Why I Wanted To Finish My Father’s Life’s Work

Karen Brown recalls the pain and joy of fulfilling a deathbed promise.

Karen Brown | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,139 words)

“Do you think you’ll pursue more significant work one day?”

That’s the kind of casual barb my father would deliver over breakfast on my visits home after I was well into my career as a radio journalist.

That may seem unsupportive, which was not typical. He was the emotional rock in my life for 50 years. He chaperoned my elementary school dances, read every article I wrote for the high school newspaper, and later, sent around news of my journalism awards to his friends and colleagues. Every year, he wrote me a birthday card extolling all the ways he admired me.

And yet. He had this dream for my career, that I would become a nationally prominent journalist who might one day topple a presidency and change the world. Instead I became a regionally-respected public radio reporter who mostly does health-related features.

He made those comments about his tempered expectations to let me know he could be both loving and honest. But to me, they felt annoying and unfair. In the end, we’d reach a mutual understanding that no one gets to do exactly what they dream of.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those conversations as I put my own writing projects on the back burner to try to finish my father’s final book.

***

My father, Rex Brown, was among the founders of “Decision Science” in the 1960s and 70s — a discipline that combines psychology, mathematics, statistics and value judgement. He got his doctorate at Harvard Business School and eventually launched a company that helped governments and the private sector make such decisions as where to put nuclear waste and how best to clean up the Russian Arctic. He wrote dozens of articles and five technical books for professionals in his field.

My father was among the founders of ‘Decision Science’ in the 1960s and 70s…and spent the last 10 years of his life trying to write a popular book on decision-making for the masses, something that would cement his legacy.

But what he’d always wanted to do was help the everyday person learn to make better decisions — about careers, about relationships, about politics.

After he retired, he dedicated himself to that goal — and spent the last 10 years of his life trying to write a popular book on decision-making for the masses, something that would cement his legacy. I suspect that legacy had something to do with yearnings that began in his childhood in London, during World War II, when his loving mother thought he walked on water, and his harsh father made him feel worthless. He felt paralyzed by that combination — of feeling he could never meet his mother’s expectations or raise his father’s.

His final magnum opus did not come easily. Years of brooding and hair-pulling and draft after draft became something of an albatross for us all. My frustrated mother could rarely get him to go to the movies with her, never mind take vacations. He would only take time off from “The Book,” as it became known, when his children or grandchildren were visiting. Even then he would carefully schedule family time around his writing — and family time often meant asking my sisters, husband, and me to help him edit and revise. Practically every moment he wasn’t asleep, he was perched at his virus-ridden PC, flinging archaic British curse words at the screen (mostly because he could never find his previous draft; he was a terrible organizer).

His insights were locked in a race against his mortality, and the latter was winning.

Though he had a book deal in place, he missed deadline after deadline, convinced his genius had yet to emerge. I wondered why the publisher didn’t end the contract.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


As his health failed — first diabetes, then kidney disease, then pancreatic cancer — I would perch on the edge of his sick bed, hand him a warm mug of Ovaltine, and promise to make sure his work made it out to the world. In my mind, I figured, at the very least, my sisters and I could create a website for his original content. But I knew that’s not what he wanted. He wanted a published book.

Then my father died, and The Book was still not done. That I could not accept.

***

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the appeal of posthumous publishing. Why this drive to finish other people’s work? Once they’re gone, they won’t know if it’s published, much less if it’s successful. So why is it so important to carry someone else’s work to fruition?

Certainly money can have something to do with it. Many have surmised that the people behind Harper Lee’s posthumous book, Go Set a Watchman, a sequel of sorts to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, were in large part after profits. The fact that many people were delighted to read the book may or may not have been the point.

It may come down to literary responsibility. JRR Tolkien’s son, Christopher, polished the manuscripts of his father’s unfinished books, including The Silmarillion and more than a dozen others, carrying on the beloved stories of Middle Earth that readers worldwide demanded.

For some, it’s a matter of historical preservation. Otto Frank famously rescued his daughter Anne’s diary from the ashes of World War II and gifted the world an intimate record of a terrible time.

In some cases, it’s the combination of grief and devotion. The actor Patton Oswalt finished his late wife’s nonfiction thriller, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark, on the search for the Golden State Killer — and I imagine he must have felt both frustration and pride when the book’s publication helped lead to a suspect’s arrest.

Lucy Kalanthi finished her late husband Paul’s book — When Breath Becomes Air — and it became a phenomenal bestseller. The book itself was about dying with grace, so in a way, it could only have been finished posthumously. But she must have so wished the two of them could have shared in the success.

In the case of my father’s book, I couldn’t claim the promise of riches, because no one in the family thought the book was likely to sell many copies. I couldn’t claim literary legacy, because he was unknown as a popular writer. It wasn’t professional devotion because I have never been part of the decision science world (though I have since learned, from his colleagues and admirers, that he was a pioneer in their field.)

