Part Five: Fake Names and Obsessions

Pen and ink by Jan Svetlik

My mother said I looked like Charles Laughton when I was a baby.

Some people have baby pictures, I have a pen and ink drawing created by my artist-mother. There was no money for professional photographs, except for a few exceptions, like the one Dad had taken of my young mother. (See below). We didn't get a camera until I was around 10 years old. Even then, we were often too broke to buy film.

This sketch of me as a baby was in my father's boxes, which were stored at his friend Ted's house for 10 years after my father died. There were other pen and ink drawings my mother did in one box, even a sketch she did of Dad's fourth wife, Joanne. They kind of overlapped, my mom and Joanne, as did many women in Dad's life. Joanne had two children with Riley, but when he left Reading, Pennsylvania with my mom, Joanne and the kids never saw him again.

Recently, I took a good look at my birth certificate. I guess I've never thought to give that document the "once over" before, to examine it with a suspicious eye. What motivated this level of paranoia?

I wanted to see if my father used his real name on it.

He did not.

I wonder what names he used on my half-sibling's birth certificates?

I'm learning to separate out what I thought I knew from what I know now. As I sift through notes, I understand that fact checking is something we can all learn to do. Occasionally, I'll toss in some fact checking on the "Hidden Brain" podcast that aired last year. Assumptions were made after our interviews, and one assumption became the "big closer" for the story, that my father's behavior was driven by the obsession he had with this particular body of work, The Encyclopedia of Folk Music:

  • VEDANTAM: "Songs and novels are filled with stories about people with great obsessions. We have strong opinions about such people. When they succeed, when they produce the Taj Mahal or "Hamlet" or the iPhone, we hail the obsessions that built the monuments of this world. When we count the collateral damage that people with obsessions leave in their wake, especially when those obsessions only produce the unreadable tome on the evil eye or an unpublishable encyclopedia on folk music, obsessions start to look like folly. Trouble is you usually do not know whether an obsession is a great quest or a great folly until it's over."

The episode made it seem as if it was his obsession with The Encyclopedia of Folk Music that drove my father into compulsive behavior. Dad was 46 by the time I was born, and he started the project several years before. He'd abandoned several families by then, as well as pregnant girlfriends. By the time I came along, he must have been exhausted. He'd changed his name 18 times, was running from landlords, investors, and women who had his children, many of them had thought he was sterile, because he convinced them he was. He had broken recording contracts, and he even took his older brother's name for a lease on a New York apartment that he never paid up on.

I definitely got the "mellow" version of Riley Shepard.

In reality, the families he had before me knew a much wilder version of my father, although many of his kids don't remember him. Dad was young back then, full of ego and energy, and kept recreating himself with every name change.

The Hidden Brain show assumed my family didn't know much about the Encyclopedia project, partially because when they asked me to tell them what it was, I said, "I'm not an expert, I need to get someone from the University of Washington to look at it." I didn't want to repeat things my father had told me. The fact is, my Dad talked about his project every chance he could. Our whole lives revolved around it, and we dreamed of seeing him succeed. I knew what my father said the Encyclopedia was, but by the time I was an adult, I wondered about the things he told me. My mother has an entirely different story about Riley's encyclopedia. What was true, and what wasn't?

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©2020 by Stacya Silverman.

All photos on this site were taken by Thomas Schworer or David Hiller unless otherwise noted.