Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (New Directions, 2019)
Reviewed by Aaron Scobie
There is a woe filling in the white space of these pages. A woe spoken incredibly soft. Who Killed My Father is a short memoir by the French writer Édouard Louis. Simultaneously literal and metaphorical, the book approaches the unique and distant relationship between Louis and his father.
“You apologized. These apologies are a new thing with you, I have to get used to them”
Imagine a life built and destroyed by your family. And then you leave everything. Grow up and away from the negativity that rattled your existence that forced you to view yourself as something smaller, something less important. By you, I mean Édouard Louis. By you, I mean Louis’ father. By you, I mean the empathetic reader and myself. I believe it is hard to exclude your life from the lives of your parents. No matter the damage caused by them; no matter the love grown or lost—in many ways we are our parents. We long for them.
In this book, Louis looks at the realities of life in the lower class, those whose lives exist around the factory. Much of the literature Louis writes is about the factory in his small hometown and how it looms over everyone there. It is a reminder of the expectation of their lives: to work and work and die. That is what Louis’ father did; until he was hurt in that factory and could no longer work. In the book, Louis sees his father’s health deteriorate, and watches as the French government makes his father into a burden, rather than soul needing help.
The book is layered with flashbacks to the simultaneously happy and broken home of Louis, where he witnesses love and rejection from both of his parents. What does it mean to be so opposed to your family? What does it mean to be different in their eyes? What does it mean to always want affirmation from them? The cycles we inherit from our parents, our fathers and mothers; that perennial game of copycat is where discomfort lives. Louis looks at his father and slowly grows to hate him; hate his back-and-forwardness.
“When you’d had too much to drink, you’d lower your eyes and say that no matter what you loved me, that you didn’t know why you were so violent the rest of the time. You would cry, admitting that you couldn’t make sense of the forces that came over you, that made you say things you’d instantly regret.”
We resemble our parents whether we want to or not. Repetition, remembrance, and the mannerisms and lies we swear to never recreate. But this is also the conflict of Louis’s memoir. Louis is a gay man from a deeply conservative and poor family. Many aspects of the book reflect how his father both loved and loathed him, how he was unable to understand how he could make such a beautiful boy and someone so worthless in his eyes. And yet, Louis returns to his family. His father, like our parents, exist forever within us.
In the third section of the book, Louis spends a lot of time tracking his father as he ages into the man he is today. He looks at how his father’s body has been broken by the government he stood behind, the government his family stood behind. Louis sees his father grow into the bigoted man he was throughout Louis’ childhood.
But there is also pity. And there is sadness, because his father makes a turn. He begins to see that his past caught him and broke him.
“Your body could no longer bare its own existence.”
Who Killed My Father is a memoir about a son looking at his father and trying to grapple with the life created by both of them: Louis and the understanding of his sexual and physical identity; his father and the control he tried and failed to impose on his family. We are our parents, we look like them, and we can never escape that. This book is about the violence and neglect splayed against a child, but it is also about how people change. In all of our aging, Louis tells us that we are not confined by the past we made for ourselves. And though our bodies will change and leave us broken, our attitudes can change. We can learn to un-hate ourselves and forgive those who fostered that hate.