“On a higher level we find fictions that men eagerly believe, regardless of the evidence, because they gratify some wish.”
Martin Buber,I and Thou
In the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Steve Olson writes of two genealogical researchers who claim to have found mathematical proof that everyone of European ancestry is in some way descended from both Muhammad and Charlemagne. Absurd as it may sound, the theorem actually makes sense if you give it the proper amount of time to gestate. As you go back in time, it logically follows that number of your ancestors increases exponentially: four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, etc., until you have thousands, and even millions of ancestors (of course, you have to go back pretty far for this, but it’s theoretically possible.) The link to the Middle Ages might be erroneous, however, as a man named Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University, claims that his research shows that the most recent common ancestor for people of European descent lived only about 600 years ago.
If either scenario sounds improbable, and they very well might be, you’re more than welcome to do the math yourself. At heart, research in the field of genealogy speaks to a certain interest, no matter how slight or fleeting it may be, that most of us share in finding out a little bit about our lineage. Just what, in the end, is our genetic inheritance worth? Is it a deterministic blueprint? What is passed on and what gets left behind? How is this decided? Rick Moody, author of Demonology, The Ice Storm and Purple America, sought out answers to these questions to try and better understand the alcoholism and mental breakdowns that plagued his twenties. In his latest book: The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions, he delves into the lore of his family’s tall tales to find out if he is related to Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, an infamous 18th century New England pastor who killed his best friend during a hunting accident as a child, and who wore a veil over his face as an adult for reasons that were never fully clear, but one can surmise likely stemmed from a particular brand of fanatic Puritan guilt. “Handkerchief” would go on to become the model for the character Parson Hooper in the Nathanial Hawthorne story “The Black Veil”, first published in 1837, giving rise to a major Moody family myth.
What Moody has done here is weave the tale of his own mental breakdown, battle with alcoholism and search through the small towns of Maine for traces of his ancestral heritage, with a scattershot account of his crippling social phobias (as real or imagined as they may be.) Curiously interwoven into the narrative is an account of the canon of literary criticism surrounding Hawthorne’s “The Black Veil”. Moody’s use of this lit crit is largely heavy handed and dull, and while wading through it, you begin to wonder what the point is. In fact, Moody might have been better served in titling the book: The Black Veil: Digressions With a Memoir, as he tends to jump between genealogy, family stories, the history of rock quarries in New England and the aforementioned criticism, with no real segue to tie the strands of thought together. In the sections of the book where it does resemble a memoir, though, it’s clear that this book is in no way a kiss-and-tell, as you won’t find any stories concerning contemporary writers in compromising positions or off-screen tantrums in the film adaptation of The Ice Storm. In fact, little mention is made of Moody’s literary career at all, and even less of his interpersonal relationships, both choices helping preserve the emotional distance Moody has traditionally constructed in his fiction. The prose, while at times emotionally compelling, is studied and aloof, at times slipping into the parlance of 18th century literature, and sounding a bit awkward while doing it.
Often, as he’s writing about his parents’ divorce or his live-in alcoholic girlfriend or the “long fourth of July” he spent in a mental institution, he avoids a linear retelling of his experiences and employs every stalling technique one can imagine to avoid telling the story of his life in any coherent or forthright fashion. As a reader, we expect something a little different from a memoir, or at least a book that calls itself such. We seek a little more humanity, perhaps, some concrete description of places and things without the literary veil that defines the friction between invention and reality that we so covet in fiction.
The book itself, eschewing the traditional memoir’s approach to laying out the facts and hoping - simply by the act of writing - to come to terms with a life, makes no claim at understanding, or for that matter, judgment. “This account,” Moody says at the outset, “never settles for the orderly where the disorderly and explosive can substitute, because obsession is not orderly, it is protean, like consciousness.” In writing about Handkerchief’s veil and the volume of literary interpretation which has sought to explain it, Moody is writing about the veils, both emotional and physical, we all wear to cover up our innermost thoughts and those past acts we can barely bring ourselves to admit.
