- Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir
American memoirs, according to Dinah Lenney, depict fathers as puzzling, mysterious, the focus of a quest: "Recollection after recollection about fathers—fathers and daughters, fathers and sons—is characterized by searching and yearning to know the real guy. To pin him down. To figure him out. . . . Our fathers, however enlightened, however accessible, retained their mystery and their other lives." Lenney's book Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir follows this tradition. But in her case, there is an added element: Lenney's father is absent and mysterious in part because he was murdered.
An affluent New York businessman, Lenney's father was kidnapped, robbed, and then, in a ravine just off the West Side Highway in New York, stabbed repeatedly and left to die just across the river from the restaurant he ran. His body wasn't found for a week, leaving the family to ponder his fate, leaving the animals and elements to get at the body.
Lenney tells the story in interweaving narratives—one focused on the murder and its consequences, the other on memories from the past, largely about her efforts to impress her father and bridge the gap between them. These stories, of course, are related, as revealed from Lenney's description of how the family contacts her, almost as an afterthought, a day after her father goes missing. She is the daughter of his brief first marriage, distant geographically from his brothers and emotionally from his second family, a wife and son. The uncle who calls advises her "not to get hysterical" and to "sit tight."
It does not occur to her to become indignant until later. "I fall apart. In this way I manage to insinuate my position as my father's first born; in this way, I want to believe after the fact, I've reproached them for their negligence." It is in part this effort to take her place as firstborn, to reinstate herself in her [End Page 169] father's sphere after his death, that motivates her to fly to New York, visit the crime scene, and be present at the sentencing. She is also there, as she puts it, "to bear witness, to show myself; the killers needed to see me to understand that they'd murdered my father and my children's grandfather, not just some old man."
What's more, Lenney believes that for her father, the only afterlife is in her memory. "It's necessary, expected, mandatory" to remember him, and when she closes her eyes, she sees him as "solemn, even grim, as if to emphasize that this is my job and his due, to acknowledge him on a daily basis." As her memories unfold—glimpses of the father and grandfather he was, scenes from his restaurant, family stories—she reveals to readers that he was much more than just some old man.
Remarkably, even though she cannot—or will not—forgive them, Lenney also personalizes the men who perpetrated the crime. The first glimpse is through the eyes of a detective who, driving to the crime scene, gazes out at Washington Heights, where the accused men grew up, and explains "that the young people here have nothing to live for, no way to get ahead, no sense of the American Dream except that somebody else has it and they don't and, Christ, it would be so easy to get a piece of it without working all that hard, and working hard never got anybody anywhere so far as they can see." While he hastens to add that they don't condone such behavior, the context is set. The reader is given a way to connect, to understand the perspective of the accused men.
Meanwhile Lenney, unmoved, dwells on the image of her well-dressed older father standing at the edge of the West Side Highway at eleven o'clock in the morning flanked by two young Latino men, mystified that so incongruous a sight failed to move passersby to offer help or call...