Becoming Alexandra Styron

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Alexandra Styron (USA Today)

The following is based on interviews with Alexandra Styron.

I first met Alexandra Styron at a reading of her new book, Reading My Father: A Memoir (Scribner, 2011). She was appearing at the Quogue Public Library on Long Island. It was one of those beautiful midsummer afternoons that remind one so much of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Mind you, we were not having tea, but the genteel setting on the green sward of library lawns, with the sun’s rays dipping and making shadows, brought James to mind: “the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.”

Despite the sense of pleasure at seeing the great William Styron’s daughter, the “shadows on the perfect lawn” adumbrated, as in James, “the shadows of an old man” having his tea as the day lengthened. Something about the coming darkness in the midst of summer sun becomes a leitmotif for father and daughter.

Alexandra Styron’s memoir is a book about those shadows, eloquently rendered. It is about the waning of a great personage, her father, and the emotional birth of another, herself.

Styron’s father, William, is the author of such novels as Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979). Along with Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones, and Norman Mailer, to name several, he is one of the foremost American writers of the 20th century.

In 1990 William Styron published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. (The oxymoron of the title is taken from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, itself perhaps the ultimate oxymoron.) It tells the story of his fall into the “dark wood” of clinical depression in 1985, so dark that eventually he was convinced suicide was the only answer. After it was published it became a national bestseller, and it is still readily available. Styron bravely shared with the world his experience in the pit of depression. He became a leading spokesman for depression and suicide and an inspiration to many.

Alexandra Styron observes that all of her father’s novels were about suicide. “From his twenties onward, something followed him: a shadow.” I asked her whether that word was hers or his. She replied that she thought he had “always been depressed, that the ‘ghost of Christmas past’ followed him.” She attributed his emotional haunting to the fact that his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1927 when he was two. Her illness lasted twelve years and she eventually succumbed to the disease just after his fourteenth birthday. It is safe to imagine a pall cast over the Styron household for all of his childhood.

In later interviews I asked Alexandra Styron to elaborate on her notion that her father had had a more or less lifelong encounter with depression since early childhood. “It dogged him all his life, that shadow.” But she did not think her family was aware of it until he cratered into a major depression in 1985. It could no longer be overlooked or explained away as just “moodiness” and bad temper. When she was a child and adolescent Styron claims, “he was a functioning writer and a functioning alcoholic and a functioning family man.” Much of his behavior, she claims, was “an unconscious attempt to cover over a clearly incipient melancholy. He had had intimations of it at much younger ages, but he had always managed to push on.”

It appears that alcohol was Styron’s “necessary friend,” without whom he could not create. When he abruptly gave up alcohol in 1985, for health reasons, he fell into a deep depression, which he recounts in Darkness Visible. Without the security of this friend [alcohol], it became impossible for him to write.

After William Styron died in 2006, following two bouts of oral cancer, along with a second major depression that dragged on for six years, Alexandra Styron was left with what some would term “an identity crisis.” His ending turns out to be her beginning. But first she would have to “read,” or understand, her father.

Born in 1966, Ms. Styron was a later-life child to older parents. Her mother, Rose, was thirty-nine and her father, forty-one. She was the youngest of four Styron children: Susanna the eldest, then Polly and Tom, all much older than she. When she was ten, for instance, Susanna, was already twenty-three, and out of college. Polly, nineteen, was still a student, as was Tom, then seventeen.

Styron grew up virtually as an only child. In her memoir she writes that her birth wasn’t “planned.” I asked her if she ever wondered about that and she forthrightly answered: “I think I wondered, uh, I think I wondered if I was a mistake!” Somehow the change in wording makes “mistake” seem somehow more dire. One wonders if Styron feels she can correct it?

“Oh, no, we really wanted you,” Styron mimics her mother’s oozy, sweet tone, as she told her daughter the story. Though Styron later came to disbelieve it, Rose Styron stuck by it.

Says Styron with a chuckle (a way she has in dealing with unpleasantness), “I don’t think I quite bought that I was planned, after seven years, into a family to a couple of parents who were obviously done having children. It was a hard story for a smart child to swallow. When you have two parents, when you have a father who clearly can’t stand the noise of children, that they really wanted another one, when the youngest one was seven. I remember coming up and remember my mother saying, very emphatically that she had wanted, that she had always wanted another, ‘fourth child.'” That was the
myth Styron grew up with. Then, sometime as an adult, she says with another laugh, “one of my sisters probably said about my mother, ‘no, she was distraught when she realized, you know, [that she was pregnant] and that Daddy really didn’t want another child, but there’s nothing you can do about it.'”