No, for me, it came from love, from loss, and from the sheer inability to let go.

***

Growing up, I didn’t really understand my father’s work. “Decision Scientist” was a frustrating job to explain to my friends, whose own fathers had much more straight forward professions like eye doctor or corporate lawyer. And I was just too lazy to spend much time figuring it out. Like most children of doting parents, when I was with my father, I preferred to talk about myself.

So when, in his legal trust, he put me in charge of his professional legacy, the irony was not lost on me.

In his last few years, along with my sisters, I helped him stay in touch with the academic publishing house — sending out a trickle of chapter revisions and making sure he remained on their radar.

But after my father died, the editor in charge seemed to lose interest. When I persisted, he sent a polite message of condolence and promised they would honor my father’s contract to publish, but he rarely followed through on any of the intermediary steps.

When that editor left his position, his successor — a woman named Ceri — proved to be much more responsive. I don’t know whether Ceri learned from her bosses that she’d inherited a client’s highly persistent daughter, or whether she truly saw a gem in my father’s unfinished work, but she made it clear that — if I helped — she would make sure it got published.

So for about a year, I worked with my father’s former colleague, Jonathan Baron, to edit and complete The Book. In an act of professional selflessness, Jonathan fixed or filled in all the technical gaps. I worked on the editorial consistency. My father was a good writer, but in his final years, as his concentration and cognition waned, his sentences suffered. Also, he grew up in the 1940s and 50s, so his examples of decisions people make were often mired in sexist tropes. I fixed those too.

By now, I can almost understand Applied Decision Theory (ADT), which is an early approach to decision science he’d been trying to resurrect with this final book. According to the Rex Brown version, ADT combines mathematical concepts with a heavy dose of gut instinct and personal values. Good or bad outcomes may ultimately come down to luck and factors outside your control. But when used correctly, his method should lead to decisions that are as good as they can be at the time they are made.

After all those decades of my dad hoping I’d take an interest in his life’s work, he finally got me to read it. And now I wish I’d asked more questions.

***

I ultimately found it satisfying to finish my father’s book. I didn’t have to ask permission to change wording, to add a flourish here and there, to take out some of his more tired arguments. I sent the rough drafts to my sisters and mother, and they always sent me back grateful and complimentary responses. And poring over his words, still so much in his voice, let me spend more time with a man I adored, who left us too soon.

But the process has also been sad, bittersweet and confusing. To root for someone posthumously is an exercise in imagination and frustration.

Did he ever wonder if I’d follow through? Did he worry I wouldn’t live up to the deathbed promise? I want credit for sticking by his work, for making it better, even putting aside some of my own work to do it, and I want him to be happy about it. Can a dead person be happy?

As his health failed — first diabetes, then kidney disease, then pancreatic cancer — I would perch on the edge of his sick bed, hand him a warm mug of Ovaltine, and promise to make sure his work made it out to the world.

Though I’m not a believer in the afterlife, I do sometimes imagine him looking at my painstaking edits — not so much as a ghost but as an ethereal idea of consternation hovering just over my shoulder. (Ok, maybe that is a ghost.) He would disagree with some of them, for sure — he was always the obstinate expert. He would grudgingly accept the rest. I would allow myself a loving smirk — in the knowledge that finally, after all our years of playful competition, I get the last word. And if I concentrate, I can see a few tears running down my father’s face; he was such a softie.

There’s so much I wish I could tell him: That we streamlined the chapters into a better narrative. That the publisher rolled out a full marketing campaign. That we got a Nobel Prize-winner to blurb the back cover.

I would tell him that those years of self-doubt and skipped vacations paid off; he accomplished what he set out to do. The English-speaking world now has a tool for making better decisions, using his carefully thought-out method of instinct and analysis.

But mostly I wish I could tell him that I think his book is really good. He would have liked to know.

And when I think back to his loaded question — “Do you think you’ll do more significant work?” — I might say, “Actually, I have. And it’s yours.”

***

One day last Spring, when the publisher sent us galleys of the book to proofread, I found three typos. I’d probably have found more if I hadn’t been somewhat distracted. I had an essay of my own published that day in The New York Times. It was actually about my father — his search for life’s meaning, and his family’s efforts to help him find it.

My piece appeared at the top of the newspaper’s home page for about half a day, above news of Trump’s tariff war with China, and I couldn’t help wishing my dad could have seen it. His dream for me certainly included getting published in the paper of record. Granted, he might have said something a little cutting, like — “A personal essay? Not a political investigation?” — just so I knew he was still a discerning father. But he would have been incredibly proud.

And then he probably would ask me when I planned to get back to finishing his book.

***

End Note: “The Art and Science of Making Up Your Mind,” by Rex V. Brown, and edited by Jonathan Baron and Karen Brown, was published by Routledge Psychology, a division of Taylor and Francis, in July 2019.

* * *

Karen Brown is a writer and public radio journalist in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Sari Botton