How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code . . . With Love
Questions for Discussion
1. In the beginning of this memoir, young Maura Conlon knows about her heritage, her ancient religion, her family’s state of “exile” in California as the rest of her relations live in New York City. The themes of place and roots and belonging run throughout the book. For Maura, what provides her sense of place, roots, and belonging and what makes her feel uprooted?
2. From an early age, Maura reads Nancy Drew mysteries even before she can understand all the words. Soon, she’s devouring true crime novels, sewing up FBI Girl wardrobes, and maintaining surveillance in the neighborhood with her customized log. What is it she’s after? What personal purpose might her FBI Girl identity serve?
3. The FBI car becomes its own symbol in the book, the one place where Maura and her father have their “conversations.” In what ways does the car symbolize her father’s personality and lifestyle? In what way does it symbolize the relationship between Maura and her father?
4. Down’s Syndrome is caused by a genetic defect, an extra chromosome. In a sense, little Joey adds an extra chromosome to the family as well. Does the addition of this “extra chromosome” maintain, exacerbate, or completely shift the current family dynamics?
5. Father Jack arrives from New York full of life, attention, and history. We witness an evening potluck with the neighbors. How do the spoken and silent attitudes and styles of the two brothers, Jack, the priest, and Joe, the special agent, complement and conflict with each other?
6. Mary Conlon tells the story about her days as a bathing beauty back in Jetty Point, New York in the 1940s. We learn that the men in her family forbade her to enter the beauty contest. But her mother waits outside with a rose for her hair as she slips out of the bungalow, a trench coat pulled over her swimsuit. What’s being communicated by this gesture? What rebellious sense of her femininity and zest for life survives in the pre and post Joey world?
7. As is the norm, special agent Joe Conlon has little to say to his wife and family when he comes home from work at night. However, he hands little Joey a present, hugs him, and receives Joey’s infamous wet, slobber kisses. How can Joe Conlon swing from being the man so filled with thundering silence, to one who offers uncompromising, overwhelming affection to Joey? What is it about Joey that makes it okay for Joe Senior to be sweet and demonstrative of his love?
8. Just as she prepares to graduate from eighth grade and “cross over” into the public schools, Maura, who’s ready to explode like a volcano, marches up to receive the “Most Quiet Girl” award. How do such events become turning points in our lives? Can you remember any similar life-changing event from your childhood?
9. Under the tutelage of her ninth grade drama teacher, Maura escapes the shell of shyness, appears under the floodlights, and recites her lines from the play, Twelve Angry Women. She describes the events leading up to her theatrical debut, and how in drama class, she learns how her voice matters. What is this voice she speaks of? Is this something we discover alone or with the help of guide or mentor? How is this voice related to the ghosts begging for release as she remembers her immigrant Gramma Molly?
10. Father Ed is the priest who talks about the importance of family communication and honest conversation. Joe Conlon is the special agent keeping the world safe from the dark forces. Father Ed and Joe Conlon share a Manhattan one night in the kitchen. What would you say was Joe’s opinion of Father Ed’s work? How about Father Ed’s understanding of Joe and his?
11. Safety is a theme throughout FBI Girl. While watching The FBI on television and taking nagging questions from Maura, Joe Conlon warns, “Avoiding dangerous places is one way to place it smart.” At the book’s beginning, Maura craves safety from the villains and the protection of her father. As the story evolves, how does this notion of safety change? What are the dangerous places of which Joe Conlon speaks? What kind of security is Maura seeking? What does it mean to find “security’ in your own life?
12. The story begins and closes on the ball field. If you were to write a memoir or tell a story about your relationship with your father, what setting might best suit you for the story’s beginning and ending? Why?
13. If Joe Jr. were to write in his own words of his relationship with his father, Joe Sr., how would it start? What would Joe Jr.’s review be of FBI Girl?