Don Heche died of AIDS in 1983, survived by a widow, a son who died in a car accident within the year, and three daughters.
His family believed him to be simply a charming loser; a handsome, smooth-talking con man always one step away from striking it rich in one bizarre scheme or another; a church-going, piano-playing boaster--exciting, unpredictable and romantic.
In fact, he had been actively bisexual for years and was a man aswirl in contradiction.
"It was my father's openhanded praise of me as a girl," poet Susan Bergman confides, ". . . fused with his majestic expectations, as though my life were invaluable and urgent, that informed my sense of place in the world. Sometimes he gave me the sense that what I said provided him a new opportunity to see the world from a different, but eminently reasonable, point of view."
Now, 10 years after her father's excruciating, lonely death, Bergman has written a dark and complicated meditation on the ripple effects of hypocrisy masquerading as discretion.
With alternating currents of anger, confusion and melancholy, she recounts her journey of coming to terms, of being "a tourist of her father's secrets."
She rejects her "plumbless gullibility" and dares a shocking candor, shining a bright and shadowless light, first on her parents, then on each of her siblings and, finally, most achingly on herself.
Her father's daughter, she too seems to have been caught up in a swamp of interpersonal deception from which she, at last her own woman, is determined to extricate herself through the exercise of truth-telling.
Composed in a language both oblique and lyrical, "Anonymity" is a book one seems to overhear as much as read. But what comes across to a listener outside the tight inner circle of directly involved parties is intensely emotional and frequently brilliant.
Her thoughts are like a raft shooting the rapids, shifting and alternating for balance as she encounters each rock of a new idea or perspective: fury, sympathy, objectivity, outrage, tenderness, despair, hope.
Oddly enough, the character who emerges with the greatest clarity is Don Heche himself. Despite all his lies, despite all the pain he inflicted, he seems in retrospect as much victim as victimizer. "The tangle of faith and sex and music in my father's life," Bergman observes, "unraveled back and back until his early experiences appeared as single threads in the tight knot of his adult years."
A bright, passionate man positioned by circumstance and convention in the wrong life, Don Heche juggled his internal conflicts with maniacal determination. The only possible explanation for his remaining with his wife and children is a kind of will toward love, a skewed but genuine devotion overwhelming in its persistence.
Even through the lens of his adult daughter's righteous ire--"The homosexual father lives as though his were the only life"--we get a picture of a man both culpably weak and admirably brave, a lonely, desperate scrambler devoted to his children even while barred from respectability by the force of his desire.
Without forgiving her father his egregious failings, Susan Bergman allows us at least a glimpse of understanding, a recognition of a not-bad man who found himself doing bad to those he most loved, a man who deceived but in the end could not absolve himself.
"He thought it would be over with his death," Bergman says, "the whole story. He did not account of Nathan's loss and Anne's ingrained mistrust that a man could ever prefer her to another man. He didn't play out his widow's long nights. I had meant to grab him and shake him. But how stooped he looked. Did I really think I could impress our hurts on him more deeply than his self-recrimination had? Did I think he's lost his life for nothing?"
Bergman, her mother and her sisters have struggled with this legacy in their personal lives, sometimes wandering in shock, sometimes pretending that nothing was wrong, sometimes seeking oblivion or escape from the disappointment of their imagined domestic life together. Only the truth, she seems to have concluded, will set them free, and she spares no one, including herself, her unblinking consideration.
Such unapologetic frankness can make a reader uneasy--identifying perhaps with those people written about but who have no first-person voice in the narrative--but it also vaults "Anonymity" into startling, mesmerizing literary territory. Whole passages seem lifted intact from the most private of diaries, yet somehow the book as a whole--by pushing every supposed limit of probity--achieves a universal wisdom.
"If the family is where we first learn about ourselves and others," Bergman writes, "it is also often the cradle of misidentity and isolation. Our false fronts, the insincere roles we adopt to survive, the ways the 'victims' of loss endure and recover, combined with our interpretations (affecting both the images that appear to us and how we ourselves are perceived), the early influences that give shape to sexuality--these are the shards that each of us sorts and reassembles and, finally, must pour our lives from."
If the sad, sobering but ultimately affirmative conclusion of Bergman's quest for honesty is any indication, her own children will have much for which to be grateful.