A sense of artistic craving was evident in Daniel Voll ever since he was a kid growing up in Wisconsin and Illinois.
The third of five children, he staged anti-war plays in the late 1960s at his public elementary school and read the news of body counts from Vietnam over the school’s loudspeaker. His father, an ordained minister, was something of an outlaw pastor—both his parents later served as volunteer chaplains in New York City, post-9/11. The Voll household was filled with books—on theater (Voll’s first love), poetry, philosophy, literature and history. Yet it wasn’t until Voll’s senior year in college that he took his first writing course.
As fate would have it, Duke University had among its faculty Reynolds Price, an award-winning novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, and essayist, whose works often featured his native North Carolina.
As a young writer, Price was first championed by Eudora Welty, the beloved writer of short stories and novels; later, Price would become a revered teacher at Duke, where Voll took his fiction writing class. A treasure of wit and humanity, Price survived spinal cancer in his fifties, rendering him paraplegic.
As a student, Voll joined Price and Welty for drinks on one of her rare campus visits. Voll recalls Price and Welty sipping scotch and telling each other stories, two voices of the South who never judged their characters, and whose fiction always returned to what they knew best: home, in all its mysteries. He treasures one of Price’s favorite sayings: “The only thing more destructive than a tornado is a family.”
“If you’re an aspiring young writer,” says Voll, “that Southern ethos gets in your bones, that search for story and voices.” This is what Voll had in mind when, after graduating from Duke, he visited South Africa under apartheid’s emergency rule on assignment for Vanity Fair. He wanted to find out why South African writers such as Nadine Gordimer decided not to go into exile, but instead to remain home, and if it bore any relation to why Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor also stayed home.
Voll’s professional interest was split between journalism and fiction, and after a stint as a playwright in residence on a locked psychiatric unit in Rockford, Illinois, he was accepted into the MFA fiction writing program at the University of California, Irvine under Oakley Hall. Upon graduation, Story magazine, edited by the legendary Lois Rosenthal, published two of Voll’s first short stories set in the Midwest — one about a cross dresser who falls in love with Ronald Reagan; and another about a female tattoo artist who falls in love with her grandson.
These stories about “transgressive love in the Midwest” sparked Esquire’s interest to assign Voll what became “An American Family.” For Esquire, Voll had already delivered unflinching, deeply reported, yet nuanced stories on white supremacists in South Africa, militia men in Montana, and neo-Nazis at Fort Bragg.
Interestingly, “An American Family,” about a pair of siblings who fall in love and have children—and the legal and societal consequences that befall them for breaking such an abiding taboo—was the story that brought the writer Voll had become back to his own home in the upper Midwest of his childhood. Reporting the story, Voll recalled another one of his teacher’s favorite sayings: “Feast the heart with what it craves, short of cruelty, and let the world wonder.” It is this notion that is at the heart of “An American Family” as Voll explained to us in a recent conversation.
Alex Belth: How did this assignment come about?
Daniel Voll: This was in the late ’90s, and I was publishing a lot of short stories. Most were about transgressive love in the Midwest. I’d already worked on several pieces of long form journalism with Mark Warren at Esquire when he called and assigned this story. Mark wanted me to report the story like journalism but write it as fiction. That was an exciting idea – until I met Patty and Allen.
AB: Patty and Allen were the real-life characters. How did that change things?
DV: Both were in Wisconsin maximum-security prison, the first brother and sister ever imprisoned for felony incest with each other, and even as I started reporting, I still thought I’d write it as fiction, stealing details from their lives. There was a real battle in me. As a journalist I prided myself on the rigor of my reporting and fact-checking. The fiction writer in me was governed by different rules—and by the breaking of rules. But I was moved by Patty and Allen’s story, and by their humanity in a way I hadn’t expected. The fiction writer didn’t need to invent anything—the true story was real and messy in the best way. Ultimately the journalist won because the deepest power of Patty and Allen’s unlikely love story is that it’s true.
AB: And you saw them in court?
