Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, probes her father's darkness

Book review: "Reading My Father," by Alexandra Styron. Scribner, $25.


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William Styron's youngest child proves the writer gene runs in the Styron veins. Alexandra Styron's provocatively titled memoir of her father is far more than catharsis.

It's the beautifully written, frequently harrowing chronicle of a gifted, sensitive family in which the father (and husband) figure was dominant -- and ill.

"Reading My Father" reveals the inner life of a family that moved in the highest literary and political circles. Writing it must have been difficult for Ms. Styron, who gives new meaning to the phrase "warts and all," through her depiction of her striking and deeply troubled father; reading it must be difficult for the rest of the Styrons. It's a healing work nevertheless.

Although Styron was born in Newport News, Va., he spent most of his life in Connecticut and on Martha's Vineyard. While he never lost a kind of Southern fatalism, he seemed to feel at home most in the East. This book speaks to the liberal sensibility of the 1960s and '70s, when the Kennedys set the political tone and Styron's novels, particularly "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner" loomed large on the cultural scene.

Crafting those and two others -- "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Set This House on Fire" -- came at a terrible cost -- his peace of mind.

Ms. Styron focuses on the life of the man more than his craft. In some ways, hers was a charmed childhood. Once her daddy struck commercial gold, the family got rich; after that followed travel, good schools, heady company in the likes of the Teddy Kennedys, the Leonard Bernsteins, the Peter Matthiessens, James Jones and the famously difficult Norman Mailer.

But there was also a distance that angered Ms. Styron so, she had trouble remembering much of her childhood. Only when she decided to clear up her past -- and her father's -- did her history become clear.

"The monomaniacal (usually male) artist is a familiar image," she writes in a chapter exploring the link between depression and creativity. "Even I can see the curious romance in the image of the brilliant writer so consumed with his work he barely notices his loved ones mooning around in the shadow of his neglect."

Curiously, that neglect nurtured an independent spirit. After a false start as an actress, Ms. Styron became a novelist, no thanks to her father who acted as if she were crowding him out.

Styron, meanwhile, suffered two disastrous depressions. After recovering from the first, in 1985, he produced "Darkness Visible," a highly acclaimed 1990 book that effectively branded him as an expert on the downward spiral. Unfortunately, 15 years later, depression hit him again, precipitated by the death of his two dogs.

Nothing stymied this one, not electroshock therapy, drugs, the love of family and devoted help. By then, Styron was in his 70s, so his body was deteriorating, too.

The last part of the book is heartbreaking, because, in accumulating detail, in her analysis of her kin and herself, Ms. Styron has produced something quite remarkable:

An engrossing account of a complicated, maddening man who was loved despite himself.

How fine a writer Ms. Styron is -- though not as prolix as her father -- comes clear in this description. It speaks to her poring over Duke University archives of her father's unfinished work:

"All those words irrigated the arid soil that was my past. Up sprung life in fresh stalks. Voice, flesh, smell. I thought if I could put pages of his unfinished work in order, maybe the whole landscape would make itself plain."

"READING MY FATHER"

By Alexandra Styron.

Scribner ($25).


Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.


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