“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again. It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”
Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98
“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”
ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα· Homer, Odyssey 19.203
When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in the second half of the Odyssey, he spends seven books in disguise. Part of the motivation for this is to give him the ability to test the loyalty of the people in Ithaca and justify the murder of the suitors and the slaughter of the handmaids at the end. But another part is that Odysseus explores who he is by reflecting on others’ stories. He uses his narratives in the second half of the epic to negotiate different parts of identity, to imagine different lives for himself, and to distance himself from the trauma of war and wandering.
In studying memory Martin Conway suggests that there are two forces in human recall: correspondence, which is about equivalence between details of ‘reality’ (or experience) and details of a story and coherence, which means that details make sense together in a narrative. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are not repeating a one-to-one correspondence between what happened and what we say about it. Instead we are engaging in the creation of autobiographical memory to create a coherent sense of ourselves.
The problem with seeing Odysseus as doing this in the second half of the Odyssey, of course, is that his stories are only obliquely about himself. They are mostly lies and they change depending on who he talks to: he shifts in narratives from Eumaios, to the suitors, and to his father at the epic’s end. His lies say something about him, certainly; but they also say something about how he views others.
The stories he tells lets him mirror and then use others. And he uses them to complete the hardest (and most violent) parts of his homecoming.
“I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.”
οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. Homer, Odyssey 1.201
There are a series of days each year when my father’s memory presses upon me: father’s day, his birthday, the day(s) he died, and holidays. I miss him deeply; but I also spend the years pondering the questions I don’t have answers to, wondering how much of what he was shapes me still.
When my father died, it was a shock both for its suddenness and then for the series of minor mysteries that followed. The first was the uncertainty of what happened. He died at 61 after a sudden bout with pneumonia. The autopsy revealed his lungs were filled with sawdust from years of fiddling around with woodworking, mask-less in a garage with no circulation. He also had Lyme disease. And years of smoking and drug use had made his breathing weaker and his sense of his own health attenuated.
We search out he causes of things but often find no clear answer. So, often, we choose a simple answer to help us get by. How and why he died suddenly gave way to a series of mundane, pressing questions: funeral arrangements, financial concerns. Packing up a life is never easy; the secrets left behind are entangled in ways the living didn’t imagine and the dead will never learn.
After my father’s death, I expected some trouble. He was a man who shifted easily between lives. He had a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. As the oldest of three, it fell to me to try to make sense of the mess: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.
At one point, I had to log in into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)
There was a strange type of voyeurism in the process. I suspected some of what I would find, but not everything. Infidelity, I knew about. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started emailing with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.
“There is one universal law among mortals
And one that is right to the gods, I believe truly—
And to all animals as well: to love the children we bear.
In everything else, we follow different laws.”
εἷς γάρ τις ἔστι κοινὸς ἀνθρώποις νόμος
καὶ θεοῖσι τοῦτο δόξαν, ὡς σαφῶς λέγω,
θηρσίν τε πᾶσι, τέκνα τίκτουσιν φιλεῖν·
τὰ δ’ ἄλλα χωρὶς χρώμεθ’ ἀλλήλων νόμοις. Euripides
Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus spends a significant amount of time enjoying hospitality of his enslaved swineherd, Eumaios. He tells Eumaios some terrific stories: he was a warrior from Crete who made the wrong decision to go to war and after years of suffering and betrayal he ended up enslaved and sold. Part of that story is true, of course; and the enslavement can function as a metaphor for his pains at sea and how he was subject to cruel fate. But the story also serves to endear Odysseus to Eumaios by anticipating Eumaios’ own story: how he was kidnapped as a child by a devious nurse and sold off to slavers who brought him to Ithaca.
When we meet new people, we eagerly find common ground through personal stories: we grew up in the same/similar place; we went to school in the same city; we worked in similar industries, etc. But as relationships deepen, we share those harder stories. Sometimes, to identify with people, or even to upstage them, we embellish or reshape our stories.
Even false tales can arise from real pain. Life leaves physical markers on us as literal as Odysseus’ scar. But the marks that define us are more often than not unseen. Just as the year’s calendar eventually becomes a catalog of days for the lost and gone, so too can our memories become a latticework of scars and open wounds. The facts of the stories we tell can be less meaningful than the truth they are trying to convey.
My father’s colleague Felix confided in me that my dad had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.
Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, he revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.
“There is a good time for lies and god honors it”
ψευδῶν δὲ καιρὸν ἔσθ’ ὅπου τιμᾷ θεός #Aeschylus
I never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email where my father wrote:
“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”
Felix assured me that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.
“If I tell the truth, I won’t make you happy.
But if I am to make you happy, I will say nothing true.”
