The Old Man and the Secret: In After Visiting Friends, Michael Hainey Explores Dad’s Mysterious Death

The stonewalling did not discourage Mr. Hainey, and clues began to materialize. (“I’m not a talker. I’m an observer,” he told us.) The author questioned family members, sought out his father’s high school classmates and even forged signatures in order to get hospital records released. Precious, long-forgotten hospital records. He did not begrudge those who got in his way. He just had to get past them.

“I had to know,” Mr. Hainey said. “What was that story?”

In a sea of self-discovery memoirs, After Visiting Friends stands out for its level of journalistic inquiry. “Too many memoirs are ‘me me me,’” Mr. Hainey lamented.

And while the book may have paternal-thematic ties to Zachary Lazar’s Evening’s Empire and either of David Itzkoff’s efforts, it shares most of its DNA with David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, in which Mr. Carr goes back in time to report on his own life. “The art of reporting” is as important to Mr. Hainey as it was for his father. And in the end, this doggedness is what brings Mr. Hainey to the truth about his dad—and to the fear that this truth may destroy what is left of his family.

Bob Hainey with his two boys.

Bob Hainey with his two boys.

“It’s one thing to be the truth-seeker,” he writes. “It’s quite another to be the truth-bearer. The delusion destroyer. There’s a reason people don’t like revisionist historians.”

So he sat on his newfound knowledge for well over a year. Guilt crept in, as it had throughout his search, when Mr. Hainey wrestled with his own responsibility to his father’s secrets. “Who do you think you are? I made you,” his father would say in their imaginary conversations.

On one hand, the elder Mr. Hainey ought to be proud of his boy. As the author says in the book, “Everything my father and uncle valued in newspapering—good reporting and editing—in the end, it’s what undid them.”

And yet Mr. Hainey admitted that he had “great feelings of disloyalty” about revealing his father’s secrets. “Even though I was a man in my 40s, I still saw him through the eyes of a 6-year-old,” he said. But he knew what he had to do. “There was a lot of doubt, but I had to tell my mother what I’d found out.”

Just as he had to get into character so as not to “let the barking dogs” of journalism scare him, Mr. Hainey felt these were similar fears that had to be overcome. In fact, when asked what advice he might give to some theoretical future son, or what advice he wished he could have received from his father, he said, “It’s about living your life without fear, going toward what you want.”

And 40-plus years later, he is doing just that. Mr. Hainey is already plotting two follow-up works, including a novel, and is in the process of moving into a new painting studio in the West Village.

With all that, surely Mr. Hainey has lived up to that old Christmas-party prophecy.

Then again, Mr. Carter sounded less than unequivocal in his assessment of Mr. Hainey: “I think Michael has proved himself in a number of fields,” the Vanity Fair boss said. “If I could just get him into a suit that fitted him, he’d really go places.”