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Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 235-237 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0002

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In Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers, Roger J. Porter sets out to explore a subgenre of life writing he labels “The Child’s Book of Parental Deception.” In this book, Porter reviews a range of autobiographical narratives written by adult children who seek to discover the secret lives of their fathers. His analysis focuses on the story as well as on the means by which the story is investigated, researched, and constructed.

Early in the book, Porter seeks to distinguish these life stories from other memoirs, claiming they are emancipatory in nature (7) rather than stories written from memory, or by survivors of abuse, or those who are traumatized in some way. He describes these narratives as texts that blur the line between biography and autobiography. Porter does not always seem to agree with his own claim, however, and he frequently refers to the books he reviews as memoirs or puts them in the context of research on memoirs. Later in his book, Porter notes that some of the authors find writing to be therapeutic as they veer between bitterness and reconciliation, affection and resentment.

Porter’s focus is specifically directed toward stories about fathers. While the narratives he considers also involve mothers, siblings, and sometimes extended family members who were involved in formulating or perpetuating secrets, Porter is particularly interested in the writers’ relationships with their fathers as authority figures in their lives. Porter asks critical questions early on about the authors’ motives in writing about their fathers and acknowledges that the revelations they discover can only be partial (9). Concerns about rights to privacy and the moral and ethical issues these life stories raise are included in the introduction as Porter questions whether the child has the right publicly to tell his or her interpretation of a father’s secret life without the father’s consent (especially when the father went to great lengths to conceal his secrets from others).

The book is organized into five chapters focusing on books related to different types of family secrets. Porter provides insightful reviews of each story he considers, referencing other sources and examples in ways that situate the pieces in relation to broader contexts. The first chapter explores three life stories that reveal family secrets involving religion and persecution. In each case, the parents are Holocaust survivors and the secrets they construct about their religious affiliations directly impacted their survival—and to some extent their family’s and children’s survival—after the war. In the second chapter, Porter explores five life stories in which fathers attempted to erase their own identities and present themselves as someone else. In these cases, the adult children are not able to confirm all the details they discover through their investigative work, leaving them to wonder how their parents’ perspectives could have further informed the story. As the authors began their investigations and sought more about their fathers, some admitted to fearing what they would find and the consequences their discoveries would bring. In the end, their stories remained incomplete and couched in some degree of uncertainty. The third chapter of the book shares four stories that deal with fathers who held secrets and were largely absent, physically and/or psychologically, from the lives of their children. The narratives focus on issues about detachment from the world, the aftereffects of war, and suicide. Porter also includes analysis of the film My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s story about his father, the famous architect Louis Kahn, who had three families simultaneously. The fourth chapter addresses four stories, including a graphic memoir, where children discover they are much like their fathers. In these cases, telling the secrets of their fathers allows authors to reveal secrets about themselves. The last chapter Porter considers Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Senator Strom Thurmond’s black daughter, and her memoir, Dear Senator. Washington-Williams, raised by her mother’s sister and her husband, learned her father’s identity as a teenager, yet helped to maintain his secret. Porter also considers Bliss Broyard’s story. Broyard grew up believing that both she and her father were white, when in fact he was of Haitian Creole ancestry. Broyard focuses...

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