Despite Turmoil, Spiritual Memoir Keeps On Selling

“I’m an individual with a family and with friends, and my father is an individual with a publishing house, an agent and P.R. people. It’s invariable with that scenario the person with the bigger machine will win out in some way. But that’s something I knew when I took this on.” Jessica Hendra was on the phone from her home in Southern California, reflecting on the dark family drama in which she and her father, Tony Hendra, the author of the best-selling spiritual memoir Father Joe , are now starring.

What Ms. Hendra has taken on is her father, the English comic writer and former National Lampoon editor. In an article in The New York Times last month she accused him of molesting her when she was a young girl. Ms. Hendra said that she found the molestation glaringly absent from Father Joe , Mr. Hendra’s account of his decades-long friendship with a Benedictine monk he credits with “saving his soul,” which Random House published to great acclaim in May. Mr. Hendra has vociferously denied his daughter’s charges, claiming that she has “psychological issues,” including false-memory syndrome.

The story of the House of Hendra is an intensely painful and intimate tale, only it has been played out in the very public pages of The New York Times and will soon play out on the screens of millions of viewers when Good Morning America airs Diane Sawyer’s interview with Ms. Hendra in the coming weeks. In Hendra v. Hendra , it’s arguable who has the “bigger machine.” “Should the media be a court of law? I don’t know,” said Ms. Hendra, 39, who is a mother of two daughters and a former actress. “I go back and forth. In some ways I feel I would like more, I don’t know, validation from the media, but it’s not a court of law, it’s the media,” she said.

Since July 1, when The Times first published Ms. Hendra’s claims in a carefully reported 2,400-word story by veteran reporter N. R. Kleinfield that ran on the front page of the Arts section, a strange radio silence has set in-one which will surely be broken by Good Morning America .

Only a few media outlets picked up the allegations, including People magazine, The Village Voice and the National Catholic Reporter . Don Imus, who had been touting the book on his morning show, stopped mentioning it. Catholic Digest , which was slated to publish excerpts of Father Joe in its November issue, is now reconsidering, its editor in chief, Joop Koopman, told The Observer . Meanwhile, Mr. Hendra has been laying low in the French Pyrenees, and speaking through his P.R. representative, Greg Miller.

Yet through the silence, Father Joe has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 10 weeks, ranking at No. 8 last Sunday. Random House said it has about 335,000 copies in print, after 13 printings. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks book sales, sales of Father Joe have dropped steadily from 24,400 copies the week ending June 20, to 7,480 the week ending Aug. 1. But, allegations aside, that may be in line with normal book sale trends.

“Sales are very good,” said Daniel Menaker, the editor in chief of Random House who brought the book from HarperCollins when he moved to Random House last year. Mr. Menaker said Random House planned to re-solicit sales for the holidays and to keep the book in hardcover as long as possible, then publish a paperback edition next spring. He said he doubted that any future editions would carry an acknowledgment of Ms. Hendra’s allegations.

“Professionally, we absolutely stand by Tony Hendra,” he said.

Mr. Hendra’s memoir features himself, a lapsed Catholic and professional ironist. Through years of family turmoil and alcohol and drug abuse, he maintains a deep rapport with, Father Joe, a monk on the Isle of Wight, who teaches him about the world of the spirit. The book carries ecstatic back-cover blurbs from Frank McCourt, Adam Gopnik and Christopher Buckley.

Ms. Hendra said accolades like these are part of what spurred her to action. It was reading Andrew Sullivan’s glowing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review that first led her to come forward with her allegations-to The Times . “Reading the reviews, that he’s being lauded as completely truthful, I felt I couldn’t completely sanction it,” Ms. Hendra said. First she submitted an op-ed, which The Times decided to have Mr. Kleinfield report out instead.

“I certainly would never have done this if my father had never written this book. Once I read it, I realized I could never make an impact on his conscience,” Ms. Hendra said. But she said she would have come forward even if the book hadn’t been such a huge success. “It wasn’t really about the fact that it was a best-seller, because I knew that actually by doing this it might improve the sales. That didn’t matter,” Ms. Hendra said. “I just thought people should know that this was not an honest book and it was being recognized as an honest book.”

