Meet Scott Hanford Stossel, an accomplished man in his mid-40s with two young kids, a solid marriage, and a job as editor of a prestigious magazine. A graduate of Harvard, Stossel is popular among his friends and admired by colleagues. At the same time, and to a pathological degree, he is a man riddled with angst. And, for him, it has ever been thus.
Since he was two, Stossel recalls being a “twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses.” He was a head-banging, tantrum-throwing toddler. On school days, his parents pried him, screaming bloody hell, out of the car and into the classroom. At age 10 he met the psychiatrist who would treat him for the next 25 years. Seventh grade brought a full-on melt down necessitating Thorazine. Over the years, he’s endured a Job-like onslaught of phobias including fears of vomiting and fainting, of flying, of heights, of germs, and, curiously, cheese.
Life for Scott Stossel has been a gauntlet of morbid what-ifs: what if I pass out, lose control of my bowels, bolt from the podium in the midst of a speech?
To keep such mayhem at bay, he’s medicated himself with bourbon, scotch, gin, and vodka. By prescription, he has taken Klonopin, Xanax, Ativan, Imipramine, Wellbutrin, Nardil, Thorazine, Zoloft, Effexor, Paxil, and Propranolol, among others. “A living repository of all the pharmacological trends in anxiety treatment of the last half century,” is how the author describes himself.
Then, of course, there were therapies. He’s undergone psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive therapy, exposure therapy, hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback, role-playing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation. One doctor tried, a la Clockwork Orange, to help him conquer his terror of vomiting by administering a nausea-inducing drug.
So Stossel enlisted his talent as a writer. “Maybe by tunneling into my anxiety for this book I can also tunnel out the other side,” he hopes. Did he make it? Not quite, “My anxiety remains as unhealed wound.” But while My Age of Anxiety has apparently fallen short of its intended therapeutic goals, it is — for the rest of us — a meticulously researched cultural and scientific biography of a mental affliction featuring the author as one very, very hard case.
Illness memoirs satisfy two human imperatives. The first is voyeurism. Sick-lit, as it’s been called, incites a kind of literary rubber-necking. We’re drawn to tales of once-behaved cells ravaging organs, of accidents that crumple the bones, of strokes that lead us to mistake our spouses for headgear. In most of these stories, the author emerges scarred but wiser. Illness narratives also foster readers’ identification with the afflicted. This can be invaluable to people suffering from the same condition. They want to know they are not alone. They want to prepare for the worst, to cope in better ways, to learn more about their illness.
The illness memoir thrives on gory detail. My Age of Anxiety is no exception; Stossel even frets that he’s gone overboard. “I worry that the book, with its revelations of anxiety and struggle, will be a litany of Too Much Information, a violation of basic standards of decorum and restraint.” That’s understandable, but such intimacies are needed; they nourish the reader’s empathy for the sufferer. And when the malady happens to be unbounded anxiety — a syndrome of outsize reactions to threats that aren’t really there — we can learn a lot about the author: his vulnerabilities, the kinds of certainties he craves, and the morbid reaches of his imagination.
On the lighter side, anxiety can be funny. It is the stuff of frantic shtick, stand-up comedy, and Woody Allen. Depression, by contrast, makes darkness visible. It thrives on isolation and rumination; its muse is Ingmar Bergman. As for psychosis, it’s just too alien to be amusing.
Here is Andrew Solomon in Noonday Demon, his memoir cum biography of depression:
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.
Here is William Styron, author of Darkness Visible, his memoir of depression:
My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.
Here is Stossel:
As is so often the case with irritable bowel syndrome, it was at precisely the moment I passed beyond Easily Accessible Bathroom Range that my clogged plumbing came unglued. Sprinting back to the house where I was staying, I was several times convinced that I would not make it and –teeth gritted, sweating voluminously — was reduced to evaluating various bushes and storage sheds along the way for their potential as ersatz outhouses. Imagining what might ensue if a Secret Service agent were to happen upon me crouched in the shrubbery lent a kind of panicked, otherworldly strength to my efforts at self-possession.
