Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing a Personal Biography: Reflections on Alexandra Styron's "Reading My Father"

Alexandra Styron's Reading My Father (2011) sounds, if the jacket copy is to be trusted, like the companion piece to William Styron's mind-staggering—yet eloquently brief—memoir Darkness Visible (1990). This is, of course, because the book's description opens with an invocation of Mr. Styron's depression memoir, now a classic in the field of depression literature. And it would be a gross misreading to state that the elder Styron's battle with melancholy does not inform the book; one of the threads that Ms. Styron delicately needles throughout her prose is the insinuating yarn (one woven from her ancestors' mental states and her father's biography) that her father's depression is equal parts experiential and biological.

The book, though, is an object lesson in the importance of genre—just like many other mislabeled works of art. Several years back, I saw a production of the so-called "rock opera" Movin' Out, based on the songs of Billy Joel. The expectation, going in, was that the production would have the look and feel of something like Mama Mia, a musical that somehow generates a plot out of a single group's songs. But the difference between Abba and Billy Joel is one of narrative access: Abba's songs, generally told from the first person, open themselves to the possibility of a person inhabiting that voice, while Joel's tunes (either a straight third person narrator or a secondary figure telling somebody else's tale) require that somebody tell us what's happening. Had I been told, on entering the theatre, that I would be observing a ballet enacting the narrative of Billy Joel's songs, I would have been more amenable to the artistic project. But I was told "rock opera," and a ballet to rock is hardly a rock opera.

I allude to my experiences with Movin' Out to emphasize the importance of genre and narrative approach when reading something like Ms. Styron's volume. Reading My Father—termed a memoir, at least according to its title page—lacks the explicit self-evaluation and introspection that we generally expect of that literary form. Terming this book a "memoir" performs two other functions: the book enters a dialogue with Mr. Styron's Darkness Visible, and the book likewise finds itself in a literary genre that, recently, has sold like hotcakes.

Though we do learn of how the late Styron's irascibility upended the family's life and created distance between various members of this book's ensemble, the great novelist's fits and personality tics—along with the effects on Ms. Styron and her elder siblings—is hardly the focus of this piece of nonfiction. In the book's second chapter, Ms. Styron reveals her actual purpose for writing this reflection on her father. She spoke about telling her "father's ghost stories" at the 2 February 2007 memorial service for Mr. Styron, which she had hoped would offer "an opportunity for closure, as they say in griefspeak." Ms. Styron began her address with an opening line that, she claims, had been consistent through all drafts of her remarks:
"My father used to scare the crap out of me," I declared. The lurid stories I chose that day were selective (omitting a few that my husband, Ed, thought were actually too awful to get a laugh). And after I told them, I wondered aloud why he had [told ghost stories]. Why would a grown man scare his children so completely? . . . Was it catharsis? Was he blowing off steam after a day grappling with all those barbarous slavers and Nazis who inhabited his books—real-life maniacs on the loose inside his head? . . . The answer that I settled on reflected what I believed was a deeper truth. Whether he meant to or not, Daddy taught us a lesson—a lesson which tested him hard at the end of his days—that life requires courage, and a sense of humor.
Ms. Styron seeks, through Reading My Father, an understanding of that man's courage, sense of humor, sensibility, and raison d'ĂȘtre. Her endeavors to explicate her answer, to respond to the question of why a man such as her father would evoke such fear in his own children, takes her into a genre that is beyond a father-daughter memoir or a depression memoir; she embarks on what I shall term a "personal biography," an exploration of an ancestor's history.

This term—"personal biography"—strikes me as particularly apt, as Ms. Styron casts herself as a child whose coping mechanism was an avoidance of her father's often ornery disposition. So she investigates Mr. Styron's life and his writerly craft, re-reading his works and studying his papers at Duke University and interviewing Mr. Styron's friends, editor, and biographer. Reading My Father is a biography, in that it espouses a particular picture of a man and sketches his contours, colours in the lines of his character so that readers learn about the man; it is a biography of art, too, in that Ms. Styron's approach to her father's fiction is one of biographical criticism, in which his life necessarily translates into his prose. But the stakes are personal, as Ms. Styron is working to discover the man behind those texts, the father whom she often missed seeing directly, clearly, as a child.