Brightening up, Styron opines that her father was “actually sort of pleasantly surprised. He liked having another child in the house. I mean, it wasn’t another whole bunch of screaming children” She told herself that she thought the “most stressful time for my parents’ marriage and for my siblings was when they were all really little and my father couldn’t stand the racket. And I was really kind of an only child. I wasn’t much trouble. I watched television most of the time.” The self-image she keeps is that of a good girl, who really is not much of a bother at all.

The family home was in Roxbury, Connecticut, in a comfortable white-framed gentleman’s colonial, with considerable acreage and out-buildings, one of which Styron used as a writer’s cabin, with a big Verboten sign pinned at the front door. Summers
were spent at their house on Martha’s Vineyard, a mostly happy place for children and parents alike. Her parents hobnobbed with Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, John Marquand, Peter Matthieson, James Baldwin, and other glitterati from the writing world, such as George Plimpton, the Paris Review editor; Philip Roth, James Jones, and E. L. Doctorow. The Styrons also had friendships with JFK and Mrs. Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy, the Clintons, not to mention such stars from the Hollywood world of film and music as Frank Sinatra, Joan Baez, and Mike Nichols. It was a heady, champagne environment for young Alexandra, who, readily admits, deriving a sense of self by identifying with her father and his glamorous friends.

But at home, Wiliam Styron was irascible and grouchy. Typically he started each day “regularly” in his bohemian way: by sleeping late, having lunch and then holing up in his study for the afternoon to write or, being a perfectionist, stew about writing, while waiting for the muse. Family was discouraged from interrupting his creativity. At last he would emerge. He might then have a few drinks, or more, while listening to his mother’s favorite Mozart or Brahms, full blast on the stereo. Then he and Rose would have dinner. Sometimes little Alexandra, angling for some attention, might arouse his sleeping lion of a temper, which could explode suddenly if his mood was primed. One night he discovered she had been eating junk food she had stashed away. He went absolutely wild, she recalls. She was terrified at his outbursts. He swore and fumed and made a great show of throwing out the noxious food, only to have it replaced by Rose, or the housekeeper.

In her book Styron recounts “a received family story,” in which her siblings were supposed to be taking care of her as a one-year old. Strapped into her walker, she somehow fell down the cellar steps, hitting her head. Her father was sleeping upstairs in the house, but Polly, the elder sister in charge, delayed calling to him for help. As Alexandra lay injured on the cellar floor, Polly held back, afraid to awaken Daddy, lest he blow his stack at being disturbed. She knew she would be in for a humiliating tongue lashing. “His temper was so enormous,” says Styron. “Explosive. I think Polly was paralyzed by her fear of what would happen. She finally went up and told him. She was supposed to be baby-sitting me. When he finally awakened, his typical epithets, he went insane.”

William Styron’s behavior sounds quite similar to Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir
Leslie Stephen. He was the “eminent Victorian” essayist and editor of the monumental Dictionary of National Biography, or DNB for short. It was the sine qua non of its time, where everyone looked for people: the LinkedIn cum Facebook of the day.

In her posthumous autobiographical Moments of Being (1985), Woolf writes that her mother, Mrs. Julia Stephen, used to admonish the children, “Don’t bother your father! He’s a genius!” But as much as his cantankerous moods frightened Virginia and her siblings, she still wanted paternal attention. She would ask him for reading suggestions and even started an in-house newspaper, hoping he would read it, but he rarely did. And just so, a clever Alexandra ventured to ask her father a thing or two, such as “Where is Siberia?” a question her father, a geography nut, was, of course, sure to know.

Being like an only child for so many years, Styron agreed it was difficult for her. “Yes, it definitely left me a bit like my father in a place where you sort of have to take care of yourself.” It was often extremely difficult for her to find nurture and soothing. After all, while growing up her father didn’t get enough for himself. The shadow of his mother’s long terminal illness spread an invisible veil over his early days that stayed with him all his life.

