Cover image for The story of my father : a memoir
The story of my father : a memoir
Miller, Sue, 1943-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003.
Physical Description:
173 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PS3563.I421444 Z475 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PS3563.I421444 Z475 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
PS3563.I421444 Z475 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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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 of trying 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.

Author Notes

Sue Miller was born November 29, 1943. She received a B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1964. She was a high school teacher, a cocktail waitress and a model before becoming a full time mother. Soon after the birth of her child, she divorced her first husband. Afterwards, she founded the Harvard Day Care Centers and worked as a preschool teacher. At the age of 35, she began writing after joining a writing workshop.

Her first novel The Good Mother (1986), which is about a divorced woman caught up in a fierce custody battle, was on the bestsellers list for six months. Her other works include Family Pictures (1990), For Love (1993), The Distinguished Guest (1995), and While I Was Gone (1999). She also has a short story collection titled Inventing the Abbotts and Other Stories (1987).

Several of her books have been adapted into movies including The Good Mother (1988), which was directed by Leonard Nimoy and starred Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson; Family Pictures (1993), which starred Anjelica Houston and Sam Neill; and Inventing the Abbotts (1997), which starred Liv Tyler. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Smith College.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Miller's heartbreaking story of her gentle clergyman father's descent into Alzheimer's disease is part bibliotherapy, part memoir as she struggles to conquer her grief and banish her last haunting images of him, hoping to reclaim him as the loving parent he was for most of his life. In 1986, Miller is forced to starkly confront her father's illness when she receives a telephone call from the police, who have detained him; he is terribly disoriented and has lost his car. Like an archaeologist, Miller begins to sift and resift the past, looking for clues to the onset of the illness. Then eloquently, always eloquently, she sounds the universal chord of dismay felt by children forced to watch helplessly as their parents are beset by grave illness: "This could not be what was happening to Dad. Not to my father. That he would be diminished, and diminished again, before he died? That I would lose him, over and over, before the final loss?" Miller's book is another fine addition to the growing body of poignant literature on dealing with Alzheimer's, such as, most recently, Eleanor Cooney's Death in Slow Motion (see p.814). Joanne Wilkinson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Miller's first nonfiction book (after While I Was Gone; The World Below; etc.), about caring for her Alzheimer's-afflicted father, is a rare example of an illness memoir with widespread appeal. Prospective readers need not have any interest in Alzheimer's; they need only have parents of their own to appreciate this testimony's dignity and grace. Miller's father, James Nichols, started showing signs of dementia in 1986, when he was picked up by the police after ringing a stranger's doorbell in the middle of the night, announcing he was lost. Miller's careful recounting of James's slow demise and progression through the various stages of an assisted living community are punctuated by pleasant memories and even humor, e.g., when James, a retired religious scholar, assesses his surroundings and comments, "No one ever seems to graduate from here." As she recalls childhood stories and family memories, Miller simultaneously offers a memoir of her own development as a writer. "[T]his is the hardest lesson... for a caregiver: you can never do enough to make a difference in the course of the disease," Miller writes. "We always find ourselves deficient in devotion.... Did you visit once a week? you might have visited twice. Oh, you visited daily? but perhaps he would have done better if you'd kept him at home. In the end all those judgments, those self-judgments, are pointless. This disease is inexorable, cruel. It scoffs at everything." 11 photos. BOMC alternate. (Mar. 19) Forecast: Miller's popularity among women readers of literary works-many whom are probably dealing with aging parents themselves-could shoot this one onto bestseller lists, and Knopf shouldn't have trouble selling out its 75,000 first printing. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This first nonfiction work from novelist Miller (The World Below) is a thoughtful remembrance of her relationship with her father, especially during his later years, when his memory loss caused by Alzheimer's became apparent. It is also a meditation on the meaning of writing in her life. A clergyman and church historian, James Nichols was an occasionally absent but always attentive father during Miller's childhood. Although father and daughter grew apart as she struggled to launch her writing career, their bond rekindled as Nichols's memory impairment became evident and his independence declined. After his diagnosis, she helped him restore an old house and found him assisted living and then nursing home care as he gradually disappeared into a world of hallucinations and delusions that turned increasingly violent. Near the end of his life, Miller realized that "my father's illness would be progressive, no matter what I did. You can never make a difference in the course of the disease." After ten years, many false starts, and two more novels, she finally completed this memoir. While writing enabled her to "snatch him back from the meaninglessness of Alzheimer's," it also deepened her understanding of what her father's disease and death meant to him. More reflective than Eleanor Cooney's Death in Slow Motion, this includes little of the medical information found in Charles P. Pierce's Hard To Forget: An Alzheimer's Story. Miller's very personal account is a marvelous addition to the growing literature of Alzheimer's memoirs and will appeal to fans of her novels as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/02.]