- Letter to My Father: A Memoir by G. Thomas Couser
G. Thomas Couser
Hamilton Books, 2017, xvi + 205 pp. ISBN 978-0761869580, $29.99 paperback.
I believe I have the right and the obligation to write my story as fully as I can, and that means incorporating my father's, for I am in his story and he is in mine.Judith Ortiz Cofer
The writing of the narratives is often a form of compensation: a way to restore, repair, or even establish a relationship with the missing parent.G. Thomas Couser [End Page 388]
It may be unfair that an accomplished scholar who has written some of the most significant investigations of the power inequities and ethics of life writing (Recovering Bodies, Vulnerable Subjects, Signifying Bodies), as well as an introduction to the genre as skilled as his On Memoir, should also be capable of writing authoritative, complex life writing itself. But G. Thomas Couser has done just that with Letter to My Father: A Memoir.
The first of Couser's forays into full-length memoir is the delightful Life with Luna, Free-Range Feline, a description of his family's relationship with a local stray he and his wife take in. That text minutely details the cat's habits—scatological, whimsical, domestic, and ultimately murderous—and her meaning in Couser's family. Luna is a wholly charming character study not just of the cat, but also of the people who watch and love her.
If Luna lets us into Couser's domestic life, Couser's father in Letter to My Father tries to give us Couser himself, via Couser's (relationship to his) father. The memoir is divided into two main parts, "The Father I (Thought I) Knew" and "The Father I Never Knew (But Now Know)." The first part covers the years the author—hereafter Tom—and his father—hereafter Griffith—were alive together, and the second part treats the years between Griffith's birth and the birth of his children, Tom and his elder sister Jane. Each part is then subdivided into chapters arranged chronologically. The chronology is convenient if a little idiosyncratic: Tom's life with his father comes before Griffith's birth and youth, and the last difficult years of Griffith's life precede the description and analysis of his birth, upbringing, and any understanding of the roots of his adult personality.
The convenience of this structure lies in the way it emphasizes the book's catalyst and subject matter, which are also evident in its title and each section's title. Letter begins with the castigating letter the twenty-three-year-old Tom wrote to his father in 1969, reproduced in full at the end of chapter 3. This letter is Tom's attempt to intervene in Griffith's rapidly worsening alcoholism and to describe and assert—possibly create and manage—the conditions of Tom and Griffith's relationship (to frame an adult relationship in the context of the father's alarming behavior and the son's concerns for his own identity). The text around this letter, a kind of analytical marginalia, describes and explores Tom's guilt as it suggests the possibility of Griffith's resentment of the letter—certainly his complicated response to it, given he kept it for the five years between its receipt and his death. Letter's first sentence, "When I was 23, I killed my father—with a letter," is hyperbolic and metaphorical, as the next sentence of the memoir points out: "Not literally—of course" (xiii). But this push-pull is one of the book's primary and most interesting energies: who and what made and ultimately unmade this man (was it me) (it wasn't me)? The "I" of the section titles and the book's title that boxes Griffith as "my" "father" places the subject matter of the book solidly in an exploration of Tom's selfhood in relation to his father('s): Why am I who I am (was it my father) (it was not my father)? Tom notes the similarity of their signatures/names (W. Griffith...