εἰς μὲν φράσω τἀληθές, οὐχί σ’ εὐφρανῶ·
εἰ δ’ εὐφρανῶ τί σ’, οὐχὶ τἀληθὲς φράσω. #Agathon
There’s a scholarly tradition of dismissing the end of the Odyssey. Ancient scholars complain that the Odyssey ended properly with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, while the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Eustathius, observed that book 24 is full of really important things, like “the recognition scene between Odysseus and Laertes.” Odysseus’ reunions take him through the major roles he plays in life as part of re-establishing an Ithakan identity. In book 24, he must reconcile with his community and his dad.
When I talk about the Odyssey publicly and I get to its end, I explain that I never really understood the reunion scene until I became a father and lost my father in the same year. Odysseus tests and teases his father cruelly, only to panic and give up the ruse when he makes Laertes cry. Odysseus’ scar is a necessary but insufficient proof of his identity to his father. To confirm their relationship, they rehearse the stories of the groves and trees they used to tend together when Odysseus was young.
My father spent a good deal of the last few decades of his life clearing and planting in the woods of southern Maine. His primary engagement with my brother and me was this land: planting grass, mowing the lawn, developing gardens, planning for the future. The land my mother and brother still live on is also a map of memory: the places where we played games; the trees we climbed; where we fought; where we buried pets. In my father’s absence, there was one fewer person in the world who could attest to the truth of our stories.
So I was left with new stories for this landscape. Eventually, I tried to make ‘Rachel’ cohere with reality. My mother had miscarriages before me and after me and, as family lore goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church. The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.
But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a lost child when he had three healthy children.
But as a recent father, I could imagine the possibility at least. From the moment I knew my wife was pregnant, I would feel a deep, gut-wrenching fear at even imagining the death of a child. In this I have found the ultimate failure of Stoic prior contemplation: I cannot conceive of a world where I knit myself back together after losing a child. Is that what happened with my father?
As we approached his funeral, I daydreamed a future story where I interviewed distant relatives and friends about may father’s past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, or about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. As the long hours past, I thought that maybe this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.
“I once lived in a house among men, a blessed man in a
wealthy house, and I used to give much to a wanderer”
καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ ποτε οἶκον ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔναιον
ὄλβιος ἀφνειὸν καὶ πολλάκι δόσκον ἀλήτῃ 17.419–20
There is a cold empathy in Odysseus’ stories—he is a kind of predating narrator in echoing Eumaios’ greatest sorrow, his kidnapping and enslavement as a child. When Odysseus tells his lies to manipulate Eumaios or test the suitors, he instrumentalizes narrative. He plays upon their suspicions and experiences to put himself in a better position. But that’s an oversimplification of the story too. He also can be seen tracing out he story of his own life, exploring different ways of thinking about what happened to him. As the fugitive Cretan, he tells Eumaios that his men forced him to go to the Trojan War (14.261), he laments that he cared too much for war, and laments how cruel fate has been to him.
In my own narrative quest, I emailed a woman my father had an affair with and asked her directly if she knew anything about ‘Rachel’. She, who had known my father quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”
After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control by writing off credit debt and paying federal and state taxes; two new grandchildren were born over the next year. I left the issue of Rachel quiet to protect my mother and the rest of us from the uncertainty. But I never really stopped thinking about it
“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”
οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς Homer, Odyssey 16.204
When Telemachus first sees Odysseus revealed in the Odyssey, he refuses to believe it his father. Odysseus appears suddenly and he looks too good. There’s a slight delay before Odysseus gets angry, but then Telemachus accepts him, even though he has no proof. Penelope, however, delays acknowledging her husband to the point that when she knows who he is remains an interpretive knot of the poem. I like to imagine her suspecting from the beginning, but resisting seeing in this old, broken beggar the man who left her so many years ago. Even after the slaughter of the suitors—or perhaps, especially after it—she makes him wait, testing him first to see how he reacts when she claims to have moved the bed around which their home was built.
I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.
When Odysseus lies to his father, crafting a tale that echoes the pain they have both gone through, it is a step too far. As his father cries, Odysseus breaks in and says, “I myself, I am the one about whom who you ask / I have come home in this twentieth year to my paternal land” (κεῖνος μὲν δὴ ὅδ’ αὐτὸς ἐγώ, πάτερ, ὃν σὺ μεταλλᾷς, / ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν, 24.321–22). But this is not enough for Laertes after so many lies: he asks for a clear sign (σῆμά τί μοι νῦν εἰπὲ ἀριφραδές, 329) and Odysseus shows him his scar and tells him the story of the trees his father described to him when he was a child (333–45). Laertes’ limbs give away as he “recognizes the signs” (σήματ’ ἀναγνόντος … ).
What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?
My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.
But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was. To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.
And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.
Many of the concepts in this entry come from this book
here is its dedication page