DV: Yes, I went to Milwaukee and saw them in the back hallway of the courthouse, each in handcuffs and waist chains. I saw their hands touch, and I saw a stolen kiss. That’s when I thought—let’s go deeper, let’s find what really happened. The journalist now had to seek real-world answers to the fiction writer’s transgressive question: what happens when you fall in love with the single most inappropriate person in the world? And more, what if it’s a crime that could land you in prison? And knowing all that, would you still do it?
AB: Did you approach them about writing a story?
DV: Their public defender suggested I write to them directly, so I did. I think it helped that I’d grown up in Wisconsin, and that I wanted to hear their story without judgement. I sent them my number, and they started calling collect from prison, which helped me to start piecing together their story.
AB: How did you balance your journalistic and novelistic impulses?
DV: There is no balance, that comes when I start writing. When I’m reporting, I’m a hunting dog. Nothing else matters. Getting to observe real people close-up doing reckless and improbable things is a dream assignment. I wanted to keep the story rooted in the facts of their lives; but I also wanted to understand their emotional hunger.
AB: You go into great intimate detail about Patty and Allen but then always draw back with the journalistic conceit of addressing the larger subject directly with the reader. How do you hold them accountable without condemning them?
DV: Flannery O’Connor said the writer’s task is to deepen the mystery not to condemn. But Patty and Allen didn’t just decide to have one kid—they had five, the last one delivered while Patty was in prison. Love story or not, some readers were going to be appalled—so this direct address allowed me to interrogate the taboo itself and the very nature of love as a reckless, consequential act. It was also a way, I see in retrospect, to conspire with the reader.
AB: Did you do a lot of reporting?
DV: I knocked on doors across Wisconsin meeting Patty and Allen’s wary but surprisingly talkative other siblings, which helped fill in the story. I interviewed social workers who’d tried to separate them and lawmen who’d hunted them down. I talked to the Milwaukee prosecutor who’d locked them up—I wanted to know why she kept these two in maximum security prison even after Patty had been sterilized. Most of my reporting was done on long prison phone calls with Patty and Allen—their voices had a quality of veracity that only comes from those who have nothing left to lose.
I remember cutting the interviews into color-coded pieces, laying the reporting all out on the floor. My girlfriend Cecilia (now my wife) was puzzling through the scraps with me, and she became obsessed by their love story. That’s when I knew I was onto something. Stripped down, it was two people blindly and desperately in love. I grabbed hold of that outlaw love story and it just pulled me in.
AB: What was Esquire’s response to the piece?
DV: To smuggle this story into Esquire was the miracle. Mark Warren championed it and got the word count we needed, over 7,000 words, plus a great layout that included Patty and Allen’s prison letters. Headline on the cover. Upper management didn’t cut a word. Mark had established a beachhead at the magazine for storytelling that pushed boundaries, and nobody fucked with him.
AB: What was the response when the story came out?
DV: The incest taboo, of course, fascinated and shocked. We got lots of mail. Readers, to their surprise, found themselves rooting for Patty and Allen.
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AN AMERICAN FAMILY
IN THE HOLDING pen at the Milwaukee County Jail, Patty and Allen Muth are waiting for the deputy sheriff to turn his back. They are both handcuffed and wearing prison-issue jumpsuits with white socks and flip-flops. She has hazel eyes and dark-blond hair and weighs ninety-five pounds. He is taller by a foot, a lanky redhead. The deputy is distracted by another inmate. Patty and Allen finally do what they’ve been plotting for months. It is the moment they have been living for, and it is over in one second. They kiss.
Ten minutes later, they are escorted into a hearing to get the results of a court-ordered test to determine the paternity of their fourth child. As Allen is taken by the sheriff’s deputy to the other side of the room, Patty’s gaze never leaves him. She’s worried that he’s losing weight. All she ever sees is his quiet tenderness, his kindness. How he would say he was going out for cigarettes and return with a bouquet of her favorite flowers. He’s the only man she’s ever loved, and she whispered that in his ear before they entered the courtroom; she wanted to make sure he knew. Allen rakes his fingers through his red muttonchops and buries his face in his hands. He can’t even look at her, his despair is so great. If he is the father, the state will take away their child forever.
