The Memoir of Parental Responsibility Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

img092(Talk given at American Literature Association's "Symposium on American Autobiography" Cabo San Lucas, Mexico November 14, 1994)

Sometimes, listening to my 17-year-old son speak of his future, I find myself staring at him, seizing a moment I desperately hope to hold forever. How tall he is; how much his acne has receded; how soon he'll be gone to college. How bushy black his eyebrows have grown, reminding me of his mother's dark beauty. How happy he seems. How quickly I forget that less than a year ago he swallowed a bottle of antidepressant pills, trying to kill himself.

He has attempted suicide more than once during adolescence, that mire of alienation which he has, I hope, outlasted. Hesitation marks remain on his wrists, as do severe pangs of anxiety in his stomach. When the phone rings after ten p.m., I steel my fear, then exhale, dramatically. Yes, he and I have searched for answers together, alone and in therapy. And yes, some of his depression is due to my failures as a divorced father, my inability to understand and express how that has affected him.

My son's loneliness I discover is rooted, in part, in the memoir I've been writing for the last six years, a book about the parenting paradigm that I learned from my father and practiced with my sons. Just as I was favored by my dad over my brother, so too, when I became a parent, did I favor one boy, the more physically and academically challenged one, over the other, whose specialness I ignored. What my father did—which I came to resent and swore never to do—I did myself.

At last, finishing the story of how I, unwittingly, re-engineered my father's sins with my kids, I now regard family-memoir writing as much an act of truth-telling as one of contrition, which in its facile confessionalism seems to set the past right, to explain it all as a way to fix and forgive it all. Like Stalinist historians, family memoirists believe that the past is an alchemic substance, which can be altered significantly—some say insidiously—via the power of the writer's present perceptions and needs.

The compulsion that bedevils parents to confess to a child in a book is fascinating and, arguably, one whose interpretive and therapeutic value galvanizes authors into action. Of course other purposes spur the parental pen on the child's behalf: to offer support to families in similar straits, to trace the heritage of the particular dysfunction, to explore the responsibilities a society has to its families' well-being. But, most important, parent-authors write their stories to discover the degree to which they themselves are complicit in their son or daughter's crisis.

Today, an increasing number of parent-to-child memoirs are being published, featuring a range of crises—crime and criminal behavior, disability, illness, psychological breakdown and suicide attempts, "coming out" gay or lesbian, sexual or physical abuse, and death. And with the best parent-to-child stories, which distinguish themselves in critic Roy Pascal's phrase as primarily engaged in "wrestling with the truth," there is the explicated wonder and heartbreak of parental guilt and sorrow for what has befallen the children that I believe is rare if not unprecedented in our autobiographical literature. What follows is an extended analysis of several contemporary and modern memoirs in which the child who has strayed or been lost becomes consummately redeemed by the parent in order that the parent, too, may redeem himself.


Uncle Dad, a 1987 memoir by C.W. Smith, is a book about parental responsibility after divorce. Smith writes about the promise of young love and marriage and the bloom of children, and then the debacle of separation and distrust in the wake of his leaving for another woman. Like many just-divorced men who become non-custodial parents, Smith feels guilty when he is not around to watch his kids grow, to comfort them during thunderstorms or stomach aches. His guilt leads him to live a paradox. He sees himself as both the father he has idealized—who is at home, faithful, always available—and the father he has become—divorced, combative, blaming himself for his kids' troubled adolescence. When Smith is with Nicole and Keith he broods over having missed them and, when they are gone, he feels he has abandoned them.

His sorrow over the divorce deepens with Nicole's depression and her near-fatal overdose on "angel dust." After her hospitalization, the family finds out just how hurtful the breakup was for her. Nicole's resentment for her parents, her father in particular, erupts after years of being hidden, during which time she had withdrawn, acted nonchalant, projected her problems onto others and, worst of all, medicated with drugs her fear of displaying any anger. One day, in group counseling with other recovering parents, Smith crashes into the truth: The family he left had encoded a pattern of behavior that required its participants to play roles which kept the real problems secret and which no one would have discovered unless one of the children broke down. Divorced parents usually break out of their mutually destructive patterns. But it is in the children that the crack in the family looking glass remains. Once Smith exposes the whole diseased system, he almost welcomes the blame. At least it's a way to make conscious his children's anxiety. The tragedy worsens for him, however, when he sees that the only workable course for his recovery is to watch his children enact their disappointments in therapy. He acknowledges but cannot fully accept the alienation that Nicole and Keith must express for him.

