“Families,” a therapist once told me. “They keep us in business.”
Writers would most likely say the same. The title alone of Chris Offutt’s memoir, “My Father, the Pornographer,” implies a lifetime of material. Res ipsa loquitur, as they say in tort law. The thing speaks for itself.
If I am counting correctly, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V wrote over 370 works of published pornography before he died in 2013 and hundreds more that never made it into print. He could write a book in three days, if need be. He kept his raw material in three-ring notebooks, 80 percent of them devoted to descriptions of female body parts. (Talk about binders of women.) His specialty and personal passion was sadomasochism, but he could write with commanding dexterity about a cascade of fetishes and perversions, all in a seemingly limitless variety of settings.
“Dad wrote pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, vampire porn, historical porn, time-travel porn, secret agent porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn,” Offutt writes. And that was just in 1972.
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There’s a reason Offutt knows his father’s oeuvre so well. Years before he died, Andy Offutt wrote a secret will that charged his oldest son with the dismantling and disposal of the contents of his home office. “On you, Chris, I decided this task and onus must fall,” he wrote, “and this is oh-fficial.”
What this means, practically speaking, is that the book begins with Offutt – the author of a novel, two short-story collections, two previous memoirs and a host of TV screenplays (for “True Blood,” “Weeds,” “Treme”) – driving back to his childhood home in Haldeman, Kentucky, first to see his father die, and then to go on a major spelunking expedition in his father’s office, which had barely been touched in a decade.
As this memoir buzzes along, though, what becomes clear is that the real obscenity of Offutt’s childhood had little to do with his father’s profession. It had to do with his father’s cruelty, and the fragile, frightening nature of his ego, big as the Hindenburg and every bit as flammable. “You'll always be afraid of him, you know,” Offutt’s brother, Jeff, once told him. It wasn’t until their father died that the author realized he was right.
With “My Father, the Pornographer,” Offutt attempts to make sense of the narrowly rational man who terrorized his family and led a semi-secret professional life. I took it in in two hungry sittings, which I’m guessing is how long it took Andy Offutt to dispatch his bottles of bourbon. I am not sure he deserved such a generous reminiscence from his son. But at 57, Chris Offutt is ruminative and melancholy. He’s long outgrown the need to be angry.
Andy Offutt feuded with just about everyone he knew, including his children. He made it plain that he didn’t even like children, which is a shame, because he had four. (Catholic.) He seemed to tolerate marriage slightly better, but only because his wife was well practiced in the art of self-annihilation. (She typed his manuscripts.) When he first made the choice to be a professional writer at 36, abandoning his job as a traveling insurance salesman, a smog of anxiety descended over the house. As he pecked away at his typewriter, his children feared speaking too loudly, laughing too loudly, even urinating too loudly.
Only in his late 30s did Offutt seem to realize that his father was suffering from a “genuine psychological malady.” He never says precisely what it is. But any armchair diagnostician with the latest DSM could make a few educated guesses.
During their childhoods, Offutt and his siblings certainly had a dim notion of what their father did for a living. Though he was ostensibly a writer of science-fiction and fantasy novels (he published 30 works in those genres, so this was hardly a lie), the house was “seething with sexuality,” and there were rumors throughout the county about his true vocation. When the family attended science-fiction and fantasy conventions – their only family holidays – other attendees spoke openly and admiringly of the books Andy wrote as John Cleve, his favorite porn nom de plume (one of 17).
But it really isn’t until halfway through the book that Offutt starts to discuss, in any kind of detail, the contents of his father’s office. The volume and nature of porn he discovers is astonishing – 1,800 pounds of it, once it’s been boxed and stored – and much of it is extremely dark, revealing a taste for torture and extreme violence toward women. Andy Offutt’s comics, never published, were particularly upsetting. “Looking at them made my stomach hurt,” his son writes.
You have to wonder whether Andy Offutt’s furious, sadistic imagination also explains his sadism toward his children. Porn may not have been outlet enough. (He frequently told his son that were it not for pornography, he’d have been a serial killer.) More important, though, I think you have to wonder how it affected the adolescent sexuality of his children: What happens when your father is a furnace not just of smoldering rage, but of ferocious, shocking fantasies?
Offutt doesn’t seem to go in for “dime-story psychology,” as he calls it at one point. But we do get a clue. It’s the most tragic part of his memoir, and it arrives by stealth. At roughly the same moment he describes exploring the mysterious contents of his father’s office, he recalls his visits to the “fatman,” an overweight sad sack in town who sexually abused Chris when he was 15.
“Later, I decided that my parents would be proud of my open-mindedness in such a small town,” he writes. “I believed that what I was doing with the fatman made me similar to them. They wrote porn and had affairs. If they knew about the fatman, they would respect me, maybe even like me.”
It really hurts to read this.
Through it all, Offutt somehow manages to summon compassion for his father. That, ultimately, is what makes this memoir so unexpectedly moving. He admires his dad’s bravery for choosing a writing life. He wishes his dad didn’t have to become a hack, seeing real potential in his fecund, rambunctious imagination. And most of all, he pities his father’s loneliness, for being sentenced to a lifetime preoccupation with torture and a headful of savage sexual fantasies, predicated on the harming of innocents.
“I felt a horrified sympathy for anyone who lived with such imagery on a daily basis,” he writes. “I had no idea how miserable he had truly been.”