Reading My Father

After writing four novels, including The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, William Styron wrote a heart-rending account of depression, Darkness Visible. His daughter, Alexandra Styron, has written her own memoir, Reading My Father, described on its jacket as a "journey toward understanding and forgiveness." In its first chapter, she writes that, as she spent weeks alone with her father while her mother traveled and older siblings attended school, she hid "failings and fears behind a . . . mask of self-sufficiency." So I expected a recovery story about being related to a famous genius. However, while Alexandra Styron mentions her well-developed "carapace," nothing she recounts about herself or her siblings—they grew up to have long marriages, impressive careers, abiding affection for each other—suggests that more than ordinary forgiveness is necessary, the kind most of us stumble toward when we see our parents as human. Reading My Father isn't Daddy Dearest. It's a stellar biography, informed by memory and careful research.


Billy Styron, a child of the Great Depression, roamed the house while his father worked and his mother died a death so agonizing he heard her scream. His father later married a woman who sent Billy away. She mocked him—"Billy thinks he's a writer."—and sent a letter to his fiancée, Rose Burgunder, whom she'd never met, warning Rose not to marry him. Rose ignored the letter. Though she had money and an advanced degree, gender assumptions—including the myth of the Great Man around whom the woman orbits—meant that she became a lonely mother, a betrayed wife, a famous hostess. By today's standards, William Styron self-medicated too much. At the time, however, drinking to avoid pain while creating objective correlatives for pain, was SOP. His best friend told Alexandra Styron that her father was "spoiled." Then added: "Your father was a real artist. . . You have to indulge somebody like that." Alexandra's own friend, who balances fatherhood with a writing career, put it differently: "Your father's generation, I call them the Big Babies."


Big Babies made Big Art. Styron's books were simultaneously literary and mass-market. A divide separates William Styron's era from his daughter's—one so deep it signifies seismic change. William Styron took a night class from a teacher who was also an editor at Crown, who offered Styron a contract for a yet-unwritten book. This editor provided generous advances, found Styron cheap places to live, and, when Styron was called up for the Korean War, procured a deferment until Lie Down In Darkness was finished. It won international awards. Styron was 26. "Boy writer! Boy writer!" Bennett Cerf whispered.


Today, by contrast, it's barely hyperbolic to say that almost as many people write books as buy them, and editors are buried under an avalanche of good manuscripts. But William Styron's writing was exceptional. A white Southerner in the midst of the civil rights movement, he made Nat Turner not a martyr, not a bloodthirsty firebrand, but human. In Sophie's Choice, he depicted a Holocaust survivor as both victim and accomplice. He wrote Darkness Visible when mental illness wasn't visible. Styron was an "author" in the etymological sense: leader, enlarger, founder, authority. (Today we just say "writer.")


While researching this book, Alexandra Styron found thousands of scrambled pages for unfinished novels. "It's like A Beautiful Mind in there," she told her sister. She wonders: did her father's inability to finish novels make him depressed, or did his depression keep him from finishing novels? His long-time editor said, "Illness made it impossible. . . Not the other way." But Alexandra Styron knows the novel was her father's "all-consuming artistic imperative." When he died, he hadn't published a novel in twenty-seven years. He'd written or tried to write, meanwhile presiding over a "banquet of positive attention" that kept him from focusing on the diffuse threads and through-lines that eventually interlock to make a novel. To comprehend how distracting his celebrity might have been, consider that the list of those who sought his company included the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Joan Baez, Montgomery Clift, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, and James Baldwin.


For William Styron, writing was the "bid to be loved." His family did love him through years of neglect and then all-out dependency, but he was never happy long because he was happiest being celebrated. Even for a writer as talented as he was, accolades are rare. Solitude and self-doubt are constant. Some self-doubt is generative: too much is crippling. It's hard not to wish that William Styron could have been happy having written five books, three of which not only depicted history but influenced it. Or not to notice that Alexandra Styron—who has written one good novel and this extraordinarily sensitive biography of her father—has done for him what he did for Nat Turner and Sophie Zawistowski: she found the human behind the carapace.

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