A Scarlet Legacy
The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions
(Little, Brown & Company, May 2002) 323 pp., $24.95.
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 the 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, 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. It’s troubling to think of the unnumbered strangers who have played a decisive part in determining your genetic makeup. You wonder what they’d think of you, if they were intelligent or funny, cruel or callous, what they were doing, what they were thinking at the decisive moments of history, and whether they fell on the side of wrong or right in history’s great moral debates. Likewise, digging up old photographs of grandparents or distant relations can often produce a strange shudder of recognition as you’re struck by a certain feature—the slope of a chin, a crooked smile—that looks disarmingly familiar. Personality traits, of course, can also be inherited, like your grandfather’s stubbornness or your father’s way of speaking, giving rise to a whole new batch of difficult questions.
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? Dangerous and self-destructive traits like a predilection toward alcoholism and/or suicide seem to be passed down the family line like some sort of horrible secret, though this knowledge has generally failed to keep the cycle from repeating itself. In the end though, what is the link between the past and the present? Rick Moody, author of Demonology, The Ice Storm and Purple America, sought out answers to these questions to try to 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 Nathaniel Hawthorne story “The Minister's Black Veil,” first published in 1837, giving rise to the Moody family myth.
What Moody has done here is weave the tale of his own 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. Curiously interwoven into the narrative is an account of the canon of literary criticism surrounding Hawthorne’s “The Minister's Black Veil.” There are times when Moody’s use of this literary criticism becomes a bit heavy handed, as it’s rather dull reading, and you begin to wonder what the point is. In fact, Moody might have been better served by 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 emotionally compelling, is studied and aloof, at times slipping into the parlance of 18th-century literature, and sounding a bit awkward while doing it.
In a way, the cool, steady hand Moody employs as he renders both the fictional worlds and his own life story gives the reader a deeper glimpse into the author’s psychology than even he perhaps intended. 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 in favor of summoning the spirit of the event. In fact, the book often feels as if you’re reading excerpts from his mesmerizing third (and most recent) novel Purple America. Such a sense arises from the hard-won detachment at work in the prose, or how Moody seems to float above the events of his life. But perhaps we have discovered, after three novels and two collections of short stories, that this is exactly how Moody sees the world. Maybe he feels as if he stands just outside the events of his life, giving orders on how to steer the ship, but letting the currents take him where they might. Of course, this is his trademark, and a writer with a lasting, definitive style is a force to be reckoned with, but as readers we expect something a little different from a memoir, or at least a book that calls itself one. 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, and discovering that another ancestor of his wore a veil in the 18th century, Moody begins to wonder what it would be like to wear a veil himself. And so he does. But 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 an 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…some complete, total rape that would be remembered for the threat of being murdered, held down, left bleeding, violated, something trickling from me.” 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 he spent in a psychiatric ward in Queens, but did this “cure” him? He mentions that these feelings gradually began to subside, but offers no reason why. It wasn’t only this irrational fear which 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 that he was drinking heavily at the time.
Unlike so many other memoirs, Moody assigns no blame for his troubles. He chastises neither parents nor siblings nor friends nor 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 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 translated copy of Handkerchief’s diaries (they were written in both Latin as well as some obscure code) turned out to be little more than an account of “weather and masturbation.” It seems Handkerchief “defiled himself” on an almost nightly basis in his sleep, and loathed himself for it. Finding numerous other diaries, journals, letters, and historical records to pour over, Moody delves into the births, marriages, and deaths of his ancestors without ever really getting to the heart of what he is looking for. But how could he? The named things we leave behind are merely the ballasts which keep us afloat during our years. Just as Handkerchief wore the physical veil to keep others from seeing his face, so too have all our ancestors kept that which we most desire to know hidden from posterity. But there are secrets even in Moody’s storytelling, and 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.” Moody discovered, in other words, that those things which we keep inside, our deepest fears, motivations, and remembrances, are the things most easily lost to history, as such are unknowable.
PAUL MCLEARY has written for Social Policy magazine and the New York Observer.