A Secret Service agent? Evidence of paranoia? No. This incident, it turns out, took place on the Hyannisport property of the Kennedy family. Over a decade ago, Stossel had spent time with the Kennedys as he researched a biography of Sargent Shriver. The episode continues, bordering on slapstick. When Stossel reached the bathroom, he “flung” himself onto the toilet (“my relief was extravagant,” he writes, “almost metaphysical”). Then all hell breaks loose. The toilet malfunctions, spewing sewage about the room and on his clothes. Our humble narrator strips, and, as he sprints to his room clad only in a bathroom towel tied at the waist, encounters JFK Jr. in the hallway. The latter is unfazed.
Stossel portrays his own ordeals with good humor, but he treats his family soberly. A. Chester Hanford, dean of students at Harvard College from 1927 to 1947 was always “nervous,” says Stossel, his great-grandson. The future dean told his young wife that he half-hoped to be drafted for combat during WWI as “dodging bullets on a battlefield would certainly be less wrenching than having to lecture undergraduates.” (Notably, as Stossel points out, anxious people are much better at handing fear — real threats — than they are at managing imaginary dangers; in fact, they often do a better of it than normal folks.)
When Dean Hanford turned 50, he cracked. The deaths of colleagues in World War II and the demise of his best friend weighed on him. Flagellated by self-doubt, given to fits of uncontrollable weeping, and, finally, suicidal, he entered McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Until his death almost 30 years later Hanford would undergo many hospitalizations. Other relatives bore the curse. Stossel’s mother, the granddaughter of the dean, was perpetually high strung; his sister has been treated with a range of anti-anxiety medications.
“Does my heredity doom me to a similar downhill spiral [as my great-grandfather] if I am subjected to too much stress?” Stossel wonders. And does it endanger his children? “For Maren and Nathaniel — May You Be Spared,” he writes in the dedication. Already, however, there are signs. His small son has serious separation-anxiety. His eight-year old daughter, like her father and grandmother before her, is saddled with an obsessive fear of vomiting. “Have I — despite my decades of therapy, my hard-won personal and scholarly knowledge of anxiety, my wife’s and my informed efforts at inoculating our children against it — bequeathed to Maren my disorder, as my mother bequeathed it to me?” the author asks. The answer resides in the nature of anxiety itself.
Anxiety is the descendant of fear, our most primitive emotion. The arousal system instantly mobilizes organisms to defend against threat and, like any biological system, it can go awry. In so-called generalized anxiety disorder, a person exists in a chronic state of vigilance, ready to flee if need be. (Or, in the words of Freud, “Atrophied remnants of innate preparedness [as is] so well-developed in other animals.”) Individuals who suffer panic attacks feel as if they are suffocating. Presumably, specific neural mechanisms are hypersensitive and triggered by elevated but otherwise benign concentrations of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream (from situations such as rapid breathing or discomfort at being in a crowd) as pending asphyxiation.
Stossel suffered not only from these conditions but also from social phobia wherein a person is fearful of interacting with strangers lest he be rejected or humiliated by them. Some evolutionary theorists trace this glitch to the demands of hierarchical societies. That is, one had better be attuned to what others think of them or risk upsetting the social order of the tribe. As for the author, he suspects that that his social phobia has caused him to be a nice person. “[I]t may be that my anxiety lends me an inhibition and a social sensitivity that makes me more attuned to other people.”
Stossel’s own therapist dismissed the natural-functions-gone-wild hypothesis of clinical anxiety and put his money on existential crises as its engine. We grow old and die; lose loved ones; risk failure and humiliation; search unrequitedly for love and meaning. Anxiety is the shield we use to ward off the sadness and pain these inevitabilities bring, he tells Stossel. If he is right, the question then becomes why only some of us come undone in the face of these looming prospects.
