Seldom do I wander the pages of someone’s life and so intimately witness what my presence has cost. The privilege of intimacy is paid for by the writer. The cost can be exacted in currencies of privacy, friends, family, self-esteem, confidence, courage. How much is the story of my life worth? Am I willing to pay that price? How to Cook Your Daughter costs Jessica Hendra her privacy, her relationship with her father, and hopefully, her guilt. Within the pages of her memoir, Hendra unravels her life: the motivations behind her bulimia, anorexia, and her often destructive relationships. Incest expertly knots threads of guilt and shame into a jumble of insecurity, silence and anger. Writing this book allows Hendra permission to be angry with her father; and permission to let him go. Finally, Hendra sheds the vows of secrecy to which she is bound.
That’s not quite true. Hendra’s rape is not a secret. She tells friends, lovers, and therapists. She confronts her father on numerous occasions. She does not, however, find the same salvation Tony claims. Choosing to publish gives Hendra a voice. For Hendra, exposing her father means winding down the pathways of her past. It’s a rickety ride. But, it is necessary. According to Hendra, she must publicly confront her father in order to stand up as a mother. Hendra knows the repercussions: Tony’s denials, accusations and anger; the public’s intimate knowledge of her; the impact on her daughters. Still, she does something Tony won’t; she acknowledges he raped her, and that it is wrong. Writing her memoir takes a courage I wasn’t sure Hendra possessed. When we meet her, she is still vulnerable despite her roles as wife and mother. But she summons the courage to publicly challenge his “confessional” memoir.
Still, I have to ask if after 32 years it was worth it to publicly reveal her rape. And I have to answer, yes. According to Hendra, she doesn’t reveal the rape to attack her father’s selective memory. She tells the truth to establish truth in her family; to make truth the legacy she passes on to her children. She tells the truth because her father has denied his impact for too long.
It is a noble statement: if I choose to write a memoir, it will be for my children. I would like to think my memoir will serve as an entry to what defines me. But maybe not. For my memoir to act as a framework of my life, I would have to be dead. And to be honest, I would like to have all of my important conversations with my children the old fashioned way, while I’m living. I like talking with them, sharing with them, interacting: the language of parenting. But for when I’m not here, when all that remains are my words, I would like to leave a memoir. Still, it haunts me that my words will float without context or interpretation on slender pages turned by tear soaked –I am dead after all—fingers.
While my children provide a noble cause, I will have to write my memoir, for me. As a writer, I’m not sure what I take from Hendra’s work. What I take most from How to Cook Your Daughter is not as a writer at all: it is as a woman and a mother. Hendra’s childhood reminds me of the awesome responsibility of motherhood. Through Hendra’s experiences, I am reminded of the choices we make for those we love: of the obligation to make choices. I respect Hendra for writing How to Cook your Daughter for her daughters. I worry, that she could not write this for herself. But because of her systematic unfolding, because she reveals herself as a character rarely in charge of her own plot, I understand. While it may take me some time to realize the writerly benefit of How to Cook Your Daughter, I take what I need from it one page at a time.