Part Five: Fake Names and Obsessions


Pen and ink of Stacya as a baby, by Jan Svetlik
Pen and ink by Jan Svetlik

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


My father named me Stacy.


Some people have baby pictures, I have a pen and ink drawing created by my artist-mother. We didn't get a camera until I was around 10 years old. Even then, we were often too broke to buy film, but I'm posting two professional photographs, one of my mother by a Hollywood photographer (I don't have a name) and a baby picture of me with my older sister, Lisa. Looks like Sears or a JC Penney type photo.


This sketch of me as a baby was in my father's boxes, which were returned to me after the "Hidden Brain" episode aired. There were other pen and ink drawings my mother did in one box, even a sketch Jan made of Dad's fourth wife, Jo Anne Sullivan, who also went by the stage name Jo Graham. They kind of overlapped, my mom and Jo Anne, as did many women in Dad's life. Jo had two children with Riley, but when he left Reading, Pennsylvania with my mom, Jo 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. Also, I don't know if "The Encyclopedia of Folk Music" should be the encyclopedia of folk music. If you know, let me know, but for now I'll flip back and forth.


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 project:


  • 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 the obsession with The Encyclopedia of Folk Music 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 used various names, was running from landlords, investors, women who had his children, many of the women believed Riley 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. Riley also claimed the FBI was after him for some lefty groups he joined in the 1940s. I've submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, so we'll see what becomes of that. He begged my mother to have me, never told her he was sterile, and they were together for 23 years, with one separation back in 1970 that lasted six months or so.


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


In reality, the families 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 crew 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. He constantly promoted his projects. Our whole lives revolved around the encyclopedia, 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, which I'll get to in a later blog. What was true, and what wasn't?


Below, me and my older sister, Lisa. She's five years older. Lisa has a different biological father, regarded Riley as her dad, but always called him by his first name, Riley.




Next, part six: selections from my father's detailed journal.


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