Remembering a Daddy just visible in the darkness
THROUGHOUT Reading My Father Alexandra Styron refers to its subject, writer William Styron, as Daddy. This recalls Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy, with its furious eruption of the speaker-daughter’s rage, enlarged through metaphor into a dark twist on Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp.
Echoes of confessional poetry are magnified by an epigraph from Adrienne Rich’s poem Diving Into the Wreck. Styron quotes Rich’s vision of exploring a wreck, looking for ‘‘ the damage that was done/ and the treasures that prevail’’. Reading My Father sounds the depths of Alexandra Styron’s family history as it explores the wrecking of William Styron (1925-2006), and the wreckage and treasures around him.
Today, blogging, Twitter and Facebook and various forms of life writing offer forms of self-disclosure unimaginable to Styron and his peers, including the confessional poets of the 1950s and 60s, whose work disturbed many readers with its (apparent) intimacy and openness. The paradox of constructing disclosure and the related question of narcissism, along with the possibility that much of this involves a confecting of alternative selves, pulse under each word and character.
Alexandra Styron’s self-awareness keeps these questions in focus. She retains a sharp sense of the troubled position of her own work here and of the wobbly and treacherous nature of memory. Her memoir probes the ethical questions about disclosing others’ secrets, especially when that other is someone close, and someone famous.
The William Styron remembered by his daughter is one whose literary greatness is a given. His novels, and his own memoir, Darkness Visible, chart the phases of his children’s lives. The 1967 publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner provokes controversy and acclaim, both augmented with the publication 12 years later of Sophie’s Choice and the subsequent film. It is Darkness Visible (1990), though, an account of Styron’s depression — ‘‘ despair beyond despair’’ — that evokes readers’ greatest affection, unleashing a tide of letters and an unexpected role as an emblem of survival. Styron finds himself called on to speak for the illness, and to its sufferers, including those who need to be talked down from literal and figurative ledges. Yet behind this public face the Styron of this memoir is anything but a healing force.
Alexandra Styron’s memoir emerges from the vacuum between the public and private versions of her father, the latter shaped by the family to conform with the former in an act of collective collusion. She recalls turning anecdotes about her father into stories that make him into a kind of Roald Dahl figure.
This is the father, ‘‘ curmudgeonly and outrageous’’ but essentially warm and comical, who tells his horse-mad daughter that the governor has banned horses in the state of Connecticut, and that her beloved pony will have to be ‘‘ sold to the glue factory’’. At the time, in the context of a glamorous life with her famous father at its centre, Styron understands this as the result of a ‘‘ faulty radar’’ when it comes to jokes.
The Styrons sing Christmas carols with Leonard Bernstein’s family and host huge parties whose guests include Mia Farrow and Joan Baez. They holiday on Martha’s Vineyard near the Kennedy family. Stryon befriends, fights with and is reconciled again with Norman Mailer. Novels appear and are criticised, defended and awarded.
A more pathological side to Styron, beyond the depression disclosed powerfully and sympathetically in Darkness Visible, cuts through Reading My Father. This Styron is a gloomy absent-presence in the household, flying into rages, made worse by alcoholism.
One incident exemplifying this occurs when William Styron Sr, Alexandra’s grandfather, comes to live with the family. Having asked 11-year-old Alexandra to make cookies for her grandfather, and discovering that she has forgotten, her father rages: ‘‘ You. Are. A. Creep! A f . . king princess! You are a hateful girl! It’s an outrage, goddam it!’’
Reading My Father is an attempt to unravel myths and probe the silences between a Stryon the world knew and the moody bully his family lived with. Styron’s portrait of a family fearful of the outbreak of rage wraps around her own story of becoming a writer, the latter of less interest, arguably, without her father’s role in it. His old friend Peter Matthiessen, aware of the chasm between the public and private versions of Styron, suggests that he was spoiled, implicating Styron’s wife, the poet Rose Styron. The figure of Rose Styron remains enigmatic in this memoir, though there is a sense of suppressed hostility towards her for colluding with her spouse at the expense of her children.
But Matthiessen goes on to suggest that because Styron was ‘‘ a real writer, a real artist’’ he deserved to be indulged. Alexandra Styron’s comment is minimal. Maybe, she thinks. Or maybe not. She remembers the comments of a male friend of her own generation, a writer juggling fatherhood and work, that the men of their fathers’ generation were the Big Babies.
Reading My Father shows the path Styron took from impecuniousness and rejection slips to literary fame, and the lessons in faith and perseverance this offers his daughter as she begins to write. This is the treasure that prevails, though it is the damage done that resonates here more powerfully.
Felicity Plunkett is poetry editor at UQP.