We count on writers to tell the truth about family secrets. But what if it's your secrets being exposed? Nell Casey talks to some literary offspring who have become characters-sometimes against their will-in their parents' work.
April 1996
Photography Director Alison Morley

401J-005-012 John Irving with son Colin in 1983

My sister once introduced herself at a reading she was giving with my father by saying, "My name is Maud Casey. Yes, I am John Casey's daughter. I've heard that the first step is admitting that you have a problem." It's a great line, one we repeat often in my family, laughing but also silently acknowledging the deep truth of the joke. Both my father and my mother, Jane Barnes, are writers; novelists whose jobs have defined my life in ways I've only recently come to understand.

Being the daughter of two intensely imaginative, unconventional people is both exhilarating and terrifying. Home was an unpredictable, always emotionally charged environment of words and talk and unyielding self-expression. We laughed, we argued, and in the same breath that my parents would demand silence in order to write, they would plunge into theatrical storytelling about their childhoods, their friends, their trip to the grocery store that day. Our house was messy with books and letters and ideas. To be articulate was the ultimate virtue; my mother smiled proudly and called my sister and me "geniuses" when we told wild, made-up, occasionally dirty stories. The more outlandish, the better.

My father's wider success made him the stronger writer presence in our family. There have been days I've basked in a stranger's delight at recognizing his name as the author of Spartina, winner of the National Book Award in 1989. There were also weeks I spent reading, in tears, his new, not-yet-published novel based on his failed marriage to my mother. His telling of it smooths the rough edges of my real-life experiences, with scenes so skillfully hewn that the most reckless, painful family events are replaced with poignant memories I never had. My parents' volatile love affair now reads like an enviable romantic experience. As a child I couldn't understand the bite of my mother's sarcasm or the deep frustration behind my father's silences, yet I am seduced by the passionate argument between the couple in the book that gives way to clumsy lovemaking in the bathtub.

I cry because I am discovering a narrative of our family that my father has never spoken. I cry because I am so enraged by his portrayal of Nora, the character based on me, that I feel already harshly judged by future readers. I try to explain this to my dad: I tell him that Nora sounds flippant, as if she breezes through family life, and that l feel he is denying me my emotional complexity.

"It's fiction!" he yells, frustrated.
Fiction, indeed.

There is a saying that writers write what they know, and it is this, perhaps, that is the most defining fact of what it means to be the child of a writer. You have an easy (and, to my mind, unnatural) access to your parents' feelings, their frailties, and their failings. The shock of their humanity is too evident too soon, and not just to you, but to the world. Children of writers both love and fear the work; it tells us, deliberately or not, just where we are in that parent's heart.

It’s a curious thing, trying to form an identity when you have parents who regularly spin idealized versions of people and events. Any child wishes to please the parent, but few have such explicit road maps. I read my father's novel with a need to believe that I'm worthy of becoming a character in it, searching to find clues about myself, as if my father knows who I really am. I admire his shrewd insights into the human psyche, but I am afraid that when he turns his attention on me he may find something that I don't want to know.

It is not easy to differentiate the "problem" of being the child of a writer from the difficulties of being anyone's child, of knowing which parts of the tangled familial bond are further complicated by having parents who observe the human condition for a living. But when I talked with other children of writers, I was amazed at the common language we shared. They were all acutely aware, articulate people who were surprisingly eager to talk, as if they had been waiting to be asked these questions all their lives.

Gay Talese, author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Honor Thy Father, among others, has two daughters, Pamela and Catherine. Over dinner with me, the witty pair examined their experience of being raised in a writer's household. Pamela, a thirty-one-year-old painter, feels that her upbringing gave her little practical knowledge about living in the real world. She looks outside her family for what is "normal."

"I was thinking today, in my negative frame of mind, what it is to be the daughter of a writer," Pamela says. "You're given these very high values about aesthetics and morals and an interest in books and words and art. So here we are, pure and wonderful, caring about quality, and I realize, I'm broke. I don't know what I am doing! I'm wonderfully refined and all that, but it’s not doing me a bit of good.

"Our parents brought us up in a bohemian way, but we now live in a society that doesn't care about those things. The rest of the world is making money and they have jobs and they’re getting married and they're getting new shoes! The normal people are out there! I've bumped into them on the street -they wear suits."

Catherine, twenty-eight, is a writer. She is not yet willing to show her work to her father, though she does show it to her editor-mother, Nan Talese. She described feeling a certain remove from her father. "There is a sense that he is personally involved but not really concerned with us as individuals," she says. "If there's an issue that's more broad, like dating today, I think he's interested. He's interested in trends. I feel if I can become a part of the story he's working on, we can get a little closer. He'll ask me, how many black men do I date? I'll say hundreds," she adds, laughing, "and I can have his attention for twenty minutes."

Many writers' children said that growing up in a home where life became fiction and fiction became life made it hard to know when emotion was genuine and when it was choreographed. "I still wrestle with my sense of reality, what's tangible and absolute," says Bliss Broyard, the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of Anatole Broyard, the late New York Times Book Review editor and author of Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life & Death. With her father, she says, "there was a constant sense that even if he wasn't writing fiction, he had a fictional identity. Reality felt very slippery."

Danis Banks, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Russell Banks (Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone: A Novel), is a fact checker at Details magazine. "Fiction is like a disguise," she says. "I've felt that my father is cold and he's just going to turn us into characters in his next novel, but that's the way he exists in the world. He's distant, but at the same time he's also truly there and involved. [His fiction] is just trying to make sense of chaos, all of this insanity and interaction with family members."

On my more perceptive days, I can recognize when my father is mentally storing away an elusive remark, a subtle gesture, a significant interaction. He often appears detached from an experience, but later will be startlingly forthcoming when he retells it in his writing. Admittedly, I have hoped to become part of my parents' literary landscape, if for no other reason than to know I have their attention.

But while it is thrilling to find words you once spoke immortalized in literature, it is equally mortifying to find that your parent has surrendered sacred information about your life in writing. Rebecca Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker (The Color Purple, The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult) and editor of To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism a book of essays, uncovered a particularly heartbreaking fact about her own life in her mother's nonfiction. "In college, I started to find myself in some of her essays," Rebecca says. "I read that she and my father decided to have me to keep my father out of the Vietnam War. She also wrote about her ambivalence about motherhood, that she wasn't even sure she could love a child. That was very painful to read."

John Cheever's children, Susan, Benjamin, and Federico, published their father's journals in 1991. In his introduction to the book, The Journals of John Cheever, Ben writes about returning to live with his father as an adult and discovering the discrepancy between his father, the man, and his father, the writer. "I was allowed to read the journals. And I did. But it wasn't fun. This was not the witty, charming man in whose guest bedroom I had been sleeping. The material was downbeat and often mean-spirited. There was a lot about homosexuality. I didn't quite get it, or maybe I didn't want to get it. I was also surprised at how little I appeared in the text. I was surprised at how little any of us appeared, except perhaps my mother, who was not getting the sort of treatment that leads one to crave the limelight."

The writing of Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, O-Zone) revealed to his son, Louis, secrets about his parents' marriage. "My father wrote short stories about adultery, and I'd read them and think there wasn't much to it. I'd never think, My dad is an adulterer. It turns out, in fact, now that I've got a deeper understanding of what was happening between my parents as I was growing up, that a lot of that stuff I assumed was fictional was pretty much based on real experience."

Louis's inability as a child to see the autobiographical nature of his father's fiction -particularly the sexual revelations- seems to me one of the blessings of his childhood innocence. Unmasking your parents' sexuality through their writing is a psychological minefield.

When I first picked up my mother's book Double Lives it randomly fell open to a scene about a drunken girl who has sex with a stranger. I was twelve. Struck with panic, I wanted to hide the evidence, whatever it might be. The idea of sex seemed foreign and wrong to me, particularly coupled with the realization that my mother knew something about (and could she even have had?) loveless one-night stands. My parents, dirty talkers that they were, had managed to avoid any serious conversations with me about sex. Reading this scene in Double Lives was my crude "birds and the bees" talk. It confirmed my adolescent fears, and it wasn't until I finally returned to the book as an adult that I was able to understand the sex in the book in its larger emotional context.

