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.
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Styron never really succeeds in solving the mystery that was her father. She traces him from his lonely Southern boyhood (his mother died young and his stepmother openly disdained him), on through his early career struggles (when it was his own adoring father who kept him afloat), to his years of great success (she was 12 when “Sophie’s Choice” was published) and then, sadly – on to the breakdowns in 1985 and 2000 that finally incapacitated him.Skip to next paragraph
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She offers interesting insights into the affections and experiences that helped to shape him, including his great love for his father, his disaffection with the South and its attitudes, and his all-consuming need to prove himself as a novelist.
But she remains puzzled as to the cause of his worst anguish. “Did my father’s depression steal his creative gift?” she wonders. “Or was it the other way around, an estrangement from his muse driving him down in increments till he hit rock bottom? There’s no single answer, no simple trajectory.”
Her own unhappiness seems more clear-cut. “[W]hat I’d grown up knowing,” she writes, was “a father always at home upsetting the applecart and a mother who took every opportunity to run away.”
As for growing up among the rich and famous, she paints an often appealing picture of an affluent, “haute bohemian” household accustomed to Christmas piano parties at Leonard Bernstein’s and spontaneous summer visits from Ted Kennedy. But, she notes, eventually there was a price to be paid for all those easy childhood pleasures. As a young woman she beat herself up trying to find a talent that would ensure her an enduring place in the world of the famous. She landed in thrice-weekly therapy and even as she walked home from those sessions in tears, she recalls wryly, “I kept running into acquaintances who just had to tell me how ‘Darkness Visible’ had changed their lives.”
“Reading My Father” is not a vengeful book. Styron clearly loved her father very much. Rather than angry, she more often comes across as puzzled at the hand dealt her as the daughter of a “genius.”
“Your father was a real writer, a real artist,” his best friend tells her.” If you have to indulge somebody like that, you do.”
Styron herself is clearly not convinced. “Maybe,” she writes. “Or maybe not. Having been born into the system, how would I ever know?”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.