MAY 23, 2016
THE PREMISE OF Chris Offutt’s memoir is his inheritance of the life work of his father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, a prolific writer of pornography at the height of the smut novel’s popularity in the 1970s. Years before he died, Chris’s father, in a secret will, handpicked his son for the task of sorting through his office, proclaiming, “The examination of the office and disposal of its contents is totally up to Christopher J. Offutt, and this is oh-fficial.” Cleaning out an office where Chris’s father had worked for several decades, writing hundreds of novels, was an insane job, but one that Chris took seriously. He spent several hours a day for weeks sorting through and cataloging all of the contents before transporting 1,800 pounds worth of manuscripts and papers from his childhood home in Kentucky to his residence in Mississippi, where he continued sorting through every single item.
Offutt speculates about why his father picked him — because he, too, is a writer? A writer, yes, but, unlike his father, an award-winning author of literary novels and memoirs. Or was he chosen because he was the oldest son, the most likely to understand? The contents of the office included over 400 novels, mostly works of pornography, but also sci-fi and fantasy. Offutt writes: “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.”
The in-your-face title of this memoir — My Father, the Pornographer — would seem to speak for itself. What is contained in the pages, however, is much quieter and more compassionate than one might expect. It’s not only a story about pornography — in fact, not much is said about Andrew Offutt’s work until over halfway through the book. Instead, this is a meditation on Chris’s childhood, using the material found in his father’s office to gain a better understanding and a different perspective on his father than he had previously held. There is kindness in this approach, and a sense that Chris never knew his father well. But that’s not surprising: his father made it clear he didn’t like children and it was only because of his Catholic faith that he had any kids at all.
Chris’s father was emotionally abusive. He made his family tiptoe around him after he started writing porn from home full-time at the age of 36. His parents said the change was in order to pay for Chris’s orthodontic work. Seemingly anything could send the man into a rage, from walking too loudly, talking, playing, even peeing (Chris resolved to only urinate outside after setting his father into a rage with his loud tinkle). Despite this disturbing context, Chris tells the story of his father with great care and poignancy. This isn’t the typical bitter recounting of a terrible childhood — instead, it’s melancholic and thoughtful. Chris writes many times throughout the memoir that he’s more like his father than he would care to admit. But that confession allows for a more nuanced portrait, adding many dimensions to a man who, beneath his gruffness, was obviously hurting.
Andrew Offutt was invited to his first science fiction convention in the early 1970s, after writing a short story published in the magazine If. He gained a following among the fans and went to many other cons over the years, often bringing his wife and children along. Andrew wrote under 18 pseudonyms, “John Cleve” being his favorite and the most successful. Cleve didn’t have kids, and at these cons Andrew would shift between personae. The kids weren’t allowed to speak to him, and he pretended they didn’t exist. Chris was the oldest and therefore had the task of riding herd on his siblings.
Chris’s parents weren’t too concerned with how he spent his time, as long as his grades in school stayed high. As a result, Chris often cut class in high school, setting off on various adolescent adventures. In a surprising, harrowing scene we meet the “fatman” — a stranger who began sexually abusing Chris when he was 15. What’s striking is not just that this horror happened, but the way that Chris justified the abuse to himself:
Later I decided that my parents would be proud of my open-mindedness in such a small town. They considered themselves progressive. 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.
Twenty-five years later, Chris told his father what happened with the fatman, but the older man didn’t react as Chris’s 15-year-old self had suspected. Instead, he responded with rage — an appropriate reaction from a parent who loves his son.
After moving the loot from his father’s office to his home, Chris made another discovery — his father’s real life’s work: a series of comic books that were never published. These comics were designed to satisfy Andrew’s sadomasochistic impulses. Chris recounts his finding via a darkly touching story:
As a very young child, I had a Superman coloring book my father had given me. I colored every page that featured Superman, which left the scenes of Clark Kent interacting with other characters. These were very boring, since everyone wore office attire, and I began coloring the suits brightly with different hues for the lapels and pockets. While concentrating, I realized that my father stood behind me, watching with an intense frown. He asked why I colored that way. Instantly I understood it was wrong. “I got tired of blue,” I said, and wished I hadn’t, since he was wearing a blue suit. He didn’t answer, just looked away, thinking for a long time. Many years later Dad asked if I remembered the incident and I told him yes.
