Planning My Memoir About My Father

I’m getting ready to concentrate on writing Science Fiction Daughter, the fourth in my series of memoirs. In this blog post, I’m going to map out the story. This will help me move through the writing with more perseverance, and I’m doing it here so you can see the thought process which may be helpful to you if you go to write a memoir. I always called my father Daddy, so that is how he will appear here. 

TITLE: Science Fiction Daughter

SUBTITLE: It needs to have Cordwainer Smith in it. Not sure yet beyond that. My current favorite, reflecting that he talked endlessly, is

Growing Up Listening to Cordwainer Smith.


Paul M. A. Linebarger was born in 1913 to an opinionated father, a lawyer who became a judge in the Philippines and later a personal adviser to Dr. Sun Yat Sen in China, and to an adventuresome mother, who left Ash Grove, Missouri, to work in Chicago, New York, and Europe, buying millinery in an era when ladies’ hats were an important part of their wardrobe.

Daddy was the first of their two sons. His brother Wentworth became an accomplished photographer.

My father and his father “the Judge”

Daddy was born in Milwaukee. His parents were abroad when Grandma got pregnant. His father wanted him to be eligible to be president of the US and you had to be born in the US for that, so they went to Milwaukee.  He grew up in many places.

While in Hawaii with his mother when he was six, on their way to join the Judge (as his father was always called), he was playing on the beach with another boy when something happened that was to change his life irrevocably. The other boy threw a stick and it hit Daddy in one eye. The pain was fierce, and he lost vision in that eye. That early experience of agonizing pain shaped his later writing about human suffering.

They did join the Judge in China, and my father grew up partly there and partly at 2006 R Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C., a four-story row house. Grandma lived in that house until her death at 100 years old, and I have many memories of visiting her there.  He met my mother in 1936, and they were soon married. By then, he had a Ph.D. and was teaching post-graduate classes at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. They didn’t try to have children for several years.

After I Came On the Scene

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my parents decided to try for a baby, as Daddy knew he would be going into the army. That baby was me. I was born nine months and two weeks after Pearl Harbor.

Daddy did go into the army, and he was in India and China. My mother and I went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, with her parents. Grandpa Snow was a mathematical physicist who had been invited to help invent the atomic bomb. While he did that, Mom had an office job and my grandmother took care of me. I learned to walk and talk there

My father wrote me letters, in a manner that suggested he wanted me to have them if he didn’t make it back. Here is an example:

Whatever light there is in me, whatever good,
I leave behind intensified
And distillate in you.
Whatever hope my heart has built, has understood,
I leave behind to be applied
And realized in you.

Dearest daughter — whom I’ve held and kissed and laughed with, and who’s kissed me — I leave you with the dearest girl in the world. You’ll be lucky to be like her. But while you can count yourself fortunate if you are mostly like Margaret, please remember — if we happen not to meet again — that you and you alone are all of me to live on. This uneven poem tried to put the idea.
Lovingly, your Father

Here is a bit from a series of letters he wrote me about right and wrong:

While you are still young, it will be easy to tell Right from Wrong: all you have to do is to ask, and some grownup is sure to give you a positive answer. But as you yourself grow up, you will find that the answers do not always come out the same, or that most people will give you answers which are just parroted from some political group or club or newspaper; and you will also find that a lot of people are confused and unhappy about Right and Wrong. These people have learned to mistrust what they learned when they themselves were small: they fear the Wrong without loving the Right proudly, boldly, and happily; or they desire things which they still consider Wrong, without daring to turn the words around; or they deny Right and Wrong, without daring to live up to their own denial… I have found that in my own life Right corresponds to what I honestly want to do when I feel calmest, happiest, and most sensible.

Growing Up with Him

He came back from the war with shell shock, which we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now. Not long after my younger sister was born. he decided that we would all be better off dead. He shot a pistol repeatedly into the living room ceiling, and my mother decided it was not safe to stay there. She took me and my baby sister out to Chevy Chase in the suburbs and moved in with her parents. A divorce followed.

Daddy would park his car late at night in front of my grandparents’ house, and Mom was worried that he would come in and kidnap me and my sister. He never did enter the house, but when I developed fears of the house I lived in being broken into, I later figured that was the cause.

We still saw a lot of him after the divorce. He would pick us up after school and take us to his house for dinner. I loved him but I was often overwhelmed by his talkativeness, and more than that about what he talked about. Human history with an emphasis on wars, cruelty, and torture was strong medicine for children.

I Go Away

From Washington, D.C., I went to college at Stanford, in California. I didn’t realize at the time that I was getting as far away from home and in particular from Daddy, as I could. Phone calls were rare, brief, and expensive, but we did write letters.

My first memoir, Around the World at Nineteen: Explorations and Romances, includes the story of meeting up with my dad in Hong Kong.

There was a research program on LSD run by one of my favorite Stanford professors, and I took part in it. That is the subject of my third memoir. I went to graduate school in Berkeley, in anthropology.

There I met a fellow who became my boyfriend. He was planning to go live in Spain. I saved up some money and went with him. We stopped in Washington on our way there. Daddy had had a couple of small strokes, but more interesting to me, he had begun writing science fiction under the pen name of Cordwainer Smith. It was being published in the major science fiction magazines. Other writers in the genre, such as Ursula Leguin and Robert Silverberg, later wrote that he had an influence on their writing. His stories are available in two books, Norstrilia and The Rediscovery of Man.

While I was living in Europe, I was shocked to learn of his sudden death. That story is told in my third memoir.

I started a website about Cordwainer Smith, which is still up, though in need of revision. I’ll tackle that job soon.

I’ll end this with a bit I wrote there:

If you think about the stories for a minute, you can probably imagine that being a child in the presence of that mind could be too much at times. I was intensely steeped in the huge questions of cruelty and suffering from very early in my childhood. I spent years (well, actually, decades) struggling with my feelings of anger at my father for overwhelming me. I still bear in my body the residues of a child’s body that tightened and pulled in from terror, and I still have phobias.

So my relationship with the stories is complex. I can be reading along when suddenly a phrase, particularly a description of some specific bit of cruelty, will hit me and I’m a kid again, crying “Stop it, Daddy! It’s too much! I don’t want to be here if the world is as horrible as you say!” Sometimes years have gone by when I have scarcely thought about Cordwainer Smith, other than to be grateful for the small (and occasionally large) royalty checks that turned up in the mail.

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