-Karen McNally Bensing, Benjamin Rose Lib., Cleveland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One   SOME QUALITY in my father's voice always changed when he spoke of my uncles--the one who'd been incarcerated in a federal prison in the Second World War, and the one who'd given a year of his life at that time to alternate service. I don't remember now how or even whether my father explained their choices to me, or how I came to know what those choices were; but long before I understood any of that, I understood by the shift in my father's voice how much he admired them. I understood that he believed they'd done the right thing, the hard thing.   They were conscientious objectors, my uncles, in a war that was seen as "good" and "just"--though they made their stand even before America entered that war, when they were required to register for the draft in 1940, the first peacetime draft in the nation's history. Both of my uncles felt that even in a just war--perhaps especially in a just war-- men should follow their conscience. Like my father, both were radical Christians. They believed that the Jesus who conceived of human life as having the potential for moral goodness was speaking of a necessary action to be taken when he called on his followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecuted them, to turn the other cheek to those who struck them.   And so my uncles acted. One of them refused to acknowledge that the state might have the right to command him to kill another human being and didn't register at all; he was the one who went to jail. The other registered but asked to be exempted from that command on religious grounds and was given alternative service.   For years I didn't think to question my father about his own choices during World War Two. I suppose I assumed, on those rare occasions when it might have occurred to me to think about it at all, that he had escaped the issue somehow because of having children--my older brother was born in August of 1941. I'm not sure when I learned he'd taken the exemption available to him as an ordained minister, or whether that too was just an assumption, accurate in this case. At any rate, it is what I finally assumed. And then further assumed that the tone of awe and admiration that rose in his voice for my uncles, and for his other pacifist friends who did what my uncles did, rose because he admired their greater courage, their greater conviction than his own. Certainly he never said anything that would have led me to think anything else.   After his death, though, I was sorting through the few papers he'd left behind and I came upon a letter that called up for question all of my assumptions. It was addressed to my father in October of 1940, and it was from another young man, also a minister, someone who must have believed--as, it became clear, my father had too--that when Christ spoke of loving your enemies, he was asking for something rather specific from you.   The letter said: Dear Mr. Nichols: It was a great joy to learn that I am not the only person in this part of the country who has decided that there can be absolutely no compromise with conscription. Notice of your refusal to register and a copy of your statement to the registration board reached me by way of a clipping from the Dispatch sent by my parents in St. Paul.   The young man went on to ask about my father's family's attitude toward his position, to speak of the support he had from his family, to inquire about what the repercussions had been from my father's employer, and ended:   More strength to you in your stand. Sincerely yours, Rev. Winslow Wilson.   I was stunned, reading this. Everything I'd understood about my father's behavior at that time had been simply wrong. He had refused, my father! He had, in fact, taken the most extreme course possible in resisting and because of this had become, momentarily, a public person, written up in the St. Paul Dispatch. My father, modest, shy as he was, had made a difficult, unpopular, public stand.   And suddenly it seemed utterly right to me that resistance had been his wish, his intention. It made a kind of emotional sense that caused me to feel, instantly, how little sense my earlier more or less unframed assumptions had made. Of course! I thought. And with that thought it was as though my father stepped forward to meet me as he had been in 1940: twenty-five years old, newly married, teaching literature and history and religion at his first real job, as an assistant professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. That stage of his life--and he in it--had always been indistinct to me, as the lives of parents before their children exist always are to those children; but now, holding this letter in my hands, I remembered anew and vividly the numerous photographs in our family albums of him then--a slender young man, intense-looking and handsome, with a shock of dark hair swept back from his high forehead. A radical young man, it would seem. More radical in many ways than my own son was now. A young man ready, perhaps even eager, to embrace the fate his powerful beliefs were calling him to. Sitting there, I felt a rush of love and pity for him in his youth, in his passionate convictions--really, the same feeling I often had for my son when he argued his heartfelt positions. Abruptly, they seemed alike to me and equally dear: my father, my son. I felt as though my father had been waiting for this moment to be born to me as the young man he'd been, so touchingly willing to bear witness to his conscience; and the surprise of this new sense of him, this birth, was a gift to me, a sudden balm in those days of my most intense grief.   