
Look closely at the 1970s-era jacket photograph selected for Alexandra Styron’s memoir.
Seated in what appears to be the den of her family home, a girl of about 7, tangle-haired and pretty, gazes with a loving smile at her daddy, novelist William Styron (1925-2006). He is telling a story, energetically gesturing and speaking into the middle of the room, ignoring young Alexandra. The main thing that strikes the viewer is the physical and spiritual distance between father and daughter. In her own way, the little girl is reaching out in love. But the great man is unaware of that, for he is caught up entirely in a world of his own.
In a nutshell, that is what the reader learns in this sobering work. The youngest of the late Styron’s four children, Alexandra Styron - author of the novel “All the Finest Girls” (2001) - has written a work that seems almost a form of self-therapy. Fascinating and painful in what it reveals, alternately workmanlike and eloquent, “Reading My Father” describes what the author discovered about her difficult father through examining the huge archive of his papers on file at Duke University and searching her own evergreen memory.
The picture that emerges is not attractive, though it may elicit nods of sad recognition from some readers. Those familiar with Styron’s own “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (1990) are aware that he suffered from unipolar disorder, which he treated with Halcion. This prescription medication made his black depression worse and drove him to within eyeshot of suicide.
What readers learn in his daughter’s memoir, something symptomatic of Styron’s condition, is that he was a lifelong verbal abuser, given to hair-raising explosions of temper over the tiniest matters. Styron lived to write, and in the course of his daily labors anything - an unsharpened pencil, the sound of a telephone ringing, or any number of things - might set off a foul-mouthed tirade directed at those closest to him. Every coping mechanism the family chose to adopt served as only a temporary fix, for sooner or later Bill Styron would be shouting about some minor or imagined outrage and making everyone’s life a stomach-tightening ordeal.
Which may seem odd to the casual observer, who would assume that by every right Styron should have been a happy man. He had it made. Throughout much of his adult life, he swam in a world of adoring friends who were the creme-de-la-creme of the East Coast cultural establishment. He lived in a wooded estate in Roxbury, Conn., summered in a gorgeous home on Martha’s Vineyard, and possessed wealth enough to cushion him from the myriad worries of making ends meet.
But unipolar depression knows of no such advantages. Ms. Styron’s father may well have been an exceptional man, a literary giant who crafted some of the greatest works in American literature, but he was also always at heart a Marine haunted by the near-miss of World War II ending just as he and thousands of his comrades were training to assault the Japanese home islands. Just as there are rebels without causes, there are keyed-up soldiers without a target and no manner of confronting and overcoming the prospect of imminent conflict and likely death.
In some ways, Styron was one of the beings described by T.S. Eliot, a Hollow Man: an empty vessel, lacking the consolations of faith or any purpose other than to write great works of literature. And when the Muse wasn’t speaking to him and distractions arose, so did resentment and depression. “Faith vanishes,” wrote George Orwell, “but the need for faith remains the same as before.”
Styron’s first work, “Lie Down in Darkness” (1951) had established his reputation and placed him near the pinnacle of literary achievement, a blood brother alongside Faulkner, Hemingway and Twain. At one point in “Reading My Father,” Ms. Styron confesses that she forever felt the pressure to be “someone,” and the reader comes to understand that her father was driven by the same master. After “Lie Down in Darkness,” he painstakingly crafted a short string of novels that are the stuff of legends, notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967) and “Sophie’s Choice” (1979). Then came a 30-year drought in creativity and two terrible bouts with depression, “the fogbound horror,” 15 years apart.
According to Ms. Styron, during her father’s final years the family worked hard to understand and care for him. They humored him, protected him from himself and made his final days as comfortable as possible. After all he had suffered, Bill Styron was surrounded by love at the end of his life. The family had been through an emotional maelstrom, and Ms. Styron had begun to understand the tangled complex of emptiness and psychosis that lay at the heart of her father’s torment. At the end of “Reading My Father,” the distance between father and daughter is slightly diminished. And despite what she has learned, the love of the daughter for her father remains strong.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books).
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