Monday, January 7, 2013

Assembling My Father: A Daughter’s Detective Story by Anna Cypra Oliver 2004

"Oliver's memorial to her elusive dad—and the way researching and writing it changes her own identity—is unforgettable." from a review in Publisher's Weekly 2004

In this interesting memoir Anna Oliver investigates the trajectory of her father’s life through to his suicide in 1974 when her father, Lewis Weinberger, was 35 and the author was five years old. Both her father and her mother were from well-established, wealthy Jewish families and grew up in Queens in New York. Lewis Weinberger married Teresa Oliver in 1960 when they were still college students. He was the son of a successful housing developer; she was the daughter of a Jewish mother and a father who was an artist from Chile and a lapsed Catholic. Trained as an architect, Lewis eventually moved with Teresa to Miami, following the relocation of his parents and older brother, and tried working for his father. But he was restless and Teresa was unhappy, so in 1970 they set out for New Mexico where they lived amongst many others who in the 1960s and 1970s had dropped out of living conventional lives and had joined the counterculture. Sometime after his death, the author’s mother joined a Christian fundamentalist sect. Anna Oliver lived with her mother and two successive step-fathers and eventually left when she went off to a Christian college in Minnesota.

Anna Oliver reconstructs her family’s history as a way of examining the past for clues that would unlock the mysteries that surrounded her father’s life and death. She was longing to know a father she did not remember, to find comfort in learning about him. She felt that doing so would bring him closer, help to make him real, and help her to better understand her own roots. In order to find the pieces of the puzzle and to be able to assemble them, she conducted many interviews, following up on leads from family and family friends. She explored historical archives and found useful resources in unlikely places. She rescued a journal her father had kept from an old friend of her father’s who lived in New Mexico and who had found his body after the suicide and had kept some of his effects. She quotes relevant passages in her memoir and reproduces some passages in his handwriting.

In taking on this project, the author experienced the pleasures and frustrations of amateur genealogists. She met and got to know a number of relatives she had never met or barely remembered, including her father’s brother Joe who was able to pass on to her both facts and insights that she found invaluable. When her mother finally agreed to talk about her past she learned a lot about her mother’s earlier years and her relationship with her father. And she learned that an interview or source could very often lead to unexpected outcomes. For example, she contacted a friend of her father who, it turned out, had her father’s voice on audio tape. Finally, she came to realize that some of her assumptions were just that – assumptions not based in fact. From all the sources she consulted, she was able to draw informed conclusions and put together a textured portrait of her father although there are still many gaps that she doubts that she will ever be able to fill.

In a thread of the memoir Anna Oliver explores her own relationship to Judaism. She had always known that both her parents had been born into non-religious Jewish families but, having been brought up a Christian fundamentalist in New Mexico she knew nothing about Judaism. She had been close to her maternal grandmother who she visited fairly frequently in New York but she did not consider exploring Judaism as an option until she was well along in researching her father’s life and had spent extended time with members of his family and with some of his Jewish friends from when he was growing up in Queens. It took years before she could throw off the restricted life she felt was imposed on her by her mother's conversion to Christian fundamentalism. She felt the imprint deeply and ventured out into the world beyond Christian fundamentalism with trepidation. Partly, she was concerned about how it would affect her mother.

This memoir places her parents within the wider context of the turmoil of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. In sketching in the chaotic socio-political decades of the 60’s and 70’s, she demonstrates that some young adults in her parents’ generation, including former friends of her parents, dabbled in alternative lifestyles and then moved on to live more or less stable and conventional lives. Not so her parents who seemed to have lost their way. For a host of reasons she explores they seemed vulnerable to the darker elements that were part and parcel of the counterculture. They had worked deliberately to put geographical and psychic distance between themselves and their upbringing, but they lost their way.

To read an article by a former hippie still searching click here.

Author’s father’s family
Morris Weinberger – married to Kate
    Joseph Weinberger – son of Morris and Kate; married to Myriam
        Stephan Weinberger – son of Joseph and Myriam
    Miriam Weinberger – daughter of Morris and Kate; married Robert
        Michael – son of  Miriam
    Lewis Weinberger – daughter of Morris and Kate; married Teresa
        Peter Weinberger – adopted son of Lewis and Teresa; marries Julie
        Anna Cypra Oliver (Weinberger) – daughter of Lewis and Teresa; married to Stephan Klein; author

Author’s mother’s family
    Rose – daughter of Nathan; married to Juan Oliver
        John Oliver – son of Juan and Rose
        Teresa Oliver – daughter of Juan and Rose; married Lewis Weinberger (see above)
    Anna – daughter of Nathan

Irwin Sollinger
David Levine
Bobby Blender
Ernie Kirschman
Jerome Yavarkovsky
Barry and Runja Klein
Donald and Elaine Singer
Robert Greenberg


Miami, Florida
New Hyde Park, NY
New York City, NY
Mahopac Lake, NY
Roscoe, NY
Taos, New Mexico
Blaine, Minnesota

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