Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reading and Writing about Fathers

Guest Blogger: Godine Author Belinda Rathbone

     How well do you know your father? No matter how well, you may know him better, certainly in a new way, after he’s gone. Even without trying, we learn about our fathers from the trail of material things they leave behind, and from other people who knew him, and whom we will continue to meet for years to come. 

      A generation of daughters and sons has turned such discoveries into what might by now be considered a genre of books about fathers that is particular to our psychological age of enlightenment. We think of Susan Cheever’s Home Before Dark about her father John Cheever, Elizabeth Styron’s Reading My Father about William Styron, Honor Moore’s The Bishop’s Daughter about Bishop Paul Moore, The Duke of Deception: Memories of my Father, by Geoffrey Wolff, and Nathanial Kahn’s documentary film, My Architect: A Son’s Journey about Louis Kahn – all candid portrayals of men told from the privileged intimacy of family life in a way only their children could write.

     These authors are driven by a desire to take charge of their fathers’ legacies on their own terms, to draw a more intimate portrait of the private man behind the public face. Their subjects’ personal trials    adultery, alcoholism, homosexuality, depression, crippling self-doubt – while perhaps somewhat known to the author become better understood and more clearly defined in the process of writing, and with a candor no outside biographer is either capable or entitled to match. Whether to purge the ghosts or to right a wrong, to understand a life-changing event, or to delineate the difference between their fathers’ outward success and inner struggle, these works are not only the author’s deep reflections on his or her own experience and identity, but works of research into the adult world their father’s inhabited when they were children. The result is a concoction of both research and memory – each informing the other until they are one. Without exception, these works could not have been realized before the subject was interred. For in life, our fathers hover over us - no, they tower over us, directing our vision and, intentionally or not, blocking the view.

     During the process of writing my forthcoming book, The Boston Raphael about my father, museum director Perry T. Rathbone, I was often asked if I might be too subjective a witness to handle the task. My answer, as it might be for other authors, is that the experience of writing is in fact an immersion in objectivity – a distancing from our own experiences in the process of researching the life of a person we knew so well. We go after the subject as detectives, biographers, and historians, studying letters and documents, interviewing people close to the scene, learning of the lives they led through the eyes of their contemporaries, of the times they spent outside the home while we led a parallel life in the same household, absorbed as we were in school work, friends, games, and family. Revisiting these scenes from our childhood with new eyes, we meet our fathers, as if for the first time, face to face.

     The urge to understand our fathers is of course not limited to famous fathers –all fathers have a public face that is not the same as the man at the breakfast table. The fascination these writers awaken in us all is a longing to know our fathers not just better, but in a new way, adult to adult, to better understand them and also who we are without them. It is only after our fathers pass away that another kind of relationship can begin, a relationship of equals. “I don’t think I would have started this book if I had known where it was going to end,” wrote Susan Cheever in her preface to Home Before Dark, “but having written it I know my father better than I ever did while he was alive.”

Belinda Rathbone is a biographer and photography historian. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Walker Evans: A Biography, and the forthcoming The Boston Raphael (Fall 2014, David R. Godine). She lives in Cambridge, MA. - 

Learn more about The Boston Raphael from the most recent issue of Art New England:

1 comment:

  1. It's strange to think that writers, who often possess great intuition and perspective, in fact, like everyone else, usually see their parents through the eyes of an offspring. They don't know this until they look again with wider self permission. And then the wonderful biographies appear.