Reading My Father
Alexandra Styron searches his writings and her memory in an attempt to piece together the puzzle that was her father, author William Styron.
It’s almost always a mistake to learn too much about the artist you admire.Skip to next paragraph
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And so, in that spirit, I advise you to approach Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s candid, bruising memoir about her father, William Stryon, with caution. If you consider Styron one of the great literary voices of the 20th century, nothing in his daughter’s book will change your mind. But you may find it harder to reverence his novels quite as highly after learning of the price that Styron – and those closest to him – paid for their creation.
Otherwise, however, “Reading My Father,” has much to recommend it. Styron is a truly gifted writer in her own right. And she has access to her father – his papers, her memories, family lore – that few others can deliver. Her book is both an informed (albeit dark) examination of a significant literary figure and an engaging (albeit poignant) memoir about growing up in the shadow of fame.
William Styron, of course, has already told the world much about his own inner darkness. In addition to his three highly acclaimed novels (“Lie Down in Darkness” in 1951; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967; and “Sophie’s Choice” in 1979), Styron was also the author of “Darkness Visible,” a 1990 nonfiction account detailing his horrific battle with depression.
But Alexandra, Styron’s youngest child of four, has issues of her own to hash out.
Who was this man? “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.” That’s how Styron remembers her father’s domestic side. While his colleagues recall a friend and critic who was “patient, thoughtful, and enormously generous,” she feels stuck with the memory of a man who entertained himself by telling his little daughter that he was going to sell her pony to a glue factory and by suggesting that the “imbeciles” in a nearby state institution might escape and “do vile things” to her.