Jerry and Jess O’Connor were a model 1950s couple living in Texas with three children. She was a housewife. He was a home renovation salesman. They were, however, anything but normal, constantly running from the authorities from Texas to Mexico and California, carrying a terrifying secret. In his new book “Chaos, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe”(Random House, $25) the foreign correspondent Mike O’Connor details his uprooted, unstable childhood in a family always on the run and his long quest to get to the bottom of his parents’ story, their three decades of running and his own history.
O’Connor’s engrossing memoir is two books in one. The first part is the story of a family formed by World War II. Jerry O’Connor was a handsome, charismatic officer from Boston when he gets together with Jessica Lawson, a British national, on a troop ship bound for Italy. The family settles in Texas, but any hint of trouble--a car accident, requests for tax records, send the family scurrying across the border to Mexico. The father follows numerous dubious business schemes. Eventually, Mike O’Connor runs away from home and becomes a journalist for CBS. The second part comes after his mother’s death in 1997. Using a cigar box full of fragments--passports, photos and other relics, Mike reconstructs his parents lives. He gets help from ex-CIA men, a leader of the Hell’s Angels and shadowy government officials to find hidden federal records. He meets the two sons and wife his father left behind and a whole family in Boston. He finds FBI and INS documents that indicate some of his parents’ paranoia may have been justified, that they were being pursued. Mike O’Connor follows his parents’ secret lives like a intricate maze, a life which included the 1950s Red Scare, oppressive family upbringings and his father’s failed pursuit of the American Dream.
O’Connor, 61, was raised in Texas, Mexico and California. He was the Latin American correspondent for CBS, covered the Balkan wars for NPR and the New York Times, and presently lives in Rome. O’Connor spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Boston.
Q. How did you start digging in your parents’ murky past?
A. My mother died in 1997. I started digging into the story two years later. I got the book contract in 2000. I’ve been working on this book project for too damned long. I thought at first that it would be a personal narrative, maybe a magazine piece. Frankly, I don’t think much of people who write memoirs. They think that their lives are so interesting that everyone should know about it. It became more evident to me, however, that a book was possible.
Q. What effect did the constant uprooting and moving back and forth to Mexico have on your childhood?
A. The most enduring difficulty was trying to reconcile what my parents said was going on--we were going on adventures, we were going to Mexico for Dad’s business prospects. We were always going to something. It seemed to me the whole time that we were running from something. I never reconciled what they said and what I saw. As a child, you want to believe your parents. If they say black is white, you twist the truth to meet their story. It definitely affected my sense of authority. Ultimately, I knew my parents could not be trusted. I loved them, they loved me, but I knew they were wrong in what they said. I could not trust authority or people of importance.
As I look back on the book that I wrote, I realize that on one hand, I was worldly, and on the other hand very immature. What kind of 13-year-old boy takes men around in Monterrey, Mexico, to see hookers? I didn’t realize it was difficult or dangerous. I could do things that I didn’t know couldn’t be done.
Q. What role did your turbulent upbringing have in shaping your career as a journalist?
A. I thought I was doing journalism. Now I look back at it and I realize that I was acting out on the attitudes I had as a child. I wanted to find the truth. I couldn’t find the truth in my parents, so I would find the truth in other places.
Q. Could you explain the harsh deceptions by the Boston O’Connors of the two sons your father abandoned?
A. The O’Connors succeeded in keeping the details away from my half brothers Terry and Jack. The boys were told their father was killed in the war. What’s amazing is that this family is anything but evil. They were doing the best they could with the hand that they were dealt. Although it turned out that their actions were full of deception, they didn’t mean to do that. They wanted the boys to feel as good as they could about themselves. My father’s first wife Helen wasn’t completely lied to. She knew that my father was alive but lost in the wind. She didn’t know that his siblings knew where he was.
Q. How did your view of your parents’ “secret” evolve over the years?
I thought the secret was something impossibly horrible. I didn’t have any details, but I couldn’t understand what my parents had done to merit the decades of running, hiding, lying and living the way we did. When I found out what it really was, I was quite surprised.
After my mother died, I thought the problem would be smallish and contained, and the answers would be with his three siblings. They all said my family was running from the Feds. I didn’t ring true. I then looked at the political angle with the FBI.
Q. Do you think your parents’ paranoia was justified?
A. I don’t know how much paranoia was in my parents’ blood. I think that anyone who has been running from the federal government for a few years is going to become paranoid. The paranoia is reinforced when they don’t catch you. It must be right, the fugitive thinks, to be so afraid and to react so quickly to the slightest indication of a problem because I am still free.
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in September 2007)