For answers, Stossel is partial to the laboratory. He likes neuroscientists’ explanations of anxiety as excessive “neuronal firing rates in the amygdala and locus coeruleus.” The psychopharmacologists’ view of anxiety as the “inhibition of the glutamate system,” and geneticists’ errant “single-nucleotide polymorphisms” rightly strike him as “scientific and more convincing” than his therapist’s existential account. But they also raised questions:
Can my anxiety really be boiled down to how effectively gated my chloride ion channels are or to the speed of neuronal firing in my amygdala? Well, yes, at some level it can. Rates of neuronal firing in the amygdala correlate quite directly with the felt experience of anxiety. But to say that my anxiety is reducible to the ions in my amygdala is as limiting as saying that my personality or my soul is reducible to the molecules that make up my brain cells or to the genes that underwrote them.
“Shouldn’t this be liberating?” Stossel asks. “If being anxious is genetically encoded, a medical disease, and not a failure of character or will, how can we be blamed, shamed, or stigmatized for it? Eventually, he snapped out of this reductionistic reverie, reminding himself that “The same building blocks of nucleotides, genes, neurons, and neurotransmitters that make up my anxiety also make up my personality.” And his was a personality that accepted challenges, honored commitments, and excelled academically and professionally.
Finally, anxious habits can be learned. Here, the author’s mother taught a master class. This proper Mayflower descendant was chronically terrified of vomiting. Through her own doom-mongering and over-protectiveness, she inspired the author to spin out worst-case scenarios. Perhaps this is why Stossel holds such great store by the great Stoic Epictetus, who observed that “People are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them.” From a young age, his mother taught him to take the dimmest possible one.
Though he treats her sympathetically — like his great grandfather, she is a tormented soul — he credits her with reducing him and his sister to “states of neurotic dependency.” His physician father, a depressive drinker, contributed the author’s boyhood shame (“You twerp, you pathetic little twerp”). Said a therapist from his adolescent days whom Stossel tracked down, “Your parents — an anxious, overprotective mother and emotionally absent father– were a classically anxiety-producing combination.”
“Thus me,” Stossel pronounces, “a mixture of Jewish and WASP pathology — a neurotic and histrionic Jew suppressed inside a neurotic and repressed WASP. No wonder I am anxious: I’m like Woody Allen trapped in John Calvin.”
So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s answer risks sounding evasive, but in the context of his rich book, is true and inevitable. It “is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture,” he concludes. “In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts).”
In 2004, the World Health Organization conducted a mental health survey of 18 countries including the U.S., China, the Netherlands, and Italy. It found anxiety disorders to be the most common form of mental condition on earth. According to a 2009 report called “In the Face of Fear,” England’s Mental Health Foundation, anxiety has been detected at “record levels.” Does this mean that we really do live in an age of anxiety.
And if so, why? After all, ours is an age of unprecedented material prosperity and well-being in the industrialized West. Life expectancies are, for the most part, long and growing. On the other hand, progress, itself, may be the culprit. For all their glories, growth of the market economy, increases in geographic and class mobility, the spread of democratic values and freedoms, carry their own perils — namely, panoply of choices. Within bounds, we are relatively free to choose where we live, whom we marry, and what we aim to be.
Finally, we are now quicker to pathologize the vagaries of everyday life. And, in trigger-happy hands, the official psychiatric manual can be a set of diagnoses in search of patients.