It was surprising to learn from Styron that her grandmother kept very much to herself, completely absorbed in the anodyne of her beloved music, especially her Brahms, and the “Alto Rhapsody.” She evidently didn’t share her love of music with her son. Emotionally she was often unavailable to him and he suffered, not knowing why. According to his daughter, no one explained his mother’s illness to him, and yet, surely he must have picked up that something was very wrong. Perhaps he thought, as children often do when they are left to their own fantasies, that the “something wrong” was them. That they were somehow at fault, or had they been a better child, this would not have happened. Frequently such children feel unloved or even unlovable. It is not their fault, but there was no one to assure them that this was not so, and so they assumed it was true.

Unfortunately, as was often true in decades past and even surprisingly today, it was considered inappropriate to talk about an illness such as clinical depression, within the family, and certainly not outside of it. A Betty Ford-style tell-all confession was unheard of in William Styron’s childhood. One was quietly expected “to soldier on,” to be “stoical.” In Southern Protestant families, it was customary to hear folk talk of “bearing a cross in life.” The flip side of that sentiment is that “God never ‘put on you’ what you couldn’t take.” Styron speculates that her father’s stoicism may have accounted for his later aversion to psychiatrists and medications,which could be construed as “giving in.” She found him very “stoical.”

Alexandra Styron only realized after her father’s death that his parents had never told him as a child about his mother’s illness. Her father, in turn, never talked about his mother, so that she was not somebody that Styron related to, and yet, nowadays much research has shown that such early parental loss can have a profound effect on family survivors. Children, in particular, were often excluded from funerals and other expressions of grief. Most importantly, they often feel abandoned by the parent, primarily because they feel unworthy of love. “Of course, they left me. Why would they stay? I am no good.” They often express feeling like orphans, such as Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House. When Esther is reunited with her mother, Lady Dedlock, she is overjoyed. She had thought her dead. But when her mother leaves Esther a second time, due to her shame at her daughter’s illegitimacy, Esther feels unlovable. Her sense of self is crushed, while at the same time she still longs for her absent parent.

William Styron, similarly, put all of his longing for maternal love into his fiction, often rather autobiographically. He typically imaginatively places a young man in a situation in which he pines for a beautiful, but unavailable woman, such as Stingo for Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, or the young Paul Whitehurst in “A Tidewater Morning,” whose suffering for a dying mother is so closely akin to his own story. These repetitions, and many others, show how the “shadows” that are emotionally internalized from a parent can stay on within someone all their lives. This “shadowed,” distorted thinking operates from within, often without an individual’s awareness and yet it influences all of their later relationships.

Deprived of maternal nurture, William Styron could have experienced emotional emptiness, as his daughter later did. He may well have been angry that he lacked what other children had. After his mother died, his father quickly remarried, to a woman who was harsh and demeaning to him. He was soon packed off to boarding school. In all likelihood her father’s mournful past affected his later moods and behaviors profoundly, especially as her father. And she, as a child, had no context in which to evaluate his seeming cruelties. At the time, she could only take it as rejection, which is not to say that it was not. But with fresh information, following his death, she gained a context for it, which has allowed her to begin to separate from his un-supportive behavior toward her.

Because he remained in the grips of his mother’s shadow, William Styron could have been unable to be responsive to young Alexandra. Consequently, in his and the family’s admittedly mutual ignorance of his emotional past, he was often disappointing to her. She poignantly tells of sending him the printer’s galley of her first novel, All the Finest Girls (2001). No response. After two weeks, she telephoned the house. She got her mother on the line, but her father came on for a second, said “wonderful,” and hung up the phone on her. This was, of course, a great letdown. She assumed he hated her work.

Alexandra Styron recalls this difficult, hurtful time. “I remember him as very uncommunicative and remote. I think he was on the other extension. I think he picked up. He used to eavesdrop on everybody’s phone calls. I think he was probably on the phone the whole time.”

It was a tense time for father and daughter. Styron revealed that she had given an interview to a reporter who had asked if her novel were autobiographical and she had answered, “Well, it is a fictional story, but, well…I took it from my real life and nobody’s parents are perfect or something like that. I was very noncommittal.” But apparently, for her thin-skinned father, it was not enough. He became very angry. She says, “I went home for Easter that year and he was very cold to me. And I knew why and he wouldn’t talk to me.” She attributes his fury not so much to how he was depicted in the novel as to the fact that she was writing and he was not.

