I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait. Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting. No harm in that.
The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived. I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II, of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him. To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise. These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.
People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home. Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon. Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around? Nobody wants that. Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.
I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to. Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down. Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody. A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.
As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest. My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist. You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s. Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle. Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike! Now we’re talking.