daddylabyrinth is an interactive memoir that showed in the Singapore ArtScience Museum exhibit of interactive stories (alongside Troy Chin’s Forgetting and Nick Montfort’s From the Tables of My Memorie). It explores the author’s relationship to his long-dead father, and it’s constructed of short writing passages, photographs, scanned documents, and speak-to-camera video bits. It’s a big piece of work, much bigger than you can explore fully in a setting like a museum exhibit, but because it is made up of many small accessible anecdotes, I nonetheless felt like it worked pretty well in that space.
Like several of the interactive documentaries profiled at ICIDS, daddylabyrinth offers multiple curated paths through its assorted reflections. But it also tempts the reader with many diversions, many opportunities to go off and look at a document or a fuller explanation of a particular experience. Individual documents stand at the crossroads of different interpretive paths: dad’s army records can be part of an initial character sketch of Wingate’s father, or an element in a more thorough history of his army career, or part of a story about Wingate’s mother’s campaign to get those records altered. Many times a fresh path opens out of the middle of another, with the tempting “begin this path…” button offering a way in. Sometimes following links takes you through an unexpected loop, and over time certain pages repeat. Likewise, when you reach the end of a path, clicking the “end of path – continue” link lands you somewhere entirely unexpected and new (but thematically linked).
You may think you’re going to be able to go back to the path you first selected, but for me that didn’t happen: my curiosity always, always won out over my self-discipline and sense of order.
The effect is of course intentionally disorienting. The more information you amass about Wingate and his father, the less you have a sense of stability and direction. If you’re the kind of person who gets a little anxious about the prospect of being lost in an interactive story — if you dislike not knowing where the end is and how to get there and how far you’ve come already — then this is likely to awaken those discomforts.
The Minotaur in the original labyrinth was furious and violent, lacking civilized controls: perhaps a suitable metaphor for Wingate’s father. But if so, then Steven Wingate is less Theseus than Daedalus, building an ingenious maze to imprison something that he can’t control. Except in his title, Wingate himself doesn’t directly invoke the myth (at least in the passages I saw, which are certainly not all the passages that exist), but the struggle between intellect and rage is always there.
This piece is extremely personal and responding to it carries some challenges that I ordinarily would associate with the more confessional Twine games (not least because when I first interacted with it, the author was standing about three feet away). The revelation of personal traumas is a kind of writing I myself tend to be cautious of — for reasons I talk about here, I find it easier to create and often easier to receive at least partially fictionalized accounts of difficult life experiences.
I found the work itself way more compelling, and curiously less uncomfortable, than I’d anticipated. Part of this is just the intense relationship that this work has not only with feelings and life philosophies but also with facts, all the numerous pictures and documents and letters and timelines and events, which paint a very specific world and time and context. The particularity of the story — his father’s dishonorable discharge, the time he attempted to kill another man, the fact that he wrote short fiction and collected Egyptiana and wore a mustard-colored jacket — grounds the piece and often helps save it from mawkishness.
Having anger inside you is sort of like being an alcoholic. (Hey, maybe there’s a reason they two are often found in the same individuals!) You can fall off the wagon any minute, and you never know when it’ll happen. You have to remain constantly vigilant.
A lot of confessional and personal IF deals with issues like homophobia, racism, poverty, mental illness, abuse, rape, and the systems that perpetuate these. daddylabyrinth is very much about a straight white man’s world, and often concerns the sorts of people responsible for the sorts of bigotry that make life hard for the marginalized. But it’s absolutely not a defense of those systems or unaware of them. On the contrary, it records the damage that’s done to those who carry prejudices, and the especially nasty effect of internalized prejudice. Wingate explores his family’s relationship to money and class, his father’s dislike of wealthy people coexisting with shame at being poor, the damage we do ourselves via social standards that we want to reject but can’t completely get away from.
It’s also partly also about other types of system: systems of inheritance, emotional and physical habits that we don’t even know we carry until we investigate our relatives.
I found this easy to relate to. My family tree on both sides includes a lot of survivors, people driven out of their homes by genocidal purge, people who broke new farms in bare North Dakota ground and people who rushed to California in the hope of gold and people who walked the Trail of Tears; people who set out across the world sometimes through ambition but often because they had no choice. At the end of his life, my great-uncle would still weep for children and old people who died on a forced midwinter march a century ago. He had never known these victims. The grief itself was inherited from his mother, my great-grandmother, who would habitually go into the farmhouse pantry to cry where she hoped her family would not know what she was doing.
My grandmother died this year, the last of her generation in my family, and I find myself wanting to claim or curate or even just inhabit my ancestors’ stories. There’s an instinct to claim the legacies I want from them. I’m proud of their courage, their stamina, their determination to carry on whatever the circumstance, their ability to make a new home in a new place. I’d like to believe or pretend that some of that has come down to me. But I don’t want the harshness or the emotional parsimony or the risk of becoming an angry alcoholic; and I am intensely grateful not to have faced the same trauma.
There’s also a desire to see those ancestors more roundly as humans rather than purely in relation to myself. By the time she died in her mid-90s, my grandmother was very much shorter than I am. Nonetheless, I remember her as a giant who shouted instructions in German that I understood because they always meant “Come here! Right now!” At all other times she spoke English, but her toddler-wrangling technique was a legacy from her own parents, immigrants from Bessarabia who passed through Ellis Island and died long before I was born.
I can’t say I’ve explored the whole labyrinth, but I’m not sure it’s necessary to do so. There are some things you visit and revisit and never map completely.