Monday, November 14, 2005

How To Cook Your Daughter. By Jessica Hendra with Blake Morrison. Regan Books, 271pp., $24.95

One day in 2004 Jessica Hendra, an actress and mother of two living in LA, learned that her father, Tony Hendra, had published his spiritual autobiography, "Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul."

After hyperventilating a while at home, Jessica raced to a bookstore. To her horror, she discovered her father's "spiritual autobiography" was not primarily concerned with herself. Specifically, it omitted any detailed account of the two instances of sexual abuse she claimed to have suffered at his hands as a child.

The British-born Ms. Hendra reacted the way any red-blooded American would to such an insult: she called her lawyer. Was it too late to sue Dad? she asked, Unfortunately, the lawyer replied, it was. Undaunted ("Did that mean I should simply say nothing about what my father had done to me? What would I tell [her daughters] if they ever found themselves in this kind of situation? I would say speak out."]), Ms. Hendra next called a writer friend. And so "How To Cook Your Daughter " was born.

Ms.Hendra recounts the story of growing up on the fringes of comdey's bigtime, first in LA and then on the East Coast. As an undergraduate at Cambridge her father had performed with John Cleese and Graham Chapman. In America he struggled to make a living in comedy, finally becoming an editor of National Lampoon.

That Hendra was and remains proud of his career at National Lampoon tells you plenty about the man right there. Not to put too fine a point on it, in the 1970s at least, the magazine was a cesspool. That anyone could see the magazine's stock depictions of rape and sexual abuse as zany laff riots is sad and sickening. The culture of perversion at National Lampoon was so strong that when the young Mr. Hendra told colleagues things like he had "f**ked" his daughter or played "hide the bologna" with them, they considered it yet another example of his dazzling wit.

"How To Cook Your Daughter"- the title comes from a piece Tony Hendra wrote for the Lampoon-describes a lonely childhood with an unfaithful father, a long-suffering mother and a picked-on sister. (Both girls developed serious eating disorders that went untreated for years.) Famous people came to their home to do drugs, even when money was so scarce the family could not afford to keep warm. There were many, many nights when Tony did not come home, and when he did come home he was unbearable. It's a sad, sad story.

Ultimately the family fell apart. But against all odds the Hendra women pulled themselves together, recovered from their disorders and made lives for themselves, Jessica as an actress and her sisteras a physician. Things were going along pretty smoothly for Jessica when the "Father Joe" bombshell fell.

I read "Father Joe" last year, when it came out. Reading Ms. Hendra's reactions " I sometimes found myself wondering if she and I had read the same book.

To Ms. Hendra, the dedication of her father's book "gives the impression of a reconciled family." But all that is actually printed on the dedication page is a roster of names: "This book is for Judy, carla, Katherine, Nicholas...." The list isn't even followed by an "I love you all" or similar feel-good phrase.

Was she supposed to just go along with the reviewers and "pretend my father is a great guy?" I dont' know about any reviewers, but speaking for myself "Father Joe" did not leave me with the impression that Tony Hendra is a great guy. Quite the reverse, in fact. Drugs, booze, overindulgence of every human appetite imaginable and the massive egotism of the man- no, not the kind of guy you want to invite home to dinner.

And it is definitely true that there is no mention of sexual abuse in Father Joe. But again Ms. Hendra's fears and a reader's impressions are at odds here. "Would anyone buy a book- would anyone publish it?- if he talked about what he did to his daughter that night in New Jersey?" From what I've seen of the publishing industry and the bestseller lists, my guess is yes .

I understand Ms. Hendra's grief. Anyone who has been deeply hurt by a parent does. And I know as surely as Tony Hendra does that in the end God will demand an accounting of everyone.
On the other hand, I am confident that God will forgive everyone who repents of his sins. Everyone means everyone, including Tony Hendra. And in the end, this is what really bugs Jessica Hendra."The details that my father won't mention... those are the details that everyone my father hurt lives and breathes. And some of us remain there, emotionally damaged. I know them. My mother, for one. My sis ter, I suspect. And me. Stranded. And as he walks away on the path to eternal life, he declares himself forgiven and absolved of these generalized sins, specifics spared to protect himself."

If the saintly Father Joe was half the confessor he describes, Tony didnt' get away with any "generalized sins." And however much he may have liked to, Tony could never have declared himself absolved. That's what you need a confessor for. And once again I am left wondering if Ms. Hendra and I read the same book.


Lee said...

So has Tony Hendra apologized to his family? To Jessica?

Have to say, I find it hard to see how he can get forgiven without doing that and meaning it.

Anonymous said...

I read his book - it's ending is basically Father Joe telling him that his true destiny and talent is not as a writer but as a husband and father, he has run away from it in the past but it is his true calling. Now, for a child molester to say that takes some cojones. His daughter has every right to pop his poimpous mass-marketed balloon and inject some reality into the picture.

Anonymous said...

who cares who read what book. child molesters should be publicly shamed. period. so *if* Ms. Hendra's allegations are true, then she did the right thing. you can't destroy a child, do nothing to make amends, and then declare yourself free of guilt or responsibility. neither can anyone else absolve you of your sins.