Pamela and Catherine Talese were sixteen and thirteen, respectively, when Thy Neighbor's Wife, their father's personal exploration of sex in America, was published. It was clear from the book that Talese was a firsthand participant in his study of Sandstone, a sex commune in California. "When it came out, I was just on the cusp of my sexual awakening," Pamela says. "I quickly retreated. In fact, I skipped adolescence altogether. I just decided not to do it. This book made me very self-conscious."

Reading your parents' sex scenes is not, however, a universally problematic experience. Bliss Broyard says her father's work helped him to be more open with her about sex. "When I was twenty-one, he was trying to write a scene describing a woman having an orgasm. He wanted to get the intensity of the moment across. The description he used was that she opened her mouth so wide when she came that he could see the fillings of her back molars. He asked me if I thought that was okay. I talked to him seriously about it. I didn't think it was weird."

Quintana Dunne, an ELLE photo editor whose parents, Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, White Album) and John Gregory Dunne (Harp, Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season) are both writers, says, "When I was eleven, my father came out with a book called True Confessions. I remember being appalled at the things my father knew about sex, but I was alarmed in a silly way. I thought it was funny that my own father was cursing and talking about sex."

It's hard for any reader to resist making assumptions about a writer's personal life based on his work. Self-revelatory writing often puts the author's child on the defensive, both to the outside world and inside the family.

When Thy Neighbor's Wife came out, "the press kept saying there were problems in my parents' marriage," Catherine Talese says. "My mother was very strong. She supported my father and said, 'Come to our house and see its not that way."

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'I read that story about you,' " says Louis Theroux, whose father has gone so far as to use the real names of family members in his stories. "I answer, 'You know what? That's fiction, otherwise it would be filed under autobiography.'"

Colin Irving, the son of John Irving (The World According to Garp, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed), believes that writing and family life can peacefully co-exist. "It’s tempting for writers to write about their own experiences because they are the truest, they're the ones they can immediately draw upon," Colin explains. "There is a fine line there. Are you revealing things that should be private or are you doing your job? I've never felt that my father crossed that line."

Rebecca Walker says, "My mother does care about how I feel about her writing. Though she has said to me, 'I'm so sorry if this has to hurt you, but I've always felt that I've had to tell the truth."

One thing writing affords the writer is the ability to clean up nasty details about himself, his life -his truths. "I think my father thought that the person he wrote about was the person that I should believe he was," Bliss Broyard says. "He'd try to control the vision that we had of him, and that everyone had of him, through his writing. There was a belief that he could re-create himself"

Ultimately, the children of writers inhabit a world of ambiguity. One person's truth is another person's betrayal. A writer's attempt to be accurate is another family member's painful discovery. But all of us -I, my sister, the other writers' children- have managed to move into the force of our own lives with wisdom and strength. The irony is that the majority of us choose to be writers ourselves.

My writing has begun an unspoken dialogue between my parents and me. Now I am able to address intimate subjects in my own work the same way my parents have all along. Susan Cheever, in her biographical memoir of her father, Home Before Dark, explains that her father taught her that writing was a way to make sense of life and ease painful experiences. She writes: "When we found out that my father was going to die soon, it seemed natural that I should write about this… When my father died… I kept writing, almost in spite of myself I had always been proud of my independence from my father, and I never intended to become his biographer. Nevertheless, I found my memories and his stories taking a rough narrative shape, and that was how I began to write this book."

Rebecca Walker told me why she chose to become a writer: "To have my mother engage in my life. To have her understand who I am and what I'm thinking about, what my needs are, and what my issues are in a way that I felt she may not have necessarily gotten because of the way she's been self-focused."

Rebecca and I agree that, as we get older, as we come to have our own grown-up insecurities and ambivalences, our parents' weaknesses are easier to face. We also now understand that what they've given the world through their writing is only a portion of what they've given us in life. "Part of my role as a daughter has been to be a companion for my mother," Rebecca says. "Writing is a way of asking her to be a part of my journey." And so our own journeys begin.