In Arthur Kopit's absurdist 1959 play, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, a widow and her teenage son travel the world with Dad's taxidermed corpse in tow. Transported in a coffin, it is hung up in the closet as soon as the pair arrives at each hotel room and, needless to say, contributes little in the way of dialogue. Yet somehow Dad's powerful presence hovers over every scene and he even manages -- during an intriguing denouement -- to make more of an impact on his son in death than he did when alive.
While few of us besides undertakers and Norman Bates can literally carry around a corpse, the legacy of a lost loved one can sometimes weigh as heavily as if that's exactly what we were doing. Such is the case of three daughters who, haunted by images of men lost to them when they were too young to understand, strive in new memoirs to recapture the essence of the fathers they still yearn to know.
As chronicled in The Devil That Danced on the Water, the last time Aminatta Forna saw her father was when he was being escorted by soldiers from the family's Sierra Leone home. Mohamed Sorie Forna was hanged for treason in 1974 by people he'd helped bring to power less than ten years before. At the time of his death, ten-year-old Aminatta was fast asleep in England, where she and her siblings had been surreptitiously moved to avoid capture by the same forces that had seized their father. When she finally learned of his death days later, she was told he'd died from stomach ulcers. Sensing a lie yet limited by her youth, she accepted the explanation and carried on as best she could until the shadow of her father loomed so large that she was compelled to seek the truth. Her quest resulted in a saga as sprawling as the continent itself in its deft portrait of African political machinations.
Many children imagine their fathers as true heroes; Forna's actually was one. The first rural Sierra Leonean ever admitted to Scotland's Aberdeen University, Mohamed Forna returned to Africa with a medical degree and a Scottish wife. There the couple founded a clinic offering services to anyone in need. Few Sierra Leoneans could afford treatment; poverty wracked a nation ironically blessed with great natural resources that included diamonds. Corrupt government officials were allowing international diamond-mine owners to get richer while the local labor force got poorer. Forna felt something had to be done, and that it was up to him and a small band of concerned citizens to do it.
Unfortunately, though he and his colleagues managed to topple the presiding government and Forna himself was appointed minister of finance, he quickly grew disheartened. While he traveled the world to meet with foreign leaders and discuss the need for better education and health care in Africa, his associates back home were behaving like those they'd ousted, using illicit funds to buy new cars and weapons instead of aiding destitute locals.
Upon his return, they pressed Forna to act as they did, but he refused and resigned and was promptly branded an enemy of the state. After his arrest, he was tortured and betrayed by former allies during a mockery of a trial. Yet throughout it all, he remained steadfast to his cause: The good of the many shall supersede the evil of the few. His efforts were buried along with his body in a mass grave packed with "coconspirators" until his daughter, a BBC reporter and presenter, undertook a return to Sierra Leone, where she sought out and interviewed her father's betrayers in an effort to tell his tale and clear his name. The result is an exposé as gripping as it is devastating.
"I had spent 25 years in ignorance and one year gradually uncovering the truth," Forna writes. "And yet now I could barely recall what it felt like not to know. ... So this is innocence lost." Perhaps -- but it is also a father's profound legacy found.
If ever there was innocence never found, it was A.J. Albany's. As related in the grim Low Down, this child of two junkies spent her wonder years amongst down-and-out Hollywood wannabes, mopping up Mom's vomit while making sure Dad wasn't too high to blow off a gig: Her father, jazz pianist Joe Albany, performed with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Lester Young. Her mother, Sheila, loved Beat poets and eventually had an affair with Allen Ginsberg -- apparently his last heterosexual liaison -- and, according to Ginsberg himself, contributed some of the best lines in Howl.
In a collection of vignettes as jolting as popgun fire, Albany describes in unflinching detail how she learned to ignore her mother's long absences, the sounds of her father having sex in the bathroom, and the ubiquity of sleazy dope dealers. Master musician and hepcat though he might have been, Dad periodically pawned A.J. off on dirty old men who wanted to show her their "magic gizmos" or have her pull the "elephant's trunk."
Yet, recalling it all, this author still so longs to idolize her father that sometimes this narrative brings to mind Pollyanna playing the "Glad Game." It is without sarcasm that Albany writes such passages as: "One day I was ... awaiting the return of the television, which Dad was picking up from Harry's pawnshop. They were happy occasions, those days when the TV came out of hock, and I was attempting to make a celebratory 'hot-plate omelette.'"
Given her pedigree, little A.J. might have been raised as an heir apparent, much like Nancy Sinatra or Lucie Arnaz. Instead, she was left to fend for herself. The fact that she survived at all is a testament to her spirit. That she now reveres Dad and hates Mom is something else altogether, but it makes for a fascinating read.
Andrea Siegel's Snapshots from the Heart might seem the antithesis of Albany's Low Down, in that she grew up well-heeled in a New York City suburb and never suffered any parental neglect, other than her father leaving her when she was twelve, but that was only because he died.
The father of any little girl's dreams, Joe Siegel cooked brunch for his family every Sunday and ensured their security by working long hours on Wall Street. Yet he wasn't perfect: He was fired from his job but never told the family, pretending to still be employed, during which time he was stricken with a rare form of leukemia. His diagnosis shattered the world of his daughter, who will be at Cody's Fourth Street on June 13, and her memoir records the progress of his illness in minute detail. She details everything from his sudden mania for stamp collecting to the smell of his dying cells, which tends to make reading this book feel like watching someone else's home movies: There's only so much a nonrelative or nonfriend can appreciate.
Siegel also includes, almost verbatim, every letter her father ever wrote to a young woman he loved when he was in high school and college. This correspondence seems to help the author understand her father's nature, but offers the general reader less illumination -- it just feels way too personal to be shared. And that feeling, which arises far too often, ultimately makes this memoir seem all the more like a gaping wound, begging to be dressed.
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