Fathers and Sons

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
Christopher Buckley, Twelve, 272 pages, $24.99

And Noah, a farmer, planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and was uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Cannan, saw his father uncovered and he denounced him to his two brothers outside. And Shen and Japheth took a robe and put it on both their shoulders and went backwards and covered the shame of their father. (Gen 9:20-23)

When the relatives and friends of William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley first learned that Christopher Buckley, the satirical novelist, was completing a memoir of the year during which he lost both his parents, there was considerable and well-founded alarm. All three Buckleys had enjoyed famously contentious relations, and, in recent years, Christopher had not only confirmed his agnosticism on matters religious, but went so far as to announce his plan to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

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Has Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir confirmed the worst fears of Buckley loyalists? The appearance of a portion of the book in the New York Times Magazine suggests that the scion has provided a juicy deconstruction of a conservative icon. Readers are invited to feast on a series of delicious vignettes that strip away the parents’ public charisma and reveal their profound limitations in domestic relations. Mom is a serial liar and self-justifying socialite who never apologizes for routine bad behavior. Dad is a frenetic “great man” and control freak who impatiently abandons his only son on the day of his college graduation.

What more is there to be said? A great deal, actually. Not only does the younger Buckley acknowledge many rich and distinctive moments of parental love and devotion, the narrative reveals something more than the author may have intended: the connection between this ambivalent portrait of his parents and his own waning faith in God. To this reviewer, his critique of the Buckley paterfamilias reads like an attempt to demystify and exorcise the inconvenient Catholic values that shaped the author’s upbringing and still plague his conscience.

In a number of interesting ways, Losing Mum and Pup is a story about fathers and sons — not mothers and sons. While writing the memoir, Christopher reads Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, a fascinating account of several generations of Waughs who also enjoyed frequently hostile relations and competed with each other for literary accolades. Even after Evelyn Waugh converted to Catholicism, his faith did not substantially modify his brittle communications with his offspring, nor his dismissive treatment of his wife. (Indeed, only infrequently does faith resolve human imperfections, and thus belief in God can be dismissed as an excuse for inaction and fatalism.)

While Pat remained an Episcopalian throughout her life and betrayed no interest in Catholic apologetics, it was another matter for her husband, the author’s father. His first explosive book, God and Man at Yale, revealed a passionate faith that deeply influenced his intellectual and political mission. And there was every reason to assume that the son would follow his father: Christopher was sent to Portsmouth Abbey School, an elite Benedictine boarding school, and was on intimate terms with the many Catholic priests included in the family circle. Though the elder Buckley, like many men of his generation, was not one to change diapers or sign up for carpool duty, he possessed his own methods of expressing love, and shoring up his offspring’s belief in God was a primary concern.

“When I was younger and periodically confessed to him my doubts about the One True Faith, he dealt with it in a fun and enterprising way: by taking me off to Mexico for four or five days, during which we would read aloud to each other from G. K. Chesterton’s great work of Catholic apologetics, Orthodoxy.” The tutorials in faith were punctuated by visits to Bill’s old haunts during his days as a CIA operative in Mexico City. “Four of five days of this and I was content to shrug off my doubt about the Immaculate Conception or the Trinity. They were some of the best days I ever had with him.”

Decades later, Bill would depart on a Lourdes pilgrimage without his son, but Christopher believes he knows the motive behind his father’s “humbling” decision to join the ranks of ordinary Catholics at the Marian shrine: “One typically makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes for a special intention; Pup never vouchsafed to me what it was, but it was about the time I had declared my agnosticism, and I speculated whether he was petitioning Our Lady on my behalf.”

These filial remembrances provide a telling counterpoint to the memoir’s story of a distant and argumentative father who firmly controls the terms of engagement and often confuses his son for a debating opponent. To take one example: As Christopher basks in the glow of a well-received new book, he clicks onto an e-mail message from his father, who offers this cold assessment: “This one didn’t work for me.”

Buckley the Elder was not a “touchy-feely” kind of dad. The hours that father and son spent together sailing in all kinds of weather provide a kind of framework for Bill’s distinctive understanding of his paternal role. He devoted precious time imparting a deep knowledge of navigation to his son, and the two joined forces against the elements in trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic voyages, which the father later memorialized in his popular books on sailing. But he also put his own son’s life at risk, demanding that they sail in dangerous weather, when a prudent adult would have called off the trip.

At times bemused, at others resentful, Christopher flings the evidence of paternal irresponsibility before his readers, only to back away from any ultimate judgments: “I think back to . . . my vow that I would never again set foot on a boat with him. And now I think I’d give almost anything for just one more sail together, even in a howling northeaster.”

Filial ambivalence pervades the darkest sub-plot of this uneven but very readable memoir: the father’s efforts to tamp down suicidal thoughts in the wake of his wife’s death and his own failing battle against emphysema and diabetes. Years earlier, Bill had told a friend that he had never grappled with spiritual doubt. Suddenly, that period of testing had arrived unbidden. But, at times, Christopher writes about dad’s struggle against despair as if it were no more than a matter of foreswearing meat on Fridays. Pained to see his father’s suffering, the son appears poised to encourage the patient to suspend the doctrinal repudiation of suicide as an acceptable exit strategy for a Catholic.

Devout believers may well view these revelations alone as the ultimate betrayal, but the story is more complex than it appears: The reader subsequently learns that Bill also had discussed these thoughts with his authorized biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Times Book Review. Within days of Buckley’s death following a heart attack, Tanenhaus called Christopher to warn him that the paper planned to publish a story relating his father’s struggle with suicide.

Alarmed that this revelation would become the fodder of political bloggers, the son threatened to undermine Tanenhaus’s book project if he didn’t suppress the story. The Times obliged, but the reader must construct a moral to this tale, as the author doesn’t — or can’t — provide one. Was the son free to contemplate the modern solution to the problem of suffering, or was he obliged to help a vulnerable father stay the course and remain true to his deepest values? Christopher doesn’t seem quite sure of the answer.

The chasm between faith and action makes it easy to take pot shots at public Catholics: It is widely believed that only the good may honestly claim membership in the Church, and the rest must be exposed as frauds. Raised in the Buckley household, the author knows all the holes in this stale argument. Still, he seems to play along, offering up his father as a convenient target.

Did the author seek to generate the buzz that produces bestsellers, or was there another motive at work? Here’s one possibility: if the devout father truly couldn’t practice what he preached, then his son can freely turn away from his childhood faith — as long as he avoids committing the very modern sin of moral hypocrisy. In fact, though Losing Mum and Pup discloses many examples of bad parental behavior, the author ignores some rather serious issues of his own that once provoked public scandal.

Neither father nor son is without sin, but their distinctive failings test the capacity of each man to love unconditionally. Bill didn’t much care about his son’s psyche, and sought instead to enliven the boy’s soul. Christopher carefully records the nurturing relationship he enjoys with his own offspring, but compelling tutorials on the path to eternal life are not favored activities.

The only son of two outsized individuals, Christopher vainly sought his father’s attention and approval, chafed at Bill’s public role, and nursed a secret knowledge of his limitations. Today, the world knows that his father was no saint. Despite the occasional laughs, this reader wishes the author had filed the manuscript away and waited for the gift of time and perspective. It would have been a better book.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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