If you had asked me, back in 1951, what was going on in my life, I could have answered in great detail. I was 9 years old, I was in fourth grade, and my father, Alger Hiss, had been convicted of two counts of perjury and was about to go off to prison for five years.
I had mastered long division; I was fond of Freddy the Pig books; and I knew all about spy charges, a hollow pumpkin filled with rolls of film, and an antique typewriter that might or might not have belonged to my family. And also about lawyers, State Department documents, expert witnesses, rebuttal witnesses, appeals, and clicks on the telephone every night that meant the F.B.I. was listening in.
But if you had asked me, "How do you feel about all this?", I would have said nothing. Or I might have said, "Fine," and thought I was answering the question. And, for 10, 20 and even 30 years after that, there would have been variants of the same non-answer.
It's taken me most of the last 48 years to see that back then, because of what I was going through, I was only half a person, like "Neem, the Half-Boy," a fairy tale my 7-year-old son likes to hear at bedtime. Neem is literally half a person, with one eye, one arm, and one leg, before he is cured by befriending a fearsome dragon. In my case, the half-life was an invisible business.
Intellectually, I was present -- already a little too adult, really. Emotionally, I was somewhere else, frozen, hidden away who knew where. Two years ago, when I began writing my memoir The View from Alger's Window, I wanted to tell it from this elusive, almost fugitive emotional side. I was determined that this should be a personal book. I wanted to get across how it felt to grow up in the middle of the "trial of the century," during the three-year period when my family was front-page news around the country. But at this late date, could I gather in all the feelings or put words to them? Were they, even now, ready to tell this story?
So when it was time to write, I was worried that I wouldn't have a story or that, if I did, it would fill a chapter, maybe, but never an entire book. For one thing, my memory for years has been shockingly spotty -- a common enough post-traumatic phenomenon, as I've since discovered (although it had never occurred to me that it might apply in my case). There are moments that have always been so clear they seem never to have ended, like the first time I entered the long visiting room at Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania in 1951 and saw my father smiling at me from the other end of the floor. But there are vast gaps, too -- months and milestones that feel as if they never really happened or are just something I once heard about. Not a promising situation for a memoirist!
Then, too, politics kept getting in the way. There were books coming out -- all the time, it seemed -- trying to convict my father all over again, some of them based on selectively released Russian or American documents that with a lot of sifting through might, or just as probably might not, refer to him. Should I be taking time away from the book I wanted to write to fight charges that he was no longer around to contest? (Strangely, the accusations intensified after his death in 1996.) Ultimately, these recurrent, if oddly prosecutorial, politics helped me get the book in better focus:
I decided that the best way to honor my father, one of the most controversial political figures of our time, would be to avoid politics and not talk as a lawyer or historian (I'm neither). Instead, I would talk about the things I know best, things that are so indelible that even a lack of memory cannot erase them -- which turn out to be the very things I am in a unique position to talk about: his fathering, his foibles, his stuffiness in public, his decency.
His person-ness, if you will, meaning in this case the unusual qualities of a man who, ironically, seemed to get more fully human -- less stuffy, more relaxed, better able to listen to and understand people -- during his imprisonment. "Three years at Lewisburg penitentiary is a good corrective to three years at Harvard," as he told me years later.
This approach, unexpectedly, made it easier to get back in touch with some long-out-of-reach feelings, even if it felt like groping for shy, sightless, slithery fish at the bottom of a dark pool. I came to see (to remember something I never knew -- that was how it felt) the many dimensions contained within my father, and that he was of course a complex person, as anyone worth knowing is. Which also made it easier to see that the truly monstrous spy/traitor/liar Alger Hiss portrayed in headlines by his enemies wasn't even a half-person but one of those larger-than-life, and at the same time smaller-than-life, fictions that become a substitute in people's minds -- a placeholder -- whenever they can't get a fix on a real human being.
At home, in the room I was working in, I had a carton in a closet -- exactly where my mother had stored it decades ago -- that held all the 445 now yellowing and brittle hand-written letters my father sent home from Lewisburg (three a week for 44 months, with passages in script to my mother and printed paragraphs for me). What I hadn't known when I took the box down from the top shelf was that I would find them more resonant now than when I first read them a half-century ago.
For one thing, a great kindness had just been done me by a group of officials at the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (and how often do you get to acknowledge a great kindness by the Bureau of Prisons!). They made it possible for me not only to visit Lewisburg but to stand in the actual cell where these letters so long ago were written. For the first time, standing in that tiny room, I could feel the weight and grimness of that sad and enormous place as they must have sat on my father's shoulders during each of the 445 times he picked up a pen to write a light-hearted or reflective letter home.
As I chose passages from these letters for my book, I found I was absorbing them as someone who's now a father as well as a son. Which means that on Father's Day 1999 I understand certain things that I hadn't a clue about back then. It's hard enough being a dad close-up; my father -- suddenly and of course with no training or assistance -- had had to be a dad at long distance. He made up stories (inventing a fictional character, the Sugar Lump Boy, that I -- a character named Tony -- had to take care of); he passed along riddles and jokes; he described sunsets and birds and the patterns in the heavens.
And how interesting now to see how carefully my father was raising me to despise exactly the kind of person he was accused of being! In these letters it's clear that for him the highest ideals in life were honesty, integrity, truthfulness -- what was once called "character." This was the father I came to know in 1951, the dad I've been so proud of ever since, the person I wanted the world to catch a glimpse of.