But what had called him back? What made him turn away from his choice?--which would have been hard, of course, but satisfying too, in the way that acting on our deepest feelings and commitments is always satisfying. What made him take the easier path, the one that kept him safe, home, out of prison--the exemption--but the path that also denied him the satisfaction of acting on his beliefs, that pride of bearing witness?   He'd kept another letter in the envelope with the one from the young Reverend Wilson, and this one I can't quote from; it angered me so much that I threw it away after reading it. It was written a few months after Winslow Wilson's, and it was from my grandfather, my mother's father. It counseled my father against taking the path that beckoned him. As part of its argument, it pointed to my mother's pregnancy--which she must just have discovered--and it suggested, terribly delicately, a kind of vulnerability, perhaps even a slight . . . instability . . . on her part, to which my father would be abandoning her and their child if he were imprisoned. Of course, the letter said, if my father truly felt this was the right thing to do, to ask my mother to manage this difficult situation, he and my grandmother (they lived nearby; he was the pastor of a large and prominent Minneapolis church) would do all they could to provide the support she would need in my father's absence.   There was more. My grandfather called up the contract my father would be breaking with the college, the responsibilities he'd undertaken there that he would be abandoning; but again he affirmed his support, "of course," if my father felt this was the right thing to do.   For fifty years my father had kept these two letters together, the one that embraced him in his decision and confirmed his choice to make his life a kind of witness to his faith and beliefs, and the other, which cautioned against it. And during all those years he'd spoken not a word of regret, of bitterness or sorrow, for the choice he'd made in the end. He'd never even made an accounting of that choice in my presence--as if in making his decision he'd lost forever the right to speak of the beliefs he hadn't acted on.   I was sitting in my own sunny living room in Boston when I read these letters. I stayed there for a while, staring out at the red-brick church across the street, thinking about this new sense of my father and welcoming it. And then I remembered, I realized, that I in fact did have a written explanation he'd made of himself and of his choice.   I went up to my study and scrambled through my files of family papers until I found it. It was a homily my father had given at my older brother's wedding. This is it, in its entirety:   There is a certain similarity between marriage and the Christian religion, which is suggested by the text in our gospel reading: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you."   The dominant note at the beginning of marriage is the joy of mutual possessing, of a "choosing" triumphantly accomplished. And this is as it should be.   So in religion there is at the beginning often a searching and a choosing, an affirming of that good which one may serve with conviction. And this too is as it should be. But in time we see more. We become aware that our seeking and our choosing is not so self-determined as we had thought, but our response to a Seeker who had already found us. We come to understand that text: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you."   So with marriage we understand more in time. Deeper than the joy of a "choosing" triumphantly fulfilled is the awareness of a need to be met, of a claim acknowledged. Few things are as potent to give meaning to life as the sense of answering a need and fulfilling a responsibility which no one else can meet.   It is wonderful indeed that we can choose and achieve our choice, but still more wonderful that we are chosen.   Reading the homily in this new context made it more moving to me than it had been the first times I'd read it. And like the revelation that my father would have chosen to resist conscription, it seemed suddenly right to me, more deeply right than before. It made me understand him. My father, a young impassioned man, had chosen twice, and twice he'd chosen in joy and triumph--his faith and my mother. And then it turned out that each of those two choices presented the "claim" to be "acknowledged" he spoke of in the homily. Further, it turned out that those claims, as construed by my grandfather and--I must assume--as accepted in that construction by my father, conflicted. My father had to find a way to reconcile them or to decide which claim took precedence. In the event, he honored the personal claim, the smaller, more private one, and never spoke of the decision again.   My older brother's wedding, for which the homily was written, took place in 1968. Sixteen years later, when I was to be married for the second time, I asked my father to preside as minister at the ceremony; and, having checked with my brother and sister-in-law first, I asked him to read the same homily he'd read at their wedding, which I'd found so moving even without yet understanding its fullest implications in my father's life.   My father said yes. But when the moment came for that part of the service, something seemed to go wrong in him. He held the paper in front of him, but he didn't seem to be able to read it. I tried to indicate to him that it was all right--I leaned forward, I think I touched his arm. After a moment, his voice shaking, he spoke a few improvised words in place of the homily and then pronounced his blessing on us.   Excerpted from The Story of My Father: A Memoir by Sue Miller All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.