The Story Of My Father

Overview

In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father as he slipped into the grasp of Alzheimer's disease. She was, she claims, perhaps the least constitutionally suited of all her siblings to be in the role in which she suddenly found herself, and in The Story of My Father she grapples with the haunting memories of those final months and the larger narrative of her father's life. With compassion, self-scrutiny, and an urgency born of her own yearning to rescue her father's memory from the disorder ...
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Overview

In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father as he slipped into the grasp of Alzheimer's disease. She was, she claims, perhaps the least constitutionally suited of all her siblings to be in the role in which she suddenly found herself, and in The Story of My Father she grapples with the haunting memories of those final months and the larger narrative of her father's life. With compassion, self-scrutiny, and an urgency born of her own yearning to rescue her father's memory from the disorder and oblivion that marked his dying and death, Sue Miller takes us on an intensely personal journey that becomes, by virtue of her enormous gifts of observation, perception, and literary precision, a universal story of fathers and daughters.

James Nichols was a fourth-generation minister, a retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary. Sue Miller brings her father brilliantly to life in these pages-his religious faith, his endless patience with his children, his gaiety and willingness to delight in the ridiculous, his singular gifts as a listener, and the rituals of church life that stayed with him through his final days. She recalls the bitter irony of watching him, a church historian, wrestle with a disease that inexorably lays waste to notions of time, history, and meaning. She recounts her struggle with doctors, her deep ambivalence about many of her own choices, and the difficulty of finding, continually, the humane and moral response to a disease whose special cruelty it is to dissolve particularities and to diminish, in so many ways, the humanity of those it strikes. She reflects, unforgettably, on the variable nature of memory, the paradox oftrying to weave a truthful narrative from the threads of a dissolving life. And she offers stunning insight into her own life as both a daughter and a writer, two roles that swell together here in a poignant meditation on the consolations of storytelling.

With the care, restraint, and consummate skill that define her beloved and best-selling fiction, Sue Miller now gives us a rigorous, compassionate inventory of two lives, in a memoir destined to offer comfort to all sons and daughters struggling-as we all eventually must-to make peace with their fathers and with themselves.
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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
When a novelist is as deft as Sue Miller at underlining the great drama and humanity in the small gestures and circumstances of everyday life, analytical types might surmise that her approach serves as a filter for interpreting her world. Her bestselling The Good Mother can be read as an encapsulation of her feelings about the conflicts of romantic entanglements with child rearing; The Distinguished Guest was a roman à clef about dealing with her charismatic, difficult mother. So her decision to write about her father and his Alzheimer's-induced decline in the form of a memoir indicates the depth of her emotions on this extremely personal matter. In the years before his eventual death, Miller's father, a retired minister, became increasingly unfamiliar to -- and dependant on -- the offspring who had grown up in awe of him. Using this steady decline as a frame for her larger narrative (her father's condition progressed from intermittent forgetfulness, confusion, and strangely charming hallucinations to frightening and violent outbursts), Miller writes touchingly of her father's life, of her place in it, and of his place in hers. At the same time, she discourses about her work, and about the writer's mining her own life experiences for art. In the end, Miller leaves us with a rare result: a book that offers instruction, information, and sympathy for the adult children of Alzheimer's sufferers and real, intuitive expression about the writer's role in experiencing and recording it. Katherine Hottinger
The New York Times
Novelists, Flaubert said, disappear behind their work. It's safe to say that memoirists do not. The Story of My Father is actually more the story of Sue Miller. Is this why memoirs are so tempting to writers? Because they give us permission to be self-serving? I ask this as someone not immune to the disease: I've written one myself. To put the best face on it, memoirs are testimonials to the private life. But they may owe their popularity to contrary forces — to our contempt for the private and the personal, both of which we seem bent on defiling. We display our secrets on the Web or reveal them to Oprah, anything to dissolve them in the acid bath of public exposure. In this respect, Miller's book should be admired for its struggle between tell-all, all-the-time revelation and the virtues of privacy and reserve. And we may hope that what she hasn't told us here is being saved for a novel. — John Vernon
Library Journal
As her father succumbs to Alzheimer's, Miller examines both his life and her own. The popular novelist will launch her first book-length piece of nonfiction with a seven-city tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a perfectly pitched memoir, novelist Miller (The World Below, 2001, etc.) movingly depicts the bittersweet emotions provoked by the toll Alzheimer’s exacted on her father. He was an ordained minister and had taught Church History at the University of Chicago and Princeton. Unlike Miller’s volatile, self-absorbed mother, who took greater pleasure in privacy than in maternity, her father was quiet, reserved, and fond of spending time with his four children. He read to them, taught them outdoor skills during their summers in Maine, and had a great gift for listening, giving their conversation his "full, generous, disinterested attention." After the author became a parent herself, she grew closer to her mother, who died suddenly, at the age of 60, in 1979. Miller resumed her old intimacy with her father, showing him her short stories, which were beginning to be published and spending summers with him in New Hampshire fixing up the house he had bought there. In retrospect, she recognizes that he already had Alzheimer’s. He confessed to being unable to read or write since his wife died, but Miller attributed those symptoms to depression. He wore the same clothes often, but he had always been an abstracted man, caught up in the world of ideas. Six years after her mother died, Miller got a phone call from the police, who had found her father wandering around the countryside in western Massachusetts. He was clearly disoriented, and his children realized he could no longer live alone. Miller eventually became responsible for him, visiting almost daily at the nursing home and monitoring his care. She affectingly details his long decline as well as what is known about Alzheimer’s. Writing thismemoir, she finds, brings her consolation; her father, she realizes, had never needed it because of his faith: "for him his life and death already made sense." A loving and eloquent tribute from a talented daughter. (11 photos) First printing of 75,000; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375431913
  • Publisher: Random House Large Print
  • Publication date: 3/11/2003
  • Edition description: Large Type Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.08 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Biography

Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.

