Some fathers have secret lovers. Some have secret children. Some have secret ancestors of a race their children never identified as their own. Others keep their work or their illness under wraps -- sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of shame. The following five memoirs are written by authors who've taken a dive into the clandestine lives of their fathers, unraveling the sticky cords of secrecy along the way.
"The Scientists: A Family Romance" by Marco Roth
Marco Roth, cofounder of the literary magazine n+1, was the only child born to a pair of Manhattan intellectuals. His father, the supervising doctor at the sickle cell clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center, contracted AIDS during a time when there wasn't much effective treatment for the disease. He grew up believing that his father accidentally stabbed himself while taking blood from an infected patient, but when Roth's aunt published a memoir in 1999 and implied that his father may have had gay lovers, the story of his HIV exposure came into question. But this newly released memoir isn't just about the possibility of Roth's father's secret life -- it's a highbrow tale of a young man coming of age. Recalled in poised and melancholic prose, Roth's memories spin back to therapy appointments and violin lessons, inviting readers to step lightly across the Persian rugs of his family's lavish Upper West Side home.
"My Father and Myself" by J.R. Ackerley
In 1912, J.R. Ackerley's father claimed to his two sons that "in the matter of sex there was nothing he had not done, no experience he had not tasted, no scrape he had not got into and out of." With this in mind, Ackerley ponders his own homosexuality and father's unexplained long-term "friendships" with other men. Ackerley finds that his father was a man of many secrets as he learns of his own out-of-wedlock birth and discovers that his father had another illegitimate set of children. His father would visit the second family secretly, under the guise of walking the dog. In his signature snappy prose, Ackerley describes the complicit canine as "another conspirator in my father’s affairs, had he but known it." Written in 1968, this classic twentieth century memoir unearths the secret sexual life of his father while recounting Ackerley's own experiences as gay man.
"One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life: A Story of Race and Family Secrets" by Bliss Broyard
Anatole Broyard, renowned writer and New York Times literary critic, was born into a mixed-raced Louisiana Creole family that moved to Brooklyn in 1927, when he was a small child. His parents found that they could find better work if they were able to "pass" as white, and he grew up concealing his African-American identity. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, grew up in white suburban Connecticut -- completely unaware of her true ancestral roots. It wasn't until her father was near death that her mother revealed his racial background -- and after he died, he was criticized for failing to acknowledge his African-American ancestry. In this memoir, Bliss tries to make sense out of his secrecy by seeking out family members she'd never met in New York and New Orleans and considering her own racial identity.
"My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir" by John H. Richardson
As his father's health begins to fail, Esquire writer-at-large John H. Richardson learns that his dad lived a secret life as a high-ranking CIA agent during World War II, the beginning of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Richardson and his sister didn't understand the extent of their distant father's job as he moved the family from one exotic locale to another. After his father's death, Richardson digs deeply into the man's past, poring over declassified documents and holding extensive interviews with former spies. He tells an intriguing and dramatic story of a man behind the scenes of American history, while revealing the world of the father he never wholly knew.
"Father, Soldier, Son" by Nathaniel Tripp
Nathaniel Tripp grew up fatherless, in a house full of women, and left home to fight in the Vietnam War in the summer of 1968. In his memoir, he shares the many horrors of war alongside the strong relationships he built with the men in the platoon that he led. As the story of his absent father unravels, Tripp learns that the man was mentally unbalanced and had fought in World War II until the wartime terrors became too much for him to handle. Once his father left the military dishonorably, he felt like too much of a disgrace to return to his wife and child. As Tripp comes to terms with this, he reveals the lessons he learns to become a better father to his own sons.