I was drawn to Assembling My Father: A Daughter’s Detective Story by Anna Cypra Oliver mostly because the idea of “assembling one’s father” seemed perfectly reasonable. It sounded familiar, really, as many of us probably wonder about our distant fathers, who they are and how the combination of the things we know about them works into a whole.
This story, though, is more specifically about Anna’s father, who committed suicide at 35. She was five years old at the time and had mostly lived with her mother, so her own memories of her father were virtually nonexistent.
I found the book gripping. There seems to be a double mystery to it—one, perhaps obvious, why? Who was Lewis Weinberger and how did he come to the point of killing himself? And two, more difficult to peg, is a feeling that his daughter’s reconstruction might yield a living, breathing man, even though this is obviously impossible. She searches for him so intently one comes to believe she will in some sense find him, and we want that for her as much as she wants it for herself.
I want to place myself inside my own history, draw the map of its roads so I can travel far and find my way back again. I want to reenter memory at the place where my mother veered off. More than that, I want to trace the man whose features bore such resemblance to my own that I am instantly recognized as his daughter. . . . To be curious, one has to be open—to language, to the leap of association, to influence, to experience, to unsanctioned discovery. Above all, one had to suspend judgment. Anything I discovered about my father would only confirm that he was a sinner and a lost soul: he was Jewish and probably an atheist; he took drugs; he killed himself. (pp. 56-57)Anna’s parents were hippies in the early 1970s, living with Anna and her brother in a shack with no running water outside Taos, New Mexico. After her parents split up and Lewis killed himself, her mother moved on to two abusive relationships before becoming a fundamentalist Christian when Anna was 12. Tracing Lewis’s life thus also becomes a tracing of his non-life, of what happened in his absence, in the space where his responsibilities as a parent were not taken up. I didn’t sense that Anna harboured any anger towards her father about this, which was the part of the book I found most problematic. The survivors, after all, are the ones who have to make life choices, even bad ones, and it seems too easy—even as I found myself doing it—to blame the mother.
Anna holds back from cliché, though. She also doesn’t try to oversimplify. People’s motivations are complex. People’s memories sometimes contradict other people’s memories; the real story is often not as exciting or satisfying as the family myth about a particular event. She absorbs this complexity with her infallible voice, which is not really just her voice but the simple honesty of her quest, her sureness of purpose—slow, intent, and compassionate. I liked that she made me feel contradictions. (I found myself wishing my dad’s friends would talk to me the way her dad’s friends talked to her—quickly followed by: but no, I can’t mean that.)
Assembling My Father is broken up into chapters, each beginning with a quote from an architectural reference (her father was an architect) and then titled with an excerpt from that quote, usually something poetic, in fact far more poetic than you would think would come from an architecture textbook (“Mozart’s House,” “Glacial Fauna”). Each chapter is further broken into sections, each titled (sometimes down to one paragraph!). I enjoyed the overall effect, though this might not work for those less into words.
The book also includes many photographs, at times too many. When someone writes about a picture, I want to hear their interpretation of it or their feelings about it. Especially if the photo is right there, why would I want it exceedingly literally described? It wasn’t until looking more closely at the one particular instance that really bugged me (which I only did for this review) that I realized I just wished the photo and its description were not so close to each other.
Overall, though, Assembling My Father is a brilliant book. I think what I liked best is the recurring images, the memories that cycle and spiral and change over time, but represent certain “archetypal” moments—the key stories a family tells about itself, or a daughter tells herself about her family. In this book, the spiral grows, adds layers and becomes something it wasn’t, from the first tight coil where the story started.