Roger Porter [English 1961–]

Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers (Cornell University Press, 2011)

By Angie Jabine ’79
Bureau of Missing Persons

What compels grown children to hunt down and expose their parents’ secrets? Do these narratives simply exploit painful family histories, or can they be justified as paths to authenticity?

Professor Roger Porter [English 1961–] explores these questions in a survey of 18 memoirs about parents—mostly fathers—whose deceptions have led their offspring to question their own most basic assumptions about who they are.

Some of the revelations are truly mind-boggling. Mark Kurzem, for instance, recounts how, gradually and against great resistance, he finally draws out his Jewish father’s secret: orphaned as a young boy in Belarus, he was adopted by pro-Hitler Latvian soldiers, who dressed him in a Nazi uniform and paraded him through Germany as a “child Nazi warrior.”

One of the most touching memoirs is that of Louise Steinman ’73, who relates her efforts to piece together the World War II experiences that turned her father from a passionate and lively young soldier into the distant, impersonal man she knew. After her parents’ death, she opens a rusted ammunition box and discovers 474 letters from her father to her mother from the Pacific theater, along with a small Japanese flag. Steinman learns that Japanese soldiers carried these flags as gifts from their families, and eventually she tracks down the soldier’s surviving relatives to return his flag.

Not all the memoirs are conventional texts. Porter includes Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary film, My Architect, about the architect Louis Kahn, and a memoir in graphic form by Alison Bechdel, best known for her long-running cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For.

The book raises many fascinating issues: Can the truth really be reconstructed out of the sketchiest of documentation and testimony? Do the offspring have compassion for their parents? Does learning the truth change their lives in any meaningful way? Bureau of Missing Persons is full of probing and perceptive questions even as it challenges the memoirist to do justice to an unchangeable and perhaps ultimately unknowable past.