Back Talk: Honor Moore

Back Talk: Honor Moore

Poet Honor Moore talks about her family’s response to her memoir, The Bishop’s Daughter.


Adrian Bellesguard

Since her first collection of poetry, Memoir (1988), Honor Moore has drawn on personal experience in her writing. In The Bishop’s Daughter (Norton), an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker, she reveals that her father, the late Bishop Paul Moore, was gay.

What was the research for this book like?

I had letters between my parents, and my father’s letters home from the war and some other letters of his. I had their letters to me, my letters to them–a lot of them. I had my father’s papers, which are in the archives of the Episcopal Church. I had my father’s three books and my mother’s memoir. I had tried relentlessly for twenty-five years to write about my father–mainly because he noticed that I wrote about my mother all the time and he would once in a while say, “Uh, hello?” He’d say things like, “Are you finished with the Jenny material now?” I knew it was a kind of emotional failure in me that I couldn’t get to it.

Do you hope that this book will be a kind of lesson?

One of the reasons I write is I’m saying, Don’t you understand? Everything I write is to try and make whoever the reader is feel the experience that I’m writing about. One of my sisters said when she read the manuscript, “Thank you for writing it. For me it’s not what Pop did or didn’t do in his life–it’s that I don’t have to keep a secret anymore.” So yes, I would hope that it would demonstrate what a secret did to one family, and one father-daughter relationship and one mother-daughter relationship. I would hope that it would extend the conversation within the Episcopal Church about inclusion. I went to this event at Town Hall for Matthew Shepard. Most moving to me was Judy Shepard, his mother. She said, It’s unacceptable that everybody shouldn’t be accepted and loved for who he or she is. And it made me think of my father, who couldn’t really accept and love himself for who he was. And you know that moment in the therapy scene when he’s talking about going around the country for his book? People come up to him saying, You’ve had such an extraordinary life, and he says, If only they knew the truth. It’s just not acceptable to me that any person should ever have to feel that way for one second. Of course, I held that value before writing the book. But somehow writing the book has made me absolutely implacable. I have a kind of fury about it.

Three of your siblings published critical letters in The New Yorker about the excerpt. Were you surprised by their reactions?

I have, as you know, eight brothers and sisters, and I did expect that there would be a large range of response, since we were born over a period of seventeen years. My sister who’s ten years younger said, when she read the book, We really had a different family. We had different parents. I was very careful to tell only my story. I think I have the right to tell only my story. I really intended the dedication when I wrote, “For my siblings, each of whom would have another story.” They all knew I was writing it, they all received galleys in December. And so I suppose the response was, yes, I certainly was surprised. And it’s not something I would ever do, so.

What was it like to grow up with your father’s public persona?

The time that I had the most anger at him about the public/private thing was after the revelation of his true sexuality, when he published his autobiography, Presences, which I felt misrepresented my mother because he didn’t come out–my mother, who left the marriage essentially because she had discovered this. I thought, You can’t say all these things about her being in a mental hospital and so on and not tell the truth about yourself. And so he did adjust somewhat what he said in response to my protest and some others’. But I was always impressed by his consistency. And then when I went through his papers and read his oral history, he was more amazing than I had thought. That was a little interesting, from the feminist-activist point of view.

Can you say more about what role that feminist point of view played in the project?

It was the legacy of consciousness-raising, the legacy of a kind of necessity of telling the truth and of setting things right, that’s the short answer. I couldn’t be whole in the world. And besides, I didn’t think the truth was so bad! I understood that he had suffered terribly. And I myself having been with women couldn’t imagine living like that. Then when I wrote the book, I thought, how did he manage to have the kind of generosity that he did? A lot of people who are closeted turn into the most horrific homophobes. So I was kind of amazed.

Sometimes a memoir invites readers to pass judgment.

I find that mysterious. I’m not really very judgmental. A friend who read the book early had a kind of judgmental response to my father. And a friend who’s a writer said, So? Did he call up Dostoyevsky and complain about Raskolnikov, for God’s sake? I feel a little like that: why can’t you be open to the multiplicity of human experience? Why can’t you say, Jeez, what a life to have to make your way through? And, well, if you want to say, I would have done it differently, great. But I actually couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say I’d do it differently.

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