Reading My Father

Alexandra Styron

Alexandra Styron is the daughter of William Styron, the novelist best known for Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Her book Reading My Father is part memoir and part biography, focusing at times on her experience growing up with a well-known writer as a father, and at other times providing a straightforward narrative of his life. Every so often it gets meta and zooms in on Styron’s research of her father while writing this book, finishing with a few chapters that detail his long decline in health related to two episodes of severe depression and his long-time alcoholism. All these different parts are interesting individually, but they don’t entirely cohere.

Though the general conceit of this book is that writing it enabled Styron to finally know her father, that doesn’t quite ring true. She writes of being frightened of her father’s temper as a child and holding his drink for him while he drove her home from school, pointing out that as the youngest of her siblings, she experienced directly his descent into mental illness. But as the book goes on, and her father gets sicker, she gets more distant. She was understandably more focused more on herself as she transitioned into her adult life, but this viewpoint doesn’t make for a very interesting take on her father’s later years. Styron includes a few excerpts from her sister’s records that were written during his final illness, as she was more present during this time, and these snippets are more emotionally connected than Styron’s words around them. There is a strange part where Styron relates visiting her father in the hospital and hearing him be more loving her sister Polly on the phone and taking that to mean that he had favorites among his children. Unfortunately Styron doesn’t manage to elevate these impressions beyond the trivial.

There’s an interesting part in the middle where she wonders if her father struggled to write later in his career because of his depression or instead whether his struggle to write his novel about war made him go crazy. This seemed like a compelling thesis to propel the book, potentially exposing a bigger question about creativity and mental illness, but one of his friends discounts the idea shortly after she brings it up, and it’s quickly left behind. Those curious in reading about William Styron’s experience of depression may find more appeal reading from his own perspective in his memoir Darkness Visible.