Nowadays, she has mellowed over his angry treatment of her. She realizes he wasn’t well then, but clearly he did not respond then in the way she had hoped. Styron says, “I finished my book at a time when he was really beginning his second and final slide, and so he was in a very bad place emotionally and I took it very personally, but now I don’t. Now, I see what I think was an expression of his own sense of mortality and see that the next generation is ascending.” I suggest that he may not have wanted anybody else, especially herself, Alexandra Styron, to follow him, and though she agreed, she is more forgiving of his ungenerous mood.

In person, Styron typically dials-down her anger and frustration with her father, as if she cannot quite accept that what she experienced was really hostility. In her memoir she is a little more pointed: “It was, indeed, my ‘youth and vigor.’ Daddy was drowning, and I, well, I was swimming on.” In other words, she is winning their imaginary race. There is a strong element of generational competition between the two. Whereas he might have been proud of her becoming an author, he may have felt “time’s winged chariot / hurrying near,” and not wished to be replaced, especially by his daughter. Evidently there wasn’t room in that family for two novelists. Maybe a poet; but not two novelists.

Also like Virginia Woolf’s father, Sigmund Freud famously did not welcome his daughter Anna by his professional side, in spite of her brilliance. She was good for taking care of his legacy and as nurse when he was sick with cancer. He wanted an acolyte more than a peer. Such is not a unique pattern.

One feels it is no surprise that when Styron first thought of writing she did not tell her family. She was at the time in Los Angeles, pursuing an acting career, which fizzled, not for lack of talent so much as from an inner lack of confidence. To now take up writing as a career, Styron says, “I didn’t feel good about myself and I didn’t feel anybody would take me seriously if I said, ‘Uh, I’m gonna be a writer.'”

It was a fearful time for her as she expresses in her memoir: “The shadow in which I was suddenly standing did not escape my notice.” The shadow is, I believe, the one that haunted her father all of his life and now appeared to be haunting her as well, passing from one generation to another. She knew that ghost could obliterate her gift.

Styron was afraid that her family, especially her father, would criticize her, label her a dilettante, so she wrote in secret. She wasn’t going to let anyone, especially her
father, discourage her by showing her work and having it ignored or rejected outright. That would be too deflating. In quiet, she attended fiction workshops in California and found a wonderful teacher, Judith Taylor, who encouraged her to come back East and pursue an MFA at Columbia University, where she wrote half of her novel.

We talked about the kind of teachers she had who were so inspiring, but she denied being mentored by anyone in the vein that her father was: by Professors William Blackburn at Duke University and the legendary publisher’s editor, Hiram Haydn, at The New School, as well as through publishers Random House and Atheneum later. “My father had great mentors along the way and that is a great thing.” He mentored for others, she acknowledges, but not for her. One senses she wishes he would have.

Time and again, a wistfulness creeps into Styron’s voice as if to ask, “Why couldn’t he have done it for me?” She does not stay with this feeling long, but moves on robustly: “I think I would have been quicker off the mark, if [he] had. But I knew it would be complicated for me to find a writing mentor, because of my father. I think I wasn’t obvious for someone to take under his or her wing. If you were a writer,” she says again plaintively in a higher pitch, “Would you take me under your wing? No, No!”

If Alexandra Styron felt “an absence” of a “presence” from her father, her psychological solution was to identify with him. In her memoir Reading My Father, she recounts a time of parental crisis, around 1978, when she was twelve. Both parents were fighting a lot. There was talk of divorce, so much so that young Alexandra thought maybe it would be a good idea if they did split up. But as soon as she thought it, she became anxious. She realized her father would go to Virginia. That was OK. She could be a “countrified Eloise.” But then she had a terrifying thought: if he left, what would happen to her? Where would that leave her? “In being his daughter,” she told me, “I feared that I wouldn’t be his daughter anymore, that I would disappear, go into nothing.” Such nonbeing states as emptiness and nothingness are scary and full of anxiety, as one feels oneself slide off into a dark void of galactic proportions.

With those feelings of emptiness, Styron realized she had “a lot invested” in her parents’ marriage and their staying together, since she was “so needy” and “sensitive.” For one thing it would provide her inner cohesion. “It was so directly tied to my father’s public identity. I felt like I was only valuable as his child,” which is to say she didn’t feel valuable as herself.

