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How to Cook Your Daughter
By Jessica Hendra
ReganBooks. 274 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Phaedra Trethan
Jessica Hendra, daughter of comic writer and actor Tony Hendra, has titled her book How to Cook Your Daughter. What the mother of two has done with that book is stick her father squarely in the broiler.
Rewind to May 2004. Tony Hendra, a contemporary at Cambridge with the Monty Pythons and editor at Spy and National Lampoon magazines, wrote Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, a book that Andrew Sullivan called "extraordinary, luminescent, profound" in the New York Times and that The Inquirer's book editor, Frank Wilson, hailed as "splendidly crafted."
Tony Hendra's book, at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, dealt with Hendra's youthful infatuation with Catholicism, his adulthood consumed by sex and drugs (despite his having a wife and two children), and his return to the church with the help of a benevolent, wise Benedictine monk.
The book became a best-seller, Hendra enjoyed a bit of newfound fame, and Father Joe, who'd passed away, became a symbol of what was right with the church, which has in recent years had plenty go wrong. It seemed a great story. Jessica Hendra, Tony's second daughter from his first marriage, had something to add, however.
In a July 1 article in the New York Times, Jessica Hendra alleged that her father sexually molested her when she was a child. Her justification for revealing that information at the time was that she felt her father's book, billed as a confessional, was an incomplete one.
"It's not the whole story," she told N.R. Kleinfeld, whom the Times had sent to investigate after receiving a lengthy op-ed piece from Jessica Hendra. "By not saying anything, I felt I was complicit in it. This book is an erasing of what happened to me. I want people to understand that these things don't go away."
For his part, Tony Hendra - who admitted in Father Joe that "no father could have been more selfish, treating his family like props, possessions... mostly completely forgetting them" - categorically denied his daughter's accusations. He suggested she was pathological and produced one of Jessica's former boyfriends (and one of his friends) who called her "very unstable emotionally." Hendra's second wife, Carla, suggested Jessica, once an actress, was out for publicity.
In How to Cook Your Daughter - named for a satirical piece Tony Hendra had written for National Lampoon - Jessica Hendra tells what the New York Times couldn't. During her childhood at a country home in North Jersey and a Manhattan loft, Jessica Hendra idolizes her often indifferent but brilliant and charismatic father.
An unconventional family with unconventional friends, the Hendras are hippies living in a Brady Bunch neighborhood in New Jersey, making the children out of place and giving fuel to Tony Hendra's self-righteous outrage. He tells the children that the Easter Bunny is "the risen Christ Vampire who comes to suck the blood of little children," rails against the girls' teachers, and calls the Brownie troop Jessica wants desperately to fit in with "fascist."
Drugs are as much a part of the scene at the Hendra home as meat loaf is at others'. Tony Hendra is gone for days at a time, while his wife, Jessica's mother, regards his many affairs with that most English of countenances, the stiff upper lip. And it's his frequent absences that lead a 6-year-old Jessica to beg her father to remain at home one night - which he does, on the condition that he can sleep in her bed, and do with her as he wishes.
"That's what people do when they love each other," Tony Hendra tells his daughter afterward, and though a child, she knows something is amiss. Similar episodes recur, and though they are infrequent, they are no less damaging.
Jessica grows to be a confused and emotionally adrift adolescent. Like most victims of abuse, she blames herself. She descends into bulimia, searching for control and not feeling herself worthy of love.
Her solace comes from a friend who was also molested, and the two become kindred souls, losing themselves in New York's punk scene of the late 1970s and early '80s. Her parents go through an ugly divorce, but despite her ambivalence about her father, Jessica is unable to cut her ties to him.
Still, like any young woman, she begins to see her father as human, but not a very good human. "This man who happened to be my father had dominated my life, had manipulated me in ways that suited him, had broken me down without ever building me up."
She marries and has children, but her bulimia develops into anorexia, threatening her very life. It's at this point that Jessica Hendra enters therapy, and, for the first time, gets professional help in dealing with the effects of the molestation. And then, Father Joe.
How to Cook Your Daughter is an examination of a how a show-business personality dominates a family, forcing everyone within it to define themselves by the presence of a narcissist. Jessica Hendra paints her father not as an evil villain but as a man driven to satisfy his own desires and fulfill his own dreams without regard to others.
Her story, corroborated by her mother, friends and therapist in the New York Times' article, is told in greater detail here, and it's a credible one. She goes through each emotion, from the pain of a child violated to the rebelliousness of an angry teen to the hurt of a daughter whose plea for contrition from her father is dismissed.
Though she's not as eloquent or biting as her father, Jessica Hendra's description of "growing up in a world where nothing is sacred" reads well, and a passage in which she describes the abuse to her therapist, juxtaposed with her father's skit referred to in the book's title, made this reviewer's skin crawl.
Jessica and Tony Hendra, predictably, have ended any relationship, and it's a shame this spoils what had been a lovely story of lapsed faith and redemption in Father Joe. Still, Jessica Hendra sees an even sadder aspect to this family drama: "I thought of his book, the reviews.... He learned nothing from Joe. Nothing! If he had, he would have been brave enough to face his actions."
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