Leading the reader through a lengthy rundown of veil references in Hawthorne’s writing, Moody begins to wonder what it would be like to wear a veil himself. Here, Moody puts more effort into describing his buying of the fabric to make the veil than what it felt like to wear it, or discussing how long he wore it, or where he wore it, and as such we’re given little along the lines of “memoir” material. Realizing that he was too embarrassed to wear it in front of friends, he wondered what the point was in making the veil at all: “For there is no veil without eyes to perceive it, no concealment without others who might once have seen, as among the blind there are no veils, and so if I veil myself by myself, am I really veiling myself at all?” Good question, rhetorical as it may be, as we’re never told if he ever bothered to wear the veil, even in private.
Sometime around 1985, when Moody would have been 25 years old and living in Hoboken with his girlfriend, an odd terror began welling up inside him, springing from unknown tributary of fear: “I was convinced that I was going to be raped, forcibly, sexually violated by some unnamed male, penetrated, bruised, inseminated, in a way that really suggests the reality of rape . . .” Of course, as with the rest of the book, this seems to be as much literary invention as it is truth. There is no telling, from Moody’s account, of just how serious this was, or how he managed to overcome this fear. It simply exists alongside suicidal fantasies for a few pages as he explains his drinking and drug use, but no resolution is ever offered. Did he see a therapist? He does talk a bit about the time (a month?) he spent in a psychiatric ward in Queens, but did this “cure” him? He does mention that these feelings gradually began to subside, but offers no reason why. It wasn’t only this irrational fear which took hold and kept him from holding down jobs or even forming close relationships; other conspiracies, other plots, began to form in his mind. “Theories grew in me like backyard vines, grew to invade the healthy part of me, grew to muscle my own desires and ambitions aside, until I was in an adjacent property, isolated, a cankered soul macerated with cares and discontents, while this idea went on to conduct my life without me.” It didn’t help that at the time he was working a job in publishing that he hated (he never says exactly what, or where, it was, only that he was fired, as was the case with other jobs he held) and drinking heavily.
Unlike so many other memoirs, Moody assigns no blame for his troubles. He chastises neither parents nor siblings nor friends or lovers for failing to see the warning signs of his drinking or irrational neurosis. Not knowing whom to blame, in part, is what led him to Maine in search of his family’s roots and to try and uncover just who exactly Handkerchief Moody was. Perhaps tracing the genetic chain would help provide some clues as to what was happening to him. What should have been the major find of his search, though, a copy of Handkerchief’s diaries, turned out to be little more than an account of “weather and masturbation.” Finding numerous other diaries, journals, letters and historical records to pore over, he delves into the births, marriages and deaths of the Moody clan without ever really getting to the heart of what he is looking for. But did he know what he was looking for? While reading the book, one wonders if he even knew why he was writing it.
Just as Handkerchief wore the physical veil to keep others from seeing his face, Moody too hides his face, and the truth, in his “memoir.” In the last pages of the book he confesses that in his search he discovered that Handkerchief Moody actually wasn’t a relation of his, and the stories his family had passed down about being related to a man mentioned in a Hawthorne story were untrue. It’s an almost heartbreaking revelation, and one wonders why Moody would allow himself to write at such length about shared characteristics when he knew that he was writing about someone wholly unrelated to him. It’s one of many questions the book raises concerning the overall point of the enterprise.
What, in the end, did Moody hope to discover in his foray into the past? The same thing any of us would hope to find - a hint of truth, some semblance of causality, a dialectic that would lead to some universal understanding. What he found, however, was that “Maybe . . . concealment is essential to identity . . . [because] we need a part of us that will never be known, so that the more we reveal, the more we are enveloped in veils, layers that refuse to be known, additional integuments of guilt and concealment, such that any memoir is a fiction, an arraigned narrative, a bildungsroman, just as many fictions are veiled memoirs.” Sounds wonderful, but at the end of this rambling, self-involved book, you’re likely to be left unfulfilled and frankly a little annoyed at the hubris shown by the author and his publisher in thinking that the book was worth the price of admission.