Michael Hainey book raises questions about truth versus family

Michael Hainey

Michael Hainey (February 12, 2013)

Say you had a family secret.

A juicy one. The kind that speaks volumes about families. And you wrote a book about it. But your family hates the book. Or, at the very least, potentially feels embarrassment from it. Would you still release that book? Say the book was very good, serious art — would that matter? Does art sometimes trump family?

Michael Hainey and Brooke Wyeth might be able to relate.

Brooke is fictional, the protagonist of Jon Robin Baitz's “Other Desert Cities,” the story of a daughter about to release a very unflattering family memoir; the play runs through Sunday at the Goodman Theatre. But Hainey is real, a former Chicagoan whose own (and much more generous) memoir, “After Visiting Friends,” arrives Tuesday. (His book tour begins Feb. 25 at the Harold Washington Library, followed by several additional Chicago readings.) We asked Hainey — as well as actress Tracy Michelle Arnold (who plays Brooke) and director Henry Wishcamper of “Other Desert Cities” — to reflect on the discomfort.

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Interview with Michael Hainey, author of "After Visiting Friends"

Bob Hainey worked at this newspaper.

He met his wife here. She was Barbara Hudak then. She wrote the TV listings. They were married in 1961. He died in 1970 at 35. Hainey's obituary in the Tribune said he had worked here as a reporter, a copy editor and an assistant photo editor, and that he died of a “massive cerebral hemorrhage.” Which is what the Chicago Sun-Times also ran with as the cause of death; he was head of the copy desk there when he died.

Here's where it gets weird.

The obituary that ran in other local newspapers said Hainey died of a heart attack. This never sat right with Michael Hainey, Bob's youngest son. But then, a lot about his father's death never sat right. Indeed, Michael Hainey, now deputy editor of GQ magazine, took the title of his new memoir, "After Visiting Friends," from another odd part of a local obit: It said his father died near Irving Park Road and that he was visiting friends. Except that his father was working that night, the Sun-Times was five miles away and the time of death was 5:07 a.m.

Michael Hainey, who grew up in Park Ridge (and was briefly a freelancer for the Tribune), has written something of a family mystery wrapped in an ode to Chicago newspaper tradition. It's also the kind of harrowing read that, at least for the author, led to “long nights awake, thinking about all the permutations that come from writing a book like this.” By coincidence, when I talked to Hainey last week, he had just spoken to his mother, who had come back from a Goodman Theatre performance of “Other Desert Cities,” which tells the story of a writer of an explosive family memoir. The following is an edited version of a conversation with Hainey.

Q: What an appropriate night of theater.

A: She started telling me about it, about how it was about a daughter who basically writes about her family and something involving a family secret no one talks about. I said, “Oh … well … that's interesting, Mom …”

Q: Did she see similarities?

A: I don't know. I did, but we didn't talk about it.

Q: Ironically.

A: As I say in the book, the word “family” and the word “secrets” have always been synonymous in my mind. And so I guess that I think every family has its secrets, and those secrets can be profound or small, but they will undoubtedly become more profound the more they get denied or pushed back into a closet.

Q: Without giving away exactly what happened — your father's story failed the smell test.

A: Right. Things don't add up. In fact, I think that if my story has any resonance, it would be because there is a deeper theme here: the family secret that we all wonder about and wish we could search out. I worked on (the subject) for a good 10 years, and from the start I thought of it as a book, which was a leap of faith because I had no publisher or answers. But about four or five years ago, when I started to see it as something, I told (my family): “You know that thing I've been looking into? How I keep asking about that thing?” I think the idea was sort of abstract to them at first. “OK, keep us posted. …” That was their reaction.

Q: Your family never asked you to not write this?

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