It’s hard to know. “There is no magical anxiety meter that can transcend the cultural particularities of place and time to objectively measure levels of anxiety,” the author wisely observes. What we do know is that some relatively fixed proportion of humanity has always been more anxious than others. Authoritative voices, observers and sufferers both, attest to this. Hippocrates (anxiety as “worries exaggerated in fancy”), Robert Burton, author of the magisterial The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, Charles Darwin (for years was too agoraphobic to leave the house), Søren Kierkegaard (he dubbed anxiety the “terrible torture” of Grand Inquisitor), Thomas Jefferson (posthumously diagnosed as a social phobic), Sigmund Freud (observer), Virginia Woolf (sufferer), William James (observer and sufferer), Mahatma Gandhi (public speaking), Barbra Streisand (crippling stage fright), and, last but not least, Donny Osmond, spokesperson for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
A different conception of anxiety — more a cultural affliction than a clinical scourge — was forged in the post WWII period. In his 1947 epic book-length poem called The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden described man as “unattached as tumbleweeds,” on a quest to find substance and identity in an increasingly industrialized world. The poem inspired Leonard Bernstein to write a symphony and Jerome Robbins to produce a ballet. A year later, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. proclaimed Western man looks “upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety…our familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”
This existential angst, some historians suggests, embodied a consciousness that led to America’s tranquilizer culture. In 1955, Carter Products began marketing Miltown for nerves, tension, and, insomnia, but the company was pessimistic that psychiatrists would prescribe it. Freud was ascendant in American psychiatry at the time and theory dictated that treating specific symptoms was of little clinical value. Be it depression, anxiety, or psychosis — all clinical presentations were taken to be interchangeable markers of deeper psychodynamic misfortunes. Still, Miltown was somewhat safer than barbiturates (e.g., Seconal, Nembutal, and Amytal) currently in use. The latter were highly addictive, produced brutal withdrawal syndrome, and were lethal if a person accidentally took just one too many.
To the manufacturer’s great surprise, Miltown became the best-selling drug ever marketed in the country. It was the first lifestyle drug for the stressed-out, can-do corporate man and his put-upon spouse as well as for celebrities. The comedian Milton Berle, for example, introduced himself as “Miltown Berle.”
Researchers were excited too. Miltown (along with Thorazine, a novel anti-psychotic introduced in the U.S. in the mid-’50s) contributed to a wholesale transformation of the way we think about mental illness. It meant that mental illness was brought on by deranged brain biology, not by Oedipal dramas, and thus corrected with medicine.
Soon, though, there was trouble in paradise. By the late 1950s, Miltown, too, revealed itself to be habit-forming. As sales began to fall off, Valium-type drugs, a class of tranquilizer called benzodiazepines, rushed in to fill the vacuum. But, as before, chemical infatuation gave rise to disenchantment. In the mid seventies the FDA had amassed reports of benzodiazepine dependence and withdrawal. Prozac, too, once kicked off a revolution. But within a few years of its release in 1988, Prozac (which also gained FDA approval to treat panic disorder) lost its luster.
Now, the golden age of psychopharmaceuticals is drawing to a close. Most of the major drug firms have curtailed or shuttered their drug discovery labs. The pipeline to the FDA is running dry. Despite this depressing picture, psychiatrists are optimistic that new approaches will eventually prove fruitful — the question is how soon.
In the meantime, current medications — which continue to be prescribed in record volumes — are often extremely helpful. Psychological and behavioral therapies are indispensible too. Some patients do very well and even the author found some relief, but not nearly enough.
And what of the writing cure? “[I]n finishing this book, albeit a book that dwells at great length on my helplessness and inefficacy, maybe I am demonstrating a form of efficacy, perseverance, productivity — and yes, resilience,” Stossel writes. Indeed, he’s done all those things and more. He’s produced an excellent synthesis of reportage, research, and personal revelation. We are the beneficiaries of his self-imposed therapy. But the patient-author still ails, not being able, he says, to “escape my anxiety or be cured of it.”
Yet with a condition so encompassing and of such long standing, could he ever strip the “real” him from his disease? From the beginning, fear and Stossel were born twins. One wonders if he would ache for that phantom creature if, somehow, it were excised.
On a two-page spread in her graphic memoir Marbles, Ellen Forney copies a partial list of artists and writers with “probable manic-depressive illness or major depression,” from Francesco Bassano to Anders Zorn, Antonin Artaud to Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen to Emile Zola. There are plenty of people afflicted with mental illness who also happen to lack any artistic inclinations, but still, given such lists, one wonders: Is there a relationship between mental illness and genius? Peter Kramer fought that romanticism in his 2005 book Against Depression. “Like tuberculosis in its day, depression is a form of vulnerability that even contains a measure of erotic appeal,” he wrote in an accompanying essay in The New York Times Magazine, but the evidence that depression led to higher powers of perception, he claimed, was weak.