Alexandra Styron had another frightening thought at twelve. She tells in her memoir how she feared she would lose “the specialness” that she felt at being his daughter. And if he should remarry, perhaps he would “bestow” that specialness “upon new children if he had them in some other happy home.” Her adolescent conclusion: “Irascible as he was, I didn’t know what, or who, I’d be without him.”

Not only could her father take Styron’s identity away, but he could give it away to other children. The threat of another child’s “taking” her identity seems to be a strong current throughout her life and reappears, I think, in her fascination with “Sophie’s Choice.” One wonders if an unconscious notion of her being “a mistake” is resonating here? Who would “deserve” to lose her being? Maybe someone who was “a mistake”?

When William Styron spiraled downward to another major depression in 2000, Alexandra Styron confessed, in her memoir, that she felt ambivalent about being pulled back into the family orbit. “I was, just at that very moment, happy,” she wrote plaintively.

Some very good things had been happening. Her MFA was wrapped up, she was about to publish her first novel and she had found the man she would marry. She says that she did not want to be “the baby” of the family anymore. This “baby” was, in fact, growing up. Understandably she felt reluctant to be sucked once again into the vortex of her father’s depression and the family’s complex emotional relationships, but family loyalty, to her siblings and mother, as well as her father, pulled her back.

Alexandra Styron is definitely stoical and a real trouper. It is a hard and mostly thankless business to look after a depressed parent, as she indicated. All of one’s positive feelings go into that person and nothing comes back. It is like being with black matter. “It is hard not to take it personally,” she says.

Styron’s father, in the meantime, decided he wanted ECT treatment. Tired of working with psychiatrists, tired of searching for the right medicine, but getting it wrong, such as the now banned Halcion, Styron was fed up with doctors, pills and “adverse side effects.” He wanted to blast through his miasma to health. Alexandra Styron says he just “couldn’t think of the idea of trying medication again or talking. He thought ‘Do something to me! Just shock me! I can’t live through this again!’ And so he committed to this extreme form of therapy. Because he couldn’t conceive of going through that process again.” So, despite the ECT scares of the 1950s and 1960s, and warnings to stay away from it, Styron was determined to proceed. But it wasn’t the success he had hoped.

According to Styron, her father never really snapped out of his last depression. A strong sense of guilt haunts her father’s writings, in general, I observed. She indicated he especially felt guilty about how he concluded Darkness Visible on such a hopeful note. He had written so consolingly in its last pages, even citing the famous lines from Dante: “Those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of poet,” who emerges from the darkest depths. Styron writes that “whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy.” Millions of rapt readers called out in unison, Yes! and found encouragement in his words.

The final lines of Darkness Visible are also from Dante: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” Without a doubt, they are moving and express a joyful anticipation of eventual health for the depressed person. Styron revealed that her family is having this verse engraved on her father’s tombstone.

I find the lines touching and said so, but she replied: “Yes, even if it is in the hereafter, which sadly is my father’s case,” since he himself never fully recovered. The Styron family retains hope, however, in spite of his last days, that he will yet find peace and joy.

But the question of whether recovery and health is truly possible after devastating depression, as Styron implies in Darkness Visible was, in fact, a point of intense anxiety for him as he lay dying. Alexandra Styron offers her own opinion that her father was convinced that there was going to be a “scandal when people find out.” He raved, “When they find out, it is going to ruin people’s memories of me: it is going to be terrible!” What did he mean? the Styrons all wondered. What scandal? They were mystified by his frantic and obsessive ramblings and ravings.

Although Styron touches on the subject briefly in her book, she feels she did not adequately address the issue: “My father had presented the idea that one can always recover; that he was in this place and then he came out of it and you, too, could come out of it. Darkness Visible is such a hopeful book, which is wonderful. And it has been so helpful for many people, that I think that the man who told the world, was overly optimistic, and that the man who was sort of the poster child for depression and for the possibility of recovery, was now in the grips of depression again and couldn’t get out. I think that was really devastating.”

