Most of us spend a lifetime trying to read our fathers. Absent or overbearing, loving or cruel, they can bind us to an unceasing riddle. My own father was kind but undemonstrative; witty; heart-stoppingly honest. Yet, knowing this and more, I still ask: Who was he?
In the vast literature about fathers (even those who differ wildly), we perhaps inevitably catch glimpses of our own. Feminist author Susan Faludi had every reason to loathe hers. Tyrannical and violent, he was ejected from the family while Faludi was still a teenager. For 25 years, she and her father barely spoke. After the fall of communism, he returned to Hungary, where he had grown up the neglected scion of a prosperous Jewish family.
Faludi’s affecting memoir, “In the Darkroom,” begins with a bombshell her father lobs across the Atlantic in 2004. Steven Faludi, he proclaims in an unnervingly coy email, is no more. A sex-change operation has transformed him into Stefánie — his true self at last.
With Stefánie’s assent, Faludi undertakes to tell the story. Faludi’s father proves a maddeningly evasive figure whose gift for deception helped him elude the Nazis during World War II. Sifting fact from fiction, the author weaves absorbing accounts of gender and identity-formation theory into her portrait of an unlikely hero. She also traces the anti- Semitism that destroyed much of her father’s family. (“In the Darkroom” is worth reading for its pocket history of Hungary alone.)
After a decade’s labor, Faludi realizes that her intended reader, all along, was her father — a man tragically denied the sense of belonging he craved.
Much as Faludi wishes to understand her father, she longs, also, to be understood. Moved by the same impulse, Ta-Nehisi Coates literally turned his life into an open book. In his bestselling “Between the World and Me,” he attempts to explain his developing identity as a black man to his teenage son.
All black Americans, he observes, are involuntary prisoners of fear, a lesson Coates learned in the streets and substandard schools of Baltimore, as well as through the beatings administered by his own father. “The Dream” of the nation, he argues, is rooted in the idea of whiteness, forming a barrier between every black man and the world.
Coates’s intellectual awakening began at Howard University, where he reveled in finding himself among so many talented black students. Inspired more by Malcolm X than by Martin Luther King, he threw himself into a search for corrective myths that might counter the humiliations of slavery. Ultimately, however, he recognized that his mission was sadly flawed: Be wary of every dream, he cautions, and every nation.
As Faludi makes clear, more than race can stand between a human being and the world. In his novel “Imagine Me Gone,” Adam Haslett memorably portrays a father separated from life by severe depression. In death, he becomes the fixed star by which his wife and three children must navigate. Haslett embraces current thinking on the role of physiology in
mental illness. (The eldest child, Michael, is the unlucky inheritor of his father’s chemical makeup.) Yet his characters transcend easy analysis. These are intelligent, well-intentioned people who movingly confront the limits of how much we can finally care for the people we love.
Seeking to better know his octogenarian father, Daniel Mendelsohn navigates via the classics. “An Odyssey — a Father, a Son and an Epic” is the winning story of how a parent and child connect after years of emotional distance.
Their journey begins when Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, asks to attend a class his son teaches on the “Odyssey.” Mendelsohn senior is a former research mathematician who prizes straightforwardness and despises weakness. Despite vowing to remain unobtrusive, he quickly becomes an outspoken critic of the epic’s hero. (Odysseus is slippery; he accepts too much help from the gods; and he is always crying.)
The author artfully steers between his personal story and that of Odysseus, framing Homer’s epic as a son’s search for his father. Plumbing its themes of deception and revelation, he also evokes a protagonist who could have served as the template for Susan Faludi’s father.
The Mendelsohns cap their classroom odyssey with a cruise aimed at retracing the mythic hero’s journey. As their ship plies the Mediterranean, the author encounters a softer side to the man he long feared (and the reader one of the most moving scenes of parental love I can remember).
Noting that the “Odyssey” comprises stories that circle back in time, Daniel revisits a telling memory. For days during his own aging father’s final hospitalization, Jay would spend every lunch hour at his bedside. By then, the man was shrunken and oblivious.
Why bother visiting, the author-grandson recalls wondering.
“Your father is your father,” Jay offers. It’s epic understatement, from a man who turned out to be fine company.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.