Laurie Sandell never knew her father. Or at least she only knew a small facet of his personality. The complete man, the entire picture of him, was obscured by an overwhelming wall of lies and deceptions that left her pondering what her dad was truly about. Her misgivings about him began when she was very young, but it wasn't until college, when she discovered that he had taken out a credit card under her name (and subsequently ruined her credit) that she really began delving into the truth. But as she moved from different jobs, boyfriends, and cities (all of which she documents in her new memoir, The Impostor's Daughter), she found her dad's story to be far murkier and troubling than she could ever have imagined. The details of her search for understanding her father—and by extension herself—form the basis of her book. Now working as a journalist, writer, and magazine editor, Sandell has written a book that brings her closer to the truth but at the same time pushes her even further away from her entire family. We talked to her about it.
Why did you do The Impostor’s Daughter as a graphic memoir rather than a prose book?
I actually wrote this as a straightforward memoir first. I got through 350 pages before I realized I wasn’t getting to the emotional truth of the story—I was too terrified to expose my father. Then I came across a box of several hundred cartoons I’d done about him as a kid. I saw that I’d been fearless then—and that they told the whole story. I decided to return to the form in which I’d always felt safe. Sure enough, the fear fell away.
Who were your graphic novel and comics influences?
Early in my life, it was Mad Magazine, Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, and Charles Addams. Then I spent a lot more time drawing comics (just for fun, not professionally) than I did reading them. I started to read them again when I decided to turn my book into a graphic memoir. I fell in love with Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, and Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, among many others.
Are you still learning secrets your father kept hidden?
My father and I haven’t spoken since 2002, when I started to fact-check my Esquire piece and dug up concrete evidence that he’d lied about his life. I spent years consumed by the desire to know all of my father’s secrets—at times, I felt like Javert, the policeman who relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Every time I learned something new, that discovery would lead me to another shocking truth; finally, I had to accept the fact that I was never going to uncover every last one of his secrets. I’m finally done looking; the obsession has been lifted. And I’m so thankful for that. I have my life—and my identity—back.
Do you think you’ll ever truly know him, fully? Or, is a sense, since you have cracked the exterior of him more than anyone, you know him better than anyone—is that how you see it?
I don’t believe I, or anyone else, will ever know him fully. I remember when the CIA agent Robert Hanson was revealed to be a spy: He was a top CIA agent, a churchgoing father of six, a pillar of his community; but behind the scenes, he was sneaking into a park and dropping off envelopes for Russian intelligence. All I could think was, this man reminds me of my father. It was the loneliness of his mission that felt so familiar to me. I had a similar reaction when Bernie Madoff was arrested.
Have your parents read the book? What was their reaction?
My father and I don’t speak, so I have no idea. My mother has chosen not to read the book, at least for the time being. I wish she would read it, because I think she’d find it isn’t nearly as horrible as she imagines, and that in fact I have a lot of empathy for my father. On the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me she’s chosen to close her eyes and hope it will all go away. That pretty much defines the way I grew up.
You talk a lot in the book about your sisters’ reactions to your father’s tales and their ability to accept the lies without question. Have they read the book? What’s their reaction been?
I’m lucky—my sisters are supportive and we’re incredibly close. I let them read the book before it was published, and they didn’t ask me to change a thing, though neither of them would have chosen to publish a book on the subject. It’s not really true that they accept his lies without question—it’s more that they accept his need to lie without question. Their feeling is, oh, let him have his stories. If it were just about tall tales—not criminal and sociopathic behavior—I would feel less driven to share my story publicly. But his lies have hurt many, many people.
What do you think made you different, made you want to get to the truth?
Partly it was because I was the firstborn, and there was no buffer between me and my parents. I didn’t have an older sibling to explain what was happening, so I had to make sense of it myself. I was also my father’s favorite; he elevated me to a higher level, so the fall from grace was harder and more painful, and at least at the beginning, I was motivated by anger. The main reason my father created a writer and digger, though, was because he insisted “A” was “B” when I could see quite clearly that the opposite was true. I’ve never been one to shy away from the truth, even a painful one—I’d rather have a direct but mean boss than a kind but passive-aggressive one, for example. But I’ve never been able to tolerate those types of bald-faced lies. They’re so condescending, and they insulted my intelligence.
How close are you to your family now?
I’m very close to my sisters, and ironically, I’m closer to my mother than I ever was before. I’ve never been comfortable with the “family contract of denial” we were all required to adhere to, and as a result, before I wrote this book, I never confided in my mother about anything. I spent every summer in college on campus, then I spent years living abroad and calling home once a year. Now, I find myself having real conversations with my mother about lots of things, including what’s happening with the book—and even if they’re tough, they’re genuine. This process has changed my family forever, but I think it’s for the better, even though my father would obviously disagree.
In The Impostor’s Daughter, you really lay bare your own life and your own person. Was it difficult to do?
It would have been harder to do had I not spent the past several years writing personal essays for magazines. The first big personal essay I wrote was for Esquire, and I did that one anonymously, so I got to dip my toe into the confessional waters without having to get wet. After that, I wrote about my Ambien addiction for Glamour; a telephone relationship with a guy I’d never met for Marie Claire; and a few others that rendered me basically undateable in the age of Google. But it made the process of writing a memoir easier. Ultimately, I wasn’t interested in writing a tell-all about my father: I wanted to write about the effect a childhood filled with lies would have on identity, femininity, and intimacy.
What was the most difficult portion of the book to write and illustrate?
The most difficult portions to write were the scenes where I confronted my dad. It took me years—years—to be able to utter the words, “I don’t believe you,” and even in writing those scenes, I was filled with fear: Fear of exposing my father, of having him hurt me or himself, of losing his love…even though I’d lost it years before. It was one thing to write all this stuff in an essay for Esquire and publish it anonymously, and another thing entirely to share it with the whole world. The illustrations were an entirely different story. Like I said, I’ve always cartooned about my dad without fear, and I felt alive and immersed every time I was doing it.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
I’m attempting to adapt the book into a screenplay, a process I’m enjoying immensely. The screenplay will be “based on” the book, so I’m not as constrained by the events as they happened, in the order in which they unfolded, but the emotional truth will remain intact. There’s no escaping that for me!