Once upon a time in New York, a girl and her friends were away from boarding school for the weekend. The talented, youngest child of a famous American novelist, the girl decided that they should all go to see the movie Sophie’s Choice. This wasn’t the first time she had seen the movie: in fact, she had been at the premiere with her parents some months before, and had loved the whole evening, feeling dazzled to find herself so deeply planted in a world of adult accomplishment.
Like many children of the famous, however, our heroine became aware that night of there being a great deal to live up to; as the cameras flashed and the microphones were extended, she rightly recognized her overwhelming need to go from being the offspring of “someone” to being “someone” in her own right. Yet the later screening with her friends allowed Alexandra Styron to feel something simpler—something fleeced of doubt. Here is how she talks about it in her stirring memoir:
In front of us a woman sat alone, weeping quietly during the film’s most wrenching scene and then openly sobbing as the show ended and the credits rolled. When the houselights came up, one of my schoolmates reached over, tapped the woman on the shoulder, and pointed at me. “Her father wrote that,” he said. “He wrote the book.” I blushed madly as the woman wiped her eyes and looked at me with astonishment. But the truth was I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d written the book myself.
Though she doesn’t refer to them, there are a number of psychologically taxing implications in that “wrenching scene.” It might be the most famous scene in literature where a daughter is given away by a parent, unless we conclude that King Lear gives Cordelia away. Sophie’s choice is to hand over her son to certain death in a Nazi camp or to give away her daughter, and it is the little girl, Eva Maria Zawistowska, who is delivered into the hands of a crazed commandant and seen to disappear into the distance holding her teddy bear and her flute. Alexandra remembered a question her father had asked her while driving her home from school one day. It resonates in the mind. She must have been about ten at the time.
“What kind of instrument would a little girl your age play?” he asked.
“Umm…a piano?” I answered, my hand out the window, tracing the arc of the power lines.
“No, too big. How about a flute?”
I figured he was asking for his work. I wanted to be a help. My friend Lili had a flute.
“Maybe,” I replied, leaping a tree with my fingers.
There is a sense in which William Styron struggled to hold onto his children just as he struggled to hold on to his mind. The two …