Just as the sea, by turns rageful and indifferent, takes hold of those caught in it, so William Styron did with his family, especially his youngest daughter, Alexandra, whose recent memoir, Reading My Father, tells the story of their relationship. It was a relationship dictated by her father’s ferocity, aloofness, and depression, one that she writes of honestly and eloquently.
Of course, it’s not just the relationship that Styron relates, but her journey to understand the man himself. She takes us on that journey as she culls his papers, correspondence, manuscripts, speeches, and other writings, at Duke University, William Styron’s alma mater and home to his archives.
Her narrative begins at her father’s funeral then winds back and forth between the distant past and up to the more recent past when she was still researching him through his papers. In this way we learn more than just a chronological timeline of her father’s life and works and her growing up (and eventually out) of his shadow, but her reflections, insights, longings, and acceptances. (A small example of this is when she listens to him speak at LaGrange College in Georgia, where he is conferred with an honorary degree. During his speech he relates that he was an abysmal student. Styron notes that she “remembers thinking, How come I didn’t know he was such a goddamn bad student? Even I hadn’t flunked physics four times.”)
It seems fitting that she was born shortly before her father’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was published because his works served as a backdrop to her life. She writes, ". . . each phase of my youth is joined in my mind to the novel my father was writing at the time.” If his novels helped define her youth, his failure to produce a sixth one (his fifth, Sophie’s Choice, was published in 1979) helped serve as landscape later on.
But until she left the house it was his mercurial temperament that set the tone. A drinker, her father was by turns distant and angry, unpredictably turning on Alexandra and the rest of the family. When she was eleven, for example, he turned on her, calling her, “A fucking princess!” because she didn’t bake something for her grandfather. However, as the author came into her own, the father-daughter relationship was changed. “He wasn’t the antihero of my story anymore. The narrative was heading in a more pleasing direction.”
In the end, Reading My Father is her story as much as his. And what a story it is.