Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers

October 6, 2011

Our fathers quickly become synonymous with secrets. When we are very small, they go off to a mysterious place called "work" and often return when we are asleep. My father could not be spoken to until he had had his evening meal and rested for a couple of hours. I would wonder what awful things had happened during the day to turn my dad into a brooding, silent stranger. Important things that defined him as a man and a father were invisible and unknown.

What happens when fathers are really defined by terrible secrets is the subject of Roger Porter's enthralling study. His focus is the surprising number of memoirs published in the past 20 years or so by adult children whose fathers have led secret lives. These memoirs amount to a new sub-genre of life writing that he calls The Child's Book of Parental Deception. But the sub-genre might just as easily be called The Naked Dad, since many of the memoirs Porter discusses involve stripping away layers of deceit, equivocation and mystery. Tellingly, several of the books refer to the biblical story of Noah's son Ham gazing illicitly on his father's nakedness.

Guilty curiosity certainly drives the texts Porter discusses, from Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude through Germaine Greer's Daddy, We Hardly Knew You to Nathaniel Kahn's film about his father Louis Kahn, My Architect. Time and again, these hurt and puzzled authors, self-appointed family detectives, wonder whether they should carry on with their quests, torn between what Porter neatly terms "resistance to enquire, impulse to probe". Cherished memories are betrayed by research. Biographers of secret fathers find that discovery leads to loss (family life founded on a lie, for example) but they also find that the new person produced by their research is someone for whom they have renewed respect and with whom they can forge new bonds. Solving the puzzle of a father's life can turn resentment into forgiveness.

Some of the stories Porter discusses are genuinely incredible. Mark Kurzem found that his father, as a boy in wartime Latvia, hid his Jewish identity and became the mascot of an SS regiment. Similarly, Michael Skakun found that his Jewish father had assumed a Muslim identity and joined the Waffen SS.

Porter's book is, however, much more than a survey of sensational stories. He deftly and persuasively groups memoirs together to tease out different sorts of secret life writing. For some authors, uncovering a father's secret life becomes a way to understand and reveal things about themselves. So Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic about her closeted gay father discovers links between his covert relationships and her own struggles with her emergent lesbian sexuality. Geoffrey Wolff, in The Duke of Deception, recalls how he spent his student years trying to be like his conman father: each wrecked a sports car within three weeks of the other.

Greer writes that "love is no detective", and Porter is alert to the complex ethical issues involved in uncovering secret lives. At the same time, he neglects two important areas. He is quick to argue that his memoirists are not traumatised survivors, but he neglects how his secret life narratives converge with what Roger Luckhurst has designated "traumaculture". He also neglects how secrets and silences are involved in the performance of masculinity. I point this out only because I wish a good book to be even better. Porter is to be congratulated for bringing a contemporary sub-genre to a wider readership.

Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers

By Roger J. Porter. Cornell University Press. 224pp, £21.50. ISBN 9780801449871. Published 5 May 2011

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