Five Great Works about Secret Second Families

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Aug. 26 2011 12:50 PM

Five Great Works about Secret Second Families

"My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”

The woman who utters these crisp words is Dana, the beautiful daughter of James Witherspoon’s secret second wife. She knows about her father’s other, acknowledged family, and his other, acknowledged daughter, the plain-looking Chaurisse: After all, the two girls live in the same town. But her sister doesn’t know that Dana exists. In Tayari Jones’ new novel, Silver Sparrow, Dana begins to slowly infiltrate Chaurisse’s life and the results, as Anita Shreve wrote in the Washington Post, are “subtly devastating.”

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Jones’ novel is only the latest addition to the rich literary history of the hidden family. Here, the author shares a reading (and viewing) list of five other works that explore the consequences of having a child you refuse to recognize.

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Photograph of a frame by Hemera. Photograph of a family by Digital Vision.

 

Mythology by Edith Hamilton (1942)

Secret families are really the bedrock issue of Western literature. When you look at the Greek myths, you can see that the matter of Zeus’ “outside” children—and Hera’s jealousy of these children and their mothers—lies at the root of many of the major conflicts in this tradition. The mortal heroes of the Greek myths—Dionysius, Prometheus, Hercules, Perseus, and Odysseus—are almost all the products of Zeus’ consorts. As with most secret families, the hidden children are of a lower caste than the legitimate ones.  But at the same time, Zeus’ children are elevated above mere mortals.  This liminal status suggests that one’s worth is in-born, rather than brought about by condition. In the case of mortal/divine coupling, the result is not a bastard, but a demi-god. (The less intellectual among us may choose to watch the 1981 film, Clash of the Titans, in place of reading Hamilton.)

My Architect, written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn (2003)

The filmmaker is the secret son of Louis Kahn, one of the world’s most famous architects. In this documentary, the son tries to gain a personal understanding of his late father, who left behind three families. (Although Nathaniel knew his father, he was kept secret from architect’s other children.) Like many such stories, the death of the father allows the secret son to speak freely. At the same time, it silences the one person who can provide the answers the son most craves. In the film, Nathaniel Kahn attempts to get to know his father through interviews with Kahn’s other children, written records, and of course, the buildings that are his father’s legacy. The viewer understands that this is a fool’s errand, but like the son, we peer closely at the screen, hoping to see something we’ve missed.

In My Father’s House by Ernest J. Gaines (1978)

In this period piece, set at the cusp of the civil rights movement, a prominent preacher is visited by his secret son who aims, perhaps, to kill him. After the son opts to kill himself instead, the Reverend becomes consumed with guilt when he realizes that he cannot even recall the boy’s name. He embarks upon a quest to retrace his roots and discover the son’s name, as though this information might act as a charm to undo the devastation caused by his abandonment of his own flesh and blood. Gaines’ novel is, in some ways, the mirror narrative to My Architect, in that the father must search for information about the denied son. Although the son’s pain is always at the margins of the story, Gaines suggests that denying a child is a central trauma for the father as well.

Wise Children by Angela Carter (1991)

In her final novel, Carter imagines two secret daughters of Sir Melchoir Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. With her typical wry and rambunctious style, Carter sees the absence of “legitimacy” as a freedom and her two heroines are able to experience life without the burden of respectability. The sisters are vaudeville dancers who have a great time with life on the wrong side of the tracks—indulging in strong drink and general lechery. Carter’s comic writing challenges the typical narrative of unacknowledged paternity as a great shame or tragedy. With her sharp feminist insight, being free from a father means being free of patriarchy—and what’s not to like about that?

The matter of unacknowledged paternity is at the center of many slave narratives; Douglass’ story is the best known of the genre. In the first chapter, he writes: “The opinion was … whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.” Of course, Douglass was not heir to his father’s property; he was himself that property. In Douglass’ case, as with many enslaved memoirists, the denial of the father’s wealth and status become a slanted metaphor for the thwarted promise of America.

Read an interview with Jones in Slate’s sister publication, The Root: “Lit’s New ‘It Girl’”

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