Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is an expert on how we use words to both reveal and hide ourselves from the people who mean the most to us. Her work grows from a love of words that came from her father, Eli Tannen. While her mother, Dorothy, was difficult and often manipulative, Tannen’s father was witty, intellectual and loving. Yet despite (or maybe because of) their close relationship, there were frustrating gaps in his story, which Tannen wanted to fill. Finding My Father: His Century-Long Journey From World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow is her account of not only his extraordinary life but also her search for the truth behind his family, his work and his marriage.
Eli’s greatest joy was found in words. Raised in a Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland, he arrived in America in 1920 at the age of 12 with little or no English. Within three years, he was fluent and had become a voracious reader. Upon his death at the age of 97, he bequeathed his daughter a tsunami of letters, journals, poems, interviews and handmade cards, all filled with his words. With all this source material, one would be forgiven for thinking that all Dr. Tannen had to do was transcribe it and arrange it in chronological order. However, instead of a neat road map, these relics were like pieces from different puzzles. Tannen had to evaluate and organize them in order to create meaning out of them.
As a result, Finding My Father is a beautifully constructed patchwork that Tannen has pieced together from her father’s words. A pattern emerges that reveals not one Eli but several frequently contradictory Elis: Eli the son, Eli the lover, Eli the husband, Eli the father, Eli the activist, Eli the friend. Somehow, all of these Elis add up to the singular and extraordinary Eli Tannen. Finding this Eli allows Tannen to see herself, her family and most especially her mother in a new and conciliatory light. Memory doesn’t only reconstruct the past, Tannen reminds us; it can also forge a new present.