Looking back, Alexandra Styron can see that her father, novelist William Styron, likely suffered depression much of his life. But as the youngest of four children, all she knew was the need to tip-toe around the man she remembers as both a looming figure whose stories “scared the crap of out me,” and a sweet man with whom she spent a lot of alone time.
In her book, a memoir titled Reading My Father (Scribner, 2011), Alexandra explores her father’s history through his writings. She examines his published works including famous novel, Sophie’s Choice, and his privately penned conversations with past loves, friends, and his father – all now a part of the William Styron Papers, kept at Duke University. There, in her father’s archived voice, she discovers parts of him she hadn’t previously known - - and in the process, unearths truths about herself.
William Styron was formally diagnosed with major depression at age 60. “He was a big drinker,” says Alexandra. She believes that like many who suffer depression, her father self-medicated in an effort to “mask or inhibit” his symptoms. Alexandra begins her memoir with an oft told family story about being left in the care of her older siblings then 7 and 9. Still just a baby, too young to walk, little Alexandra tumbled down the basement stairs in her walker. As their little sister’s forehead swelled, her brother Tommy, and sister Polly, waited in fear for their mother to come home.
Alexandra was in her thirties before she knew the whole truth - - her father had been upstairs sleeping the entire time. The children had been too terrified to wake him up to ask for help By day, Alexandra remembers her father as a bit of recluse who held what she calls, “Thinly veiled hostility toward any person interrupting his daily flow.” By night, however, heralded by the “screech-and-bang” of the screen door to the “little shack” in which he worked, a much friendlier man emerged. As sunlight ebbed, her father would be “good and tight,” says Alexandra, who recalls him entertaining famous people on summer evenings at Martha’s Vineyard. People like Teddy Kennedy and Frank Sinatra were commonplace, and her father partied the evenings away. But when alcohol no longer physically agreed with him, symptoms of depression became clear.
Hospitalization helped Styron for a time. Once released, he wrote a memoir about the experience. That bestselling book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1992, Knopf), chronicled his depressive descent and narrow escape from suicide. The depression returned, however, and gravely interfered with Styron’s writing.
Now an adult, Alexandra watched along with the rest of the family as her father suffered paranoid delusions and intense hypochondria. They also watched him deteriorate physically, some of his symptoms the byproducts of pharmacological treatments and others not so easily traced. Two bouts of oral cancer made speaking difficult for the man who at one time found great joy in telling scary stories to his youngest daughter. It was heartbreaking to witness the decline of her once vital father. His inability to find pleasure caused him to stop eating and become malnourished. The depression weighted him into a semi-paralysis that kept him glued to the sofa, refusing to participate in his own recovery.
At her father’s funeral, Alexandra shared some of his frightful stories. Like many parents, she takes a similar joy at teasing her children, but is careful to let them in on the joke. “Just the other night we were out in the dark and the kids were scared,” she says. “I had the instinct to say ‘woo-woo,’ then thought ‘oh no, don’t do that,’ and we all laughed.” Sometimes, her father’s stories left her hanging on edge. Alexandra is very much her father’s daughter, gifted with his writer’s gene. However, she inherited her mother’s “much less fragile chemistry.”
Though aware depression seems to have a genetic component and is more prevalent in some families, she’s not overly concerned. “It’s good to know, so you can be alert and aware of signs,” she says, adding that worry doesn’t occupy her time. Alexandra says she has a “persistent capacity for optimism.” This outlook shines through when she shares advice with others struggling to help a family member who is depressed. “The most challenging aspect of the illness is this sort of separation from any capacity for joy,” she says. “Family members often take this personally.” It can be frustrating when a wife or daughter or close friend can’t break through to the person she describes as being “stuck behind a wall of depression.” What’s needed, she says, is “a Zen-like patience family members have to come to.” Trust that your presence and support helps, she says, “Even when nothing appears to be getting through.”
Though Alexandra hesitates to find a “silver lining” in the depression of a loved one, she found something similar. “Depression can be a window into reshaping your relationship,” she says. “Sometimes there are tight bonds to begin with, and sometimes not. But you can reach across and find a new relationship and a new life with someone.” Of the ties within her family, she says, “In my father’s darkest moments, we could come together where we hadn’t before. I’m grateful we had that before he died.” On a more personal note, Alexandra says that although her father’s depression brought “sorrow and difficulty,” his vulnerability made her want to understand him more. “Things that were good and true came out of it for me.”
Alexandra recently put together a five-part video series, "How to Write your Family Story of Depression." In the series, she shares her expertise on writing about the highly personal experience of family mental illness. Watch the first video of the series.
Photo courtesy of: ©Alfred Eisenstaedt.