An interview with Richard Hoffman on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary Edition of his memoir Half the House, with a foreword by Louise DeSalvo.
How did the process of writing Half the House differ from your second book, Love & Fury? Do you see Love & Fury as a continuum of the first memoir? Do you plan to have a third book/trilogy?
Half the House was written over a period of sixteen years or so, little by little, writing and rewriting. I was terrified about saying many of the things in that book. First of all, there was the boyhood rape. No one had ever written about that before, at least so far as I know (I wasn’t even sure, for a long time, if that had ever happened to anyone else!) and the injunction not to tell of it was so deeply planted in me by the man who violated me, by the shame with which such silence is enforced, that I would quite literally shake and sweat when I thought of someone knowing this about me. You see, the shame is so isolating because you are taught that the rape is about you, and it is such an intimate violation that for a long time that seems true. It isn’t, of course, as the staggering number of victims coming to light, worldwide, shows. Now it’s possible to see the real nature and scope of sexual violence against kids, but back then I was in relative isolation, just sick with fear. So it took a long time.
And although my intention was to honor my parents and memorialize my dead brothers, the requirement that I tell the story in all its complexity meant that sometimes I felt that I was betraying my family by telling the truth about the struggles in our house, the anger, the deadening sorrow, the temporary failures and betrayals, all that I later came to think of as a complicated knot of “love and fury.”
So Half the House was a young man’s book, and all the time I was writing it I was hobbled by fear and by doubts that I even had a right to speak of the things in that book. What kept me going through that period — which included arresting my alcoholism and searching for and finally finding a good trauma therapist — was reading feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich, Judith Arcana and others, like Audre Lorde who said, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” That about sums up what I tell myself when my courage flags.
Love & Fury is a grandfather’s book, looking back on the forces at work in my life and my parents’ and grandparents’ lives that are shaping the lives of my children and my grandson. It tries to widen the parentheses of our awareness so that we engage with history and its consequences and requirements. Love & Fury only took six years to write so I must be getting better at this!
I am taking notes toward a third volume to complete what I think of as “the Allentown trilogy.” That will take a while to write, I know that much. Maybe a long while. In that book I want to try to focus more on my mother than I could in the other two memoirs. As the first-born son of a blue-collar Catholic family post WWII, I was enjoined to move away from my mother, into the supposedly larger male world. About the time I started school, I became no longer a child but a boy, which is really something else, a different identity entirely, and most of my memories of my mother, any personal, intimate ones, are from before that. I think this is a tragic break; it makes me heartsick to acknowledge it, and I’m hoping to understand it because the more I talk to other men of my generation, the more I see the impact of this structural misogyny and alienation on who we became and what we must contend with to be whole.
In both books your relationship with your father seems so complex. Were you aware of that complexity before you started writing about him? Or did the act of writing change how you saw your relationship?
I think that a patriarchy insists that the relationship between fathers and sons is primary. There’s a scene in Love & Fury in which I take note of the crucifix at my father’s wake:
I find myself wondering where it is written that a son must be dutiful and obedient, must sacrifice himself for his father’s love, its expression withheld and replaced by a promise, an assurance that is unfelt and unseen?
Above my father in the casket, a crucifix hangs midair, suspended by invisible wire…
One of the things I’m trying to do is expose those invisible wires, deconstruct the whole injurious structure of that relationship, beginning with my father and me.
I think the complexity arises from the delicate operation required to extricate the loving parent from the furious father, like separating conjoined twins. The act of writing did not so much change the way I saw our relationship as deepen my appreciation for the way my father managed his many contradictions, how he “contained multitudes” as Whitman put it.
Half the House was a landmark book about children and sexual abuse, and after its publication you heard from a lot of readers about their own experiences with abuse. Were you surprised by the response and that people felt comfortable reaching out to you? Does that still happen today?
Books have their own lives, it turns out. A book goes out into the world where it meets people and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. I could never have predicted all that occurred as a result of that book’s publication. Half the House is mainly, I still believe, a study of grief, and a study of the consequences of an inability to grieve. It’s the story of my family trying to come to terms with the terminal illness, and later the deaths, of two of my brothers. In the original Harcourt, Brace edition of the book, only 5 pages, basically one scene, were devoted to recounting the sexual abuse. It goes to show how powerful the repression of the truth is. I mean, when one scene that tells the truth about a taboo topic causes so much attention to be paid…! The calls I began receiving from men all over the country and even from abroad were fraught with relief that at last they could talk to someone who had also suffered in the particular way they had. The book has continued for twenty years to make its way to new readers and to bring me along in its wake. I have learned a great deal from other survivors, researchers, clinicians about the nature of sexual predation, and by extension — and this is important — about how abusive power operates, no matter the special form it takes. The sexual exploitation of a child is an emblematic instance of that; it is not a thing unto itself, not a mere aberration, not an outlier. I just recently returned from an international institute on sexual violence in Cambodia, attended by representatives of 27 countries, where it became very clear once again that sexual violence is one kind of torture among others.
In any case, Half the House has continued to teach me things as it meets new people; it’s become the vehicle of my own education. All other considerations aside, that’s a great gift.
As a creative nonfiction author, where do you stand on the question of “Truth” vs. “Fact” and telling one’s personal truth? Was that a challenge for you in either of these memoirs?
I have grown a bit weary of this whole question, only because I feel that people are scapegoating memoirists. The fact is that we are being lied to by media, by advertisers, by government 24/7, 365 days a year, and people play along, shrug, take the attitude, “What can you expect?” But let a memoirist misremember the color of the dress she was wearing or the weather on the weekend of the big game, and she is a liar. I mean, there is no past. There is only memory. Even documentation is often wrong (and depends, of course, on who did the documenting.) Time cannot be rewound and examined with so-called objectivity. Memoir is a genre that is governed by honesty, not by some specious claim to possession of the truth.
A memoir is not a report, it is a literary work. It is a representation of the author’s encounter with his memory. It is a compromise with the demands of narrative and of that kind of storytelling we call a book. It is less a record than a representation of a questioning, reflective authorial inquiry. Although it agrees to respect the facts as they can be known and not deliberately change them, it is not a photo, it is more a drawing or a painting or a poem, necessarily impressionistic, subjective. In other words, it is art.
Some of our readers might not be aware that you are also a poet. Which genre came first? Do you prefer writing in one form vs. the other? Are you drawn to each for different reasons?
Poetry came first. It still does. I would rather be writing poems than anything else. At the same time, I try to remain eligible for whatever else occurs to me to write: stories, essays, memoir. I feel an awful panic when I have nothing to work on, when my mind is blank as the page for too long. So if something presents itself to me, no matter what genre it is, I don’t shoo it away. But, as I said, I am most interested in poetry.
The book is available for purchase here