Responsibility for the divorced or absent parent is weighted with other necessities. One is to be liked by the kids as a way to assuage absence. Disneyland Dad and Shopping Mall Mom. Smith spends much of his time being what his kids want him to be, generous and obliging, which they repeatedly take advantage of. (Of course he thinks his magnanimity would have been less exploited had he stayed with his first wife.) Another hardship is a new relationship. Because Smith cannot get out of the matrix of self-blame, his new partner, Marcia, inherits, just as Nicole and Keith had, the dysfunctions of the original parents. One scene, in which Marcia breaks down because Smith expects her to throw a festive party as though she were his children's step-mother, points to the messiness that occurs when a family intrudes upon the privacy of its newest member.

Smith ends the book by describing a stress-free holiday with Nicole and Keith, saying that "although I hurt them and may have damaged their potential for happiness in the future . . . I've earned back some credits, regained some respect. The hair on my shirt has been worn down to the hide" (214). Smith's self-pity is, I think, absorbed by his honesty: What he divulges as a parent does not lessen the shame he feels. If anything, after confessing for two hundred pages, Smith sounds as much distressed as he does relieved once he has exposed his weaknesses, failures and few selfless acts as a father.


img093Although less shattering than most parent-to-child memoirs, Robb Forman Dew's The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out, published in 1994, records her odyssey from motherly ignorance to community activism after her son tells her he's gay. Stephen's admission at first ruffles her expectations, among them envisioning him married to a woman from a good family. She must revise her view of Stephen not as a parent but as a partner to another man. She spends some time unpacking her fears of gay men's sexual proclivity or that group's high risk of becoming HIV+, both of which dissolve once she examines her biases. Her son's gayness changes little about the sensitive mother-son relationship they have shared, and thus the Dew's family has no distant past wound, real or imagined, to heal.

Yet Stephen's coming out precipitates a crisis for the family. The Dews learn immediately that a gay son brings with it fiendish accusations from a society bent on demonizing homosexuality. Homosexual men and their families must contend with those who see gay men as pedophiles and believe that some predisposition in them, and not the predatory sexuality of straight men, is responsible for the molestation of children. To locate such prejudice, the Dews need look no further than their own alleyway. Once Stephen's secret takes wing, their quaint village of Williamstown, Massachusetts, suddenly, as though invaded by body snatchers, unleashes a virulent strain of homophobia. No, we don't think we can come over for the party, a few old friends reply. What can we say? We realize it happens, but we're sorry. We're really very sorry. The small-town nastiness escalates until Dew finds out that the son of one of her closest friends, who, while away at college, took his life for an unknown reason, had never come out publicly. The author's awakening to the plight of boys who had "incorporated a deadly sense of shame into the core of their existence" is especially telling.

As a self-appointed gay-rights' activist, Dew begins an unabashed assault on the homophobes in Williamstown and elsewhere in America. She attacks a homophobic dean at the college where her husband teaches. She spares no wrath for Drs. Spock and Brazelton who, she says, should have alerted young parents, at least with a note in the index, about homosexuality. "I believe that these best-selling experts on child behavior know full well the variations of human sexual orientation, and that their silence on the subject is tantamount to neglect and abuse." One consequence of her activism is that Stephen's story becomes submerged as does the family's "normal" development. For a year or so Dew gives everything to the cause. At one point her other son, older and supportive of his brother, accuses his mother of favoring Stephen which, in turn, brings about conflicts the family is unaccustomed to. When Dew writes that she was "breathless with fury and the need for the whole situation to be somebody's fault," it again points to the imperious power of blame that overcomes parents whose children have been wronged, no matter by whom, themselves, the family or the society.

In the end C.W. Smith's children have survived their own depressed and suicidal responses to their family's break-up and are more agreeable to their father's weekly lectures about his feelings. Dew's sons express appreciation for their mother's activism and the one or two homophobic giants she has felled. But a few embers remain under the ashes. For one, these parents cannot go on remembering a past in which much of their participation was unconscious. Smith and Dew knew next to nothing about the anxiety their children endured, and this endlessly troubles both authors. One way to ease such anxiety is to revise the family's past with the writer's present insights, which both attempt in hopes of transforming or, at best, mitigating the mistakes of the past, even, as in Dew's case, the mistakes she makes as an activist. Yet such reconditioning of the past alters little of what has happened; the effort expended over a parent's ignorance, in the end, seems to exhaust these writers as much as it enlightens them. Furthermore, Dew and Smith sense that the responsibility both have foisted upon themselves for their children is ultimately a surrogate: The son or daughter's crisis is his or hers to own. Finally, both parents, despite their awakenings, realize that they are more attached to their children than ever, and thus letting them go is now much, much harder to do.


