- Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers
Roger Porter’s Self-Same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections (2002) established him as a sophisticated and innovative presence in autobiography studies, with a wide-angle view of a range of (mostly canonical) autobiographies up through the twentieth century. Porter also made the unusual and daring move of turning the self-reflexive lens of the genre on himself, linking the critical discussion of each text with a segment of his confessional reflections. He brought to these the same nuanced “complexity of expression and aesthetic control” that he prized in the autobiographers he discussed. “Unearthing the Father,” the Epilogue of Self-Same Songs, also contains the inspiration for Bureau of Missing Persons: in a poignant episode, the middle-aged Porter attending an academic conference at the college at which his father had been an undergraduate finds a yearbook photograph of the man who died at forty-eight of a heart attack when Porter was nineteen: “Now I looked at my young father, his [End Page 181] lost youth meeting my aging face . . . a haunting and somewhat haunted figure that I, detective of missing persons, had brought to light.”1
Bureau of Missing Persons follows up on this detective concept by focusing on “the entwined identities of parent and child” in a broad spectrum of contemporary memoirs from the English-speaking world “by children each of whose fathers maintained and perpetuated a clandestine existence” (2, 1). These “intensely human dramas of secrecy and deception” (1) are often also versions of the family romance, a fact which Porter incorporates into his interpretations — for instance, the Electra complexes of Mary Gordon in The Shadow Man (1996) and Germaine Greer in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) and their quasi-incestuous need to resurrect and incorporate their deceased fathers — without forcing his subjects onto the proverbial Freudian couch. His non-judgmental and generous readings of what he aptly calls “The Child’s Book of Parental Deception” (1) are premised on the fact that “the narratives by these adult children” are “crime stories, variants of detective fiction functioning as a corrective to the parents’ non-fiction” (3). Porter’s probing yet sympathetic examination of these often compelling confessional detective stories, from the Jewish father who survived the Holocaust camouflaged as an S.S. officer, to the two autobiographers who find their own gayness affirmed in their discovery that their deceased fathers may also have been gay, makes this study, as John Eakin writes in the jacket blurb, “a page turner.” At the outset Porter also frames his critical investigation by speculating productively and plausibly about why fathers are “the overwhelming majority of the narrative subjects in this study,” and why “these kinds of autobiographies and memoirs [have] become popular at this time” (6).
The seventeen texts (including a graphic one, Fun Home, 2006, by Alison Bechdel) and a film (My Architect, 2003, by Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son of the famous architect Louis Kahn) that Porter profiles in a sophisticated juggling act constitute a striking subgenre of the contemporary memoir explosion that at its lowest point has devolved into a squalid misery competition. Fortunately Porter eschews this bestselling Lumpenproletariat of life writing, and even though some of the memoirs he includes contain plenty of shocking and sensational revelations about the secret lives of fathers, all of the works in question are genuine and serious attempts — and often very frustrated and perplexed ones — to recover the lives of the subjects in question without seeking cheap confessional thrills.
Bureau of Missing Persons is framed by an Introduction and an Epilogue, and each of its five chapters “focus[es] on a different aspect of familial concealment” (5). The first deals with three works about Jews (Mark Kurzem’s The Mascot, 2007; Michael Skakun’s On Burning Ground, 1999; Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence, 1999) who were able to survive the Holocaust by disguising their Jewish identities but who incurred shame or guilt as the price of their [End Page 182] survival; the second...