Book Reviews, Memoir

The Stories We Tell | An analysis of Mary Gordon’s “The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father”

Pieter Claeszoon - Still Life with a Skull and...
Pieter Claeszoon – Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This semester, I am taking a graduate-level course in women’s life writing, partially in an attempt to generate interesting and intellectual content for my blog. Throughout this course, we will be writing “course autobiographies” on some of the texts we are reading. The following is my analysis of Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.

The stories we tell

The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father is the story of a woman who has based her life on the testimony of unreliable witnesses. Her entire sense of self is disrupted when she realizes that many of the stories she has lived by are not true. While this is not the type of text I would normally choose to read for fun, I do believe it holds value as a teaching tool. In addition to telling the story of Mary Gordon’s search for her father, this text also sets an example of how all humans construct stories about who they are.

In the earlier sections of this text, Gordon conducts an outward search, looking for facts about her father in order to prove that he existed in the real world and not only in her own mind. She rejoiced in his name “because it was a proof that I did not make my father up. Proof that I could believe in what seemed too good to be true: he generated me, he came before me, he was waiting for me, preparing the world” (111). Although Gordon is able to prove her father existed, she learns he is not the man she thought he was. John Mepham and Sarah Sceats tell us, “The point of life writing [is] that it attempts, from confusion, to construct coherent selves and intelligible life narratives” (Fuchs et al 97). When Gordon’s search for her father creates confusion rather than shedding light on her personal story, she is forced to construct a new life narrative that makes sense and places her in the world today, “among the living” (205).

In “Section IV: Seeing Past the Evidence,” the author’s voice changes dramatically. She stops searching for facts – for the “truth” – about her father and instead starts making up her own stories about him. She seems to be trying on new ideas of her father in an attempt to determine which one will fit her best. She acts as a police investigator who is determined to solve a cold case. She begins by examining the “scraps of evidence” (167-168) that she has collected, then moves on to examine the few proven facts that she has been able to uncover (168-169). Gordon approaches the case from several different angles, first impersonating her father (170-172) and then trying to be him. However, none of these strategies works for her. The case is too cold, the witnesses either dead or too confused to provide clarification. In the end, she must accept that her father is dead, and she can never truly know him. Nevertheless, she finally determines that he is still her father (193-194). She will accept him as he was and love him anyway.

While the author dedicates so much of her “memoir” to figuring out who her father was, she leaves the reader wondering, “Who is Mary Gordon?” For most of her life, she envisioned herself as her father’s daughter. She seems to have never thought of herself as her mother’s daughter. When she realizes that the man she knew her father to be never truly existed, she suddenly becomes no one’s daughter. On the very first page of this text, the author tells us, “This was only the last and perhaps most obvious stop on a journey of discovery and loss, of loss and re-creation, of the shedding of illusion and the taking on of what might be another illusion, but one of my own” (XIII).

In the end, Gordon circles back around to her father’s name as her proof that he did exist. By moving David Gordon’s remains and putting his name on his own family grave, she is proving his existence for once and for all. “And here is his name,” she writes. “He will cease to be anonymous. He will no longer be one of the unmarked dead” (262). With that, she puts the finishing touches on her version of her father’s story and is finally able to put him to rest.

In the end, Gordon constructs a new story about who she is. It may still be an artificial construct, but it is one she can live with. The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father is a good choice as an introductory text for a life writing course because it illustrates the concept of constructing stories as a way of explaining a life. This text will provide a framework for considering truth value in all of the remaining texts that we will read for this course.

Works Cited

Fuchs, Miriam, and Craig Howes. Teaching Life Writing Texts. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Gordon, Mary. The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father. New York: Vintage, Print.

Read with me

The next book I will be reading and analyzing is Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody. Buy it now for only $5.44 and read along with me so we can chat about it when we’re done!

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