I wondered if William Styron’s last “hopeless years” could represent a kind of passive suicide. In such cases, one is not actively pursuing “a plan,” with specifics (overdose, shoot oneself, jump off a bridge) to end one’s life, as he had contemplated during his 1985 depression. He had made the gesture of throwing out his precious journal, which to him meant he would kill himself, but something even more insidious. Perhaps it could called the permanent loss of hope. Or perhaps suicidal thinking for him represents a positive thing, as many psychologists think, a tenuous hold on being alive; at least one could still kill oneself. This symbolizes a kind of power, of having some choice left, of being not dead yet.

I asked Ms. Styron if she recalled whether her father had ever said anything that suggested that he “wished” he were dead, as in the modality of passive suicide: “No. I think my father’s impulses were really much more conflicted than that. The only time he really contemplated suicide was the episode in 1985 that he wrote about in Darkness Visible.” That was the only time, she thinks, that he was actively suicidal. Her father was beyond that, she believes.

“His despair was so deep that he didn’t theorize, or even talk about it. It was so overwhelming; it was so existential. His despair was like a solid block. He was trapped in his body that was failing him and it was such a Gordian Knot. He wouldn’t do anything. The illness would make it impossible for him to do anything that would help him to recover. Then he would feel so trapped by his physical state that it compounded his despair. That he couldn’t speak clearly, that he couldn’t use his right hand. But because he was so depressed he wouldn’t do the exercises the physical therapists recommended. They would say, ‘Let’s go!’ but he wouldn’t walk. He wouldn’t use the hand-squeeze device.”

Styron recalls a correspondence her father had with Humphrey Osmond, M.D., the doctor who coined the word psychedelic, and treated alcoholics with LSD. Styron recalled that Osmond said, “The hallmark of the devilish aspect of depression is that it robs people of hope. And it makes the idea of becoming well again absurd.” Styron believes that her father found this totally persuasive in his [last?] depression, “so if you believed that so completely, why would you walk around the yard? It is like being in a Sartre play. Why bother?”

By the time William Styron died, Alexandra Styron had, unlike her father, tried psychoanalysis, “the talking cure.” She went, she tells me, because a lot of her friends were doing it then and lying on a couch multiple times a week was still rather trendy. “The doctor wanted five times a week! But I refused. I went three!” Her time on the couch undoubtedly coincided with an earlier time when she felt low about herself: from age twenty, when she finished Barnard College, to twenty-six, when headed to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. She left her classical-Freudian treatment to see if a change of venue might help. “Did it?” I asked. Although she does not give classical psychoanalysis a ringing endorsement, she thinks it helped in the sense that she came “to trust” someone enough to talk and “go for it.” But the process seemed “cold” to her: “It was like she sat there and said nothing,” so that she wouldn’t do that kind of analysis again. Not surprisingly, the old problems trailed her to L.A. “Yeah, somehow I thought I would just be rescued.”

Although she indicates that she experienced depressed feelings, Styron makes it clear that, “It wasn’t a clinical depression like my father’s.” She explains there were definite causes: “I was miserable because I was in my twenties and I couldn’t get a job, I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I felt like nothing was ever going to work out for me. It just wasn’t going the way I had hoped…for a really long time,” she chuckles.

Still, the shadow that dogged her father and made him the way he was, and was such a large component of her relationship with him, viz., the negativity, the frequent angry hostility, the withholding of warmth and affection, could have also produced in her a depressed mood as she grew up, leaving her wondering who she was and what she would do in life.

If the organizing attitude of one’s life is that one is “a mistake,” how is one to think that she or he could find a great job or be in love? Who would love a mistake?

Yet by the time her father had died in 2006, Alexandra Styron had achieved a great deal personally. She had married, had a son, written a novel. Nevertheless, in 2007 she found herself still needing to sort out her complex relationship with her father. She was invited to write a piece for an anthology on Brooklyn writers. In it, she reflected that she had been “looking for a place to live while my father was searching for a way to die.” Curiously she followed in her father’s footsteps to Brooklyn, where she now lives with her young family, also now including a little girl. She laughingly realizes she had followed Stingo’s wisdom in the opening line of Sophie’s Choice: “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.”

Perhaps she was half-seeking her father’s old haunts, perhaps even finding a way to commune with his spirit, as if to say, “My father was here, in this very spot. Perhaps his spirit is still here.” I wonder. Why, after all, do we as tourists tramp through mansions, palaces, battlefields, cathedrals, castles of centuries past? We may suppose we are going for scenery, architectural excellence, beauty; and, of course, we are superficially. But what we want to know is, “Are they here? Those ghosts whom we imagine inhabit such places.” What is a “sense” of place, after all, if not of a sentient being associated with it?