Few parent-authored memoirs are as disturbing as Lionel Dahmer's A Father's Story. Just buying this large-print small book feels strange, as though the gruesomeness it depicts is far more attractive than the father's plight it uncovers. No other book has given me that creepy feeling, and I think this shows how perilously close any parent is to having a murderer in the family. Dahmer stirs this fear, and it makes the book not at all for the lurid-minded but for any parent, particularly fathers.

The frightful thing in Lionel Dahmer's tale is to watch him ponder his complicity while his son's evil is recounted during the 1992 trial. The only way he is able to "connect" with this heinous young man is to explain his alienation from himself and others. A chemist, devoted to his job and often away from home, a divorced father, a confused "unfeeling" man, Dahmer describes at length his lack of sensitivity to his own needs and, therefore, to Jeffrey's. Parenthood for Dahmer was to let his first wife, who was occasionally hospitalized for severe anxiety, rear their two sons. When the couple divorced, she got custody and the father saw his boys erratically. As a result, Dahmer blames himself for failing to judge as devious Jeffrey's fascination with bones or his desire to play in the dirt under his house. Though he knew of these things, Dahmer wonders why he didn't make a link between Jeffrey's and his own "tendencies and perversities" which he himself grew up denying.

In a later chapter, Lionel Dahmer recalls his longing as a boy to hypnotize girls with a candle in order to control them and "have his way with them." He remembers his act as childhood curiosity without consequences. Yet once he hears of Jeffrey's penchant to drug his victims so he too can have his way with them (usually laying side by side with a comatose young man was the only way Jeffrey could achieve orgasm), Dahmer suspects his own predilections and elevates them to faults. Rightly and wrongly, the gap is spanned between the son's actions and the father's culpability. The question Dahmer poses is frightening: Either he has repressed this desire to subjugate others and thus compelled his son to act out his nightmare or Dahmer was able to escape the killing gene which Jeffrey could not. Either way, the father believes that some cellular co-dependency operates between Jeffrey and him. Recalling his boyhood pranks, he asks, "were all these things . . . nothing more than normal childhood thoughts and actions, or were some of them early expressions of something dangerous in me, something that might finally have attached itself to my sexuality, and in doing that, turned me into the man my son became?" We know of child-to-parent memoirs (among the more notorious is Christina Crawford's Mommie Dearest) in which the child carries the buried darkness of the parent into his or her own life. But does the parent carry the child's evil, too?

Questions of complicity are full of knots. When our sons and daughters turn bad how much are we to blame? Or better, how are we to blame? What is the genetic early-warning signal? How does criminality thrive in dysfunctional families? Although no killing tendency has appeared in Dahmer's other son, the aberration of Jeffrey's murderousness and Lionel's inability to have recognized it seems to necessitate—once the technology is ready—that we adopt some gene screening for homicidal predisposition. Presently, we project our horrors, Hollywood-style, onto the bad seeds among us, those underclass families who, whether from genes or home-life or no-life, are the sullied ones, different from the rest of us. Indeed, the Dahmer family like a great sponge seems to soak up our worst psychopathic fears. (Jeffrey Dahmer's recent death in prison, perhaps a racially motivated killing, and his parents' bickering over his ashes, are further manifestations of this need to make his evil even more grandiose as well as to complete the demonization and sanctification of his difference with his death.)

In addition to repressed anxiety about their own sexuality, parents also feel that they may have robbed their children of something clean and virginal. Dahmer's greatest rage occurs when he hears a one-time lover of his son's allege on Phil Donahue that he, Lionel, molested Jeffrey as a child. Though Jeffrey signs an affidavit denying the charge, as does his father, the slur sticks with Dahmer's co-workers. Suddenly the difficult truth has been slanted: Dahmer is framed as a parent who will not admit his physical abuse. Yet, Dahmer is conceding with extraordinary candor some psychobiological involvement in Jeffrey's crimes by writing his story. Such complexity, despite the intrigue, is, he feels, not what people wish to hear. In Dahmer's closing—and only—Hail Mary of self-redemption, he wonders whether in the possibility of his complicity there is also the possibility of his innocence.

