Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father
By Mary Gordon
Random House, 274 pages, $24

Every human situation, Epictetus once declared, is like a vase with two handles. If you have quarreled with your brother, you can grasp the handle which is the fact that you have quarreled, or grasp the handle which is the fact that he is your brother. In her unhappy new memoir, The Shadow Man , Mary Gordon has grasped her father by the wrong handle, and he has crumbled in her hands. Though the book ends with a claim of forgiveness, the sins for which she pardons her father are the sins she has assigned him. After a widely praised career as a liberal Catholic writer of delicate personal essays and novels, Mary Gordon seems determined now to reveal herself as one of Epictetus’ Unhappy Ones, who blame the vase they broke for breaking.

A late Jewish convert to Catholicism, an occasionally successful but usually failed writer and editor, a part-time purveyor of soft-core porn, a self-inventing and self-concealing liar, and a man besotted with the daughter of his conversion and middle age, David Gordon led the kind of peculiar, sometimes charming, often compartmentalized life that is hard on biographers. The Shadow Man is more the story of Mary Gordon’s search for the facts of her father’s life than it is the story of David Gordon”and it is even more the story of her reflections about her search. Divided into five essays, the book begins with the daughter’s memories of the beloved father who died when she was seven. “My father had one of the greatest minds I have ever known,” she began a schoolgirl essay in the year after his death. “All the seven years of your life,” he wrote the child from his hospital deathbed, “I have said at least twenty prayers a day for you at Mass and Communion and at other times. So here is the arithmetic: . . . [that] makes altogether forty-two thousand prayers I have said for my honey love.”

As an adult, however, she could discern the inconsistencies in her own memories and the family stories of her father’s life. In the middle essays of The Shadow Man , Mary Gordon narrates the journeys she undertook to find the truth about her father. She had always supposed that her father had been born in the Midwest, gone to Harvard, sat at the moveable feast of American literary expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, and converted to a very serious, very parochial Roman Catholicism just before his marriage. Only the conversion turns out to be true.

David Gordon was born in Vilna, Lithuania and originally named “Isaac,” he worked as a clerk for the B&O railroad instead of going to college or living in Europe, and he edited a girlie magazine called Hot Dog through the twenties. Like the poet Robert Lowell and the theologian Avery Dulles, he came to know the charismatic (and eventually schismatic) Cambridge priest Fr. Leonard Feeney, and, after his conversion, while contributing to America and other Catholic magazines, he edited during the 1940s a short-lived religious journal in which he wrote editorials with occasional bursts of anti-Semitism and a constant rejection of the world that Mary Gordon has come to embrace. “There is much about me he would have hated,” she wryly admits. “He didn’t want a daughter who was a feminist, a leftist, divorced and remarried, the media’s usual suspect when they need the insiders’ rap sheet on the Catholic hierarchy or the Pope.”

A daughter finds a father’s falsehoods a stone in the heart, and David Gordon continued to tell his early lies (or allow them to be told) even after his conversion. But it is the late anti-Semitism and Catholic parochialism Mary Gordon, now in her late forties, can least forgive. The Shadow Man bears a burden difficult for anyone not her age to comprehend. It was in the pride of their youth in the 1960s that most of the Catholic leftists of her generation went through their rejection of their parents’ separatist church and self-identification as Catholics”went through the adolescent equation of the parents themselves with the things they seemed, in those fevered days, to stand for.

But no matter how radical Mary Gordon became, she always exempted her own father from the anathemas she hurled at his Catholic generation”always set beyond criticism the deeply religious father who once told her with utter seriousness that he loved her more than God, always excused the beloved and lost figure whose writing career provided the model for her own. Only now has she undertaken the equation of her father with all that she rejects. What is excusable or at least understandable in an adolescent seems sad in a middle-aged author”and worse than sad: unhappy, cold-blooded, and deeply dishonorable. The reader’s sympathy for a father exposed and pilloried by his daughter deepens and deepens as the book goes on.

Mary Gordon knows this, of course. Though she praises her father’s prose as the origin of the careful construction and delicate parallelism that usually marks her own writing, The Shadow Man itself is oddly constructed, cobbled together from sentence fragments and partial essays. The prose with which she has won wide acclaim since her first novel, Final Payments (1978), has let her down in the current book. She even makes some surprising errors: repeating a common misquotation of W. H. Auden and declaring that Tolle, Lege (“take and read,” the command from God to St. Augustine that marks the mystical center of the Confessions ) is actually a casual introductory command from Augustine to his readers.

But it may be that no one’s prose could carry off what she hopes to do in The Shadow Man , justifying her final chapter’s story of the reburial of her father’s body in a new cemetery. Despite her claim that lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream explain her desire to rebury her father-“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact””it seems less the grand, happy madness that Shakespeare had in mind, and more the neurotic tic of an indulged and cosseted morbidity. The most interesting revelation of The Shadow Man ’s last chapter is the willingness of nearly everyone”her priest, her family, and even chance-met strangers”to coddle her desires.

Novelists are often cruel to their families, for they find painful family stories and the desperate emotions that swirl around family crises at last too valuable not to be cashed in as fiction, and the contemporary trend of best-selling memoirs has intensified the pressure on writers. It is even more, however, the self-exculpation of victimhood that lures us in. Mary Gordon is old enough to know better, and she fights against it with all the irony, self-reflection, and literary skill at her command. But at last it sucks her down: she is too a victim, she is too a casualty, she is too the child laborer staggering beneath the dead weight of dead fathers piled on her back. At last even Mary Gordon, with her delicate prose and rarified sensibilities, cannot resist, and she cashes her father in for the reassurance that she is not to blame for the way things are and not to blame for herself.

Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things