“Me too,” he said. “You taught me something then. There are no rules for coloring.”
In his father’s comics, the characters were colored in bright hues, the women tortured in gory detail. Chris was horrified by his discovery, though he couldn’t seem to look away, going through every single panel. Though disturbed by the images, Chris believes that his father never would have hurt anyone, despite the fact that he “often said that if not for pornography, he’d have become a serial killer.” His father was physically weak and never raised a hand to his wife or children — even with his clear anger issues.
The real hero of this memoir is Chris’s mother, who loved her husband fiercely and was willing to do anything to ensure he had what he needed. She typed up every single one of his manuscripts (yes, the pornography, too). She, more than anyone, tiptoed gently around her husband — going so far as to only buy white flowers while he was alive, because of his partial colorblindness, a genetic flaw that, as Offutt writes, “bothered him throughout his life.” After he died, Chris took his mother to a greenhouse, where she chose red flowers. As Chris writes, “After fifty years Mom planted flowers she liked in her own backyard.” Later she admitted to being happier after her husband had died, worrying that she should feel guilty about this. Her son assured her that it was okay to enjoy having time to herself.
Chris’s relationship with his mother feels much more tender, even though it must be noted that she seemed complicit in the neglect of her children — particularly when they attended sci-fi conventions. But even in their home, with everyone creeping quietly around, Chris’s mother regularly picked her husband over her children. She believed, Chris suspects, that it would ultimately keep more peace that way.
But there are glimmers that her love shined in a way that Chris’s father’s love did not. After publishing his first book, Kentucky Straight, he gave his mother her own copy, inscribing the flyleaf: “To Mom, There’s nobody I’d rather see than you. [signed] Chris Offutt, 11/93.” He admitted to her that he didn’t remember giving it, but she was unfazed: “‘Every time I look at it,’ she said, ‘it makes me smile.’” On his drive home from her house, he considered why he had given the book to her, realizing that it was because he was seeking approval. And because, he writes, “I also wanted her to read about the world in which she’d raised me, an environment she didn’t understand, harsher than she knew.”
Even though he believes she didn’t know the darkness of his world, she clearly understood Chris better than, at least, his father did. Andrew was prone to coming up with fantastical notions based on little evidence, and at one point he believed Chris was suicidal (we never learn why exactly his father suspected this). After worried phone calls from both his parents, Chris received a letter from his mother reading,
I don’t and didn’t think for one minute that you were in danger of contemplating suicide. You’re too curious about life, and are too afraid you might miss something to take your dying into your own hands. Therefore you would not take your own life. It was your father’s runaway imagination that produced the concern for you.
This letter starkly shows the dynamics of parenting Chris experienced as a child — his mother never believed he was suicidal, yet she played along with Chris’s father. Of course, she let Chris in on the joke — suggesting how, even when it didn’t seem like it, she was always on the side of her children.
Throughout the memoir, Chris’s father comes across as a highly dramatic man, especially in the way he reacts to Chris’s writing career. Chris recounts how his father handled the news that his son was going to be a published author:
In 1990 I called my father with the news that Vintage Contemporaries was publishing Kentucky Straight, my first book. A long silence ensued as Dad digested this information.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I didn’t know I’d given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer.”
According to Chris, his father was jealous because his own career had been merely as an author of down-market sci-fi and pornography. He never succeeded in the world of “legitimate” literature — the world where Chris was being celebrated. One of the book’s most touching moments is when Chris, digging through his father’s things, comes across letters his father wrote to friends about how proud he was of his son’s success as a writer. Those letters contain none of the harsh tone he used when speaking or writing directly to his son. Instead, he gushed about Chris’s achievements. Clearly, Andrew Offutt loved his son very much; he just wasn’t adept at communicating it. Or maybe he just wasn’t comfortable with the vulnerability that such a gesture of affection and respect would require.