Anna Godbersen on fathers, daughters and life imitating art

by Anna Godbersen

I suppose every writer has a life imitates art story, and this is mine.

At the end of summer, I sent my agent a hundred pages of what I hoped would become my first novel for grownups, and flew to Greece. This should have felt triumphant and in many ways it did. The conceit was that a KGB agent has manipulated Marilyn Monroe’s famous daddy issues and thus compelled her to spy on President John F. Kennedy, which I believed was a glamorous and wild enough premise to attract all kinds of readers; and yet writing it had been intensely personal, and had allowed me to get at my own ideas about men and women, performance and identity, safety and risk. Although I had already published several young adult novels, the Marilyn project gave me a finer sense of what I was capable of as a writer and I was on my way to meet good friends in a faraway, sun-soaked place. If it weren’t my life, I’d feel choked with envy.

But I was apprehensive, too, nervous that my pages would be rejected or neglected and anxious over painful upheavals in my family. At 62, my father’s body and mind were already ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, and his doctor had recommended deep brain stimulation surgery, a procedure that returns control of lives and limbs to many living with Parkinson’s. I felt guilty for not being in California for the surgery and I worried that he didn’t have enough fight to come back from a procedure that invasive and disorienting. When we were a young family Dad and I were the closest members of our nuclear unit, similar creatures with our own dry dialect. He was an overeducated cab driver and for as long as I can remember he has been depressed and discouraged by life. When I was a little girl I had listened to his song of despair and concluded it was the one thing he would never abandon.

But my mother had reassured me that I shouldn’t cancel my plans, and I was relieved to land in Athens and make my way to the rugged Peloponnesian peninsula. The first half of my father’s procedure―during which a kind of neurological pacemaker was implanted on one side of his brain―had gone well, and when we spoke on the phone he sounded groggy but OK. He even managed to make something like a joke (although it feels cruel to recall the details of that joke now). I spent afternoons swimming in the Mediterranean, marveling at its color, finally understanding why the ancients called it the wine-dark sea. My friends and I rode bicycles to remote beaches, hiked to ruins, drank rosé at sunset, and ate dinner at 10 o’clock. On days like that, you just know everything is going to turn out all right. Then my father came out of the second surgery, for the other side of his brain, and I had a presentiment of things going in the other direction.

The doctors didn’t immediately realize that he’d had a stroke on the operating table, or otherwise it happened later, at the rehabilitation center. But I could hear it in my mother’s voice that something was off. I considered leaving that night, but rearranging international flights promised to create more problems than it solved, and anyway, I had only two more days in Greece. The following day, I bicycled by myself through little crumbling towns where old men drank beer around plastic tables to a horseshoe-shaped beach. To protect my face from the sun I wore Dad’s San Francisco Giants hat, which was old, and too big for my head, and smelled like him. You would not believe the sun that day, a divine golden light that filtered through the leaves and made everyone appear young. I swam far out into the cove and floated on my back, thinking how much Dad would have loved that light, that water, that day. Perhaps he’d never travel again, and so I tried to enjoy it double. If I could be completely present with the experience of that place, I figured it would be his, too, and everybody’s.

At twilight I biked home, pedaling fast so my hair would dry in the wind and had a last dinner with my friends, whose children ran around the little square laughing and happy. It wasn’t until morning that I realized I didn’t have Dad’s hat anymore. Either I had left it on the beach or it had fallen out of my bag on the ride. I’d never know. It was just gone and with it any sense of well-being. Even with the traumas of the following months — seeing my father in the hospital, unable to walk or recognize me, the medieval sutures rising off his freshly shaved skull, the implications of the social workers, which were that he might not live, his hat never lost its grip. My heart seized every time I thought of it: proof that my father’s broken brain, his vacant eyes, were my fault.

Those were bleak months back home in Berkeley―I drove my rented Yaris to the hospital, read the Kurt Vonnegut novels my dad had given me in junior high, went to bed early. I used a lot of hand sanitizer and ate a lot of starchy soup at the hospital cafeteria. Meanwhile my book proposal had gone out to editors, but the world was quiet on its fate, and I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Everything else was ending, so why not that dream, too? But, in a strange twist, it was a piece of my own writing that helped me forgive myself about the Giants hat. One evening, reading over those pages to see if I were crazy, if they had ever been any good, I found a passage in which my character loses his father’s hat. The purpose of the scene is to introduce Agent Walls, who the FBI has assigned to spy on Marilyn. He is trying to extract himself from a one-night stand without saying goodbye, and realizes that he has screwed the maneuver by leaving his father’s hat in the young woman’s apartment. I hadn’t thought that a lost hat was a particularly clever metaphor―it was just a shortcut to Walls’s world and his relationship to his parents. But that I had already written about misplacing parental headwear, the outsized agony of it, made me feel that I hadn’t blundered. More like I had been onto something all along.

That night, still weirded out by the coincidence, I told my mom the story and she reminded me that The Luxe, my series set in the Gilded Age, ends with a similar sequence. She handed me the final installment, and there I found a scene in which Diana, the rebellious second daughter of an old money New York family waiting to board a steamship that will take her away from New York and her first lover, feels a gust of wind pluck the lover’s hat off her head and must watch as it is whisked away from her forever. At first she is overcome with regret, but then she realizes that it is more fitting, from “a literary perspective,” to leave the hat and the boyfriend at the same time. (Diana has literary dreams, too.)

When I thought about it, the hat trick seemed kind of obvious. But I had come to it honestly, which is to say unconsciously. I wouldn’t have lost my father’s hat by choice―it just had to happen, and once it had I saw how much I needed to give up thinking like him. Even if his mind was still in good order, I couldn’t live there. Despite my fears, he was gaining in strength―the doctors said he’d be coming home soon. He’d never be the same, but he had life in him yet and I was old enough to be my own woman and tell my own story. The week I bought a plane ticket back to New York I got a call from my agent saying a handful of publishers were interested in my book, which was―as I saw more clearly than before―about a woman whose yearning for a father figure warps her life and puts her in danger. Offers would be in by Friday. I was still a writer, after all.

The_Luxe_bookcover2© 2014 Anna Godbersen, author of The Blonde

Anna Godbersen, author of The Blonde, is the New York Times bestselling author of The Luxe and Bright Young Things. Anna grew up in Berkeley, California, graduated from Barnard College, and lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

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