• Rob Howard
  • Richard Pollak

Autobiographies tend to be turgid vanity projects, a slog through the minutiae of personal history on the dubious assumption that someone cares. A memoir, however, is often very different—an attempt to distill from a life the story buried there that explains it. This story often involves a quest to confront a childhood mystery. Every childhood is enough of a mystery that we all relate.

Last February I wrote about Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends, a memoir about his quest to learn the circumstances of his father’s sudden death, which happened when he was six and about which his mother never spoke. As Hainey’s father had worked at the Sun-Times just before I got there, and as I knew how he died years before Hainey figured it out and knew most of the people he approached for information, I turned the pages avidly. I felt as much a part of the book as outside it.

Hainey’s haunting question could be answered, and it was. Dick Pollak’s quest was a little different. In August 1948, he was playing in the hayloft of a barn in south central Michigan with his younger brother, Stephen. Dick was 14, Stephen 11. Dick would remember—or he’d think he remembered—or he’d go through life haunted by the memory whether it was true or not—that his mother called up, “Time to go, boys,” and he yelled down, “Tell him you’ll punish him if he doesn’t stop hiding.” And right then, with those cold words barely beyond his lips, his brother fell through a hole in the loft that the hay had concealed. He fell 35 feet and died.

Let me skip ahead 42 years.