Coming to Terms with a Family Secret

Bliss Broyard's father took some secrets to his grave. But that didn’t keep her from digging them up. The result was a revelation about him—and herself 

by Bliss Broyard
father and baby daughter image
Photograph: Courtesy of Bliss Broyard

When I was 24, I learned that there are two kinds of deathbed secrets: those that loved ones choose to reveal in an 11th-hour coming clean about who they are and what they’ve done, and those that you stumble across when sorting through their things. Either way, just as you lose this person you love, whose image you are trying to freeze in your brain, you begin to wonder how well you knew him or her at all.

A few months before my father died, he decided—at my mother’s urging—to share with my brother, Todd, and me a secret from his childhood. Before we could make our way from our respective homes in different states to learn what the secret was, my father’s health took a turn for the worse. The next time we were all together was one horrible afternoon when we were around his hospital bed and he was screaming for help as if literally drowning in his pain. After bullying the nurse into giving my father enough morphine to knock him out, my mother ushered Todd and me out of the hospital. We sat down on a sunlit bench, still trembling in the soul-wrenching aftermath of watching this man we loved so much suffer so greatly. “I think I’d better tell you the secret,” my mother said, finally able to share what she’d known since before she married. “Your father’s part black.”

My brother and I laughed and felt immensely relieved. Compared with what we’d been imagining—some terrible crime—being part black struck us as no big deal. It didn’t make our father seem like a different person, and I didn’t yet feel that the disclosure had much to do with me. “Cool,” my brother and I said. The next day, my father required emergency surgery, which he survived to live another month. But he was never lucid again, so I never had a chance to ask him why he chose to keep this secret and what it meant to him.

In the months that followed, the deathbed revelation began to seem more consequential. At his memorial service, I met his sister and my cousin for the first time and considered from their perspective how it felt for my dad to cut them off because of their color. I learned that many light-skinned black people from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where my father’s family lived, had presented themselves as white to get work in the 1940s and ’50s but that my dad was among the few who “passed” in his personal life, too. I also realized that my father, who served as an editor and a book critic for the New York Timesfor 18 years, never would have been hired in the early 1970s had he been open about his ancestry. At that time, there were no black critics on the staffs of any major newspapers.

I loved and admired my dad. But it was hard to reconcile his choice with the man I’d thought he was. The photos of my father and me I’d placed around my apartment—in his lap as a baby, looking up at him with an expression of unadulterated love; as a three-year-old in his arms, leaning in for a kiss; as an 18-year-old, with my arm slung around his neck the morning I left for college—no longer filled me with easy comfort by setting off a slideshow of similar moments of closeness. Instead, I began to look for signs of falseness, a trace of gloating or hiding in my father’s smile. I missed my dad, but I also felt furious at him—for depriving me of a relationship with his family, for leaving behind so many unanswered questions and, most of all, for clouding my memory of him when it was already slipping away.

Even after 23 years, the issue of his ancestry and his struggles with it cast a backward shadow over our relationship. At the same time, I realized his secret wasn’t just about him; it was about me, too—not least what the revelation meant for my own racial identity. A foundation of my sense of self that I had once considered rock solid, my father’s love and affection for me, suddenly crackled with complexity.

I pored over his writings—his stories, essays and hundreds of book reviews—and sought out his family members, his friends, even his various psychologists over the years, but there were frustratingly few clues about the racial terms in which he had seen himself and whether he thought he was pretending to be something he was not. Instead, I learned more about my father’s romantic life than a daughter would ever want to know.

I heard about the Midwestern girl back in the 1950s who hated New York City and the Greenwich Village world of my dad and his pals, but her pride kept her there because Anatole Broyard hadn’t yet tried to sleep with her. There was my dad’s friend Charlie, who gleefully told me of the time he witnessed my father pick up a woman sharing the elevator car in the seconds it took to reach the ninth floor. Then there was Vincent, who lent his apartment to my father one night so he could take a girl there. Afterward, Vincent noticed that the toilet base was shaky, and he asked my father what the hell had gone on. Vincent and I stood in the doorway of his tiny bathroom as he laughingly recalled my dad’s story: that he and the girl were just taking in the view. He invited me to peer through the narrow window—I’d barely be able to make out the Empire State Building peeking above the skyline, he assured me—but I was reluctant to picture my father having sex on a toilet.

That particular episode occurred before my parents were married, but I gathered from my dad’s friends and correspondence that his shenanigans never stopped completely. I’m sure his behavior hurt and angered my mother, but she was reluctant to discuss it with me beyond saying that my father loved women and he never pretended otherwise. For my part, his Don Juan tendencies further turned him into someone I didn’t recognize as my dad.

He never shied away from discussing his popularity with women. But I’d thought of his days as a ladies’ man as belonging mostly to his two decades of bachelorhood before marrying my mom. I’d been under the impression that once my brother and I came along, we had become his true calling. After all, his friends had told us what he’d said to them: You think you’ve been in love in your life, and then you have children and you realize that all those other relationships were dalliances. He spent hours tossing us, torpedo-like, onto a bed piled high with pillows, listening to us recount the long (and doubtless boring) plots of movies and rehearsing the lines of school plays or dance-recital moves.

He lost his temper sometimes, he yelled and acted selfish, but he always seemed interested in us, in our opinions on things and what we were doing. Now I wondered if this role of consummate dad was genuine or if everyone who encountered him was made to feel like the center of his universe; whether his need to be seen in a heroic or attractive light stemmed from a fear of being exposed as a fraud. No matter the motives for his seductive behavior—the more I recognized it as fundamental to his being, the more I saw its impact on me.

