Honor your father and your mother. As the Church Fathers wrote, there are things we know simply by virtue of being human but then, after we alienated ourselves from the source of our humanity, God gave us the Decalogue to remind us of those things. One of those things is that we should honor our father and mother. Perhaps Paul Moore, the Episcopal bishop of New York for seventeen years, and his wife Jenny had that in mind when they named one of their nine children Honor. If so, they have reason to be sorely disappointed.
Honor Moores The Bishops Daughter: A Memoir is selling briskly. In the long line of celebrations of pathographies¯in which children take literary revenge on their parents¯a big excerpt from the book was published in the New Yorker , and it has benefited from rave reviews in the newsweeklies as well as in major papers, including two reviews in the New York Times . In a letter to the New Yorker , Honors siblings protested, Doesnt it matter, even when someone is dead, that his most fervently held private life, and the unnecessarily explicit details of his marriage, are exposed against his wishes? We believe that it does matter, and that both of our parents good legacies have been damaged.
Clearly it doesnt matter to Honor Moore and the reviewers who laud what they describe as her courage. Writing in the NYT , Jennifer Schuessler, who specializes in books of literary parricide, says, But if she does not wrestle overtly with the ethics of outing, the power of the books raw emotional honesty is its own counterargument. Dishing the dirt, we are given to understand, is a counterargument against elementary decency. The dirt Honor Moore dishes is that her father was bisexual and had a long-standing affair with one man in particular. What frees her from moral culpability, writes Schuessler, is that her raw emotional honesty extends to her own thoroughly confused life in which she dives into the theater scene, radical politics and plenty of sex, with older men and, eventually, women. As for older men, her courage includes the confession that my father was turning me on. One stands in awe of the raw emotional honesty.
I knew Paul Moore, and I suppose it is possible that I met Honor at some point. His large family struck me as one of the more attractive aspects of his life. I think Tolstoy got it wrong: Happy families are happy in very different, and often difficult, ways. There is wisdom in Willa Cathers essay on novelist Katherine Mansfield:
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday happy family who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of ones own, to be ones self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking point.
At the risk of indulging in the psychologizing of Honor Moores motives, it seems quite possible that her treachery is explained in part by the desperate desire to have something of her own, even if it is the distinction of trashing the memory of her father. Or maybe it was no more than the attraction of a large advance from a publisher, an advance sufficient to overcome inhibitions about turning on one who had given her nothing but care and love. Such things have been known to happen with ambitious writers who have no subject for which a publisher will pay other than betrayal.
For Honor Moore, of course, the betrayal is glossed by her rendering a great service in the noble cause of homosexual liberation by exposing the burdens of her fathers living in the closet. I would not be surprised if she has succeeded in persuading herself that her father would be grateful. Perhaps she construes the breaking of trust as an act of bonding. After all, she has declared herself a lesbian and now she has posthumously liberated him from the closet. Self-justifying rationalizations weave a tangled web.
Paul Moore and I strongly disagreed on many things of great moment, but I counted him as a friend. In the August/September 2003 issue of First Things , I wrote about the ways in which his death represented the passing of a Protestant era that we will not see again. I did not know about his marital difficulties or sexual ambivalence and, like everybody except his spiritual director, had no reason to know. In his memoir Take a Bishop Like Me , Paul explained his decision to be the first to ordain a declared lesbian: When in doubt, go with the future. I observed that, by the same principle, a German bishop in 1933 might have been a fervent supporter of Hitler. He said he would think about it. Im not at all sure that he did. For all his considerable gifts, Paul Moore was not a deep thinker.
If Honor Moores account is to be trusted, Paul did everything possible to keep his homosexual proclivities a secret in the hope that it would be buried with him. After Jennys death, he married Brenda Eagle, a widow, and, when she later learned about this more sordid aspect of his life, she pleaded with the children to honor his desire for secrecy. There can be hardly a child of any family, however variously happy or unhappy, who does not know dark things about parents that they would never make public. There can hardly be, that is, an honorable child who would do something so base. Joseph Bottum put it nicely in his recent essay The Judgment of Memory: If love is true¯that is to say, a true thing: a really existing object to which the universe itself must bend¯then there remains a place for reticence, and secrets swallowed, and the dead allowed to keep their darkness to themselves.
Paul Moore lived a life of public honor and public faithfulness to his calling as he understood it. It is a great sadness that his memory has been traduced by the self-serving exploitation of his weaknesses by the grievously misnamed Honor Moore.