Large shamrocks are taped to the wall behind the judge, who is wearing a green tie under his black robe. It is Saint Patrick’s Day. The judge announces that a DNA test shows a 99.98 percent certainty that Allen is the father. Patty and Allen request a photo of their child. Their request is denied.
Downstairs, Patty is shackled around the ankles, and a chain is locked around her waist. It makes her feel like a dog. The metal links are cold, like they’ve been refrigerated. The deputy shackles Allen’s ankles. A chain is also locked around his waist. When he submits his wrists for the handcuffs, her eyes search his face. She sees that he wants to cry. She strains toward him, but the guard tightens his grip.
They need to touch once more. Allen reaches for her, but the deputy yanks him toward the door. They are marched outside to different vans. She presses her face to the window and watches him being driven away, tears streaming down her face. They are returning to separate maximum-security prisons, where they are each four months into felony sentences—five years for Patty, eight years for Allen. Their crime: Allen is Patty’s brother, and Patty is Allen’s sister.
Most people think incest laws are to keep fathers from having sex with their daughters, not to punish someone whose only sorry crime is to have found as one’s mate the single most inappropriate person in the world, and to have started a loving family, well, a family anyway, with that person.
Most people manage to get through life without sharing a conjugal bed with a sibling, and most people are socialized in such a way that they cannot even fathom such a need, and if that isn’t the case, then most people certainly don’t make a blood knot the one lasting relationship of their lives, thirteen years and counting, up until the moment that they are mug-shot and shackled and led away to prison—to prison!—to keep them from sleeping with a big brother or little sister. But then, most people don’t ever feel that intensity of need about anything. The kind of need where you’ll get an offer to stay out of jail, and maybe even get your babies back, if you’ll just stay away from him or her, and you instead offer the state your bare wrists for handcuffing and say, Take me away. No, most people are not the Muths, proud parents of Jennifer, eleven, Crystal, seven, Paul, two, and Lisa, five months.
Although they didn’t meet until Patty was eighteen years old, she and Allen have the same biological parents. Patty was the youngest of Dorothy and Ernest Muth’s nine children. She was born in Milwaukee in 1967. Four years earlier, Dorothy Muth had been convicted of child neglect and spent six months in the same prison where Patty is now serving her time. On Patty’s birth certificate, her father’s job is listed as union truck driver; in truth, he was also a shiftless alcoholic with a mean streak. He would use the family money for liquor and leave Patty’s mother with a few dollars a month for diapers and food. They moved often, leaving behind filthy houses, to evade the Milwaukee County Department of Public Welfare, which made more than fifty visits to the Muths’ homes. As far as her father was concerned, the social workers could all go to hell, and he threatened to kill those he found on his property.
Patty’s older siblings had already been removed by social workers before she was born, and they were scattered across Wisconsin. Some were in foster care, and a few, like her oldest brother, Allen, were in a county orphanage. Three months after Patty was born, the state also placed her in foster care.
Patty’s foster home, where she had her own bedroom and pet rabbits, was on a Wisconsin farm. There were a half dozen other foster children. Growing up, she thought this was her real family. Her foster parents taught her to milk cows and ride horses, and she has mostly good memories of those years. But when Patty was six, her foster mother packed a suitcase for her, and the little girl was brought before a judge. She was being adopted out. Patty screamed, clinging to the leg of her foster mother. The patriarch of her new family, a bearded Dutchman, stood in the courtroom, his arms open.