The Times ‘ public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote a July 11 column airing the paper’s internal debate about whether it should have published the story. Mr. Okrent concluded, “As an editor, the verities of the profession might have led me to publish this article. But as a reader, I wish The Times hadn’t.”

In his Web journal the following week, Mr. Okrent acknowledged his ambivalence about his first column, and reprinted a lengthy response from Nina Bernstein, a reporter who covers child welfare for The Times . Ms. Bernstein wrote: “Your reference to ‘the private miseries of the Hendra family’ by definition accepts that only Tony Hendra can decide what from the family can be made public. It allows him to impose secrecy on other members of the family. And why should that be so?”

Mr. Hendra’s literary agent, Jonathon Lazear, is among those who question why The Times published Ms. Hendra’s allegations. That Mr. Hendra is “being tried not only by The New York Times but also by reviewers on Amazon-it’s repulsive to me that this can happen,” Mr. Lazear said.

Indeed, on Amazon.com, one Father Joe reviewer writes, “[The] beautiful and uplifting prose turns to ashes in one’s mouth when one learns of Hendra’s history of child molestation.” The reviewer adds, “Reading Hendra’s piece in the 1971 National Lampoon , ‘How to Eat Your Daughter,’ should be a requirement before sitting down to the sanctimonious and self-serving mess that is this book.”

The Lampoon piece in question, which The Village Voice also excerpted in late July, is a satire which reads like Swift’s A Modest Proposal meets Lolita . But in light of the allegations, the column takes on a decidedly more sinister air, especially as it was published around the same year that Ms. Hendra claimed the molestation took place.

“People so often ask, ‘How do I tell when my daughter is ready for the table?'” Mr. Hendra wrote in 1971. “Generally the exact age falls somewhere between the fifth and sixth birthdays. During this period the daughter acquires a smooth firmness totally free of flab or muscle, especially in the shoulders, buttocks, and thighs, areas which are the gourmet’s delight.”

He continued, “A slight nip of the teeth will quickly reveal the precise degree of succulence. An ancient and surprisingly accurate test of readiness is to hold the buttocks one in each hand and squeeze gently. If the daughter says, ‘Grrrugchllllchllll,’ she is not yet quite ready. If she slaps your face, you have missed your opportunity. But if she giggles, she is just right.”

And, later: “Now turn the daughter on her tummy in a kneeling position so that her head rests on her hands.”

On the opposite page, National Lampoon featured a companion piece, “How to Cook Your Father,” a cartoon by Mr. Hendra’s oldest daughter, Katherine, who was then 8. “Put him in a very big mixing bowl,” Katherine wrote in her childish scrawl.

Through his spokesman, Mr. Hendra said: “This was nothing more than an amusing father-daughter collaboration that, in fact, has been excerpted in various National Lampoon ‘best ofs’ over the years. I think it’s fair to say that, if there is any prurience here, it is in the mind of the reader, not the writers.”

Even as Mr. Hendra’s P.R. machine tried to downplay Ms. Hendra’s allegations and the Lampoon article, Mr. Hendra’s response, in effect, encouraged cross-examination in the media court. “If I were still a working journalist and my editor handed me this story, I would certainly want to ask Jessica: if you first made these allegations to your father 10 years ago, why did you wait until the success of his new book, Father Joe , to go public with them? … If your mother knew something this serious, why did she do nothing to protect you and your sister? What mother would do that?” Mr. Hendra wrote. He also included a link to a Web site that deals with recovered memory.

What all this means for Mr. Hendra’s career is far from clear. Mr. Lazear, the literary agent, said Mr. Hendra has a proposal out for a book on coming to America. Mr. Menaker said Random House was “actively” considering the proposal. “We have a wonderful book, a best-selling author. We’re taking his future writing very seriously,” Mr. Menaker said.

Before that chapter begins, the Hendra family must first weather the scrutiny of the television close-up. “We interviewed Jessica Hendra because we felt she had an important story to tell. We invited Tony Hendra to be a guest but he declined. So we have a written statement from him,” said Bridgette Maney, a spokeswoman for Good Morning America . “We have every intention of airing this piece and hope to do so very soon.”