While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.

In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.

Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction -- the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father -- was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization.

Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford. A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains: "For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems ... charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic."

Good To Know

Here are some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Sue Miller:
  • "I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries -- the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way."

  • "I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above."

  • "I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling -- it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too -- the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding -- it's almost a form of meditation."

  • "I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings -- always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always."

  • "I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.

  • "I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation -- it's one of life's deepest pleasures."
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      1. Hometown:
        Boston, Massachusetts
      1. Date of Birth:
        November 29, 1943
      2. Place of Birth:
        Chicago, Illinois
      1. Education:
        B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

    Interviews & Essays

    A Conversation with Sue Miller

    Q: This is by far the most personal work you've written to date. Was it difficult to reveal your family to your readers?
    A:
    I did feel some sense of responsibility about what I revealed about my family in this book. I tried to be very careful of those members of my family, mostly my siblings, who are still alive -- not to write anything which might wound one of them. I think there are things in the book which may, not because of the way they are presented, but rather that they are painful facts. I felt comfortable writing about my father because I thought he would have liked my making some use for other people out of his illness.

    Q: Did you consider weaving elements of your father's life into a novel or short story instead of writing a nonfiction book about him?
    A:
    In fact, I have woven elements of my father's life—and the lives of almost everyone I know! — into my fiction. I've even woven elements of his illness and the events that happened during his illness into my fiction. There's a section of THE DISTINGUISHED GUEST which I mention in the memoir in which I refer, fictionally, to the way he tore up all his letters to and from my mother. And in FOR LOVE I wrote a passage about my main character's taking dictation for a letter to herself from her mother, something which also happened to me and my father. There are no doubt others which aren't so closely imitative of life, and which I'm less conscious of.

    Q: Your novels are beloved for their seamless and intertwined storylines. Was it difficult to find the narrative thread necessary to tell a real life story?
    A:
    I would bepleased if what you say is true. And certainly one of the great difficulties for me in writing this book was structuring it. I threw away more than I kept, and I reordered everything I kept many times over. In the end, the book moves generally chronologically, but it stops and turns many times to look at issues raised by events going on; or history outside the chronology connected to other events. It took me literally years to figure out how I wanted to do this.

    Q: Your parents were very dramatic people. Please tell us a little about them and their influence on your writing.
    A:
    My mother was dramatic. My father was quiet and gentle, a little dry, certainly primarily intellectual. They made a dramatic contrast, though, and one I think everyone in my family was aware of. Both of them were wonderful writers, exacting and careful with language in very different ways. Both of them were passionate readers. Both believed in the power of language to move and console and redeem the listener, the reader. All of that was a gift to me as a writer.

    Q: When you pieced together memories of your father, did you discover parts of him you'd forgotten or perhaps had never known?
    A:
    A good deal of the book, particularly the last passages of the book, are taken up with this idea, that it is possible to go on learning about someone who has died, to change the way you understand them even after death. That this is one of the ways we continue to be connected to those we love.

    Q: When did you first realize that your father was ill? How long did it take to diagnose his illness as Alzheimer's disease?
    A:
    I think I had a sense fairly soon after my mother's death in 1979 that something was powerfully wrong with my father. He was sixty-five then, and Alzheimer's disease wasn't the first thing I thought of—in fact, depression was. But over time it seemed clear that some degenerative process was at work in him. He wasn't diagnosed, though, until 1986. This was mostly because it wasn't until then that he moved near enough to one of us—my sister, at that point—for her to take charge of seeking a diagnosis. Before then, he'd been in charge of his own medical care, and it seemed he didn't ask about his failures in a way that could have led to being tested.

    Q: What aspect of caring for your father was most difficult?
    A:
    There was no aspect that wasn't difficult, as everything was colored by the illness, even idle moments, even small decisions—to say nothing of large ones. But there were many moments too which were genuinely pleasurable, even towards the end.

    Q: Did you ever have a moment when you thought you couldn't handle the responsibility of caring for him?
    A:
    No. There were moments when I wished I didn't have to, moments when I didn't think I was doing a good job. But I never thought I couldn't do it.

    Q: Your father was a minister. What role did his spirituality play as the disease progressed?
    A:
    This is hard for me to know, exactly. I think early on it helped him enormously to accept that he was ill, and to accept the changes in his life we had to make because of his illness. I'm not sure what it consisted in as he grew more demented—whether you could have said he was still a Christian, for instance. Or a believer, in anything like the way he'd once been. Whether he felt the presence of God, as he'd been sure he did earlier in his life. But he could always be comforted by the language of religion, by prayer in a familiar form, by passages from the Bible read aloud. By hymns. There seemed to be something which stilled him and brought him peace in all of that.

    Q: Do you worry that one day your son may have to care for you in the same way?
    A:
    Of course.

    Q: Do you also wonder how he'll remember you?
    A:
    I don't, really. I feel that my son knows me well—I would say, that he understands me, in most ways. I don't know what changes age may bring to me, and certainly it seems entirely possible that I might eventually end up being changed profoundly, in the way my father was. What my son may make of that, if it happens, will be part of who he is and has become, as well as part of who I am and have been with him.

    Q: Like your novels, there are many levels to this book. It seemed a journey for you, but also a tribute to your father. Do you think you wrote the book more for yourself, or for your father?
    A:
    I think that moved and shifted, more than several times, as I worked through the writing of the book. In the end, I suppose, I think that every book a writer writes, she writes for herself. But I was aware of hoping, as I finished the final revision, that it was a book my father would have liked, would have seen a justification for.

    Q: Are you working on a new novel?
    A:
    I am. Though I've been slow to turn to it.
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