Among his correspondence, I found an envelope containing two dozen photos of young women, wearing bathing suits or short shorts to better show off their legs (at my dad’s request?), and a sheet of paper covered with female names and mysterious notations: G, B or SS. I spent months wondering whether the letters represented pregnancies: “girl,” “boy” and “stopped short”? Then one day I showed the page to a male friend, who pronounced: “good,” “bad,” “so-so.”

I recalled my father’s endless commentary about my clothes, hair, weight—the discomfort I felt in the face of his scrutiny. Now I wondered how I would have rated. Shouldn’t his great love for me, his daughter, have made him blind to my objective physical appeal as a young woman? And what about my intelligence, my sense of humor and compassion—didn’t these qualities matter, too? I’d never been completely comfortable with being found attractive by men or been able to enjoy the tension of mutual desire. I was too suspicious about where flirting was headed, too quick to recognize it as a means to an end. I chalked up my inability to treat seduction like a game to a nervous temperament and a shortage of confidence in my own appeal. It took years after my father died for me to realize that not all women felt this way, that perhaps another part of my father’s legacy was my paranoia about men’s motives. I still haven’t managed to completely shake my knee-jerk reaction to male attention, whether harmless flirting at a party or a spontaneous back rub from my husband.

At the same time, my father was the parent to whom physical warmth and declarations of love came more naturally. I couldn’t sit next to him without having his arm draped over my shoulder or wrapped around my waist. Every day he told me he loved me. I always credited his steady affection with my belief in myself and my insistence on being treated fairly in relationships. Like the question of his racial identity, the impact of his romantic life was not as simple as black or white.

If my father had lived longer, as his appetites waned and my sense of self grew, our evolving relationship might have resolved some of these contradictions. But since I didn’t get that chance, I was forced to try to forge an understanding of my dad’s life on my own. As I did so, a funny thing happened: I started seeing him less as my father and more as another struggling human being.

I imagined the confusion about his racial identity that he must have felt growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where his family moved when he was six. In their neighborhood, the Broyards were the only Creoles, an identity that had allowed his parents to comfortably straddle the color line back in New Orleans. I imagined how liberated he must have felt on arriving in the late 1930s at Brooklyn College, where his classmates, mostly children of recent Jewish immigrants, were outsiders, too. I envisioned him in Greenwich Village, where he moved after dropping out of college in 1938. There, nobody cared who his parents were or where they’d come from. They wanted to know what he thought—about literature, art, politics and women.

Among these would-be artists and intellectuals, I imagined him cultivating his identity as a charismatic man of letters; someone who seemed as if he belonged at the athletic club, the dinner party or the beach house; and an aspiring Casanova for whom each conquest represented social acceptance. I pictured him meeting my mother, a Waspy blonde of Norwegian ancestry, and gaining entry into her world of upper-middle-class possibilities as he downplayed his racial origins. I thought about the births of my brother and me, and our father’s unspoken relief that his blackness didn’t imprint itself on our appearance. I considered his decision to keep that background from us to protect us from the racial uncertainty of his own childhood, to make true his determination that a person’s background shouldn’t matter.

Rather than viewing his life before I came along as irrelevant, I started to see it as the beginning of a continuum that led him to being my father. Even his sexual exploits made more sense when considered in light of his constant need to seduce everyone around him into his vision of himself and the world.

I ended up spending many years contemplating these questions, which culminated in a book about my father’s racial identity and the origins of his seductive nature. While I didn’t necessarily forgive the choices he’d made and their effects on his family and me, I came to understand them better, which made it easier ultimately to forgive him. The truth was, being angry with my father wasn’t getting me anywhere: Anger locked me into a position that didn’t allow for change or growth. Since my father was no longer here to either amend his ways or defend his actions, I had no choice but to alter my own position. And in the process, I returned to the place where I started. Now when I considered his choices, I saw him less as a fraud than as a father, trying to do what he believed best for his children. Having become a parent myself helped me sympathize with his decisions. It also helped me look past my narcissistic belief as a child that everything my parents did necessarily involved me.

There are still things I learned about my dad that sit outside even my revised and expanded sense of him—things that leave me scratching my head and wondering how well I really knew him, what kind of man he’d been. But I no longer seek to reconcile every tender memory of mine with my discovery of unsavory secrets. And in that letting go or letting be is a kind of lesson. If my own husband were to die -unexpectedly—perish the thought—I’m fairly certain I would resist the impulse to search through his personal e-mails and Facebook messages and an old box of his papers in our basement that I suspect might contain photos or letters of girlfriends past. I don’t have a reason to doubt my husband’s fidelity, so it would feel like a violation of our trust to snoop through his things looking for evidence. Also, I don’t feel entitled to illuminate every last corner of his life as I did with my father.

When I imagine my kids conducting such an exhaustive survey of my life one day, I immediately shudder. (Like my father, I married late and did not have children until I was almost 40.) But then I reassure myself that my daughter, who is four, probably won’t idolize me in the way I idolized my dad. Times have changed. In addition to encouraging our kids to be more communicative with us parents, my generation is more communicative about our own imperfections. A strange, macabre memory pops into my head: I remember my mother telling me about transferring my father’s ashes from the crematorium box to an urn that a potter friend had made for their burial. Amid the grainy gray dust were some hard white chunks that wouldn’t pass through the narrow neck of the urn. My mother ended up collecting them in another, wider-mouthed jar that now sits on a shelf in her bedroom. The knowledge that these pieces refused to burn and crumble into bits has always given me an odd comfort—my father’s impenetrable, impervious remains.

BLISS BROYARD is the author of the short story collection My Father, Dancingand the memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets. She is currently working on a novel set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Next: Dreams from My Father

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First Published Fri, 2012-09-28 10:17

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