After her daughter was born, Styron reread Sophie’s Choice. She had put it aside as a teenager. Nonetheless, she had been extremely proud at the time of her father’s book and its fame, and her connection with it, especially when it became a movie. She took her boarding-school friends to the New York opening and soaked in its celebrity frisson, especially idolizing Meryl Streep as Sophie.

What, one wonders, drew Styron to the themes of this particular novel? Given her father’s lifelong unsympathetic treatment of her, I am somewhat, but not entirely, surprised that she tells me: “I really can’t believe he wrote that! As an adult reading it I was astonished at how sensitive he was. How deeply he understood women. He was very warm. I don’t just mean his compassion for humanity. I mean, he really ‘got’ things about people and women, in a way I didn’t see as a kid. I didn’t know he did. He never…he didn’t show it. I think that was a kind of revelation in Sophie’s Choice that is very powerful.”

It is poignant to think that all the warmth that Alexandra Styron craved from her father seems to have been poured into his novels.

Was she drawn into the triangular dynamics of the book, with the Polish Catholic Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor and Nathan, her Jewish lover, and Stingo, the narrator, fresh up
from the South, just like William Styron, the onlooker? Was she like the only child who wanted to be with her parents, especially her father? It seems yes. That is what All the Finest Girls is about. One is struck by the young heroine, admittedly autobiographical, avidly watching from behind the piano legs at her parents’ party. It is a boozy party with strong undercurrents of sexuality from different couples as they intermix, playing off each other in banter, sometimes clever, sometimes clumsy innuendo and missing the mark, as alcohol overcomes their better senses.

Little by little, Styron’s stories about her father would expand. The New Yorker picked up on the Brooklyn piece and she wrote “Reading My Father” for them in 2007. This eventually led to a book contract with Scribner. “It was never my plan to spend three years writing a memoir about my father. Honestly, it just sort of happened.”

Although this was heady stuff, the idea of writing a book-length memoir became mind boggling for Styron. “I panicked,” she remembers, afraid she could not even remember her father, much less write about him and their relationship.

I mentioned to Styron that even though her mother, Rose, is mentioned in the book, I have a great feeling of her “absence.” Where was she? She seems not there. She is so in the background, I observed. I asked her what it was like with her mother growing up. Her answer: “Well, I mean, she was away a lot, but she loomed very large in our lives.” She indicates that her mother, a Wellesley woman, a Baltimore department-store heiress, a poet and well-known liberal political activist, was a private person, and she respected that. The publication of Reading My Father had made her mother anxious she said; but she has relaxed about it, especially now, a year later. Notices have been generous, and her mother’s friends supportive and complimentary.

Styron explains that her mother was often away because of her intense liberal causes. She was a formidable figure in international crusades to support Bosnian and Chilean victims. She also maintained an active social life elsewhere during the years when she and Styron had marital difficulties. I suggested that perhaps that was how she coped with the strife: She simply left. Styron suggests that her memoir is really about how it was to be a young child in, what I have called “a big barn of a house with a wild man inside.” Despite her parents’ conflicts, Styron believes her mother was “very invested in keeping her marriage alive, so if that meant having some space….” She did not finish the sentence, but she evidently is content with her mother’s style in keeping the family going. For Alexandra Styron it was better for her sense of self to have them together than divorced.

The mother-daughter relationship is strong and Styron is protective of her mother. After her father became depressed, he completely changed his behavior in regard to Rose. From fighting with and cheating on her, he became completely dependent and quite docile. For her part, she took devoted care of him and made sure he wasn’t bothered by anyone or anything.

But it was not until she delved into the huge 22,500-document William Styron archive at Duke University, where he had been an English major, that she began “to read,” or to understand her father and his life, and how it had so deeply affected hers. She held his manuscripts in her hand (letters especially), helping her “absorb the idea of what my father’s childhood was like and how sorrowful it was.”

The Duke experience was deeply affecting: “He was dead, but there was evidence not only of him, but me. It was like finding an attic full of letters: You find a whole part of yourself.” It allowed her to reconstruct her father’s entire world before her birth, a world of grandparents, parents, and much-older siblings: Susanna, Polly, and Tom. She immersed herself in his foreign travels and family holidays (without her), his struggles to be a writer, his wildly romantic wooing of her mother, Rose in Rome: what it was like before she “was even a glimmer in his eye.” In retrospect the past seemed a glowing world, almost paradise, where she was again the observer of what they were doing before she came on the scene.

