Chris Forhan’s aching, lyrical memoir excavates both a lost father and a lost era in American history. The middle child in an Irish family of eight, Forhan came of age in the 1960s and ’70s. He recalls spirograph toys and the Beatles, Jell-O and tuna casserole, JFK and the moon landing. These details are important because they help Forhan cinematically recreate the family from which his father absented himself, ultimately by suicide in 1973.
Who was Ed Forhan? This is the central, animating question driving My Father Before Me, a mystery that continues to haunt his adult children. Their family life was riddled with silences: Where did Ed go when he didn’t come home at night? Was his apparent mental illness a result of unchecked diabetes, childhood trauma, bipolar disorder or all (or none) of those factors? His son Chris interviews his mother and siblings, and looks through family photos and newspaper clippings to find answers.
An award-winning poet, Forhan writes with grace and intelligence about the very process of constructing a memoir. How can he trust his memories of his father, these flashes that may reflect desire more than fact? By bringing in the voices of his siblings and mother, he fleshes out this portrait of a haunted and wounded man, adding heft and color to the fragments of memory. Forhan learns more about Ed’s tragic and lonely childhood, one of the many things the family never spoke of directly.
Ultimately this memoir documents four generations of fathers and sons and tracks the patterns of damaging emotional behavior passed down through the family. Now that Forhan is himself a father to young sons, it is essential to recollect his father, if only to free himself from the burden of his influence. Fortunately for the reader, his journey is beautifully and resonantly captured here.