Close Reading: Marco Roth’s Memoir Began as Revenge, But Turned Into Something Far More Complicated

Freud’s concept of der Familienroman, translated as “the family romance,” is a developmental stage that begins as the child grows

Freud’s concept of der Familienroman, translated as “the family romance,” is a developmental stage that begins as the child grows intellectually and discovers the limitations of his parents. It is defined as a series of changing fantasies: after noticing that other sets of parents are perhaps more impressive than his own, the child imagines that he was adopted; having become sexually aware, he goes on to fantasize that his mother was impregnated by a man who is not his father. Since this is Freud, the term should be considered more polemical than literal. In an introduction to the 1909 paper “Der Familienroman der Nerotiker,” Freud’s biographer Peter Gay points out that the German suffix “-roman” has two meanings: “romance,” for one, but also “novel,” an appropriate subtext for an idea that is rooted in the stories a child tells himself about having been the product of deeply repressed family secrets.

It is hardly accidental, then, that The Scientists, the first book by Marco Roth, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1, has the subtitle, “A Family Romance.” Mr. Roth has been working on the book, in one form or another, for most of his adult life, more or less since his father Eugene died of AIDS in the family’s Upper West Side apartment in 1993. Mr. Roth was 19, an only child, and sworn to secrecy about his father’s illness. He’d been told by his parents that Eugene contracted the disease in a freak accident while working as a doctor in a sickle-cell lab. He recalls his father talking about having AIDS as if it were “a bedtime story”:

I wasn’t wearing latex gloves, which you’re supposed to do whenever you’re handling blood, and, as I was about to get the needle out of the guy’s arm, he jerked and the needle came out suddenly and poked me in the wrist, just below a vein…[A]t the time we were beginning to hear about this new disease …

Eugene’s sister, Anne Roiphe, Mr. Roth’s aunt, has been writing memoirs and autobiographical novels for almost 50 years. The story of her brother’s death was an inevitable topic in her 1999 book, 1185 Park Avenue. The rest of that memoir is devoted to growing up in a dysfunctional, wealthy Jewish home on the Upper East Side with her younger brother, but in the book’s final section, she subtly questions her brother’s story about the lab: “If he did not even then tell me everything about his life and if his AIDS was in fact contracted in the more usual way I would have been heartbroken—heartbroken because he would have lived so long bending beneath the deceptions forged in other ignorant and cruel times.” Mr. Roth quotes that passage in The Scientists and remembers first considering the idea that he hadn’t been told the whole truth when he was sent a galley of his aunt’s book. He was in his early 20s then, and taken off guard; “It had,” he writes, “never occurred to me to doubt my father’s version of events.”

Mr. Roth.

“This began as a revenge memoir against my aunt,” Mr. Roth said of his book in an interview near n+1’s office in Brooklyn. “I think that what I didn’t like about my aunt’s book was the tacit victory dance that one sensed going on in the pages, which might be inevitable in a survivor’s memoir, where you say ‘my family life was really horrible, I am urged by it to write this book because I escaped and made good but my sibling did not.’ But,” years later, “I was given to understand from my mother that she had been keeping things back.”

The Scientists started out as a book about the stories parents offer their children, told through a close reading of the novels Mr. Roth’s father made him read as a teenager, predominantly selections from the canon of late 19th- and early 20th-century bildungsromans like Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. Later, Mr. Roth writes about attending Yale for a doctorate in comparative literature, where he never finished his dissertation on literary representations of happiness in the works of Stendhal and Wordsworth. He was spending a great deal of his time trying to either disprove or discover his father’s secret life through Eugene’s personal library. The idea was eventually abandoned because, as he writes, “I worried that if I approached these books as if they contained, in buried code, the answer to the question of what my father had really desired from his maimed life, I would only find the very answer I was looking for evidence against.” But, years after reading 1185 Park Avenue, he finally confronted his mother and asked her if she’d been telling the truth when she brushed aside Ms. Roiphe’s questioning by saying “I know as much as you know.” The truth, when he finally gets it, is as subtle as Ms. Roiphe outing her brother without really outing him, which is part of the point of the book. His mother’s conclusion is that “there were things … that … no child really ought to know about his or her parents.”