(Fingering the father is big business these days. Witness Lawrence Wright's 1994 Remembering Satan, the story of false memory recollection of a father's satanic crimes by the father himself as reported by Wright. Though his children and several twisted prosecutors persuaded a jury to believe them and though they have all since recanted their stories, the father languishes in prison, still convinced that he himself is guilty and should be punished. Witness the northern California man who was accused of molesting his daughter yet brought a successful countersuit against her therapist for dredging up false memories that in effect have cost him both job and sanity. Winning a half million dollar settlement does not wash away the stain, the man said. Accusations are permanent, even if the charge is proved false.)

Jeffrey Dahmer's thirteen murders have stained his father and thus Lionel Dahmer writes to reveal the stain as well as to try and scour it away. If it won't wash, then he'll learn to live with it. A Father's Story shows us how a parent's life preserves a sort of skin or bark on which the stain must stay. Shame is the emblem, the scarlet AP for absent parent, that announces I am the one, I wasn't there, yet in returning to confess, I should receive some forgiveness.

How does a parent absolve himself and his family of wrongdoing, seek emotional restitution in the wake of his child's crisis? Smith, Dew and Dahmer all try to absolve themselves by taking conscious control of their own lives. While Smith seeks family counseling and Dew becomes an activist, Lionel Dahmer sees his son through the trial, shepherds his second wife through a near-nervous breakdown, helps his mother avoid the press frenzy, bears the assaults of sick late-night phone calls, and visits his son regularly in prison where Jeffrey serves his multiple life-sentences. A photograph of the two at the prison shows father and serial-killer son with arms tentatively around each other, closer perhaps than they've ever been. Though Jeffrey cannot speak but to say "Sorry, Dad," he appears a bit less guilty of his deeds because his father is standing by him in what is now his darkest hour.

Finally, what is the cost of such avid parenting? One, I think, is a problem all parents face in our work- and career-obsessed society. Although today mothers are pulled out of the home to work as much as fathers are, at one time only the men practiced the rational absurdity of providing materially for their kids and thereby neglecting the emotional bonds between themselves and their children. In Lionel Dahmer's desire for a career and a home, to give his sons the freedom he didn't have growing up, he abandons them to fate. In Jeffrey's case, it is the worst thing he could have done: Better abuse than neglect, the psychotherapists say. Neglect creates the most spiteful demons.

Neglect, however, is an exacting tutor. Only when Dahmer loses his son does he find out that Jeffrey may have been a version of himself, who as a young man before the murders was "far more like me than I could have then imagined." This realization leaves Dahmer emotionally in "a great unknowing," defining fatherhood as "a grave enigma." He does not know what portions of television banality, movie violence, genetic bias, alcoholism, divorce and a father's absence created Jeffrey Dahmer. But for Lionel Dahmer it doesn't matter. What we may see as a horror of fate, an inexplicable personal tragedy, he sees largely as an extreme but necessary outcome of his not being there.


img094What I've been describing are parent-written memoirs whose sensibility arises because the addressee, the child, still lives, still is answerable, still is a co-creator and co-resolver of the parent-child difficulty. The parent may develop greater closeness with a son or daughter, advocate for their rights, empathize with their points-of-view while the child may even help guide the parent's book with critical input, a daunting idea to some mothers and fathers.

But when a child dies, parent-to-child advocacy ceases to exist. Grief and remembrance become all. Writing of such loss, an author may partake of those bouts with the conscience that parent-writers undergo for children who outlast their crises, but in the sorrow of a child's death the writer discovers (or is ambushed by) a curious freedom to be even more revelatory. That is to say, from the smithy of the survivor's fire a radically new consciousness is often forged because the pressure of the loss is so onerous, interminable, ultimately indefinable, even as time passes and attempts to heal the wound. The authorial strategies that come to the devastated parent, amid the outpouring of grief, are either to memorialize the child, that is, write a biography of the person, or to memorialize the grief, and write a biography of the loss itself. Our older child-loss memoirs adopt the former course while newer, more self-conscious parent-writers tend to crossbreed the two methods, person and loss, into one fit species, which we shall see presently.

