Tag: Laurie Sandell

The Impostor’s Daughter

by on Oct.31, 2009, under Comics

Imposter cover

It’s probably unfair to compare The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell to the best piece of graphic writing in the last ten years (and one of the best comics ever), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I wouldn’t think it was particularly informative if someone criticized my writing by pointing out that it doesn’t stack up to Joseph Conrad. But the comparison is dominating my thinking about Sandell’s book, probably because both Fun Home and The Impostor’s Daughter are memoirs about fathers and daughters, and largely about how each daughter’s relationship with her highly erudite father influences her understanding of her own sexuality.

Sandell’s father was a con man. He invented a distinguished academic history to get teaching jobs, and then when his resume was revealed as a fake he claimed to his family that he was fired for being a conservative. He told his daughter extravagant war stories about his time in the Argentine army and in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, when in truth he was a deserter from Argentina and never went to Vietnam. He applied for credit cards in his daughters’ and wife’s names and maxed them out. He convinced family friends to make investments with him and made off with the money.

Relatively early in the book, if not relatively early in her life, Sandell realizes her father’s a serial liar and exposes his history in an anonymous article in her unnamed magazine. Her father is devastated, and repeatedly threatens to kill himself. But she hires a private investigator and keeps digging into his past.

Meanwhile she’s in an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship with an aspiring movie director in Los Angeles, and developing her own career as a celebrity interviewer for Glamour . She’s also developing an addiction to Ambien that lands her in rehab for about the last 40 pages of the book. There she learns to let go of her anger toward her father and comes to believe in God. She also breaks up with her long-distance boyfriend and decides to write the book we now hold.

As therapy? That leaves us, the readers, with what? That’s my first major frustration with the book: Sandell promises us answers about this mysterious figure at the center of her existence, and we end up getting a rehab confessional in which she has to let go of her quest for answers. That’s great for her. She’s not addicted to Ambien anymore and she’s found God. But it’s an AA sharing session, not a satisfying memoir.

Here’s where the comparison to Fun Home begins to help me make sense of my dissatisfaction. Every time Sandell’s father appears, we hear all about how he makes her feel, usually bad. Same thing with her boyfriend (who figures so large in the book but is now gone from her life, leaving no specific trace she can mention to justify his oversized presence in the narrative). She is heroine and victim in every scene.

Bechdel’s book circles around and around in time, using literary references—especially to Proust and James Joyce—to depict her father as a tragic figure. Her mother too, to a certain extent. That, ultimately, is where I think Sandell comes up short. It’s not so much that Bechdel, the lifelong comic author, operates on a plane of sophistication several steps above Sandell, the Glamour celebrity interviewer drawing her first major work. It’s that Bechdel works much, much harder to make us sympathize with her father, to understand the limitations he placed on himself. She seems to be writing from a place of greater equanimity, in which she can accept her father’s great intellectual and emotional influence on her. As a result, her father is a recognizably complex human being.

Sandell seems not to have reached that place. Her book is all about trying to fight her father’s influence, and as such he remains a mustache-twirling villain to the end, a domineering, manipulative monster, even as she claims to have kicked free of him through rehab.

Preview here.

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