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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 157-159
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"All western literature, from Odysseus onward, is about the search for the father," intoned my World Lit professor in 1965. Forty years later, in this age of canon expansion, no college professor would dare make that remark. But a growing body of nonfiction by women does reflect that search. Sue Miller, an established novelist, leaves the world of fiction to recreate the last part of her father's life and to create a new understanding of him. Anna Cypra [End Page 157] Oliver, in her first book, tries to reconstruct from documents and others' memories, the 35-year-old father who shot himself when she was five years old.
Sue Miller does not begin The Story of My Father with those events that lead her to realize her father, a retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary, has Alzheimer's disease. Rather she starts with her discovery among her father's papers of two very different letters that he had kept together in one envelope. The first letter congratulates the young Jim Nichols on his refusal to register for conscription; the second reminds the young man of his responsibilities to his pregnant wife and to his teaching job. Together the letters contradict what Miller thought she knew about her father's choices in response to World War II military service. They lead her to search among her father's sermons to understand his thoughts on choosing and achieving a choice.
Like the man she will search to know and understand, this quiet and subtle beginning establishes the pattern of the book: Miller, the writer, searching the writing of her father, and of those who wrote to and about her father, to revise her understanding of his choices and ultimately her choices made for him in his final illness. This is a book about seeing and not seeing and not wanting to see and trying to see through another's eyes: "I confess I thought sometimes of those nineteenth century spinster daughters who take care of their widowed father . . . no wonder I denied the first symptoms I saw. The second, the third. Just as I was coming to know my father again, he began to disappear into his illness."
The Story of My Father, as a search for the father, narrates a dual quest. Miller's father is a Protestant saint. His search, his quest, his choices have centered on God's will. As a good Calvinist he knows, "We are not our own; in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours." When Jim Nichols is first made aware of his hallucinations by his daughter, he says, "Doggone, I never thought I'd lose my mind."
Sue Miller, the good daughter, wants to save a father who has already found salvation. In her memoir, she tells us painfully and honestly about how two good people face a terrible disease and how one tries to make sense and find meaning in the experience. [End Page 158]
Growing up, the first thing Anna Cypra Oliver told people about herself was that her father killed himself when she was five. She knew the shock value of the statement, and she also thought it was the most interesting thing about her. As an adult, as a writer, Oliver tells her own story as she looks for that of her father, Lewis Weinberger.
Assembling My Father could be subtitled "The Documents in the Case or The Art of Fact." We are given samples of Oliver's father's handwriting; his poems; copies of letters written about him; photographs of him at various stages of his life—RPI student, bridegroom, middle-class Florida father, wild-haired hippie; architectural blueprints. This evidence proves...