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Reading My Father

A Memoir

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PART MEMOIR AND PART ELEGY, READING MY FATHER IS THE STORY OF A DAUGHTER COMING TO KNOW HER FATHER AT LAST— A GIANT AMONG TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN NOVELISTS AND A MAN WHOSE DEVASTATING DEPRESSION DARKENED THE FAMILY LANDSCAPE.

In Reading My Father, William Styron’s youngest child explores the life of a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, Darkness Visible, so searingly chronicled his battle with major depression. Alexandra Styron’s parents—the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Sophie’s Choice and his political activist wife, Rose—were, for half a century, leading players on the world’s cultural stage. Alexandra was raised under both the halo of her father’s brilliance and the long shadow of his troubled mind.

A drinker, a carouser, and above all “a high priest at the altar of fiction,” Styron helped define the concept of The Big Male Writer that gave so much of twentieth-century American fiction a muscular, glamorous aura. In constant pursuit of The Great Novel, he and his work were the dominant force in his family’s life, his turbulent moods the weather in their ecosystem.

From Styron’s Tidewater, Virginia, youth and precocious literary debut to the triumphs of his best-known books and on through his spiral into depression, Reading My Father portrays the epic sweep of an American artist’s life, offering a ringside seat on a great literary generation’s friendships and their dramas. It is also a tale of filial love, beautifully written, with humor, compassion, and grace.

This reading group guide for Reading My Father includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alexandra Styron. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

INTRODUCTION

Written with astonishing grace and generosity, Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father, is a moving and illuminating portrait of a great twentieth century novelist and a deeply troubled man.

William Styron's writing and his depression dominated the Styron family landscape, and Alexandra, the youngest of four children, learned to navigate his storms in order to survive. Spanning from Styron’s Tidewater, Virginia youth and precocious literary debut to the triumphs of his best known books and on through his devastating spiral into madness, Reading My Father chronicles the epic sweep of a American artist’s life, while also telling the story of a daughter coming to know her father at last.

TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Consider Alexandra’s place in the Styron family as the youngest child. Could any of her older siblings have written this particular memoir? Or do you think Alexandra witnessed a different side of her parents?
  2. Reading My Father is largely about the way Alexandra gets to know her own father. However, it also details the complex relationship between William Styron and “Grandpop.” What did you make of this relationship? How was your reading of their bond affected by Grandpop’s lack of correspondence and his remarriage?
  3. Discuss Sytron’s depression. Do you believe it was caused by an inability to write, or was he not able to write because of his mental afflictions?
  4. Do you think it is possible to achieve familial closure through an epistolary study? Does Alexandra’s reading of her father’s letters and papers help her piece together his character?
  5. How did you reconcile William Styron’s volatile nature with his otherwise warm and peaceful sensibilities? Did the author’s research help bring the two sides into sharper focus?
  6. Based on his letters, what do you think was Styron’s most formative experience as a young author? Consider his time in Philadelphia, his short service in two wars, his romances, and his integration into the literary intelligentsia following the release of Lie Down in Darkness.
  7. Discuss Styron’s years in Europe, especially the Prix de Rome. How did these years affect his character? Consider his marriage to Rose, meeting Truman Capote, and the many artists he encountered during this time.
  8. How did you see “Albert’s” growth into an adult throughout the narrative?  Did “reading her father,” lend to some form of closure or understanding?
  9. Were you surprised to learn of William Styron’s infidelities? How did they change or add to your perception of him as both an author and as a character?
  10. What did you make of Norman Mailer’s vicious attack on William Styron’s body of work?  In your opinion, was the reaction part of the literary competitive environment of the time, or was it more personal? Knowing Styron to have thin skin, do you believe his critics and opponents were part of his psychological demise?
  11. Discuss the Styron family’s various retreats and vacations. What affect did each of these places seem to have on William Styron’s disposition?  How do you relate these locales to his writing?
  12. Would you characterize William Styron’s life as a “war story?”
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB

  1. Perform your own bit of filial detective work by re-reading the emails, letters, and notes from your family members or friends. Are you able to paint a clearer picture of the person whom you’re studying? Is there a difference between your perceived memory of the person and the character that is illustrated through these composed articles?
  2. Read one of William Styron’s numerous books (Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Darkness Visible) and see how Alexandra’s memoir affects your reading of Styron’s work.
  3. Read another memoir revolving around the writer’s relationship with his or her father. Consider Hanif Kureshi’s My Ear at His Heart, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, or Peter Birkenhead’s Gonville. How do those paternal memoirs work in comparison to Styron’s? What is it about parent relationships that make for such ripe material?

A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXANDRA STYRON


You accessed a very personal part of your father through his letters and correspondence. Was there ever a point you felt like you might be invading his privacy?

One of the nicest, and most surprising, discoveries I made while poring over The William Styron Papers at Duke was just how much courage and generosity my father showed by assisting in the archive’s creation. There are thousands of letters there, as well as unfinished manuscripts, first drafts, and almost all of his early, prose efforts. By no means does all of it reflect well on him. But I think my father recognized the value of leaving behind his whole, unvarnished story. The collection not only reveals him, but is a fascinating window into 20th century culture across the board. He had a great reverence for the power of art, and the power of truth as well. I never felt I was invading his privacy—I wasn’t looking in his dresser drawers, after all. He meant for future scholars, biographers, anyone who was interested, really, to have a 360 degree look at him. And that’s just what I got.
 

