Chris Offutt’s father wasn’t always a pornographer. His first book, written when he was 12, was a novel of the Old West. He completed a 300-page historical account of Rome while still in college. Before he died in 2013, Andrew J. Offutt had written and published more than 400 books, using 17 different pseudonyms. Six of his novels were science fiction, 24 were fantasy, and one was a thriller.
The rest were XXX-rated.
Shortly after his father’s death, Chris, then 54, found himself the beneficiary of a “secret will,” stipulating that he handle Andrew’s papers, specifically including “instructions about his porn, where it was hidden and what to do with it.”
While cleaning out his dad’s cluttered office space in the family home in rural Kentucky, Offutt opened a closet lined from floor to ceiling with pornography: everything from books, manuscripts, photographs, magazines, postcards, comics and pinups, to ”a pile of dusty catalogs from Frederick’s of Hollywood [that] ran back 50 years.”
It was a tunnel into a past he had never suspected, into the mind of a man he soon realized he never knew: My Father, the Pornographer (Atria Books).
Offutt’s onetime belief that his father occasionally wrote porn “to supplement his income” as a science fiction and fantasy writer — his parents claimed the senior Offutt cranked out a few dirty books to pay for Chris’s orthodontia — falls apart in the face of Andrew’s “incredibly vast and inclusive” pornographic library.
Not only had his father published three decades worth of porn titles (conveniently listed in the back of the memoir), he did so under an array of aliases, notably John Cleve, who posed as a 1970s swinger, and Turk Winter, the final persona behind his collaboration for 25 years with Eric Stanton, the underground fetish artist.
Offutt Sr.’s mass-production of porn was coolly efficient — Chris compares him to “Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with premade parts” — and included mind-boggling varieties: “…farm porn, cowboy porn, Hollywood porn, Nazi porn, swapping and swinging… pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn …” Of these “subgenres” galore, the exhausted Offutt is “thankful for the utter absence of kiddie porn.”
Immersed in cataloging his father’s Augean and “increasingly dark” life’s work, organization turns to quagmire, and Offutt grows depressed, morose, even suicidal. He eats little and loses all interest in sex. Andrew’s shadow hovers: “The project felt less like clearing a room,” Offutt writes, “and more like prospecting within his mind.” His siblings urge Chris to destroy the pornography, worried the job will ferry him too far back into the hell they escaped.
Refusing to turn away, Offutt insists that “as a son, I wanted an opportunity to understand him further through his work.” The result is a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in which memories of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood prove just how much of a toll the father’s obsessive career took on the family.
Life with Offutt Sr. was anything but ordinary. Remembering days before his father quit his lucrative day job to write, Offutt contrasts rare moments with his once adored, playful dad with the stay-at-home Mr. Hyde he became. “Bullying and critical, angry at the breaking of his ever changing rules regarding bathroom doors, sound, laughter, talking,” his crushing presence and bottomless need for obedience and attention made life unbearable for his family.
Many scenes rival the stories of Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr for parental neglect and craziness. In one stunning chapter, Offutt describes the many sci-fi conventions his parents attended, shuttling their children off to a separate room with orders not to bother them — emergency or no — while Offutt Sr. enjoyed the swinging lifestyle he’d developed for his alter ego, the childless, freewheeling John Cleve.
Not that the kids didn’t come in handy: Andrew stole their college fund, cashed his younger son’s college financial aid check and sold Chris’ “comic book collection of 1,500 titles and kept the proceeds.” Even after Chris left home, his dad’s moody, controlling behavior dictated their communications, which didn’t improve when Chris’s work began to attract the sort of literary acclaim Offutt Sr. had always craved.
The hard-won understanding of his father’s insecurities and frailties is dutiful but damning. Offutt — the author of two short-story collections, two memoirs, a novel, and TV scripts for “Treme,” “Weeds” and “True Blood” — commends Andrew’s pre-pornographic work as “energetic, funny, concerned, serious and original.” Rereading it, he “wept for the talent [his father] had as a young man, the great writer he might have become.”
Offutt Sr.’s tone-deaf approach to his son’s talent, by contrast, shows little concern for such fine points: When Chris, a struggling writer at age 25, refuses a job co-writing one of Andrew’s porn novels, his father lashes out in a letter so vicious I agree with his friends who said it should have been burned.
He feels “a horrified sympathy” for his father and “the world he carried inside himself at all times — filled with pain and suffering.” Yet he’s often revolted to the point of nausea — especially with one of his last finds, a cache of chillingly nihilistic S/M comic books his father worked on from 1958 until his death.
It’s exactly how the reader may end up feeling, despite Offutt’s survival of his trial by fire, having sweated out the fear of his father like a plague. In the end, he makes no attempt to reconcile his father’s conflicts or his own, leaving this record of his journey into the heart of darkness — awe-inspiring, tender, gut-wrenching, forgiving — just as he found it.
Read Offutt’s original essay for the New York Times about his father here.