We like to believe we are the authors of our own lives, but so much of who we are is decided for us in advance. The things that color people’s perceptions of our identity — who our parents are, where we grow up, the lifestyle and culture in which we’re raised — tend to be out of our control. And yet, we must live within these biographical boundaries. Any attempt to escape them, to rewrite our history, is seen as dishonest.
In her latest novel, “Schroder,” Amherst’s Amity Gaige draws from the real-life case of Clark Rockefeller, born Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German impostor who spent decades cannily working his way into high society on the strength of his fraudulent last name, only to end up imprisoned for kidnapping his young daughter after his divorce from her mother. Gaige’s protagonist, Eric Schroder, is not as calculating or menacing as Gerhartsreiter, but his decision to reshape his identity similarly forces him down a dark and dangerous path.
Growing up as an immigrant in rough-and-tumble, early-’80s Dorchester, Schroder is an outsider among outsiders. At 14, he reinvents himself as Eric Kennedy of the fictional Twelve Hills — a sleepy village he places near Hyannis Port in the hopes that people will associate him with the famous clan. On this shaky foundation, he builds a career and a family, creating increasingly elaborate stories for his wife, Laura, and self-serving justifications for himself.
When his marriage disintegrates and he and his wife enter into a custody battle over their beloved 6-year-old Meadow, Eric realizes his new persona is too fragile to hold up under scrutiny. “[M]y identity became predicated on some sort of collective agreement,” he laments. “I was Eric Kennedy only inasmuch as I could secure a consensus that I was.” In his youth, all he needed to get by was confidence and the credulity of those around him; in the present, where the truth is a click away on the Internet, his fabrications prove woefully inadequate.
Faced with exposure, Schroder absconds with his daughter on an ill-conceived road trip through New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts in a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable. Recalling Nabokov’s “Lolita,” the six-day adventure is detailed in a first-person allocution, written by Eric to his wife on the advice of his lawyer. From the start, his intentions are dubious. “[I]t’s hard not to . . . think of this as a sort of plea,” he confesses, “not just for your mercy, but also for that of a theoretical jury.”
While Schroder doesn’t appear to share Humbert Humbert’s peculiar perversions, the two do share a single-minded obsessiveness and arch pedantry that makes them certain of the necessity of their actions and unsympathetic to the feelings of others.
In between Schroder’s self-aggrandizing tangents and pitiful rants about the indignities visited upon him by his wife and the legal system, Gaige manages to evoke a modicum of sympathy for her misguided lead. His story contains moments of touching tenderness, where his vulnerability as a father in over his head peeks through.
But that’s just it — it’s his story, and it’s hard to tell whether these charming anecdotes are the truth, or whether it’s another attempt to shape perceptions, to create a reality as he wishes it to be, rather than as it is. As alluring as the fantasy is, the real Schroder is the man who lashed out at those who took away his carefully constructed life, a man who put his own desires ahead of his daughter’s feelings, needs, and ultimately, her safety. With “Schroder,” Gaige shows that the most pernicious lies are the ones we tell ourselves.