6:14 PM EST, February 12, 2013
Say you had a family secret.
A juicy one. The kind that speaks volumes about families. And you wrote a book about it. But your family hates the book. Or, at the very least, potentially feels embarrassment from it. Would you still release that book? Say the book was very good, serious art — would that matter? Does art sometimes trump family?
Michael Hainey and Brooke Wyeth might be able to relate.
Brooke is fictional, the protagonist of Jon Robin Baitz's “Other Desert Cities,” the story of a daughter about to release a very unflattering family memoir; the play runs through Sunday at the Goodman Theatre. But Hainey is real, a former Chicagoan whose own (and much more generous) memoir, “After Visiting Friends,” arrives Tuesday. (His book tour begins Feb. 25 at the Harold Washington Library, followed by several additional Chicago readings.) We asked Hainey — as well as actress Tracy Michelle Arnold (who plays Brooke) and director Henry Wishcamper of “Other Desert Cities” — to reflect on the discomfort.
Interview with Michael Hainey, author of "After Visiting Friends"
Bob Hainey worked at this newspaper.
He met his wife here. She was Barbara Hudak then. She wrote the TV listings. They were married in 1961. He died in 1970 at 35. Hainey's obituary in the Tribune said he had worked here as a reporter, a copy editor and an assistant photo editor, and that he died of a “massive cerebral hemorrhage.” Which is what the Chicago Sun-Times also ran with as the cause of death; he was head of the copy desk there when he died.
Here's where it gets weird.
The obituary that ran in other local newspapers said Hainey died of a heart attack. This never sat right with Michael Hainey, Bob's youngest son. But then, a lot about his father's death never sat right. Indeed, Michael Hainey, now deputy editor of GQ magazine, took the title of his new memoir, "After Visiting Friends," from another odd part of a local obit: It said his father died near Irving Park Road and that he was visiting friends. Except that his father was working that night, the Sun-Times was five miles away and the time of death was 5:07 a.m.
Michael Hainey, who grew up in Park Ridge (and was briefly a freelancer for the Tribune), has written something of a family mystery wrapped in an ode to Chicago newspaper tradition. It's also the kind of harrowing read that, at least for the author, led to “long nights awake, thinking about all the permutations that come from writing a book like this.” By coincidence, when I talked to Hainey last week, he had just spoken to his mother, who had come back from a Goodman Theatre performance of “Other Desert Cities,” which tells the story of a writer of an explosive family memoir. The following is an edited version of a conversation with Hainey.
Q: What an appropriate night of theater.
A: She started telling me about it, about how it was about a daughter who basically writes about her family and something involving a family secret no one talks about. I said, “Oh … well … that's interesting, Mom …”
Q: Did she see similarities?
A: I don't know. I did, but we didn't talk about it.
A: As I say in the book, the word “family” and the word “secrets” have always been synonymous in my mind. And so I guess that I think every family has its secrets, and those secrets can be profound or small, but they will undoubtedly become more profound the more they get denied or pushed back into a closet.
Q: Without giving away exactly what happened — your father's story failed the smell test.
A: Right. Things don't add up. In fact, I think that if my story has any resonance, it would be because there is a deeper theme here: the family secret that we all wonder about and wish we could search out. I worked on (the subject) for a good 10 years, and from the start I thought of it as a book, which was a leap of faith because I had no publisher or answers. But about four or five years ago, when I started to see it as something, I told (my family): “You know that thing I've been looking into? How I keep asking about that thing?” I think the idea was sort of abstract to them at first. “OK, keep us posted. …” That was their reaction.
Q: Your family never asked you to not write this?
A: No, no, though it was a good two years where I sat on the knowledge of what I had learned before I presented it to my mother. I thought for a while that maybe I (shouldn't) finish. There was a year where I didn't know what to do about the book. The fear of hurting my mother or losing her love was paramount. Even with my brother, the moment in the book where I tell him what I've been doing — we're at the playground with his kids, and I ask, “You ever notice gaps in dad's story?” — that was after at least a year of thinking about this.
Q: Your brother and mother (both of whom still live in Chicago) have since read it?
A:Oh, yeah, and if they said, “Don't release this,” I don't know, then this would be a different story. By the way, I didn't tell them what I was doing for a while, not out of secrecy but more because it felt like some stone I had been working in my shoe, and sometimes you just have to gather the strength to ask certain questions.