After running away from the Milwaukee County Children’s Home, Allen was returned to his father. The oldest and quietest of the Muth children, Allen bore the brunt of his father’s abuse. To pay room and board at home, he was contracted out to paint houses. Allen got through those years by dreaming of one day driving a big-rig truck. In the back of his Bible, he drew a picture of a truck, and in the picture he was behind the wheel, escaping his father. He quit school after the eleventh grade and went to work at a Big Boy restaurant, making cakes and pies. For two years, he operated a machine at a bindery, shrink-wrapping magazines—Playboy, Hustler, and Better Homes and Gardens. He saved his money, and by 1979 he had the $1,800 tuition to attend the Sun Prairie Diesel Truck Driver Training School.
In her first few years with the Dutch family, Patty had a temper and was defiant. She missed the farm and the only family she had ever known. Her new family lived in Milwaukee, above their craft store, the Dutch Connection. She grew into a pretty girl with a wild streak. She often skipped school, but she loved reading, especially novels, and she played violin in the orchestra. She kissed a few boys in high school, and in her junior year she had sex with her boyfriend, a black classmate. She got pregnant. When she delivered the child, her adoptive family insisted that she put the newborn in a foster home. She was told that if she kept the baby, she would no longer be welcome in their house. Three months later, in June 1985, Patty graduated from high school.
Standing against the back wall at her commencement that June night were members of an extended family that she had never met and did not even know existed. They watched her cross the stage and accept her diploma from the principal, who wished her good luck and a good future.
Late that night, a strange woman’s voice on Patty’s phone announced, “This is your biological sister Barbara.” For the first time, Patty learned that she had brothers and sisters, that she came from a family of nine. They had hunted her down. It was the end of a long search to reunite the Muth children, and Patty, the little sister, had been the missing piece of the puzzle. Barbara was up from Texas; most of the rest lived in Milwaukee. The family met two days later at a Dunkin’ Donuts downtown.
The only one missing from that gathering was Allen. The others told Patty about him, that his job was long-distance trucking and that he was on the road. He had gotten married, but that was in trouble, they said. She liked this new family. They felt familiar. Within days, Patty moved out of the Dutch Connection and in with her sister Ruth, who was a registered nurse. Ruth wanted to help her get into nursing school.
Patty met Allen a few days after her graduation. He showed up unannounced. Patty came downstairs, and he was outside, smoking a cigarette. He had red hair and was tall, which surprised her. He was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a T-shirt, and she thought he looked nice. His voice was gentle, and she liked his shy, polite ways immediately.
He showed her his car, a ’69 Olds Cutlass 442 with fur seat covers. He was proud of the car, and he kept it clean and polished, the wheels chromed. She told him she was a neat person, too. Neither of them could abide a mess. He invited her to breakfast at Big Boy, and he opened her car door. He was a careful driver, and when they got to the restaurant, he told her to order whatever she wanted, which she did, and he ordered the same thing.
They sat in silence and looked at each other across the table. Finally, she asked, “So you drive trucks?” She didn’t know what else to say.
He told her he’d driven all forty-eight states. And about “reefer” units, short for refrigerated produce trucks. And that his rig had twenty-one gears. She’d never thought much about trucks before, but she was fascinated by this stranger who looked so much like her, and so she paid attention.
Allen drove Patty out to the airport after breakfast and parked in a grassy spot near one of the runways, and the two sat in the Cutlass and watched the planes take off and land.
Patty asked Allen to tell her about their mother. “She was pretty when she was young,” Allen said. “You look just like her.”
“I appreciate the compliment,” Patty said.
They talked all afternoon, sitting in the car with the windows open. She told him about her foster family and her rabbits and how she’d learned to milk cows. How afraid she’d been at age six, when she was adopted and had to leave the farm. She kept studying his face, looking for signs of herself in him. He didn’t say much. When he did talk, it was quietly. She asked him what the good things were about his childhood, but he couldn’t think of any. She reached over and traced the long scar on his face, and he said it was from a car accident.
As the sun set, they watched the lights of planes taking off, the vapor of contrails lingering in the violet sky. Elvis was playing on his eight-track. She said she wished she were on a plane going to someplace with a beach, like Hawaii. Allen said his truck could take him anywhere he wanted to go.
Copyright (c) 2021 Daniel Voll
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