A son investigates the family secrets

After his father's death, Kevin Sampsell interviewed his family. The result: his memoir "A Common Pornography"

Published August 1, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Kevin Sampsell’s memoir-in-vignettes, “A Common Pornography,” began as a sixty page “memory experiment,” published in a sixty-page limited edition in 2003. That might have been the book’s final version if Sampsell hadn’t driven to Kennewick, Washington, five years later, to attend his father’s funeral. While he was there, he found dozens of “dusty boxes of photos, letters, documents, and odd memorabilia.”

And because there was so little space to sleep at his mother’s house, Sampsell found himself holed up in a hotel room with half-siblings he barely knew. There was time and space to talk for the first time. They told stories about Sampsell’s father that he had never heard before, and the telling of the stories cast new light on what Sampsell had already written. His story, he seems to have realized, wasn’t his alone. It was impossible to have a reckoning with it without considering it in the broader context of the many threads of the family story he had yet to discover.

So he began to interview his mother and his sister and brothers, and he placed their versions of the family story alongside his own. The expanded edition, published as a paperback original by Harper Perennial in 2010, was a different book entirely. It was also a rare achievement: A memoir willing to take a run at objectivity, that always elusive thing, by offering a patchwork quilt of competing and complementary subjective offerings not only of the author’s remembering but also of his diligent seeking out and finding.

Although the text of the memoir hasn’t changed since the 2010 edition, the newly released audiobook edition, narrated by Craig Jessen, feels like a further iteration of the project, and one so pleasurable that the listener hopes the book will continue to evolve over time.

It is the vignette form that makes “A Common Pornography” so well-suited to the audiobook. Most books are made for reading rather than for listening, and this is one reason that they are so formally different from, say, podcasts, which gain great energy from their looseness and spontaneity, or from longform radio programs such as “This American Life” or “Radiolab,” which ease the short attention span by changing something every forty-five  seconds or so. Like “A Common Pornography,” they are full of the pleasures particular to beginnings and endings, and their scripts are rich with white space.

There is trouble aplenty in the stories Sampsell discovered. His siblings were the daughter and sons of his mother’s earlier marriages to two truly terrible men, tyrants and wife-abusers both. And Sampsell’s own father, operating out of a tremendous reservoir of resentment, inflicted great cruelty on the children that preceded him to the family. Some of these family stories are so painful that the listener comes to see the siblings’ telling of them as an act of extraordinary generosity to a younger brother who got off much easier. Sampsell, likewise, earns the listener’s admiration for the extraordinary empathy that transformed the project from a small interesting thing and into a symphony of complication. It must have cost him greatly to get from here to there, because the first step was the undoing of the preexisting story he had been telling himself about his life, and the replacement of the old story with something more true and yet so much darker.

So it is all the more moving when, in the audiobook’s final movement, the family—which is in some ways more a family in this moment than in any earlier moment—visits the cemetery and finds, with no small surprise, that Sampsell’s mother’s name has already been etched on his father’s gravestone. Sampsell tries to decide what this means. Had they formed “some kind of bond, or a truce that would keep them together forever”?

“Maybe it was formed out of a mutual stubbornness,” he writes, “or perhaps they were used to each other, even though terrible things had happened between them. Unforgivable things. But maybe the unforgivable things were forgivable after all, for the sake of not being alone.”

No overly wise words follow. No false epiphany. No grand instructive talk. Sampsell leaves the listener in the same place he has been left—probably, the place all of us will be left in the moments most true, before we reinvent and thereby distort the reality we have experienced by proclaiming upon it.

The magic of “A Common Pornography,” instead, is conjured by a collusion of the author and the listener, in the silences where as more is known, more is known to be forever unknown. Thrillingly, the unknowns aren’t in the who or the what or the when, but rather, as Margaret Atwood prescribed, in the questions that are always so much more interesting to the true connoisseur: How? And: Why?

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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