Investigating family secrets

By Renée Graham
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2009
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'I am the product of a profound failure, a marriage so disastrous it looks in retrospect like a war," Danzy Senna proclaims, and by the end of this brave, rueful memoir, her words are as much an understatement as an indictment. As with "Caucasia," her award-winning 1998 debut novel, Senna considers the weight of race, family dysfunction, and identity in "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" Here, Senna casts a lacerating eye on her own family - especially her father - as well as her parents' rancorous eight-year marriage, and the social and familial forces that likely doomed their union from the start.

To accomplish this, Senna dives into the fractured lives of her father and his kin. Part personal history, part detective yarn, this is a melancholy story of unlocking the present with the hidden keys of the past, and of a daughter trying to find resolution with the father she both reveres and fears.

When they married in 1968 in Boston - he wore a Nehru jacket, she had on a gold lame mini-dress - Carl Senna and Fanny Howe, seemed a defiant totem of racial progress. Both writers, Senna, a mixed-race son of the poor South, was an editor at Beacon Press and a Tufts University professor, while Howe, a blue-blood descendant of intellectual and literary Boston eminence, was an acclaimed poet. It was a partnership so storied it inspired a novel, "The Professor's Daughter," by British author Piers Paul Read, and was the subject of glowing newspaper articles that, Senna writes, portrayed her parents as "glittery, hopeful people -- an interracial couple out of a dream."

Yet like the Leadbelly classic from which this book derives its title, the marriage was rife with malice and violence. After Senna was born (she's the middle child of three), the dream was vaporized by her father's alcoholism and his public assaults on her mother. Carl Senna is a brilliant, deeply haunted man in lockstep with his demons, and while his daughter loves him, she also grew up resenting the man who abused her mother and never paid child support.

Even when he accompanies his daughter to Louisiana to help her investigate his origins, old grudges and disappointments resurface, threatening to derail the whole thing. But Senna is relentless, though at times she must wish she could walk away from the whole sordid mess. Each document or lost relation she finds unravels forever the myths that not just allowed her father and his family to feel whole, but to survive.

Anyone who has ever excavated their family's history - or even asked a few too many questions about a particular event or relative, only to be met with hostile silence - will recognize the calamitous journey Senna has set for herself in this book. Family secrets are like lethal mines buried deep within a clan's marrow, and woe to anyone foolhardy enough to tread upon them. Senna learns this quickly. One of her father's sisters declined to be mentioned by name in the book; another refused to be mentioned at all.

Of course, they already know what Senna gradually discovers - that their family tree is twisted with forbidden love affairs, invented parentage, and other unforeseen complexities. By the end of this arduous journey, Senna may not fully understand her father, but she comes away with a deeper knowledge of the struggles, both internal and external, that short-circuited his life. And for Senna, that may bring a measure of peace, one as fragile as it is bittersweet.

Renée Graham is a freelance writer.

By Danzy Senna
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200 pp., $23

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