- Father & Daughter
Duke University Press
240 Pages; Print, $27.95
Jane Lazarre creates two works of memoir in The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter—her own and the one of her father, Bill Lawrence. But in merging them, she also raises many questions—not in the least, how is one able to capture the memories, the thoughts, and the feelings of another on the page? Can they? If so, how believable, accurate are they? And, if someone writes a memoir for another, is it truly a memoir, or is it a biography?
While most of The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter is about Lawrence—an American Communist organizer and leader, a commissar in the Spanish Civil War known for being questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s—it is hard to overlook Lazarre’s reflections on her own life memories within the book. They are mixed, with the intent to have her father’s voice written out, too, as if he is literally involved in the process. Included among official FBI documents from Lawrence’s history, Lazarre introduces recreated italicized portions stemming from discussions she had with her father; notes and letters she kept of his, which ultimately give the impression these are his own words.
This strategy begins early on in the book, but is heavily relied upon halfway through and into its final parts. A few are even presented in first person as if Lawrence is speaking word for word:
It was when she finally died that I knew I was headed for a breakdown I could not allow myself to have—a breakdown from death itself—at least not at first—there was a relief to it, in the end of the pain, no hope at all, hoping that like Buck, like Mama, she was at last at peace.
An attempt such as this can only be achieved with the wisdom and grace that is achieved through age; lifetime(s) of loss, love. And, a whole lot of imagination. As a septuagenarian, Lazarre is able to capture her own experiences—a daughter raised by this father, a “Communist Child,” who learned very early on how to lie to federal officials; to read and adopt Marxism-Leninism philosophies. Because he was and is so much of her making, she is able to trace both their life timelines linearly, yet also plot the ups and downs of emotions within and between them both.
Patience, and the reverence for what can and cannot ever be recovered in memory, is beyond evident throughout Lazarre’s writing. Perhaps, she even offers up this acknowledgement too much at times. It is clear she wrestles with the idea that no matter what, there are always parts of any past which must be made up, re-told by another in order to begin to tell the story. Especially if it is not one’s own. She shares a metaphor, which closes the second chapter, as a way to get to this theory of viewing and documenting history. One of the more lyrical sections in the work, this narrative is also quite telling for what comes later. She writes, “I posses an old plant that has somehow survived for than fifty years.” She continues, explaining the unique lifespan of this potted lily, which belonged to her father at first and then to her after his death. This potted plant, which had not flowered regularly, had been through many harsh years, struggling to survive had also experienced “magical” years. It multiplied its leaves to resemble thick forests, at times, and even mysteriously bloomed the winter she was writing the memoir. Though Lazarre states she is not spiritual, she does say, “I watched and watered and even whispered encouragement—for who knows with certainty what any form of life may include or exclude,” to highlight her belief in the intangibility of truth.
Further, the lily is living in an “ancient copper soup pot that belonged to my mother’s mother, preserved from her mother’s journey from the old country of...