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Assembling My Father: A Daughterís Detective Story

By Anna Cypra Oliver

: Assembling My Father: A Daughter's Detective Story


By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 8/18/2004

Learning too much about oneís parents can be unpleasant. As adults, weíve reluctantly accepted that the beings who gave birth to us have independent past lives. However, exploring those past lives, in all their embarrassing detail, is a task few of us have braved. Thatís what makes Anna Cypra Oliverís attempt to reconstruct her fatherís life so enjoyable. You get to observe someone else digging up the detailsónaked photographs, poor decisions, past loversóand watch as what she finds changes her. All without having to leave the psychological safety of your armchair.

Admittedly, Oliverís family history offers more skeletons than most. When she was in kindergarten, her 35-year-old father killed himself with a gun after trading in a middle-class lifestyle for the instability of 1969 Taos, N.M., communes and drug running. Her mother, who had divorced her father a year and a half before, became involved with a series of abusive men while converting from Judaism to fundamentalist Christianity. Picked on in school for being a hippie, shaped by her motherís conservative convictions, Oliver grew to hate the moral laxity of late-í60s culture, enrolled in a Minnesota Bible college and married a fellow Christian at age 19.

The search that culminated in Assembling My Father began in 1993 when Oliver was 24 and starting an MFA program. Her faith in God and her marriage waning, Oliver finally called her fatherís old neighbor in Taos to ask for the trunks he left behind. The sparse clues with which Oliver begins her hunt soon lead to unpredictable others, including a tape of her fatherís voice. As the leads play out, and Oliverís father comes into focus, so does her own life.

The story is meticulously put together and covers an astonishingly wide range of experiences. We witness a fundamentalist childhood, complete with ďrapture scares,Ē when Oliver would come home to find her mother missing and believe she had been taken up into heaven. We follow the 1950s cultural fads of three Jewish boys growing up in Queens, N.Y. And we delve into the rupture of two Jewish families whose kids, Oliverís parents, searched for a more meaningful way of life in the í60s counterculture but never found it. Normally, the banal details of someone elseís family peculiarities might become boring if not told by, say, David Sedaris. Yet, Oliverís enterprise compels, perhaps because itís something few of us dare.

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