The most famous memoir of a child's death written by a parent in America is John Gunther's 1949 Death Be Not Proud. As a story of his son's slow expiration to a brain tumor, it is a bravely written, elegiac remembrance of what must be the worst horror imaginable for a parent, a child cut down in the prime of his or her young life. Yet, as peacefully measured as his telling is, to our ears Gunther seems to be missing a very significant element—a parent's natural and logical despair over his child's fate. Gunther dismisses such despair and refuses to mourn: "The whys of this story, why Johnny should have been struck just in that part of him that would have been most fruitful . . . the why above all whys which is why any child should die, the whys and wherefores of the celestial bookkeeping involved, if any, I will not go into here." He prefers not to examine this question, presumably because it is fruitless and leads nowhere or because it will force him to grieve for something more than his child: himself.

Gunther emphasizes only Johnny's day-to-day story, a descriptively perceptive analysis of doctors, medications, movement in and out of hospitals. He writes for himself and his ex-wife (they were divorced by the time of their son's illness) that in terms of "our emotions I am trying not to write about them. What terrors and sorrows of anguish it meant to Frances, I leave to the imagination." In "A Word From Frances," the final section of the book, she barely opens the envelope of grief, admitting only that "I wish we had loved Johnny more." She uses her brief space to remember him also, not to dwell on the sorrow she must feel.

This avoidance of emotion was common to Gunther's age. Corroborating such reticence is Lewis Mumford's 1947 Green Memories, a remembrance of his son, Geddes, who was killed at nineteen in the Second World War. Mumford too stays clear of family sorrow, recounting his son's "all-or-nothing quality" in the fight against fascism, which no doubt comforted other American parents, who made the same sacrifice that he and his wife did. Aside from Gunther and Mumford, few authors until recently have written at all about a child's death. This catastrophe has always been the individual parent's to bear, a private geography that was shouldered and, the parent hoped, gotten through, not revisited. People generally may have seen in times past the crisis-drama or death of a child as wrapped in a common fate—a son taken up in an epidemic of influenza, a daughter lost while bearing a child—and therefore without any special social distinction. (Literarily, the most powerful autobiographical stories of death—such as James Agee's A Death in the Family—were routinely written as fiction.) If the lost offspring was remembered at all it was from the vantage of a later age, a place of dignified bereavement. Furthermore, the daybook for family trouble was the diary or personal journal and, indeed, publishing such documents would have been considered mawkishly self-serving. Publishers wanted—and still do—stories about heroes, celebrities, and statesmen, not the messy complexity of a parent's sorrow.

Yet there is an elegiac tone present in Gunther's memoir, arising mostly I think from the imperturbable coolness of his prose. (Both Gunther and Mumford were excellent nonfiction writers, one a journalist, the other a philosopher-historian.) Upon publication, Death Be Not Proud drew praise from reviewers (at least those dozen reviews excerpted in the Book Review Digest), who lauded its stolid character in such phrases as "without a trace of morbidity or sentimentality," an "inspiring picture of courage," "undescribably touching," "a triumphant picture of human heroism," and "a story of great unselfishness." While these voices certainly celebrate the efficacy of Gunther's controlled style, the fact remains that such emotionally expunged writing—that great unselfishness—was the only voice with which people, family or otherwise, were remembered. Moreover, it seemed that only stories of uncompromising valor—Johnny Gunther's courage with a brain tumor or Geddes Mumford's pride in quashing tyranny—deserved recording.

For some reason, our writing and reading today shares few of these noble sentiments and none of that attenuated tone. Indeed it is the shift toward the selfishness of the parent, whether on behalf of a lost child or a wounded parent, that broadly defines the contemporary tack of the child-loss memoir. Such memoirs are not only born of our confessionally noisy age, but they come with a suit of self-reflection other ages would have no doubt rejected as misplaced and mistaken. What to one age was intolerance of emotion to ours is the opposite—unrepentant indulgence in emotion.

Consider William Loizeaux's 1993 Anna: A Daughter's Life. Here, Loizeaux the father is fully conscious of his need to grieve his and his wife's loss, beginning a year-long journal six weeks after Anna, who lived only five and one-half months, died of VATER syndrome, a misalignment of the internal organs. Loizeaux asks on nearly every page why his daughter had to die. He lingers in the fresh memory of Anna's few months at home by leaving her room undisturbed, a shrine where he and his wife often sleep and mourn. He discovers that he is the witness, the lone articulate voice of an existence whose vitality was irrepressible if only because it was taken away so quickly. He writes six months after her death that he still awakens in the middle of the night "to that smell . . . . There is a terrific sadness to it, instead of the horror. It fills the room: part urine, part sweat, part Baby Magic shampoo, part sweet and soured milk, all mixed with the scent of my own tiredness, a warm and rich humidity."

