|After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey|
Our parents create a huge part of our identity. From their personalities to the environment they make our home, to the way they punish and reward, to the way they are involved or not involved in our lives. Parents help us to create our sense of self. But other things help us to reinvent who we are, or become a different version of our selves.
I remember this class I took at the University of Minnesota which was about the construction of self and how our memory plays a key role in who we believe we are, what we know about ourselves and our identity. It was an Honors Seminar with a long gray haired professor and only 8 girls. Every week, one of us was assigned to lead discussions and to bring in some sort of morning snack. It was an 8am class and I remember the other girls struggling against the early wake up time. They seemed slug like, puffy and gelatinous in the morning. I, on the other hand, am a morning person - biking to class, feeling the cold Minneapolis wind on my cheeks and coming to class fresh and crisp. Even in my sharp morning mood, I was almost a mute in this class at first while the slugs could talk and analyze and discuss and quip. At that time in my life, I had issues with speaking in classes. I was worried that every word I spoke would be dissected by others, made fun of, that my voice wasn't important or that my thoughts were ridiculous. It was this class that helped me (forced me) out of my quiet prison. Every day, I would go into our dark little classroom which was held in a side conference room of one of the beautiful old halls at the UofM with a goal of speaking at least 2 times during class. On the days I had to lead discussion, I would craft careful notes and speaking points, knowing that I had to speak way more than my goal of 2 times. Somehow through my class centered on identity and memory, I cautiously began to emerge as a new version of myself. Someone who spoke in classes and didn't care if my thoughts were perceived as silly or wrong. My thoughts were part of me, and I mattered. I realized during this class that I had been told to be quiet so often in my life - from my parents, to my teachers, to adults that finally I started to listen, and this class somehow helped me break out of that. I decided that the voice in the back of my head telling me to talk and move forward regardless of how I was raised or socialized was the voice I needed to listen to and in some ways it is that voice - the one that tells you to find a new truth is the same that Michael Hainey had to turn way up to complete his quest and write his memoir, After Visiting Friends (A Son's Story).
After Visiting Friends centers around Michael's search to find the truth about his father's death. He follows his instinct that he never knew the whole story, that something didn't seem right, and he does not relent until he tracks down every lead, every angle, every possibility that could help him recreate not only the story of his father's death, but also the story of who his father really was. His mother didn't talk about his father's death or his father after he died. Michael recalls, "After he died, silence descends. Silence and fear. My twin poles: My binary black holes. I live in fear of upsetting my mother, of even uttering my father's name. I believe that even by saying his name, I might kill her. Or she might kill me." Turning to his mother yielded heartbreaking silence, so he searched on his own for the truth and uncovers the code of newspapermen, marriage, and friendship. He finds a way to himself and finds the courage to tell the story that might hurt those involved.
I picked up this book because Amazon.com named it as one of the top books of 2013 (so far) and one of the best memoirs of the year (so far). I agree. At first I had to get used to Michael's storytelling - bits and pieces of the past blended with his present day searching for his father. He reconstructs how things could have been based on his searching, interviews, tracking down bits and pieces from the morgue reports to the obituaries in various papers, to relatives and past coworkers of his father, and he constructs his own truths based on the evidence he uncovers. I was engrossed in his search for his father, and his search for himself. Everyone tells him along his journey how much he looks and acts like his father and at times (like when he goes to his father's high school reunion) people who knew and loved his father seem comforted by his presence because he is so much like his father.
I cried a little at the end of this book because Hainey has a beautiful style that slowly unfolds his journey home - his discoveries and how he chooses to internalize and externalize them.
We all search for our self - whether it is finding a new voice in an Honors Seminar class, connecting with our past, re-inventing our futures . . . we have a deep need to find truths and a deep need to turn away from the truth of how we have been shaped into the people we are. Some of us are brave enough to tell the stories that have shaped us, like Michael, even if it did take the cajoling of Jan, the prophet and morgue worker, to help him realize how important his story is to tell. After his visit to the morgue, Jan calls him almost an entire year after and says, "We are waiting for you to tell this story. . . There is a new person in you, trying to be born. He's just barely peeping out of the box. Are you going to slam the lid down on his fingers, or are you going to throw the lid off that dark box and come out fighting?" Hainey finds the courage to throw the lid off the box and tell his story much to the benefit of anyone who reads After Visiting Friends.