Maybe if Laurie Sandell had read Dr. Robert Hare's seminal book on psychopathy, Without Conscience, she might have recognized the truth about her father. A psychopath is distinguished by a lack of conscience, which leads to narcissism, extravagant lies, adultery...but how would she have known at the time? She was just a girl who loved her daddy.
Sandell's new graphic novel, The Impostor's Daughter (Hachette, 247 pages, $24.99), is a sleeper. Its crisp, clean line drawings tell a tale with an innocuous beginning—as a child, Sandell notices that her father gets mail under other names—that slowly devolves into a story of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father, and her own drug abuse.
As Sandell gradually realizes, the title impostor is her own father—an erudite, passionate Argentinean professor of economics at a community college in Stockton, Calif. The adoring daughter wove his outlandish stories into her own personal mythology—finding diamonds in South American swamps, surviving firefights in Vietnam. "He did things better than anyone else," Sandell says. "I wanted to be the best too. And with his help, I always was."
The signs were inescapable, and yet her family managed to delude themselves for years. Sandell even forgave her father after he opened seven (seven!) credit cards in her name, racking up thousands in unpaid debt. Her mother told Sandell that he was setting up computer systems for foreign governments, even as he foreclosed on their house. But when journalist Sandell writes up her father's exploits for a magazine, she's faced with a skeptical editor. Soon, through her own fact-checking, hero worship turns into rage as her article becomes an exposé of a con man. Later she struggles with relationships and drug addiction—nudged into rehab by, of all people, the actress Ashley Judd.
The comparisons between this work and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, another graphic novel about dealing with a father's deceptions, are going to come thick and fast. So, let's have it out there: Fun Home is better. Sandell is a contributing editor at Glamour magazine, and sometimes her conclusions (and her drawings) are as glib and oversimplified as "Five First-Date Signs He's Into You." After all, plenty of men grow up poor in Argentina without conning friends and family out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Still, The Impostor's Daughter is clean, engaging and candy-colored, and Sandell's father passed one talent on to her: the ability to spin a good yarn. It's not every girl who goes from working as a Tokyo stripper to having business lunches with Katherine Heigl. Only in Sandell's case, the stories are true (we hope). If only all families had fact-checkers—but then, as Sandell's mother shows and Sandell begins to realize, loving someone despite their flaws can be as brave and difficult a choice as hearing the truth.
Laurie Sandell reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Aug. 10. Free.