Q: Did you ask about your father's death when you were a kid?
A: I thought about it from the time I was 9 or 10 years old, which might sound extraordinary, but the story I would hear — I mean, I watched police shows! I watched “Adam-12”! “Columbo”! Why weren't police there if my father died of cerebral hemorrhage in the street? Did he die in the street? Why did an uncle get to him first? Why did the obituaries in newspapers seem to change the details? I don't know what the first hint was, but I remember working up the courage once to ask at the kitchen table, “Wait, tell me again how dad died?” But everyone repeated the same story, and this was not a chatty house to begin with.
Q: All in all, do you think of your family as more secretive than anyone else's?
A:Well, there's the Nixon family.
Interview with Tracy Michelle Arnold and Henry Wishcamper, from the play "Other Desert Cities"
Brooke Wyeth, the fictional author at the center of “Other Desert Cities,” currently at the Goodman Theatre, has been in and out of mental health institutions, gone though bouts of depression and emerged healthy, with a great, powerful memoir she has written about her family and the callous way she believes her parents treated the death of her older brother. But there is more than one truth here. We asked Tracy Michelle Arnold, who plays Brooke, and Henry Wishcamper, who's directing the show, to reflect on the real-world ramifications of such a story. The following has been edited and combined from two conversations.
Q: Where do you fall — release a damaging family memoir or not?
Wishcamper: It's hard. As a kid, I didn't always think through the ramifications of what I was saying. Now I wish I had. I don't know. I think the play should leave you with questions of your own accountability. I think I relate most to the part of the play that says the world is complicated, and there is a high cost to truth-telling.
Arnold: It's a tricky thing, to talk about the responsibility of an artist and being true to yourself when the art is memoir. Unless you are going to talk about only yourself, of course. Which is impossible. The character's perspective is not my own. Brooke is not fully matured, and for 99 percent of the play you see a woman who can't move past certain events in her life. Couple that with mental illness, and you're in dangerous waters.
Q: Do you think the quality of the work matters?
Wishcamper: I think it should. I think the job of the artist is to hold a mirror up to themselves, and if the work isn't truthful, it's not worth much. But I don't think art trumps everything. That's how Brooke feels at one point, though we never hear her explicitly say that. And by the end, I doubt she feels the same way.
Arnold: The character Trip (Brooke's brother) says what matters on your deathbed is not that you created great art once, and it got great reviews, but that you were a decent person. I guess that's the side I'm on.
Q: The safe side.
Arnold: Right, it is. I'm 43 and I have a child to be responsible to now. I have to think about the legacy of the work that I choose as an actress now. That's how motherhood changed me. It made it easier to choose the roles I play, because now I am consciously thinking about how my choices will reflect on my family.
Wishcamper: As a director, my work is not as baldly or identifiably autobiographical perhaps, but I've found it interesting because, talking to people, I think about half the audience sides strongly with the daughter and the other side with her parents, and often (the audience) spent part of the play siding against those people.
Q: Could you release a book like this?
Arnold: I think I could, but I would wait until the people were gone or I had gotten their blessing. But it's interesting: We have (discussions) after the show (with the audience), and the other day these people asked how could her parents have expected Brooke to be mentally healthy and loyal if they haven't been truthful themselves.
Q: She can only work with what she knows.
Arnold: Yes, but it's wrong to call it a memoir at some point, when it's plainly a version. I read Patti Davis' memoir, which was an influence on the playwright (Jon Robin Baitz), and I don't know if I believe all of it. She is really harsh (about her parents, Nancy and Ronald Reagan), though I believe some of it too. Another source for the play was Julian Barnes' (novel) “The Sense of an Ending,” which deals with how you can carry a memory around, then someone confronts (it) with their completely different version. Truth is relative.
Q: But isn't a whitewashed version of events, one that a family might like, no less offensive?
Arnold: Totally agree. Patti Davis makes clear her frustration that her parents would put on this loving public face, which is partly what rankles Brooke. Some people go through their lives pretending. But at the end of the day, it's not always the worst thing. This woman at a donor event we had, she said to me, “I had a good idea what my youth was about, but this play made me want to sit down my parents, now that they don't feel they have to protect me as much.” It's like finally you can ask, “Remember that Christmas nobody talked?”
Q: But should you?
Arnold: Right. Who knows what'd you hear?
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC