How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code . . . With Love
1. How was growing up Irish-American a significant factor in your coming-of-age?
As Americans, we keep our compass pointed to the future. Yet as human beings we’re hardwired to want to know where we come from, where our little piece of the puzzle fits. My grandmother was born in Co. Clare so our connection to the old country was strong. My name is Gaelic for Mary, and I grew up explaining often its derivation. From an early age, I knew I was connected to some mystical place that transcended our world of Disneyland, Hollywood, Hostess Twinkies, family baseball games. It was a constant presence . . . yet way out there. I grew up in a quiet, Irish-Catholic household, headed by a reserved FBI agent father. Silence, I came to realize, was an inherited trait in our home. Why don’t we tell stories? Why are there no stories to tell? I learned silence is often a cover for trauma. Silence was our family code.
2. You have discussed trauma inherited as a silence elsewhere. Please say more.
The writer Rebecca Solnit (and others) speak of this, how it can take generations before somebody finally calls out “enough!” Many Irish who sailed from their native land left desperate situations. It was too painful for them to look back. Even though they “left that all behind,” some people were never rinsed of the effect of the tragedies. If trauma remains buried, it hangs around like a ghost causing all sorts of emotional havoc. My father inherited the belief that we don’t deserve to be happy in this lifetime — life is about toil! And, of course, his world was a dark and dangerous place. Maureen Dezell writes a wonderful analyses of some of these inherited Irish-American traits in her book, Irish America Coming into Clover.
3. FBI Girl is a story of pathos, integrity and humor. In many ways, it’s a love story between father and daughter.
Every daughter has a story to tell about her father. Daughters receive many clues from their fathers concerning the world “out there” and how best to make one’s entry into it. I knew my father left our safe, suburban housing tract, and ventured into some faraway land infused with intrigue and danger. I knew that his job was to protect us — all of us, the entire nation! Watching The FBI on TV in the late 1960s only added to the romance of his work. The FBI personified mystery as did my father. As I got older, though, I started seeing through the g-man persona. I spotted a different man inside, a vulnerable man. When you’re a kid, that discovery is potent cargo. The question becomes: what do you do with that information . . . when you discover your heroic father is, secretly, also the soft lamb?
4. Your father, Joe Sr., the FBI agent, could speak but would not. Your brother, Joe Jr., born with Down syndrome, longed to speak, but could not. A paradox?
Yes. The blessing resides in the wound, as the saying goes. To the rest of the world, Joe represented the “wound” — the tragedy — but he was our blessing. Joe, so loving and affectionate, taught us to trust our subjectivity, which was anathema to our father’s inculcation: “Just the facts, maam.” But my father ended up devoting his life to people like Joe. By day, he was the FBI agent. By night, he was working to raise funds to build group homes for the developmentally disabled. I grew up with paradox all around.
5. You become a self-proclaimed FBI girl to catch your father’s attention and to crack his code. Did you ever learn what his work as a special agent entailed?
While writing FBI Girl, I obtained my father’s personnel file from the FBI. My memoir was based on the premise that I knew little about my father’s special agent duties. I was a bit concerned when his 500-page FBI file arrived. It could easily metamorphose into a Pandora’s Box out of which would fly all the colorful, incredulous stories I never heard about his 27-year tenure. Alas, I found nothing of pertinence; his file consisted of administrative notes, yearly medical evaluations, and personnel reports. Maybe someday I’ll learn more.
6. Why did your father become an FBI agent?
There were many appealing aspects to becoming an FBI agent in the early 1950s, not the least of which was job security for men who grew up in the Great Depression. He also felt a sense of service to the country as did others of his era who also served in WWII. My father attended Brooklyn Law School on the GI Bill, passed the New York Bar, and couldn’t find work with Manhattan law firms, perhaps due to residual prejudice of his Irish ethnicity. So he joined the FBI as did many other Irish-American men. It’s interesting that historically speaking many (traditionally) men working in law enforcement came from Irish backgrounds. We expect these people to be invincible, strong, our protectors — yet so many came from such beleaugered, underdog histories.
7. After the murder in the family, the lens of the narrator changes. She sees carefully into her father’s dark night. What does she learn?
After the murder occurs, I see my father’s bleeding heart and the rough exterior he’s so carefully constructed to protect his fragility. I see the ghost wailing inside, that one handed down generation to generation. Time and space collapse when we’re in bone-chilling sorrow. We’re sucked into the vortex of universal loss, coming face-to-face with the dark side of human nature that transcends rational analysis. Still, as the young girl coming of age, I was hoping this tragic event might be catalyst for the release of my father’s stories.
8. Your mother, the demure New York bathing beauty, transforms into advocate for your brother, Joe, and for you! Tell us about your relationship with her.
My mother found her voice after Joe was born. She had to — these were still the Dark Ages for those with children born “different.” As for me, she taught me the most important thing in life was to be happy — even though she struggled for years in her marriage. She did buy me my first typewriter when I was a teenager which gave me permission to think of myself as a budding writer. After school, Mike, Julie, John, and I would sit around the kitchen table with our milk and cookies, and philosophize about human nature. Philosophizing often meant discussing our father. My mother was another one working to get to the bottom of things! Freud would have been proud.
9. How did growing up with Joe Jr. change you?
My father, the stern, special agent, showered Joe with attention, and less so with the rest of us. His reasoning? We were “normal” and didn’t “need it.” My mother wanted all of us to have so-called normal lives. We all had the usual crop of friends, birthday parties, scout activities, and sports teams. But I matured early because of Joe. It’s inevitable. I very much felt to be his protector. And he was a refuge. With Joe, emotions were safe.
10. You tell the story from the perspective of the young girl. Was that deliberate?
I started this book using the omniscient voice. Somewhere around page 80, the voice changed. A young Maura was emerging, this girl determined to crack her father’s code, determined, in her quiet way, to nail down the meaning of love. The story begins on a ball field. Here young Maura pleads with her FBI agent father to tell her about the bullet shells in the trunk of his car. We’re whisked into the complex world of the adult. And the young girl’s voice is critical for she represents a freedom to speak without inhibition, much like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who calls out that the king is naked after all. The child utters what adults are too fearful to say.
11. What writers inspired you early on?
I was a pathologically shy child who eavesdropped on human conversations from day one. Those freshly-cut, sweet-smelling stories are my earliest inspirations. I once visited my great aunt in County Clare without telling her of my arrival. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have killed a goose,” she cried when she opened her front door and saw me standing there. I loved her voice; I felt as if I were hearing the voices of all my ancestors. I loved James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, Somerset Maughm, Henry James, Graham Greene, Sherwood Anderson. My professor at The University of Iowa, Sherman Paul, opened my eyes to great literature. Later on, Alice Walker was a huge inspiration regarding the excavation of lost voices. Edna O’Brien endeared me to Ireland as well.
12. Finally, say more about the role of the child as narrator in FBI Girl.
We live in a culture that often dismisses the voice of the child. We assign a naiveté upon childhood when “childhood” should be viewed as a state of being where we’re eager to grow, transform, expose our hearts, be open to life’s possibilities — traits often missing in our busy adult lives. We think we’re all grown up, that all that “childhood stuff” is dead and gone. But I have a sense . . . when you’re on your death bed, the primary sounds, smells, tastes, those first touches, first loves, and first losses from your first 14 years of life fill you. This is what I learned from my mother, Mary. I address this in my next book.