I sense that Alexandra Styron feels excluded, deprived; that she had somehow missed so much by not having been born sooner, by not being a party to the first part, as it were.

Starting from the earliest letters, some even by her grandparents, she moved forward chronologically. Suddenly she saw where she fit in, when the letters started to mention “‘the baby Al is doing this,’ and I would think, ‘they’re all here,’ so I began to weave a portrait of my childhood that I didn’t know, or forgot.”

She began to understand how it was. Interestingly, Styron seems to come under her father’s sway, almost like boyfriend and girlfriend. “I was charmed by him,” she says with great emotion, “I would have loved….” She breaks off this thought and rephrases it earnestly, after a brief readjusting pause. “This is someone who could have been my friend. If I had been in college with him, I would have wanted to be Bill Styron’s friend, and I probably would have been his friend. We would have been in writing class together.”

In talking with me, she seems to have subsumed the great longing for her father as a young man, from an almost romantic relationship to one of being pals, from talking books and poetry to fooling around and joking as adolescent kids.

One senses the deep yearning Alexandra Styron still has for him: of something that would have been, but she knows is impossible. It reminds me of Milton Loftis’s longing for his mother in Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, when he returns to that “cluttered museum of a house” from childhood. There he imagines his mother’s “hovering face, unseen and finally unknown.” Loftis is only reassured when his father tells him his mother was “refined and lovely.” For Alexandra Styron, her wish is to turn back a clock in time and be best friends with her beloved Daddy.

As a collection, the archival trove at Duke was almost like reuniting with her father, rejuvenated, brought back to life as a young man, someone more her age. Her immersion in his work allows Styron to accept her father’s depressions and explosive tempers, to put in perspective his seeming rejections of her. It allows her to accept that he wasn’t perfect and permits her to love him in spite of his faults. The archive was like nurturing food and water, sustaining and health-giving. She returned again and again to its fountain. It allows her to begin finding a separate self that was her own and not tied entirely to his.

Alexandra Styron realizes that as she succeeds as an author, as a mother, and as a wife she achieves a separate being from him, so that she is increasingly becoming herself. She is no longer always empty, only valued as “William Styron’s daughter.”

One telling instance of this fluid back-and-forth process of becoming herself occurred in her Charlie Rose interview last spring, shortly after publication of her book. He asked, “If your father could come back, what would you want to ask him?” This had been a surprise question she revealed. After a momentary consternation, she responded emphatically, “I would want to know had I done him well.”

Some people, in her position might have taken the opportunity to ask William Styron, “Do you love me?” or they might have wished her father to ask her, “How are you? How are you doing, now that I am not here?” But she wanted to know basically what kind of a grade she would be getting. “Did he think I did a fair portrait?” she explained to me. While no answer is right or wrong, hers shows that she still seeks his approval, that she still expects an assessment of her work and, of course, it could be found wanting, which would be anxiety-provoking. One presumes it was like this when he was alive. Everything revolved around her father’s vision of things, what he thought, what he preferred, what he knew.

Styron knows she has not entirely separated yet. When she can simply not care what he thinks, she will be more Alexandra and less William.

It is “a process,” this becoming yourself. Styron is aware that she wants the next years to be about her and not her father; that it has taken a long time to disengage from his shadow, and the shadow of depression that was on him and had spread to her. The more she articulates herself by writing and speaking, the more the real Alexandra Styron emerges.

She is concerned, nonetheless, about the letdown, even depression, many writers feel once the cheering stops, but it hasn’t happened: “I’m not done yet.” Clearly buoyed by the positive reception her work has received, she is still basking in the favorable response. She does anticipate a lull, but she is making plans for writing projects. Meantime, she is teaching Memoir Writing at Hunter College, where she will doubtlessly find opportunity to be the kind of generous mentor she wished she had.

Copyright 2011 by Melissa C. Wanamaker. All rights reserved. To reprint or quote at length any portion of this interview, contact Melissa C. Wanamaker, 115 East 72nd Street, New York, NY 10021, or call 212-861-7006.

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