In the preface to The Black Veil, Moody writes that the “book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative,” clarifying his description of the book as a “memoir with digressions.” Yet, The Black Veil is less spastic than the reader might at first surmise; Moody has written an intricately structured book, similar to those of W.G. Sebald, that, while often digressive, speaks less in drunken fits than in elegantly plotted scenes. Like the works of Sebald, The Black Veil is difficult to categorize. It breaks the traditional mold of a memoir and creates its own category: part literary criticism, part intellectual autobiography, part family history, part testimony of depression.
At its most basic level, The Black Veil interweaves Moody’s genealogical quest to discover his connection to Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, the model for the veiled Mr. Hooper in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” with Moody’s account of his alcoholism and subsequent recovery. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the Reverend Mr. Hooper shows up one day in front of his congregation with a black veil across his face and proceeds to give his sermon without an explanation. Then, for the remainder of his life, Mr. Hooper refuses to let anyone see him without a veil. The few explanations he gives for wearing it are ambiguous: shared sin, sorrow, mourning. In a footnote to the story, Hawthorne mentions that “another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine… made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper.” Moody first learns of this footnote as a child from his grandfather, who also tells him that, “Moodys were present at all the important moments in Western civilization, and we were related to them all.” This connection with a Hawthorne story is the sort of eccentric brush with fame that Moody can show off in elementary school. But, as he grows older, he starts to see a connection between the veiled man and his own persistent melancholia and emotional concealment.
Moody’s obsession with the veiled Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, his supposed ancestral relative, soon leads him on a wider hunt for Moody family roots. The culmination of this pursuit is a trip with his father to Maine, where Moodys have lived for generations. Readers familiar with Moody’s fiction, which most famously focuses on affluent suburban WASPs, will perhaps not be surprised to discover that his own family background is similar: he can trace his genealogy to the Puritans. Moody makes sure to let the reader know of this painstaking genealogical research. His account of the Maine trip is frequently interspersed with arcane family trivia and numerous diary excerpts from Moody relatives (including Joseph). Moody writes that, “The family tree, that nasty, weedy shrub, is a good hobby for persons with agoraphobia or chronic alcoholism or narcolepsy.” Unfortunately, for those that are afflicted with none of these, reading about Moody’s ancestral line is often like looking through a neighbor’s large and repetitive photo album.
Yet, in a relatively exciting development, Moody soon discovers that he is not directly related to the illustrious “Handkerchief” Moody after all. His notion of family history then crumbles:
it was becoming apparent that the more likely and reliable assumption was that the simulated tendencies of families were bits of mythology by which a family constituted itself. Families were, in this view, nothing in nature, and everything in recitation. Families were a system of agreements between the generations about what was acceptable mythology and what was not.
It is surprising that Moody would not have realized this sooner. After all, he was a convert to semiotics and post-structuralist thought in college (having “seen the light” of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan). But Moody is also a romantic who, upon surveying the huge collection of literary criticism about “The Minister’s Black Veil,” turns his back on the deconstructivists’ “anaerobic, utterly cerebral interpretation…” Moody wants the romance of family, a faith in inherited traits. He needs a solid connection to the past. Thus he eschews some of his skepticism in favor of his romanticized notion of family history: a history in which shared names are connected with shared neuroses.
This search for a genealogy of neurosis seems to have been precipitated largely by Moody’s alcoholism during his twenties. Like Mr. Hooper (and “Handkerchief” Moody), who only gave ambiguous reasons for their eccentric behavior, Moody is not able to provide a definitive explanation for his own addiction to alcohol. After all, as a recent Ivy League graduate with few striking external stressors, he cannot help but regard his alcoholism as relatively anomalous. His visits to psychotherapists who attempt to elicit repressed familial events (no doubt spurred on by Moody’s own obsession with being raped) fail to come up with anything substantial. With his passionate interest in family history and the Hawthorne tale, Moody performs his own version of psychotherapy. Faced with a lack of clear-cut answers, he partially invents his own history, his own family mythology, to explain his neuroses. At one point he goes so far as to deduce that all Moodys would, of course, be known for being moody. How else to explain his constant depression?
Of course, efforts to explain depression and addiction in narrative form, especially among younger writers, can often veer toward the overly romantic and narcissistic (see Elizabeth Wurtzel). And being a romantic, Moody is not entirely free from this narcissistic edge–a trait that might turn off many prospective readers. For example, Moody’s description of his attempt to recreate “Handkerchief” Moody’s veil with black fabric purchased at Wal-Mart seems more like a publicity stunt than a soul-searching experience. Yet Moody’s writing more often conveys a genuine struggle with addiction and depression. He also shows an awareness of his own creeping narcissism. When he is sent to rehab, he says, “I was as bad as the rest, trying to use noble birth, expensive education, and a capacity for large words to make myself more impressive.”
Moody’s account of alcoholism and depression attempts to transcend traditional addiction narratives. In a rushed conclusion, Moody tries to use the black veil as a symbol for a nation that consistently refuses to acknowledge its own depressive and destructive inclinations, as Moody asserts that tendencies toward death, murder, and despair are at the core of the American character. Yet, the strength of The Black Veil lies in Moody’s struggle to reason his way through his own family history and behavior. In surging sentences that verge, like his personality I suspect, between spiraling out of control and maintaining an austere analytic precision, Moody adds to the discussion on why we still invent stories, and why narratives are sustained.