Halfway through READING MY FATHER, Alexandra Styron discusses Daniel. Recalling a vivid memory of having played with him when she was a little girl of no more than three or four, she listens as her mother admits to her that Daniel's parents, the father being one Arthur Miller, had him institutionalized because he had Down's Syndrome. That action in and of itself is not so shocking and was generally the practice of the day. What most stunned her is that Daniel was a complete and utter secret, not even mentioned in Miller's autobiography, and that secret was kept by her father, William Styron. And it brought her to a revelation: "It affirmed my suspicion that here, among all these people who traded in great truths, keeping secrets was still the coin of the realm. And that one could spend a lifetime examining the human heart but remain personally, confoundingly, unexamined. If you were good enough at the former, the world would always forgive you the latter."
Thankfully, Styron has done a remarkable job in examining her father, a man who suffered from debilitating depression and who equally confused and frightened his children while being a beacon on the pinnacle of the literary lighthouse of his time. This is not a simple rundown of the life of William Styron, as was already set down by James West in his 1998 biography of the literary icon, but instead is a more nuanced examination, focusing on her father's writing and where he was in life at the time of those projects. It is also the story of her own attempt to try and better understand him as she examines his work, truly, for the first time.
One of her early revelations in the book pertains to her father's unfinished novel, THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR. It was the great war epic in which he was always earnestly interested. In looking through this manuscript in his collection at the Duke University library, she found the pages jumbled and out of order, some numbers used multiple times. It made no sense, these carefully worded and honed pages. Even with them properly ordered, she was more shocked to see that there was no flow, no connection. Nothing matched up. The bulk massing between 250,000 and 300,000 words, she could only think: "Was it any wonder he was depressed?" She found four other manuscripts in this fashion, and after speaking to her sister, she was left to ask: "But was he depressed, and then he couldn't write? Or was he unable to write? And it drove him completely mad."
Particularly poignant is her understanding, after so much time, that her father's depression, masterfully self-examined by the man himself in his memoir DARKNESS VISIBLE, had long been with him and was not just some event that happened. Looking back through letters and notes and unfinished drafts of books reveals that he was afflicted by great bouts of writer's block, and was pained by the inability to complete a novel during the last 27 years of his life. She also presents the torn mindset of a daughter, not just the clinical view of a scholar or investigator, when she sees the letters from other sufferers of depression who wrote to him and spoke of his compassion, which she could not reconcile with the violent-tempered and withdrawn man she knew. "How could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental a--hole to the people closest to him?"
READING MY FATHER is a sensational book. Styron's writing is clean and vivid, and thankfully she pulls no punches in her laying open the life of her father and what she and her siblings endured. She cautions against people mistaking their wealth and frequent visits from celebrities and politicians as some sort of Camelot reborn, and warns that her father is not the warm and comedic soul at the center of it all. Nor, however, does she undertake this work merely as a means to crucify his legacy. She quite simply presents him as he was: a very flawed man, and as one reads it becomes all the more clear that, despite all those flaws and the problems of her youth, Styron loves her father.
William Styron always sought that great war story. Alexandra Styron, in this interesting, enlightening and often heart-rending memoir, reveals that through the roller coaster life of his successes and failures, he fought a war every day, and the shrapnel of that war radiated out into his family. Tearing away the mask of the mythic man, she sees more that her father could have been but also finds the ability to celebrate who he was.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on May 16, 2011