Sunday, September 25, 2011

Alexandra Styron: Reading My Father

If you haven't read a book by William Styron, you are missing out. If you have only seen "Sophie's Choice" the movie, and not read the book, you're selling yourself short. (I confess, I haven't seen the movie, but the book is one of the books that I would call "a classic," therefore, even if the movie is The Best Movie Ever, you need to read the book.) And, if you've ever dealt with depression, either personally or with someone close to you, "Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness" is a must-read. When it came out, in 1990, it was also a breakthrough: a famous, wealthy, white man eloquently describing what crippling sorrow feels like, before Prozac, before advocates attempted to lift the stigma through "depression is a disease like any other disease, like diabetes" cliches and campaigns. I suppose I have a dead-white-man crush on William Styron, along with Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. It doesn't hurt that, with the exception of John Steinbeck, these men are all quite handsome. They just don't make dead white men like that anymore.

It's easy for me to have this kind of long-distance love affair with William Styron, though: he's not my dad. Alexandra Styron has done an amazing job parsing William Styron as a dad, as a writer, as a man, as a man who suffered from life-long, paralyzing depression. She writes with sure-footedness over a subject that is laced with treachery, and with a wit and humor that recalls her father's: the way Alexandra and William bonded was through their dark wit. It shows on the beautifully written page. While "Reading My Father" is not the only biography of William Styron, Alexandra, as a family member, clearly has the most access to potentially revealing information. She also has the most at stake, and "Reading My Father" could be a gloss over of the story of a Great Writer. The book is neither: Styron writes a memoir/biography that honors her father in its honesty by presenting the man as both the ogre that he could be, the demons he suffered from, and the greatness he was capable of. William Styron's story is a tragic one: a man unable to free himself from depression to enjoy his charmed life. His four children seem to have survived the brutal force of his anger and sorrow, at least in Alexandra Styron's telling- but again, she has a lot to lose in an honest telling. On the other hand, Alexandra Styron doesn't leave readers feeling sorry for Styron, or his wife (who bears much of the burden of William's tragedy) and children, but with a better understanding of the madness that eventually, she posits, was his cause of death. A moving book, Styron fans will not be disappointed.