How my dad reacted to my tell-all family memoir.
A few months ago, I published a book. It's about a wine trip in France, but primarily it's about my father and me and all of our petty human ugliness. There's a section where I describe the rapturous look that spreads over his face when he's cleaning his ears, and how he'll low-moan in his Parisian accent, "Thees is like sex vizout the effort." On the flight over to Europe, he got food poisoning that then plagued him during the first few days of our road trip, and it was germane to the story to indicate where along the route départementale he'd engaged in a bad kind of mouth party. Chapter four is a frantic, cruel examination of how he sometimes failed me when I was scrabbling around in a depression after being in a deadly car accident.
Stupidly, wildly, I let him read the first draft I wrote. I did this not for the sake of transparency, or because I wanted to gradually prepare him for the eventual publication, but because like a teen holding a test with a good letter grade, I longed for his approval. I was asking the man whose limbs I'd tied up with narrative puppet strings, the man I'd cartoonified, to now become a real dad again and tell me I'd done a great job and that in the act of writing this troublesome account that I had brought us closer together and he was glad for it. Thrilled about it and thoroughly cleansed.
My father cried when he read the first draft. I found out from my discreet Welsh mother, who called and quietly told me that he'd not been able to put it down, and that tears had been flowing from his face all morning. Later, I talked to him. He said it had been hard, but that he was proud.
All of the above is what I told people who asked me what my father thought of it — I said he'd read the first draft and that he was proud (I always said that first) — but that he'd wept because he'd understood how the more reckless aspects of his personality had negatively affected me and the rest of the family.
By the time the book was published, he'd had two years and five other drafts to become comfortable with the idea of his family, friends, and former colleagues reading all about him. It was old hat to him, and, honestly, we were thrilled to find a brand new clarity to the way we talked to one another.
But by the time I was asked the question again during a pre-taped interview on a Philadelphia-based NPR show, I'd become a little scared of answering it — I was afraid of sounding disingenuous through repetition. It was old hat to me, so I wanted to explain it in a fresh and evocative way. So when the host asked, "What does your father think about the book?" I answered, "Am I allowed to tell a story about a vibrator?"
The host said, "No way." So I said, "Sorry!" and gave him the same answer I'd given everyone else.
But I think the vibrator story is worth telling. Last summer, a few months before the book's release date, I came to my parents' house in the woods to swim in the lake and take advantage of their company and the unlimited access to the washing machine. We spent a few days together before they had to go into the city for a couples' dental appointment. They left me with a long list of things I had to do in order to make sure the house didn't blow up while they were gone: turn off the lights, check the stove, disconnect the washing machine, avoid dousing the back deck with kerosene and inviting the neighbors over for a community bonfire. I complied, and also polished the stove, washed the bedding, and swept the deck.
After rolling up my shirts into clothing sausages, I packed, wiped clean the guest bathroom, locked up and left. Two hours into my drive to the airport, I realized I'd left my small Japanese vibrator out, in plain sight, in the middle of the right-hand bedside table.
My heart sank. It was too late to turn around; I had a plane to catch. Anxiously, I decided that the best way to mitigate the damage was to choose one parent, tell them to put away the vibrator — a "red zinger" — before the other could see it, and then collect the thing upon my return at Christmas. (Asking one of them to slip it into a bubble envelope was out of the question.)
The choice was clear. Moments after dropping off the rental car, I went tearing through the airport to find an internet kiosk. Addressing the email to my dad's account, I wrote, "Dear Dad, it pains me to ask this of you, but there's an efficient-looking Japanese object on the bedside table. Maybe you can hide it from Mum? Many thanks — Your all-too-loving daughter."
When I arrived back at my apartment, I checked my email and, mercifully, there was one from my father. "Dear Tou Tou, I have no idea what you're talking about. Heh. Love, Dad."
Five months later, as I was unpacking my bag in the same guestroom, my father came up beside me, casually nodded in the direction of the bottom of a chest of drawers, and exited the room. I hurried over and slid open the drawer. At the back, behind a glass dish of old obsolete European coin currency, was my vibrator.
He'd wrapped it like a Christmas gift — eight sheets of delicate white tissue paper, folded into a neat rectangle. The book had worked its weird magic.
Kathryn Borel is the author of CORKED: A Memoir from Grand Central Publishing, 2010.
Photography by Jacob Johnson.