Shadow of a Former Self

Mary Gordon

The Shadow Man:
A Daughter's Search for Her Father

Random House

           THE PSYCHOANALYST HANS Loewald once remarked than an analysis is successful if it manages to transform ghosts into ancestors. In the haunted half-light of human memory, it is the apparition of a parent--that original godhead, omnipotent and infallible in a child's imagination--which is the most difficult to dispel. And the most terrible. Time tricks the mind. Facts stray into fictions. Memory turns slights into great wounds, minor events into mythologies, actual bodies into their own shadows.

           The danger in tracking down ghosts and wrestling them into mortal shape is that, while the pursuit may help in chiseling one's ancestors into right proportion, it is also an act of murder. An act parents don't look kindly on, even when they are already dead.

           "My father died when I was seven years old," writes Mary Gordon in her new memoir, The Shadow Man. "I've always thought that this was the most important thing anyone could know about me." It is also important to know, before slipping into the shadows cast by this patricidal piece of literature, that the author never intended to kill off her father's ghost. She meant to pay tribute to a man known as David Gordon, jazz-age bohemian, Harvard-educated poet-curate, first-generation American Jew turned zealous Catholic, writer, critic, devoted father. She meant to articulate him, to translate him, and in doing so, to resurrect him into a manageable ancestor. She meant to enjoy a successful analysis.

           And, in a sense, this is precisely what happens. This is the man, after all, who told his daughter shortly before his fatal heart attack, "I love you more than God." However, the intended adoration--one of many raw sentiments at stake in this book--comes across as a child's riddle: Does my father love me more than he loves God, or more than God loves me? For a young girl, a Jew by birth, and raised in an orthodox Catholic family in post-Holocaust America, it is a dreadful question. Either her father is committing heresy, or her soul belongs not to God but to a dead man. The answer eludes Gordon until a moment of enlightenment--or what a different reader might call gross fantasy--occurs deep into this memoir, after many encounters with the devil.

           The devil, we learn, takes on the figure of her father, an enigma shrouded in anguish and
lies. To track him down, to decipher his
true biography, Gordon--a highly acclaimed writer of fiction for the past decade--turns to the tools of an investigator, a detective, a disinterested critic. She frequents a variety of archives, including the 42nd St. library in New York where she has delivered lectures and received awards, where hundreds of other relatives are in search of their ghosts, and where her father's heart suddenly gave out one evening in the winter of 1957. She contacts genealogical experts and consults with historian friends; she visits offices housing government documents; she reads her father's published writings in The Nation and The New Republic; she travels to his hometown in Ohio. All of this the means by which she might verify the myths told to an innocent girl.

           Gordon, the now 46-year-old writer, goes about this project obsessively. She tells herself that it is impossible to remember what it's like to have a father. She makes of herself "a filament, an X-ray, the negative of a photograph, the chalk outline on the sidewalk after the body has been removed." She becomes knife-thin, composed of shadows herself, convinced that she must become like her elusive father in order to understand the reasoning behind his deceptions.

           Those deceptions were, until now, the foundation for her own identity. And they are many--around every turn, in the lines of every document Gordon studies and stains with her tears. Over the course of her investigation, she does find her father, though not the one she remembered. Not David Gordon but Israel Gordon. Born not in Ohio but in Vilna, Russia, and not in 1899 but in 1894. He was not an only child but the son of an unremarkable dry-goods merchant and brother to two sisters, one of whom died a paranoid schizophrenic at a state-run institution; not a Harvard graduate but a high-school dropout who clerked for the B & O railroad.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith did not blacklist him as punishment for his conversion (the story Gordon was told) but in actuality, he could not keep a "respectable" job and instead produced stupid pornographic magazines financed by gentlemen sponsors. Not a native English speaker but an immigrant whose mother tongue
was Yiddish, whose family did not sit shiva after his conversion but remained in contact with him. He was not a
citizen, but he had married before; he had never summered in Europe, but he had been an autodidact, a name-dropping arriviste with admiration for Mussolini's government and a taste for home-front fascism.

           All this time. All those mythologies. All of her father, murdered, except for the memories of his body, his voice, his remembered devotion to her. "I have to understand," Gordon writes after digging up yet another agonizing truth, "that everything I thought about my father might be false. That I don't even know which were his lies and which were my inventions. And these ideas were the things I based my life on, scenes played over and over to place myself in the world, to give myself stature and protection."

           The only sure knowledge remaining is that her father is a dead man. And death, it seems, makes one possessive. Vigilant. Determined to do some kind of justice, however meager, on behalf of one's ghosts. The father Gordon once recognized has disappeared; however fast she runs toward him, his specter seems--under the weight of the historical record--to have vanished. "I'm no longer sure that the most desirable thing is to be with my father for all eternity," she writes. His eternity is elsewhere, in the shadows, hounded by a brutal father the author makes the mistake of roiling up in fiction. And so father and daughter part ways, at least among the living.

           Among the dead, there is another story, told here in part. In what Gordon describes as her final act of reparation and forgiveness, she has her father's body disinterred from his in-law's grave, a Jew laid out among Catholics who had at best tolerated or patronized him, at worst despised him. She arranges, in the wake of her search, to give his remains "a local habitation and a name" under different earth, in a new plot that she too, after death, will inhabit. It is a place earned, she believes, not only by her writing--an inheritance from her father, her ancestor--but by a kind of lunacy, an unseemly love "that doesn't fear being called grotesque." A love that abides, despite lies and despair, into eternity.

Popular Stories


Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >