On October 31, 2006, the great novelist William Styron died, surrounded by members of his family who tried to ease his journey into the life beyond. For Alexandra Styron, his youngest daughter, this deathbed scene might just as easily have been his family’s attempt to help him write the ending to his story, a “great yarn, furiously told, urgent and grand.” In Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron offers her own riveting tale, similarly “urgent and grand,” of growing up in the ambivalently loving Styron household, in the shadow of the celebrated author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Styron’s elegant reflections are as much a search for her father and a memorial to his life and work as they are a quest for redemption, forgiveness or closure. Following her father’s death, Styron goes to Duke University in search of his papers, especially his unfinished manuscript, titled The Way of the Warrior. William Styron had intended this World War II story to explore his own ambivalence about the glory and honor associated with patriotic service, raising questions about the Vietnam conflict in much the same way that The Confessions of Nat Turner raised questions about civil rights. He put aside the manuscript, however, after he awoke from a powerful dream about a woman, a Holocaust survivor, whom he had met in Brooklyn as a young man. Very quickly he began work on Sophie’s Choice and set aside The Way of the Warrior.
This unfinished manuscript acts as Alexandra’s madeleine, leading her into extended reflections on her relationship to her father and the celebrated family in which she grew up. She remembers that dinners at her house were magical affairs with guests from Philip Roth and Arthur Miller to Mike Nichols and Leonard Bernstein. She recalls her father’s deep slide into depression and her early bewilderment at his mood swings. After 1985, and his own chronicle of his depression, Darkness Visible, William Styron found himself sinking further and further into a depression from which he would never recover.
Alexandra Styron’s electrifying memoir reveals her father’s heroic struggles with the black dog of depression, but it also offers us a glimpse of the ways that his daughter so ably mitigated her father’s illness in her own days with him.