A few years ago, just as her father was about to disappear into the fog of dementia, journalist Lucinda Franks stumbled upon a small box in a corner of his dilapidated apartment. The contents shocked her. Beneath some mysterious maps and crumpled foreign bank notes, she found a military cap embellished with the raised metal insignia of an eagle, a skull and crossbones—and a swastika. Franks knew little about her father's military service during World War II, and had always sensed that he was hiding something. Now questions consumed her. "Was my sphinx-like father presenting one character and living another?" she writes in her new memoir, "My Father's Secret War." "Whose side was he really on?" When she pressed for an explanation, her father refused to talk, citing a decades-old pledge of secrecy.
But after years of detective work and long conversations with her ailing father, Franks eventually pieced together most of his story. Fluent in German, he was a spy and occasionally an assassin. The Nazi cap was part of his disguise as a member of the Waffen SS, worn the night he broke into a Gestapo headquarters and killed a guard while looking for files with the names of people wanted by the Nazis. Near the end of his life, he finally tells Franks he kept the hat because of the "death's head" insignia: "I never wanted to forget who these German soldiers really were."
The circumstances of Franks's quest may be unique to her, but the generational confrontation is a familiar one in many families and in the ever-expanding genre of family memoirs, which describe an intimate clash of cultures. Parents raised to keep emotions in check don't want to revisit past horrors. Their children, fervent believers in the power of openness, yearn to know all—as if this knowledge has some magical power to erase emotional scars. Novelist Mary Gordon uncovered a vast web of lies in her 1996 book "The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father." In her 2001 book "Carry Me Home," which won a Pulitzer Prize, Diane McWhorter explores her father's possible involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. Journalist June Cross, the child of a white mother and black father, probes the dilemma of race in the 2006 book "Secret Daughter."
The search often begins, as Franks's did, with the discovery of a puzzling souvenir from a clandestine past, a hidden trove of letters or the recollection of bewildering childhood memories. For Daniel Mendolsohn, author "The Lost: A Search for Six Million," it was the fact that when he was a young child, "six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that [he'd] walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry" because he looked so much like his grandfather's brother, Shmiel, who died in the Holocaust. Mendelsohn's 2006 memoir recounts false leads and surprising finds as he travels the world to track down the stories of Shmiel and his family when his own relatives couldn't give him the answers he sought. He recalls his fascination with old pictures of Shmiel and his family. The photographs, he writes, "were, after all, more fascinating than any other family pictures ... because we knew almost nothing about him, about them."
Novelist John Lanchester's new memoir, "Family Romance," describes his quest to understand a mother who spent more than a decade as a nun and lied about her age and identity. After she dies, he reconstructs her struggles with the discipline of religious life and her ultimate decision to leave at 37, when she was the principal of a school in India. "She had been crushed, suffocated by her life in the Church," Lanchester writes. But in a letter to her sister celebrating her new freedom, the first thing she writes is "Thanks be to God!" This wasn't irony, Lanchester says: "The problem was not with God—she never stopped believing in him—but with the Church and the choices, she had, she felt, been forced to make."
The former Sister Eucharia yearned for marriage and children. Soon after leaving, she almost married a man in London. His family objected; Lanchester's mother became convinced it was because of her age. When she eventually married Lanchester's father a few years later, she adopted a younger sister's birth certificate and dropped nine years. Her new husband wanted a large family and she knew that at 40, the chances of bearing even one child were slim. Lanchester was that one miracle; other pregnancies ended in miscarriages. She eventually told his father her secret, although neither parent ever told him about the deception. "My parents didn't go in for directly telling me things," he writes. "I was encouraged to figure things out for myself. The truth was allowed to emerge, over time, through hints and allusions and half-stories and implication."
The process of peeling back layers of family history turns up unexpected, and sometimes unpleasant, truths. Franks's parents had had a troubled marriage for as long as she could remember; later, she learned that her father had been involved for many years with another woman who was the real love of his life. As a young adult, she was estranged from both parents. After her mother died of colon cancer, she tried to support her father both emotionally and financially. Franks even came to accept the other woman, who was still in his life.
Clues to his demons emerged gradually. She learned, for example, that he was one of the first American soldiers to witness the brutality of a concentration camp when he and his unit entered Ohrdruf to verify accounts of atrocities. A few soldiers found ways to help the small number of survivors, but her father's unit left so quickly that he couldn't help anyone. "Perhaps if he'd stayed there long enough to save another human being, he wouldn't have to stay there for the rest of his life," Franks writes. Although it's clear that the sight of so many bodies was traumatic, Franks later concludes that it was only one of the horrors her father witnessed.
After he dies, she learns more by contacting some of his old war buddies and their families. As she leaves the home of one of them, he says, "I assume you got what you wanted." She replies, "I think I just wanted to be closer to my father." That, in essence, is the true mission of this generation of memoirists: to capture something of the person you thought you understood so well but didn't really understand at all. At the end of her journey, Franks's view of her father changes dramatically. "Did I ever know he was brave?" she writes. "I haven't lived inside a war, a revolution, a crumbling society, a state where I needed to show what I was made of every minute. But now I knew what he was made of."
Ultimately, however, no matter how dogged the search, the real truth of another person's life, even a parent's, will always be elusive. "Family life is not a neutral reality that we achieve by research and consensus," Lanchester writes, "but a story, in which the characters and the crucial actions are different depending on who is telling the story." Our parents are fundamentally unknowable to us—just as we will someday be unknowable to our children. The best any of us can hope for is acceptance.