Father’s Day is not always a Hallmark moment. The reality of family life is usually far from perfection; for some it is farther than others. Take these three authors: children of fathers gone for good, for bad or just gone, and all left with a legacy of regret, guilt, shame or uncertainty. Each book records the drama of adult children struggling to determine who their fathers really were, and at the same time, by the very act of writing, who they are, themselves.
In Either You’re In or You’re In the Way, twin brothers Logan and Noah Miller chronicle their own wild ride of a filmic tribute to their father. The boys were blue-collar to the bone, living from odd job (roofer, bouncer) to even odder job (Abercrombie & Fitch model), trying to make enough to support themselves and their chronically homeless alcoholic dad. But when Mr. Miller suddenly dies during a routine stay in a jail cell, alone and ill, the twins vow to take his story to the world: to make a movie that will help redeem the suffering of a good man. They have never been to film school, written a script, shot a scene, nor have a single contact in the biz, yet within a year, they manage to write, fund, act in and produce a feature film. Despite ridiculous odds, the twins assemble an Academy Award-winning cast and crew with Ed Harris in the lead role. Perversely, it is thanks to the horror of the father’s end that his sons turn tragedy into a triumph of his own making. Either You’re In or You’re In the Way is told in a careening, no-nonsense, seat-of-the-pants style that is no doubt similar to the way the twins actually lived it. By the way, the boys’ movie, Touching Home, has already garnered accolades at a prestigious film festival, and is now making its way to wider audiences.
Then there is the age-old Oedipal story of a boy who literally doesn’t know who his father is. In Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession with Finding His Origins Through DNA Testing Lennard J. Davis, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, doggedly pursues answers to complicated questions, questions that several key players hoped would never be asked. After a lifetime of ignoring a persistent “underlying murmur” that his dad was not, in fact, his biological father, Davis investigates every possible clue to uncover the truth. What follows is a mix of memoir, genealogical mystery and a concise history of artificial insemination and DNA testing. “Obsession” is an apt word to describe Davis’ pursuit, yet there is no guarantee that even this level of exhausting and exhaustive research will produce all the right answers. Who was his real father: the man he called Dad, his ne’er-do-well uncle, an anonymous sperm donor, or perhaps most shocking, his mother’s gynecologist? Which man would he prefer to turn out to be so? And what does being a “real” father mean? Do genetics truly define us, and if so, to what degree? Toward the end of Go Ask Your Father, one particular family photo speaks a thousand inscrutable words in response.
Danzy Senna’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History is a completely different exploration of personal identity. The 1968 wedding of her parents—a blue-blood Boston Brahmin mother and a Southern black father—would seem a match made in civil rights heaven, but the eight-year union and violent divorce turn out to be domestic hell. As the product of two clashing cultures and colors, Senna is shaped by the labels forced upon her by her own parents, and by the problematic reception America grants a child of mixed-race heritage. It is no accident that both of her novels, Caucasia and Symptomatic, involve a female, biracial protagonist, but now this acclaimed writer hopes to dig beneath fiction for fact. She focuses on her father: a man whose past is anything but clear, even to himself. He is abusive, alcoholic, brilliant, beautiful, drifting, maddening and mysterious. Senna travels South on the trail of contradictory rumors and legal records, negotiating this alien landscape wherein the very nature and definition of family are called into question. Ultimately, her search leads to a reframing of identity for four generations, including her infant son, and the exposure of a complex middle ground of meaning, far from black and white.
Joanna Brichetto writes from Nashville.