April 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

How to Cook Your Daughter by Jessica Hendra with Blake Morrison

How to Cook Your Daughter begins with Jessica Hendra’s memory of a funeral of her parents’ friend that died of a heroin overdose in sunny California. Two years later, the Hendras fled to New Jersey under cover of night (better to avoid the landlord) to the big, creaky house that Jessica would come to associate with both sweetness and betrayal. The story gently drifts between that house on Red Mill Road, to the wild streets of New York’s East Village in the late '70s, to Los Angeles, to London, to France and back, following Hendra’s path from an incest-scarred childhood to the life of an adult trying to free herself of her father’s poisonous influence.

Jessica Hendra’s father is Tony Hendra, a charming Brit who participated in the razor-sharp shock-satire culture of the 70s, with his work with humor luminaries like John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, including a long stint at the National Lampoon. What made him good at his work made him hell at home, as he often used his considerable intelligence and wit to cowl his children, wife and friends. What comes through Jessica’s memories of her father is a man who was never really joking, always poised to snatch something dear away for a laugh.

The last paragraph of How to Cook Your Daughter’s introduction explains the genesis of this book: “When I brought home Father Joe that Memorial Day, I felt as though my father had left me another message, this one long, involved and unavoidable. I needed to know whether something beneath those folded hands might somehow help me finally understand him, whether something in those pages might help me reconcile the events that, sadly, had come to define my life.” The book mentioned is Hendra’s father’s acclaimed book Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, a confessional memoir where he appears to give a full account of his sins and tell how his spiritual mentor saved his life through the gift of absolute forgiveness. When she finds that his sexual abuse of her is excluded from his lauded tell-all, first confronts Tony, then decides to publicly take him to task for denying her a private apology or explanation for his immensely damaging behavior.

Hendra’s title is shared with a piece her father wrote for the Lampoon in 1971. Tony’s article was a sexually charged recipe in which a young girl is trussed, rubbed with liquor and served up on a platter to be devoured by a salivating father figure. The ugliness of her father’s humor haunts Hendra’s childhood thoughts and the full text of the original “How to Cook Your Daughter” finally appears full length in her final chapter, intercut with Hendra’s graphic, frantic reveal to a psychiatrist counseling her for bulimia and anorexia.

It is the first time in the book we hear exactly what happened in her tiny bunk bed when she was seven. The bluntness of her description brings home exactly what the rape of a child is: an ugly, brutal wielding of power over the powerless.
 
Like her childhood among the Lampooners, and later the famous names of NYC underground comedy, Hendra’s teenage spiral into bulimia and self-destruction is sprinkled with brushes with the characters of early punk and ska. She manages to capture the excitement and fear being a young woman barreling through a loud, smoky world without rules, and how she created a persona just as volatile as her father’s in an effort to separate from him. In a name check moment that seems both gross and bizarre in retrospect, the singer from Bad Brains offers 14-year old Hendra a chance to move to Ethiopia and become one of his wives -- a scary but compelling offer to a girl looking to escape the domineering father who storms in and out of her life. Male attention, especially from band members and other artistic bad boys, becomes an intriguing yet sad part of Hendra’s tale and continues until she meets her actor husband Kurt Fuller in 1992.

What’s striking about How to Cook Your Daughter is that for all of the pain Tony’s actions and subsequent emotional abuse of her, Hendra still proclaims her love for him. She lets spite in only through other people’s words, mostly in letters she received from her father’s former friends after a New York Times article that paved the way for this book was published. Hendra’s ability to show the truth of times and places now blurred by nostalgia for wilder time of seemingly boundless expression is a major part of what makes her story so readable.

When we reach the conclusion, an unsent letter from Jessica to Tony that proclaims righteous freedom from the page, the reality that she hasn’t yet escaped becomes unavoidably clear. Her final words, as defiant as they are, show how inextricably meshed her view of herself is with her father’s behavior (past and present) and conveys the uneasy lesson of How to Cook Your Daughter: the past is inescapable.

How to Cook Your Daughter by Jessica Hendra with Blake Morrison
Reagan Books
ISBN: 0060820993
Page 274