Like Gunther, Loizeaux writes about their daughter's severe medical complications and surgeries, their innumerable hospital visits, their heart-breaking powerlessness. But, unlike Gunther, Loizeaux creates a disturbing mix of past and present consciousnesses by remembering the loss in an unforgiving present: "And now it strikes me that on a day next month, just before Christmas, Anna will have been dead for longer than she was alive. Day by day our time without her is layering over our time with her." The time to memorialize her grows infinitely into the future but, because her life was so short, what Loizeaux remembers begins to fade. To sharpen what has faded becomes the story. He finds himself pre-occupied with Anna in the time of memory, which is maddeningly, gracelessly, always now. Anything—a flock of trumpeter swans in the sky, a friend's baby's first birthday—reminds Loizeaux and his wife of what they won't experience with Anna. He writes, "I want our lives to move on, and yet I would do anything to live her life over."

This may strike some as strange: Gunther, who must have been deeply attached after seventeen years with his son, restrains himself while Loizeaux, who has had "only" five and one-half months with his daughter, engages a world of inexhaustible sorrow. Certainly, a parent has a right to grieve a loss any way he or she sees fit. But, if Loizeaux's focus on his feelings represents a new openness to loss, then our tradition of stoic grief, which Gunther defines, is being transformed. One obvious reason for this change is that we Americans have begun to Latinize our puritanical expressions of sorrow. Look at our rage for Mexico's dios de la muerte, a lavish festival laid out in cemeteries once a year that invites the dead to return and catch up on news of the living. To unload the private burden of loss into a receptive community, to reinvent death with mystery, gratitude and spectacle, is what this custom tries to accomplish, making grief much easier for everyone to bear. Look at our public memorial services for victims of natural disasters and plane crashes or AIDS remembrances or our fascination with real-people television, where families dis and dysfunction, for a modest fee. For good or ill, our communities are making public room for private pain.

The main purpose of most contemporary child-loss memoirs is, in colloquial terms, to vent at once. Even though Gunther's book is written in the time immediately following Johnny's death, we wonder whether that dissociated voice he has adopted does not risk burying the loss further and thus harming himself, the survivor, even more. Gunther's strategy may pave over an eruptive emotionality which today we worry is ever poised to ruin us unconsciously. So forcefully has psychotherapy unsettled our conceit about "controlling our feelings" that we fear the histrionics of long-repressed guilt, shame and remorse more than we fear giving in at the moment we feel them rising within us. Do not run from these emotions, our therapists tell us; they will come out sooner or later. Scream now, reason later. Indeed, what parent in America these days has any emotional calm? Philadelphia lawyers, fighter pilots and Secret Service agents may, but not parents.


The sine qua non of today's child-loss memoir is parental rage. As an example, Lois Duncan's 1992 Who Killed My Daughter? tells of a mother's unstinting search for the people responsible for her daughter's murder, a search she claims the police have failed in at every turn. (Three years later, no killer or killers have been found.) Worse still are those severely traumatic stories of child-loss that must be transcended and, as loss or memory, not be dwelt upon. To even begin healing, the writer must displace what has happened with a radically new way of facing the wound. Beverly Lowry's 1992 Crossed Over: The True Story of the Houston Pickax Murders is the most imaginatively daring story of parental desolation and renewal following the death of a child that I know of, a remarkable memoir that seemingly resolves the trauma while barely speaking of it. Because Lowry is unable to write about losing her seventeen-year-old son, she substitutes for that story the seemingly unrelated yet mysteriously compelling tale of an ax murderess, a sort of post-modern doppelganger. In her prologue, Lowry confesses that she has no idea why—in the long wake of losing Peter in a freak hit-and-run incident, which happened less than a mile from their home and whose driver/killer has never been found—she has no idea why she decided to visit Karla Faye Tucker, one of two pickax murderers, who is awaiting execution on death row. The only connection she's "sure of" is this: "If Peter hadn't been killed, I would not have made the first trip up to see Karla Faye."