Still, Forney’s own battle with manic depression was shadowed by this concern. She had come to Seattle when she was in her early 20s hoping to make it as a freelance comic artist. She wanted to be brilliant, filled with heat, and thought that her clinical diagnosis of Bipolar 1 admitted her to “Club Van Gogh.” And she feared the neutering effect of medication. (It reminds you a little of Lisa Simpson’s ambitions to become a jazz musician. “I’ll avoid the horrors of drug abuse, but I do plan to have several torrid love affairs, and I may or may not die young. I haven’t decided.”) Forney’s highs could be wonderful, but also destructive, and her depths were terrible. Her chronicle of her fight is personable and unpretentious. She has her own insights into her battle, but her voice is not battle-weary.
We met for an interview in Seattle on May 31. She had recently returned from a trip to Sarajevo sponsored by the U.S. embassy where she discussed Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which she illustrated, with Bosnian high school students. That book won a National Book Award. Marbles has been nominated for an Eisner.
The Millions: There’s a whole set of books, that are well-written and accessible, that a psychiatrist knows to give people to read. I imagine Marbles may become one of those books. What do you think Marbles as a graphic memoir can do that, for example, Darkness Visible can’t do?
Ellen Forney: I think that comics and the arts of painting and music offer a certain emotional quality, an emotional communication that a text doesn’t have. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. I’m saying it’s different. When the story is about mood or a set of moods, [then] having a picture, having a drawing style, having a visual representation of that…explains what [these different moods] feel like in a way that text just can’t. I also think that comics in general, for the most part, are approachable in a way that text isn’t.
TM: I always think of comics as a form of handwriting. When you get a letter that is handwritten, you have an idea of the body of the person who wrote that letter. Some of my favorite comics are a bit naïve, a bit rough, and appear unpolished even if they are carefully done. I think your comics appeal to that sensibility.
EF: It’s where my style naturally lands. The analogy that I make a lot when I look at someone’s very polished work [like] Dan Clowes or Charles Burns is a food analogy. Their work is like sushi. It’s so perfect, or if it is imperfect, it’s in a very perfect way. Whereas in my work, and I think we share that preference, is like lumpy oatmeal cookies that somebody baked. They have a very different appeal. It has an approachability. It has a different kind of emotional appeal. There’s a sense of conviction that’s different.
But I want to add one thing about handwriting. Without belaboring the point, I think it’s a travesty that so many cartoonists are turning to making a font out of their letters for exactly this reason. That feeling of a handwritten letter…Excuse me, I can’t remember how you put it.
TM: That you can imagine the body behind the hand doing the drawing.
EF: Right. And a sense of time in a way. When you see somebody’s handwriting, you know that there’s a span of time. There’s always that sense of feeling cheated when you compare all of the “a”s and they’re all the same. There’s something superficial about it. The letters don’t come together. I just feel that [handwriting] is far superior as far as storytelling [is concerned], as a method of communication in particular.
TM: When you are bipolar it’s very hard when you are in your depressive states to access the emotions of the high states and it’s also hard when you are in your high states to channel the emotions of your down states. I’m in a meditation group. One of the exercises we try to do is to access our unhappy emotions in order to see what they do to our bodies. And it’s very hard to do that on cue. And I imagine when you were composing your book it was very difficult to access these different states.
EF: I had a lot of material from that time specifically to draw from to jog my memory. I had years of journals. I don’t know how I would have done this without journals. The drawings I did in my journals I did when I was depressed. [I was also] talking with friends and people in my family about what I was like, which was extremely difficult, and just remembering, letting myself and making myself go there. It was really really difficult. It was a very thorough exposition of things that were anywhere from cringe worthy — a lot of the manic stuff was “ooh cringe” — to some extremely painful depressive stuff. And once you got there, you remember a lot more and it was really emotionally intense.
TM: When you were immersing yourself in those depressive states, were you afraid of accessing some memory that would trigger something in you that would return you to a place you couldn’t get back from?