And so for readers, too, the exact details of his father’s personal life, to a certain degree, remain ambiguous. Mr. Roth’s mother admits that in 1976, Eugene had been sleeping with a man, but he had promised that the relationship was over. “Maybe that was the truth,” she says in the book, “maybe that wasn’t the whole truth.” But Mr. Roth remembers the conversation with his mother being like the transference of a flustered patient who reneges on previous remarks to a sternly silent analyst. She tells him, “I knew when I married him, but I can be very stubborn … I thought you really always must have known.”

“There isn’t going to be a definitive truth,” Mr. Roth said in Brooklyn. “And that’s an important lesson for the memoir. At a certain point, you have a kind of fetish for exactitude. Like: I want to know exactly the clubs that my father might have gone to. But those places, they don’t exist anymore. Who knows if he even went there? These are just things that are going to be permanently veiled.”

Taken together, The Scientists and 1185 Park Avenue are a unique family dialogue, presented as a sort of public record. Their styles are divergent. Ms. Roiphe’s prose is unforgiving: “If it is true that God is the creator, if Adam was the first man and Eve was made from Adam’s rib then God was present at my brother’s birth.” Mr. Roth’s memoir is simultaneously more detached and more inward. Large swaths of his life are left out—a divorce, for instance, is presented as something of an aside—but the book is also obsessively concerned with its making.

[T]he thought also came to me that I mustn’t write about any of this. That such an act was what my parents most dreaded … On top of that, I felt the weight of all my wasted time: those months and years of my furtive reading, the truncated writing, the head-banging frustration of not getting anywhere and not getting away.

But the books fill in certain of each other’s gaps. Ms. Roiphe talks at length about (and Mr. Roth alludes to) her brother leaving medicine briefly to study, of all things, comparative literature at Yale, how he pored over Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust during a yearlong break from the sciences. In light of The Scientists, those details foreshadow the futility of Mr. Roth trying to find his father through reading. The Scientists, though, is more than a response to Ms. Roiphe. Mr. Roth is focused predominantly on his father—or finding a patriarchal stand-in, as in the book’s centerpiece, the author’s journey to Paris to try to become the apprentice of Jacques Derrida. Still, it’s difficult to read some passages and not see an argument playing out between the two authors:

Ms. Roiphe: “Did I really love my brother or did I just think I should? I don’t know.”

Mr. Roth: “Had she been trying to protect me until the last possible moment, or did I even matter to her at all?”

“I wasn’t trepidatious about my one little sentence,” Ms. Roiphe said in a phone interview, referring to how she handled her brother’s “parallel life,” as she calls it in the book. “By that time, I knew what the real story was. But I cared a great deal about what Marco would think or feel. I did not know what the right thing was for Marco, what would be the best fit for him. It wasn’t so clear then.”

In his book, Mr. Roth confronts Ms. Roiphe after reading her galley, but their conversation doesn’t go anywhere—Ms. Roiphe tells him “the story is in the book,” and fails to elaborate further because “she had promised to protect her source.”

“I was being very careful,” Ms. Roiphe said. “Maybe I could have been more careful and not put anything in there. I have an obligation to write the truth as I see it, and I had an obligation to Marco as a human being, and somewhere between that I wrote 1185 Park Avenue.”

That book may have called into question the stories that Mr. Roth’s family told themselves to reckon with an unspoken sadness, but The Scientists is less about debunking the fantasies that are passed down in a family than it is about how to read them productively.

“You can say it’s slightly perverse that our family is one in which one has to actually publish a book in order to have a conversation about something that happened 20 years ago, to say, ‘I’m sorry, I feel like I handled this wrong.’ [My aunt] could have said that to me at any other point, and thereby perhaps prevented the writing of this book. Maybe she didn’t say it in order not to prevent the writing of this book.”

Close Reading: Marco Roth’s Memoir Began as Revenge, But Turned Into Something Far More Complicated