When Lowry's son is killed in 1984, she withdraws for two years. In 1986, she saves a news story about the pickax murders (which occurred in 1983) and a curiously attractive picture of Ms. Tucker, a twenty-three-year-old street-wise-and-weary murderess. It is not until 1989, however, that Lowry, a writer, visits death row and, with no apparent desire to write about either of their stories, shares her story with Karla Faye. This is crucial. When the two women meet, there is, in their first three-hour conversation (despite the plexiglass), a bond that forms between them which both, I think, because they face losses equal in weight, are compelled to explore further. Karla Faye tells her tale, which culminates in the drug-crazed first-degree murder of one man, a hated rival of Karla Faye's, and a young woman, who was sleeping beside him. For Lowry, this innocent woman seems most like her son, who also just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, walking alongside a freeway in the dark after his car had broken down. After this, their first of many mutual confessions, a friendship roots between two women who would otherwise be totally opposed: Tucker is a prostitute and a drug addict, the latter since she was eight, while Lowry is a respected novelist and upright citizen.

Time and again Lowry returns to the prison to investigate the crime and leaves increasingly captivated by Karla Faye herself. Lowry begins to examine the young woman's manic experiences in hopes of understanding how wildness and randomness commingle. It seems that if Lowry understands the causes and consequences of Karla Faye's childhood and criminality, then she may also sense some of the strains that added up to take her son's life. Without her son's killer to point to or question, whose person she might know and rail against were he found, Lowry has nothing to explore, only an imaginative coincidence, an emotional mirror in Karla Faye, who at least has interrogative substance, an incarcerated life. Lowry seems to be saying to Karla Faye, show me your darkness so that I might sense the sort of darkness which may have killed my son.

Intended or not, mixing Karla Faye as a stand-in killer of Lowry's son as well as the unique confidant of Lowry's loss is unavoidable in a reader's mind and immaculately useful to the author. It's as though Lowry has a secret agenda that Karla Faye can never know because her knowledge as the murderer is not Lowry's knowledge as the victim of a similar yet separate crime. But the enigma goes further. Lowry states that their complementary tales boil down in the end to forgiveness.

I have often thought of that question Karla asked at the end of my first visit to Mountain View [her prison]—How would you feel if they found the driver of the truck that killed Peter and there was a trial and they brought the driver up and said, "oh, but he's changed, he's a new person now. See how good he is?" How would you feel? Forgiveness is at issue, mercy, the right of one human being to hold another accountable, and to judge. How would you feel?

Lowry refuses to judge Karla Faye it seems because the condemned woman has confessed her involvement, believes she should be punished, holds herself accountable. Thus, we feel Lowry has found in Karla Faye's guilt some accountability—however indirectly, however random—for Peter's death. Although the transference of blame onto the murderess is minimal, largely because Karla Faye appears, behind bars and off drugs, to be a generous and loving person, it is in the unexpected act of liking her that Lowry stirs forgiveness and mercy for her son's killer, who we assume lives on, perhaps aware, with Lowry's grief now made public, how badly he or she has warped a mother's life by not coming forward.

As parent-authors use grief and the time of writing to re-animate the lost life of the child, they are transmuting what has happened, that is, constructing an imaginatively new past via the present act of deconstructing the old one. This transcendent use of the present is something the older, past-obsessed writing of John Gunther and Lewis Mumford apparently dismissed. Today we know just how potent a parent's resentment can be, particularly when parents feel they cannot accept a child's death and move on. These days, when parents lose children they often form or join organizations to battle the forces that took their child's life. Examples include the hundreds of women in MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the late Elizabeth Glaser's Pediatric AIDS foundation, set up in the wake of her daughter's death from that disease. After reading Lois Duncan, Beverly Lowry and Robb Forman Dew, it may be that contemporary memoir writers are doing something similarly pro-active. They are—and notice the gender—not only remembering and getting through it, but also engaging, networking via publication, charting positive new directions for the grieving others will inevitably do. These new memoirists are teaching us that the poignantly incorruptible memory of a lost son or daughter need not be the sole or the soundest emotion parent-writers stir.

In an age of victims and victimhood, when so many in our society believe in a leg up, a cash settlement, a slap on the wrist, it appears that personal accountability is an oxymoron. Yet if these parent-to-child memoirs speak a common truth, it is that some American parents refuse to let anyone share the fault that accompanies a family crisis or loss until the parents themselves have examined their own consciences. A literature of parental responsibility teaches its readers lessons that arise not from the willingness to suffer blame but from the sum total of doubt and sincerity with which the parental conscience is examined. When parents read how much these parent-authors bear for the sake of their children, they may discover how much they too can withstand.