Sunday, August 9, 2020

My Father, The Pornographer: A Memoir

Andrew J. Offutt was a complex, deeply flawed man. A resident of rural Kentucky, Offutt was a husband and a father who supported his family with a successful insurance business, a job which he did not love and ultimately abandoned to make the bold leap into full-time writing. He was at one time a promising science fiction writer. He also subjected his children to emotional neglect, held baseless grudges against various personages, lacked a full emotional maturity and cohesive personality, and held a life-long obsession with pornography.

His son, author Chris Offutt, tells his father’s story with incredible bravery and honesty and a raw, pull no punches style in My Father the Pornographer: A Memoir (2016). I found this book to be absolutely fascinating and extraordinarily well-written, and burned through it in a matter of two days.

Andrew J. Offutt was “controlling, pretentious, crude, and overbearing” and spent most of his hours “in the immense isolation of his mind,” according to Chris. He demanded dead silence in the house while he hammered away in his office at this typewriter, churning out content. Chris often took to the woods to escape a stifling home existence.

When he died in 2013 Chris went through his father’s voluminous effects and eventually brought with him back home to Mississippi more than 1800 pounds of paper, his father’s life work, which formed the basis for this memoir. Chris meticulously reconstructs the father he never had, after his death. This includes both Offutt the man and his considerable bibliography of fantasy, science fiction, and pornography, which is included in full in an appendix to the book.

Offutt wrote and published more than 400 books under 18 different names. This included six science fiction novels, 24 fantasies, and one thriller. The rest was pornography. Offutt worked like a fiend. At the height of his writing intensity he once turned out 96 pages of content in two days. Porn paid the bills for the Offutt household, and it was a source of both outward pride and hidden obsession for Andrew. He assumed pen names with pride, becoming the character of “John Cleve” and boasting of his accomplishments in porn at conventions. But he also wrote and illustrated troubling sex-torture comic books on his spare time, never intended for publication, but rather to satisfy deep and dark needs of his own. “He didn’t collect these books, he made them. Here was the world he carried inside himself at all times—filled with pain and suffering. I had no idea how miserable he had truly been,” Chris writes. This internal vs. external dichotomy created deep and unseen emotional rifts in his family life. Andrew loved his wife and never struck her or his children, but they “feared his anger, his belittling comments and inflictions of guilt.” Andrew Offutt could not bear disagreements or being perceived as wrong on any point, and structured his life to avoid conflicts, ruthlessly cutting out anyone who he perceived to have slighted him.

Your heart aches for Chris, who despite all this saw his father as a deeply fractured but three-dimensional human being. The book describes for example how the two passed one pleasant Saturday afternoon turning two empty cardboard boxes into castles. My eyes stung with tears during a scene where Chris weeps for the talent his father once had, pre-porn. Andrew had some early artistic successes, including an appearance in the anthology World’s Best Science Fiction for his story “Population Implosion,” which led to an invitation to attend the World Science Fiction Convention of 1969. In 1972 he had a story published in the Harlan Ellison anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, a highly anticipated sequel to the wildly popular Dangerous Visions. In 1974 Offutt presided over the Hugo awards at World Con, but a minor run-in with Ellison (a minor episode blown way out of proportion by Offutt, leading to a lifelong grudge by the latter) made it his last national convention.

Fans of sword-and-sorcery get a few glimpses of that side of Offutt—a glimpse of his fantasy-bedecked office and its effects, including a poster for the movie Barbarian Queen hung over his work desk, medieval weapons adorning the walls including a broadsword, battle-ax, knives, dagger, and a dirk, and his collection of adventure novels by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Alexander Dumas. Chris and his siblings were often dragged along to various local conventions by his father and mother, and the book paints a simultaneously charming and dark picture of early 1970s convention life, wonderful and strange and sad. Offutt and his wife swapped partners at times. Chris grew up with a deep misunderstanding of sex and relationships, and himself suffered child abuse at the hands of “the fatman,” a transient predator.

The dead no longer speak and I hold no grudges toward Offutt the man, and will continue to read and enjoy the likes of Swords Against Darkness and The Tower of Death. He was, in the end, a man cursed with many flaws, but that same epitaph can be written on the gravestones of an uncountable string of deceased before and after him. And I recommend My Father, The Pornographer to anyone who appreciates honest writing or a well-crafted memoir.

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