- Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers
The seed of Roger J. Porter's Bureau of Missing Persons might have been planted within the epilogue of his previous book, Self-Same Songs (2002). That auto biographical coda, entitled "Unearthing the Father," chronicles a trip to his father's alma mater, the University of West Virginia, more than four decades after his father's death at age forty-eight. In this passage Porter describes discovering a yearbook photograph of his father in the campus bookstore: "Now I looked at my young father, his lost youth meeting my aging face, and I felt as if he were a beloved subject, but one unfamiliarly shy, even fawnlike, not quite certain of himself, a haunting and somewhat haunted figure that I, detective of missing persons, had brought to light" (235). The title of Porter's new work of autobiography criticism nearly repeats that self-appellation as a "detective of missing persons."
In Bureau of Missing Persons, Porter abandons the autobiographical codas of Self-Same Songs and focuses exclusively on others' work: autobiographies by adult children who narrate their investigations of their fathers' secrets. As Porter sets out in his introduction, "How the child learned about the father's covert life, the effect it had on the inquirer's own sense of self, and the way the autobiographical writing investigates and reveals the entwined identities of parent and child are my subjects" (1-2). The first of these subjects, the autobiographer's quest for concealed information, is most strongly emphasized in Porter's analysis, which is deeply human and attuned to the affective patterns of familial life.
Ours is an age in which secrets comprise a popular and public drama—Oprah Winfrey's 2011 "family secret" episode drew her highest television [End Page 531] ratings in six years (the secret: a long-lost sister), and the political mores of the WikiLeaks scandal topped headlines for the greater part of 2010. Porter taps into the uncanny juxtaposition of the unknown within a family setting. While identifying room for further analysis—comparatively little has been written about secretive mothers, he contends—Porter focuses exclusively on elusive fathers and the children who turn to autobiography as a means to seek them out. "Why are fathers the overwhelming majority of the narrative subjects in this study?" he inquires in his introduction. "Coincidence? Hardly. Unconscious choice by me, a male writer interested in how men have lived furtively and surreptitiously? Quite possibly" (3). Porter's narrowed scope, however, does leave out some maternal secrets that have dominated contemporary autobiography—including follow-up memoirs by two of his chosen authors, Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel, who devote subsequent volumes to their mothers' stories. And Maxine Hong Kingston, Art Spiegelman, and Colette (all cited in Porter's study) are arguably more interested in their mothers' secret histories than their fathers'.
Emerging naturally from his paternal focus is one of Porter's central arguments: the provisionality of auto/biographical identity. For not only are the autobiographer's identity and relationships subject to change over time, but the father's identity is also mutable, endlessly revised as the son or daughter learns more about him. Porter orients his analysis toward the emotional and ethical consequences of uncovering a father's secrets and unveiling them in print. For him, the autobiographer's motive for writing is the most practical ethical measure; an ethical autobiography attempts to understand and empathize with a father, not to blame him or seek revenge for his secrecy. Writers like J. R. Ackerley and Mark Kurzem (revealing a father's homosexual history and hidden Nazi connections, respectively) succeed in "achieving filial closeness and understanding" with the father (32); Mary Gordon and Bliss Broyard (uncovering a father's concealed ethnicity and race) immerse themselves imaginatively in a father's past, seeking to understand his perspective and motivations long after his death. Porter's analysis frequently draws upon the work of Nancy K. Miller, whose 1996 book Bequest and Betrayal: Writing...