HOW TO COOK YOUR DAUGHTER
By Jessica Hendra
Regan Books. 271 pp. $24.95
Last year I reviewed a biography by Tony Hendra of a saintly monk. "Father Joe," it was called, "The Man Who Saved My Soul." To be frank, I didn't much care for the book. It was far more about Hendra than the sweet cleric he purported to be writing about. And for a man whose soul had been saved, Hendra's voice was sour, peevish. He described the breasts of the first woman he had a sexual relationship with as "quite small, of slightly different sizes and rather flat. Well, actually, very flat," which seemed to me both ungenerous and unchivalrous. He chronicled his own career as a satirist and comedian with breathless respect, referring to it as a "precious mission to save the world through laughter," but he reacted like a stepped-on rattlesnake when P.J. O'Rourke succeeded him at National Lampoon, accusing O'Rourke of turning the magazine into "a supremely unfunny catalogue of masturbatory, automotive and racist fantasies, defanging the magazine completely and presiding over a collapse in circulation from which it never recovered." Again, that didn't sound right, coming from a man in a state of grace. Hendra said his first wife was beautiful and his kids were okay, but then described how he had been lured away from them by a strong woman who insisted on having three more children by him. Father Joe was there in the narrative somewhere, but he played a purely supporting part. I was snide, I suppose: "It's a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses," I wrote, "so it should sell well."
A few days later, a review appeared in another of America's Important Newspapers, all over the front page, in the enormous print that was to become part of its new design. Some guy had read "Father Joe," and it had bowled him over. It belongs, he wrote, "in the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written." I didn't for a minute think I'd been wrong, but I knew I'd been overruled.
Flash forward a few weeks. I'm drinking coffee and watching morning television and there's a desperately nervous woman being interviewed. She's Tony Hendra's daughter and she's saying, in a barely audible voice, that her father molested her when she was a child. Aha, I thought. But then life went on and I forgot about it until I picked up "How to Cook Your Daughter" by Jessica Hendra, that same daughter, writing her side of the story, her version of events.
The molestations, according to Jessica, happened three times, once when she was 6, two more times before she turned 10. When she was in her twenties, trying futilely to get him to apologize, or at least to admit what happened, her father told her, "You are sitting around picking at old scars, bringing up history, so you can make excuses for yourself. If you have problems, they are yours, not mine. Stop being so self-involved. Much worse things have happened to children. . . . Think about the Holocaust . . . Babies being gassed to death. And in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge bayoneting six-year-olds in the rice paddies." By those standards, of course, Hendra was a five-star dad.
The great bulk of "How to Cook Your Daughter" is a memoir of what it was like growing up during the height of the sexual revolution under the aegis of a sanctimonious bully who thought it was his sacred duty less to "save the world through laughter" than to illuminate the world's evils with biting, bitter, acrimonious satire. Thus, when Tony Hendra dresses up the very young Jessica and some of her friends as hookers and poses them in National Lampoon for a "back to school" edition, he's not exploiting the children but delivering a timely lecture on American consumerism. When he sets up a "slow walk" contest for his barefoot daughters on steaming hot asphalt, promising $50 to whomever can stay on the asphalt longest, then signing the check "Mickey Mouse" and admonishing them, "Never do anything just for money," he's not torturing little girls and cheating them to boot, but treating them to a salutary lesson on the evils of materialism.
Hendra appears here as a supremely familiar '60s stereotype: He won't let white bread or plastic into the house. He won't chop down a live tree for Christmas. He calls his enemies fascists. He conducts an ambitious string of affairs (it doesn't hurt any trees and it certainly undermines stuffy, repressive bourgeois monogamy). He throws big parties, swims naked with his friends, deceives his enemies, mocks his underlings, pitches tantrums when his VW bus breaks down. And always with the bracing sense of undermining corrupt, square, materialistic American society.
But, hey, it was the '60s. Then the '70s. People behaved differently then. Some of them. When Jessica is in her teens, her dad decides finally to leave his wife. He takes Jessica out to a bar to tell her. "I was hoping you'd be happy for me," he says. "I have some coke. . . . Do you want some?" he asks. "It'll do you good. . . . Just stay away from heroin."
The man portrayed here seems less like a world-class monster than a second-rate creep. Parts of their family life were actually fun. The implication, in this memoir, is that Jessica would have gone along with the family secret forever, until her father wrote his pious memoir, representing himself as a semi-saint. Then she'd had enough and decided to "out" him -- to go to the paper that had lauded him -- with her own sad story. Then there was an investigation, and disgrace. Jessica came to see, or so she says in this steady, controlled narrative, that her neuroses, her eating disorders, her overwhelming sadness, had sprung from her father's misconduct -- not the pathetic sex, but the lying about it. (His first wife knew about it, too, which brings up another whole set of questions.) Her father had abused her and then -- all too easily -- forgiven himself. After reading "How to Cook Your Daughter," you can only feel stinging pity for father and daughter both.
Sunday in Book World
* George Packer takes a tough-minded look at the Iraq war in "The Assassins' Gate."
* Michael Connelly chases justice in "Lincoln Lawyer."
* Cokie Roberts uncovers pluck and plain speaking in "Women's Letters."
* H.W. Brands extols Andrew Jackson, America's "primordial ancestor."
* Graphic novels go cute, with kitties, babies and, of course, ninjas.