Who of your father’s famous confidants did you most enjoy consulting with?

When I first started this book, I thought I’d go around and interview dozens of people from all different facets of my father’s life. But after speaking with a few of his good friends, I realized that it was not as important to get other perspectives, or draw out lots of untold stories and secrets. I wasn’t writing a biography. I was writing a memoir. What really mattered was what I experienced, and what I thought. I had to trust that my own information was enough to build a strong, truthful narrative. That said, I was very energized by the insights Peter and Maria Matthiessen shared with me. And a conversation with the great film director Mike Nichols on any subject, never mind your own father, is always fun and fascinating!

 
Many writers use the memoir as a form of catharsis or resolution. Do you feel writing about your father’s life has been a healing experience?

I tend to think of catharsis, perhaps wrongly, as a kind of wringing out process. Like the psychotherapy I engaged in in my 20s, where you talk about your childhood feelings till you’ve cried enough and gotten angry enough that you can put your feelings away and move on. The experience of writing this book was nothing like that. But, having finished, I’m definitely more resolved, and possess a certain lightness, vis a vis my feelings about my father. Exploring this material was like being a detective. Or maybe just like being a biographer. I was able to put so many pieces of my father’s personality together, and to look at the picture detached from my filial self. In the end, I think my empathy is much stronger than any residual anger. I’m glad for that. Carrying grudges, I’ve discovered, can really wrench your back out.

Which of your father’s books is your favorite? Are there any that you have trouble reading?

I like most of my father’s work a great deal. Sophie’s Choice is simply remarkable. It’s a true page-turner, devastating but also funny as hell. I guess I’d say it was my favorite. Set This House on Fire is, in my opinion, totally underappreciated. And though I think The Confessions of Nat Turner is absolutely extraordinary, I’m not sure I could read it again. It’s upsetting in a way that just about wrecked me. As a short introduction to my father’s work “A Tidewater Morning,” is excellent, charming and transportative.

What advice would you give to someone battling with depression and anxiety?

Well, I’m no doctor. I would never presume to give any real advice on a disease as both amorphous and pernicious as clinical depression. But I guess, if there’s one observation I had the misfortune of making, it’s that “recovery” is rarely complete and permanent. With the right help, depression can usually be managed. Often, it can be driven off aggressively enough to give sufferers a whole new run at a happy life. But ongoing therapy and medication are really important. My father was very old school. After his first depression, he believed he was cured and didn’t want any more help. So he didn’t do much in the way of maintenance. Eventually, of course, the disease came back. With a vengeance.

 
Having read Sophie’s Choice, how do you view the modern environment of Brooklyn?

The Brooklyn my father describes in Sophie’s Choice is a vanished place. In 1947, he lived in what is now known as the Prospect Park South neighborhood (the realtors who eventually gave it that name probably weren’t even born yet). The whole country, the planet, was still recovering from WWII; Brooklyn was the nexus of the European Diaspora. I imagine for my father, a southern boy whose ancestors had settled North Carolina, Brooklyn must have felt to him as alien as the streets of Minsk or Cracow. Now that neighborhood is home to another wave—Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans. The change would have stunned my father. But probably not as much as the transformation of the part of Brooklyn I live in, a mere fifteen minute walk from his old corner. It’s pretty and quiet and safe, and everyone is either a writer or a documentary filmmaker. Had it been that like this 60 years ago, I bet he’d never have left. And I’d be a Brooklyn native!

 
Your father seemed to be a tremendously political man. Do you believe there are strong ties between politics and art? Were your father’s leftist leanings an important aspect of his authorship?

I grew up with a very strong sense that art and politics were sort of cultural Siamese twins. They share some of the same organs, rely on and enhance one another with their expressive power. During my childhood, my mother’s human rights work focused largely on prisoners of conscience, i.e. people living under oppressive regimes whose writings had led to their imprisonment. And, more often than not, my father’s work was propelled by his political and moral convictions. Artists, I learned, are often exceptionally brave and truly important people. With their grab-bag of tools—words, paint, musical instruments—they can circumvent even the most authoritarian regimes, galvanize whole nations, and all with the trick of metaphor. I think my father’s devotion to the novel was also a devotion to politics; he wanted to wake people up, make them think, remind them of their history so they would not be condemned to repeat it. It’s probably what I admired about him above all else.

You have devoted an entire book to examining your relationship with your father.  If you were limited to describing him in just one word, what would it be?

I might have to go to the thesaurus for this one. Unquiet, perhaps.

Do you plan on writing another novel now that this memoir is complete? Do you feel you’ve inherited your interest in writing from your father?

I would like to return to the novel I was working on when I began this memoir. I put a lot of time into it, and believe I have a strong theme, the kind that would hold up to my father’s scrutiny. But I’m taking a breather right now and focusing on some shorter, less intense projects. I learned a lot by observing my father. Not only the value of a well-turned sentence, but that truly good work takes time and faith.
Photograph by Rex Bonomelli

ALEXANDRA STYRON is the author of the novel All the Finest Girls and a graduate of Barnard College and the MFA program at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and she has taught memoir writing in the MFA program at Hunter College. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, NY.