When the end to a man's days is the only tangible beginning, untangling the details of his life from the brambles of memory, grown thick with time and gnarled by subjectivity, becomes not only a process of personal discovery but also an unearthing of human experience. Assembling My Father: A Daughter's Detective Story is the account of such a search. It is the record of Anna Cypra Oliver's attempt to know her father through the scattered images and words he left behind, through fragments of others' memories and scraps of public record.
Nearly 20 years after her father's suicide, Oliver begins seeking to rebuild her father's life and fill the void within her own. Only five years old at the time of her father's death, Oliver's Assembling lays the story's foundation with only a handful of her own memories and a five-item inventory of her father's "remains." Slowly that foundation is built upon by the acquisition of a trunk of old photographs, the anecdotes of relatives, the whisper of a journal, the possibility of meeting her father's lifelong friends. The silhouette she knew begins to step into the light, emerging one image at a time. What Oliver learns about her father and her family before her parents' divorce has a subtle impact on her adult life, prompting her to question her own path.
"When you go in search of your parents this way," explained Oliver in an interview with BW, "you go in search of your own history and origins." Growing up in '60s counterculture in Taos, New Mexico, Oliver and her brother lived in huts with dirt floors, despite her parents' roots as relatively affluent upper middle-class New Yorkers. Though Oliver's parents were both Jewish, her mother converted to Christian fundamentalism and encouraged Oliver to be a devout Christian. Assembling becomes the story not only of Lewis Weinberger's life, but an attempt for Oliver to merge the dichotomies of her life and to learn from a past that is only indirectly her own.
Structurally the book is an amalgamation of media carefully thrown in place, loosely chronological and sometimes contradictory. Photos, drawings, newspaper clips, Oliver's retelling of stories, handwritten journal entries, scribbled figures, e-mail correspondence, confessions, dialogue, monologue. When one person's recollection of events differs from a version Oliver has already assumed, she deduces that the truth must be somewhere in between.
"There are so many versions and contradictions," Oliver said of the information she collected about her father. "We process through our own filters and our perception is bumping up against the reality of the other person's. It's always fractured in some way."
In Assembling, that fracture often occurs as new information leads to the conclusion that Oliver's initial interpretation of something was askew. Instead of revising the story, she simply adds to the image, adjusts the dimension or tweaks the perspective to reinforce her opinion that we are constantly transforming beings.
Reconciling the differences in interpretations of her father's personality, Oliver says, "people and interpretations aren't fixed" and that "people's memories are motivated either consciously or subconsciously" to remember certain things.
In her words, Oliver understands a cubist version of her father, a version in which she does not see her father in one fixed time and place, but from several angles simultaneously. What becomes important is not a concrete diagram of hopeful truths, but an understanding of the fluidity of a life, the flux of personality and the various ways in which observers analyze expression and action for reinterpretation--particularly when the end to the life is a collectively painful memory for those who knew him.
"Getting all of these perspectives and finding out what happened [to my father] was healing for something that was very much an open wound for our family," says Oliver. But she also says that through Assembling, she has filled the void left by her father's death.
"I will never recover my father but I have a very powerful sense of him now and I feel him as a presence rather than an absence."
And as testament to Oliver's skill as a writer, the reader, too, feels the presence of Oliver's father, as well as a sense of regrettable loss. Like Oliver, all the audience knows at the start of Assembling is that Lewis shot himself high on cocaine at age 35. We don't know when he died or where he is buried, and chasing Oliver on the quest for these details gives the reader a sense of partnership rather than outside perspective.
This kinship between reader and narrator is sparked by the translation of Oliver's quest into any individual's search for an understanding of roots and origins. As Lewis is the root of Oliver's quest, his story can only end in his own words, but a picture of the tree under which his ashes were scattered is more poignant than all of the touching statements in Oliver's assembly.
Anna Cypra Oliver makes three appearances in Boise: Monday, Sept. 13, Albertson College, 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Sept. 14, Log Cabin Literary Center, Workshop: "Filling in the Blank: Researching and Writing Family History," 6-9 p.m.; Wednesday, Sept. 15, Log Cabin Literary Center, 7:30 p.m. For more information visit www.annacypraoliver.com.