Bureau of Missing Persons

Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers

Roger J. Porter
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Bureau of Missing Persons
    Book Description:

    A devoted reader of autobiographies and memoirs, Roger J. Porter has observed in recent years a surprising number of memoirs by adult children whose fathers have led secret lives. Some of the fathers had second families; some had secret religious lives; others have been criminals, liars, or con men. Struck by the intensely human drama of secrecy and deception played out for all to see, Porter explores the phenomenon in great depth. In Bureau of Missing Persons he examines a large number of these works-eighteen in all-placing them in a wide literary and cultural context and considering the ethical quandaries writers face when they reveal secrets so long and closely held.

    Among the books Porter treats are Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home, Essie Mae Washington-Williams's Dear Senator (on her father, Strom Thurmond), Bliss Broyard's One Drop, Mary Gordon's The Shadow Man, and Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception. He also discusses Nathaniel Kahn's documentary film, My Architect. These narratives inevitably look inward to the writer as well as outward to the parent. The autobiographical children are compelled, if not consumed, by a desire to know. They become detectives, piecing together clues to fill memory voids, assembling material and archival evidence, public and private documents, letters, photographs, and iconic physical objects to track down the parent.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6096-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Child’s Book of Parental Deception
    (pp. 1-16)

    When Mary Gordon sets out to learn about her long-dead father, whom she worshipped as a child and who imbued her with his devout Catholic faith, she makes a number of startling discoveries: he had a previous family of which she knew nothing, he was not Catholic at all but a Jew who had written encomiums to Hitler, and he edited and wrote for a pornographic magazine. When Mark Kurzem perceives his rueful father is plagued by a past untold for over a half-century, he gradually unearths a dark truth about him: as a Jewish child his father barely escaped...

  5. Chapter 1 Faith-Changing for Life
    (pp. 17-53)

    I begin this book with a chapter on three memoirs about Holocaust survivors whose startling stories disclose their life-saving secrets. All three texts reveal that under circumstances in which one’s very identity could be a death sentence, the need to conceal that identity was absolute. Though each work is quite distinct from the others, the adult children exposing their parents’ concealed identities and narrating those problematic lives explore equally dramatic dissimulations.

    Mark Kurzem’s The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood recounts a son’s interrogation of his father who reluctantly and gradually unveils a story of his...

  6. Chapter 2 Deciphering Enigma Codes
    (pp. 54-98)

    In this chapter I group five works about fathers, but unlike those in the first chapter, these fathers were dead at the time their children wrote about them. Because the children could not interview their parents as the previous investigators did, these writers are especially aware of the dangers of misrepresentation. Because the fathers portrayed in these texts deliberately misled, lied to, or generally concealed their lives from their children, the latter seem anguished about whether they are accurate in their assessments of the parental lives, particularly what they regard as the reason for the fathers’ harboring their secrets. The...

  7. Chapter 3 The Men Who Were Not There
    (pp. 99-136)

    Secrecy is one thing, but secrecy combined with absence is more radical still, at least as far as the children of missing fathers is concerned. There is an abiding melancholy in all four narratives in this chapter, first for the child’s missed opportunity to know the parent, then for the awakened reminder of loss as each writer engages in the challenging and frustrating task of describing the indescribable, reconstructing a barely perceptible figure, and confronting evidence that is fragile and questionable. The persistent issue here is how to understand a father who has had only a tangential relation to the...

  8. Chapter 4 Becoming One’s Parent
    (pp. 137-173)

    One of the most intriguing statements about secret lives is made by the narrator of Anton Chekhov’s well-known story, “The Lady with a Dog.” He speaks of a character who lives two lives, the first of them “open to view by—and known to—the people concerned.” This life is public and overt, comprised of banalities and stereotyped ideas, some true some untrue, but a life much like that of others. The second life “proceeded in secret,” and this hidden yet more genuine and profound life is, ironically, the more sincere one: “everything which made up the [authentic] core of...

  9. Chapter 5 Breaking the Silence
    (pp. 174-185)

    I began this book with a reading of three works portraying the ways imperiled Jews disguised themselves to survive. Knowing full well who they were (if they hadn’t known someone else would have told them in no uncertain terms), they elected to transform themselves for their very lives, and in one case, for life. This final chapter treats two contrastive yet comparable works in which the writers show how their fathers kept them from knowing the truth of their identities. In each case a daughter learns of an unexpected paternity. One discovers that her father is literally not whom she...

  10. Conclusion: Freedom or Exploitation?
    (pp. 186-188)

    I ended this study with a discussion of Bliss Broyard’s work because she may stand for an aspiration all the writers of this book express, whether overtly or not: to achieve a degree of autonomy even though they claim to have been bridled by circumstances that have made freedom dubious or difficult. As I have argued, many of the men and women writing their fathers’ lives undertake the searches for parental secrets less to complain they have been victims unjustly injured by those concealments than to show they have escaped the more harmful consequences of the deceptions and the evasions,...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-194)
  12. Index
    (pp. 195-202)