The Bishop?s Daughter

What a shame it would be if this artful and very un-tawdry book were to suffer the fate of a “sensation” — if it were to be remembered, that is, chiefly for the gasps, spilled drinks, rumbling pulpits, and 180-degree headspins produced when The New Yorker ran an excerpt from it this March. Then again, when your memoir — be it ever so beautifully written — announces to the world that a prominent clergyman (who happened to be your father) led a secret and rather busy gay life, one supposes that a certain amount of that sort of thing is to be expected.

Paul Moore, who died in 2003, was the Episcopal bishop of New York from 1972 to 1989, and the father — with his wife, Jenny — of nine children. Honor was the first, her name a highflown pun: “I could not love thee, Deare, so much,” wrote the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, “Lov’d I not Honour more.” Thus baptized, as it were, into literature, she was guaranteed a life of writer-genic difficulties by the contradictory personality of her father. Bishop Moore was a force of charity in the world: a war hero, a friend to the poor, an activist within his church, a spiritual resource for his city. His life was an outpouring, but his eldest daughter, in the paradoxical way of these things, seems to have been left gasping for his love. Near the end of the story, as he lies confused and dying, she tries — on an impulse — to offer him physical affection. She writes:

I expected he?d cuddle in return, but instead, violently, he drew back. “I love you,” he said, an expression of terror and distaste on his face, “but not…so…close.” He tried to recover himself. “I mean I love you, but…” I had been helping finish his sentences, and so I helped him complete this one.
“…not that much.”
“Yes,” he said, holding himself apart. “Not that much.”

It?s a terrible, emblematic scene, caught in the twilight of his “sputtering synapses.” And we can?t help but pick up a distorted echo of those lines from Lovelace: I could not love thee, Deare, that much…

Bishop Moore did indeed hold himself apart. In the book?s prologue he is glimpsed as if through the eyes of a child, in the full heat of his sanctity, towering and near hallucinatory, leading the Easter service at New York?s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “When my father put on the long white alb and the colored chasuble over it, and knelt at the altar and raised his arms, he became more like Jesus still, someone without skin, without weight, in a separate dimension where everything shone from within and existed beyond any sound but music.” Then we are telescoped into the near present, to a Greenwich Village hairdressing salon where the author, now adult, catches a stray remark about her father and is obliquely confronted with his double nature, his other life, full of rumor and desire. The contrast is expertly done, all the more so because Paul Moore is not reduced by it. Each of these realms, the erotic and the sacerdotal, somehow suffuses the other, and in both of them he is — to his daughter and therefore to us — remote, potent, magical.

Honor Moore?s secret weapon against her untouchable father was therapy, lots of therapy, and her memoir, for all that the quality of the writing never flags, occasionally burrows into the underworld of the therapeutic diary. She stops sleeping with men and starts sleeping with women. She goes back to men; she goes back to women. She toils across the landscape of inwardness; life flickers around her; the prose broods and grows heavy with insight. Her eight siblings, rather strikingly, get hardly a mention. Late in the game, under pressure, Bishop Moore grimly accompanies his daughter for some joint shrinkage: ” ‘How did your homosexuality affect your life with Honor?s mother?’ the therapist kindly asked. I knew my father found this entire mode of discourse barely tolerable, but he forged ahead.” My sympathies, at least, are with the bishop here: the assumption that the reader will necessarily be more tolerant of this “mode of discourse” seems to me to be rather a dangerous one.

Then again, it is entirely due to Moore?s skill as a portraitist that we find ourselves wishing at this moment that she would leave her father alone. Meticulous, confessional, with a poet?s command of language, she presents him to us after all as a rather beautiful and inviolable mystery.

I knew that the big scars on my father?s chest and back had come from a Japanese bullet that went right through him… I knew he got shot through the chest because in the Adirondacks when he rowed with his chest bare, or took us sailing wearing just bathing trunks, his scars were part of the event — his arms rowing, his head turning in pleasure to survey the expanse of the lake…

His scars were part of the event. Bishop Moore had affairs with men through both of his marriages. His first wife intuited it; his second discovered it. When challenged he would denigrate his own homosexuality as “an addiction,” but he championed the ordination of gay priests within the Episcopal Church: this is something rather too complex to be called hypocrisy.

Bishop Moore?s ideal for St. John the Divine was that it should be a “medieval cathedral”: in the heart of life, available to all, moved by the same currents that moved the city. His own life, we now discover, was more of a sequence of locked doors. With the publication of The Bishop?s Daughter these have been thrown open, and it is a tribute to both father and daughter that we enter with no sense of trespass or illicit access, but with a renewed respect for the enigmatic depths of human nature.