An award-winning poet offers a multi-generational portrait of an American family—weaving together the lives of his ancestors, his parents, and his own coming of age in the 60s and 70s in the wake of his father’s suicide, in this superbly written, “fiercely honest” (Nick Flynn) memoir.
The fifth of eight children, Chris Forhan was born into a family of silence. He and his siblings learned, without being told, that certain thoughts and feelings were not to be shared. On the evenings his father didn’t come home, the rest of the family would eat dinner without him, his whereabouts unknown, his absence pronounced but not mentioned. And on a cold night in 1973, just before Christmas, Forhan’s father killed himself in the carport.
Forty years later, Forhan “bravely considers the way he is and is not his father’s son” (Larry Watson), digging into his family’s past and finding within each generation the same abandonment, loss, and silence in which he was raised. Like Ian Frazier in Family or Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, Forhan shows his family members as both a part and a product of their time. My Father Before Me is a family history, an investigation into a death, and a stirring portrait of growing up in an Irish Catholic childhood, all set against a backdrop of America from the Great Depression to the Ramones.
Marrying the literary scope of memoirists Geoffrey Wolff and J.R. Moehringer with the intensity of family novels like The Corrections and We Are Not Ourselves, My Father Before Me is the kind of epic, immersive memoir that comes along once in a decade.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for My Father Before Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope that these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Chris Forhan was fourteen, his father killed himself in the carport of his family’s Seattle home. Much of Forhan’s father’s life was a secret. Forty years later, Forhan sets out to discover the roots of his father’s stoicism, an exploration that takes him back multiple generations.
Forhan mines his family history—from the hardscrabble immigrant lives of his ancestors, to his parents’ courtship and marriage, to his own childhood memories of a man whose life was shaded by contradiction and mystery. Out of tragedy Forhan discovers his resilience, his voice, and his own passion for life.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Forhan often returns to the theme of silence as it relates to his father’s suicide. He writes, “Suicide is a paradox: self-expression through self-annihilation. It’s the last word: perfect, unanswerable” (page 12). As an accomplished poet, Forhan chooses to fill that silence with language and imagery. How does poetry both overcome silence and inspire it?
2. Ed Forhan’s inability or unwillingness to teach his children “to fathom and navigate [their] inner lives” made him “a typical father of his generation and perhaps a typical Irishman, deft at employing his charmingly wry wit to deflect attention from what unsettled him, what he could not possibly begin to talk about” (page 80). Does your own experience with the generation that came of age in the 1940s and ’50s match this observation? How does this portrayal compare to “the immigrant’s habit of hard work” described on page 100?
3. Reflecting on the relationship between his maternal grandparents, Forhan describes “two selves” within each individual: our internal self (the self we think we are) and our external self (the roles we inhabit). Where else in the book do you see two selves within one person? How does the consumerism of “1949, boom time in America” and the notion that “people did not talk about the self much then” fit into this theory of private and public selves (pages 32 to 33)?
4. Forhan explains his evolving thoughts on Catholicism by wondering about his father: “Maybe he was a Catholic in the way he was an orphan and grandson and father: it was something that happened to him, so it was something that he was, not something to think about” (page 121). How do Forhan’s childhood experiences inform the way he comes to distance himself from the Catholic faith? How, alternatively, do his experiences contribute to his adult sense of the issues with which religion grapples?
5. Forhan says that “we never shake the essential emotional experiences of our childhood; in fact, we create a life in which we oblige ourselves to revisit them” (page 293). Why do you think we always harken back to our early childhood experiences? How is this book a road map for overcoming past trauma?
6. Forhan often acknowledges the unreliability of memory, at one point writing that some memories are “indelible, perhaps, because they [are] half real and half created by imagination” (page 91). Where does memory intersect with imagination in the book?
7. From wanting to be one of the Beatles to closely identifying with Elvis Costello, Forhan has a youth filled with a love for music. How do these references enhance your sense of the era? In which moments do you see his immersion in music informing who he will become as an adult?
8. Much of the behavior in Ed Forhan’s life that confuses or frightens his children—his car crashes, days spent sleeping, missed dinners—might be explained by his diabetic condition. Yet when Forhan feigns delight in his father’s erratic driving, his mother chastises him. Forhan writes, “[T]he curtain between the child’s world and the adult’s lifted; I glimpsed a darkness, an uncertainty I was living in and rarely sensed but that my mother was aware of constantly” (page 164). At what point in the book do you feel Forhan becomes aware of dysfunction in his family? How does his reaction to his father’s behavior change over time?
9. While his father was a joiner, Forhan harbors an early distrust for organizations, beginning with the Boy Scouts. How is Forhan’s ultimate career path a rejection of his father’s ideology?
10. When Forhan hides from his parents the fact that his gerbil has died, he observes that he has “begun to nurture a protective privacy” (page 117). How do Bick Bark (page 228) and Forhan’s sense that he can disappear behind personas reflect this instinct for privacy?
11. Compare the day Forhan’s family celebrates his mother’s birthday “as if we were rehearsing for a future in which [their father] would not exist” (page 167) with the “relief” he experiences when his father dies (page 198). What other seemingly unusual reactions to moments of pain or grief do you notice in the book?
12. Through college and the years immediately following, Forhan measures his own artistic integrity and success against his brother Kevin’s. As early as their family vacation to Disneyland he appreciates that “for Kevin, to have an experience inevitably meant to observe himself having it and therefore to feel its joy or solemnity or horror but also its absurdity or strangeness or wonder. He was conscious of being conscious” (pages 178–79). How do the brothers come to mutually inform one another’s poetic sensibilities as they venture into adulthood?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. On page 254, Forhan shares an anecdote about an inspiring teacher, Mrs. Myers, who encouraged him to keep pursuing his poetry. Think back to one of your own teachers who inspired or humbled you. Share the memory with your book club. Discuss similarities and differences between stories.
2. When Forhan’s wife hears that his mother told him about the dress she wore the first time she was intimate with his father, she is surprised that Forhan did not ask for more details. But Forhan already decided that “out of politeness, or fear, or a sense of how easily interest becomes intrusiveness and a thirst for the truth becomes a hunger for the sensational, I will not ask everything” (page 26). Have you ever avoided asking a loved one about the details of an event? What were your motivations? Discuss.
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