EF: This is funny. Most people don’t ask me about this. [They’ll ask,] “Was it therapeutic for you?”
I felt like I was grounded. But I was extremely challenged. My psychiatrist was very much in touch with me, making sure I was staying steady. It was immersion therapy. I set up a tripod and posed for every panel. I was drawing myself crying and lying. I was so grateful towards the end that I wouldn’t have to keep setting [that up anymore]. I got a chair that looked like my psychiatrist’s chair. I realized I would have to be drawing that over and over. So I posed like my mother. I posed like my psychiatrist. And really, literally embodying these other characters, me and people who were around me, thoroughly immersing myself in that world and that time.
TM: I think Alison Bechdel used the same strategy when she made Fun Home.
EF: Yeah, she did. I think a lot of cartoonists use that. I think a lot of people think we draw out of our heads. And they think we’re not so good if we don’t draw out of our heads.
TM: This memoir is set at the time when you were writing I Was Seven in ’75 [a biographical strip about her childhood]. Do you see the symptoms of your bipolar disorder in the way I Was Seven in ’75 looks now?
EF: It was odd. I remember being manic and walking over to a table of people and asking them about what crossed pinkies meant for them. Does it mean if you say the same words at the same time or does it mean that you’re holding hands in a shy way? I was doing these spontaneous interviews.
TM: And you think that was a kind of mania.
EF: Not entirely. That’s in my personality even now. But I can remember there being an excitement and a heat behind it.
Some parts of the strip are really wordy — a lot of my work is really wordy — but it’s wordy in a way that I can recognize as being part of being revved. And I remember another point where I just did a lot of really literal drawings when I first got really depressed. At the end of a story about my dog there was just a drawing of me holding my dog. I think I even traced it from a photo. And I just couldn’t get very far thinking when I was in the depths. Yeah, in my first months when I was really depressed, that’s all I could really do. How I did that, I don’t actually know. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get this silly comic together.
TM: When you get diagnosed with a disorder of any sort you fear that your personality can be reduced to a few lines in a handbook. And nobody likes that. We all think of ourselves as being more idiosyncratic and interesting. Do you fear that some of your political beliefs, some of your sexual energy as evidenced in your book Lust [a collection of illustrated erotic personal ads she did for The Stranger], some of your personality can be reduced to this mental disorder?
EF: One of my fears for years in telling people that I was bipolar or coming out [as bipolar] when Marbles came out was that people that I knew or people I would meet would second-guess everything that I did, wondering if it was because I was bipolar. For myself, it’s impossible to distinguish between these different aspects. I know the things that I do that could be considered manic-y, or in the case of Lust, hyper-sexual by some. But I think [those things are] all a healthy part of me, my personality.
At the same time, I think that a lot of people will think of a mental disorder as being something other than themselves. Well, let’s see, not even mental disorders, but say, for example, someone was drunk. “That wasn’t me, that was the liquor talking or that was any sort of substance talking or that was the depressed me.” I think that it’s understandable [to say that]. But we also have to acknowledge that that’s part of us. That person who acted out when you were drunk…That was you. I don’t want to give anyone advice on their own identity, but I think it’s an important thing to think about.
That person who won the marathon. You’re not like that all the time. The person who fell off the curb. Well, of course you’re not like that all the time. But that was you and that was you.
TM: There’s a note of fear at the end of your book, that you’re managing what you have and you’re hoping that it stays managed, but you don’t know where it’s going to go. Do you feel if you were to relapse you would be responsible for writing a sequel?
EF: I wouldn’t have to tell any stories that I don’t want to tell. I didn’t feel that I had any responsibility to tell anything.
I mean I would do a [a story about a] relapse if it were a good story. I don’t know if that would be that interesting a story. I don’t know if that would be that interesting a sequel.
I’m looking forward to moving on.
Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
All images excerpted from MARBLES by Ellen Forney. Copyright (c) 2012 by Ellen Forney. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.
William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.
Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).
As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.
Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.
This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.
For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.
But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”
But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.
His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”
There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.
But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.