The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I AM IN A WAITING ROOM on the thirteenth floor of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in downtown Chicago, having arrived more than an hour early for an appointment. I’ve spent the past ten minutes staring at a small sign below a buzzer near the office’s inner door: Push to let your therapist know you are here. I don’t push it, though. I’m not here to see my therapist. I’m here to see my father.
He and I are meeting today to discuss a personal essay I’ve written about growing up the son of a Freudian psychoanalyst who withheld too much and a possibly bipolar mother who withheld too little. The essay contains raw, intimate details about my parents and their fierce, decades-long battle of a marriage: how they sometimes fought through their children (“Start your story over, Lad. Your father wasn’t listening. Apparently he was thinking about something more important”); how they lived for a while in separate parts of our house and used my brothers and me as go-betweens; how my sobbing mother once told us at a restaurant that they were divorcing because my father wasn’t willing to save the marriage, and he, apparently unfazed, continued to consult with the waitress about the daily specials.
I sent my father the final draft of the essay last weekend and included a note explaining that I wanted to talk to him about it in person. I told him some of it might not be easy to read, but he should keep in mind that it was written “from the perspective of a writer who in the end acknowledges that he had an adolescent and incomplete understanding of his parents and their marriage.” And I mentioned, as if it were a casual aside, that a national magazine had accepted the piece for publication on one condition: that he sign off on it.
To be exact, the magazine’s editors told me they were concerned about my father’s privacy (my mother is deceased), and unless I was willing to use a pseudonym, I would need to get his OK before they could publish my essay. When I read the e-mail, I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard tells her that of course he can send her back home to her family; all she has to do is bring him the broomstick of the powerful Wicked Witch of the West. I was frustrated, to say the least. I wanted my own name on my work. And hadn’t I made it clear in what I’d written that I dread asking my father anything; that his silence has always made me worry he is disappointed in me for some reason? Didn’t the editors understand that I am a grown-up with kids of my own and don’t need a permission slip from my dad?
It’s never been easy for me to talk openly with my father. Now I have to talk openly with him about an essay that describes, among other things, how difficult it is for me to talk openly with him. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to have this conversation since I was a teenager. I’m just not sure the best way to start it is: “Hey, Dad, remember when your marriage was falling apart, and Mom would berate you in front of us, and you would just stare off into space? I wanted to let you know that I’m about to publish an essay about that, and thousands of strangers will read it. That’s OK with you, right?”
The irony is that I waited many years to submit the essay for publication because I didn’t want to hurt my mother. Even after she died, I held on to it for fear it might anger my father. When I finally did send the essay out, it was with the convoluted logic that it probably wouldn’t get accepted; and that, even if it did, my father probably wouldn’t see the issue of the magazine in which it appeared; and, even if he did, he’d probably be OK with it; and, even if he weren’t, I still had the right to publish it, because after everything that he and my mother had put my brothers and me through, didn’t he have it coming?
This all made sense when I was sitting at my kitchen table in Maine, but here in my father’s Chicago waiting room, my justifications seem flimsy.
My brothers read the piece and were immediately supportive, assuring me that my memories of those years felt true to their own. But when I asked if they thought it might be difficult for me to get Dad’s permission, my older brother, Joe, said I’d have an easier time getting our dead mother to sign. It was a dark joke — and I laughed a little too hard at it.
A YOUNG MAN who’s been sharing the waiting room with me gets up and rings the buzzer. A minute later my father appears at the door and invites the patient into his office; then he spots me and says, “You really got here early, huh?” He explains that he has made us a lunch reservation at the Russian restaurant and tearoom next door, but he has one more patient to see.
In his early lectures Freud worked hard to respond to the criticism that psychoanalysts read too much significance into tiny details: telling an analyst not to look for meaning in a patient’s slips or dreams, he said, would be like telling a detective not to scour a murder scene for clues or telling a hopeful suitor not to read too much into a secret glance or a longer-than-usual squeeze of the hand. As the child of a Freudian therapist, I’m committed to that kind of careful (some would say obsessive) analysis of my everyday life, often to the detriment of my mental well-being. So it’s no surprise that now I find myself going over every second of that brief interaction with my father, hoping to find a clue in his expression or tone of voice or body language that will tell me what he thinks of the essay — and, indirectly, of me.
Always desperate for my father’s approval but never sure I’ll get it, I’ve spent too much of my life thinking, “What is he thinking?” His responses to my actions often surprise me. Like the episode with the “genius dolls”: My mother had bought them as conversation pieces for our living room — big-headed, stuffed caricatures of Beethoven, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Einstein, and, of course, Freud. One afternoon when I was a teenager, I got the idea to take Freud and Eleanor Roosevelt down to my father’s office in our basement, where he saw patients in the morning, and arrange them in a compromising position on his couch. I hoped he would see the scene when he got home that night and think it a clever joke. Then I forgot all about it. The next morning I woke with a start: what if he hadn’t seen it, and his first patient arrived before he did and thought my father had set the dolls up? I raced downstairs, almost running into my father at the door to his waiting room. I asked if he’d been in his office yet.
Yes, he said. He’d seen the dolls the night before. “Very funny.”
It was the exact reaction I’d hoped for, but I was caught off guard by it anyway, which speaks to how mysterious my father is to me. I couldn’t figure out whether he sometimes tuned the rest of us out because he was tired from listening to his patients all day or because he found what we were saying boring and trivial. At moments of greatest provocation he seemed the least provoked. This was especially true when my mother would rage and threaten to leave him, and he would scratch his head and stare blankly at her. Of course, this only infuriated my mother more, but there were times when, given her flair for the dramatic, I appreciated his absolute refusal to be flustered. Like when, at fifteen, I told my parents that I smoked marijuana: my mother cried and lectured me about gateway drugs, high-school drop-out rates, and studies on brain damage; my father just leaned closer and asked what it was like.
It’s not as if I never saw him show strong emotion. I just couldn’t predict when it would happen. Occasionally he’d blow up at a referee who made a bad call in one of my wrestling matches or a driver who cut him off in traffic, but he was typically cool and detached. Weeks, months, even years could go by without his saying a word to me about what was going on between him and my mother. And then, usually when she had sent me to deliver some threat or demand to him, he would explode. I wouldn’t be prepared for the stored-up fury of his outburst.
Will he see my essay as worthy of a head scratch or an explosion? My wish is that he’ll react with good humor, the way he did to the dolls and on other occasions, such as the time I threatened him when I was five: We were at a backyard barbecue hosted by some old friends of my parents. At dinnertime, not wanting to be seated with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, I went to grab the chair next to my mother. My father informed me that I had to sit at the children’s table. I insisted that I would not. My father told me I would. At that point — and here I have to rely on my mother’s many retellings of the event — I stood up, pointed a finger at him, and said, “If I have to sit at the children’s table, you know what we’re having for dinner?”
“No. What?” he asked.
“Roast penis,” I said. And then, after a dramatic pause: “Yours!”
There are parents who would have been outraged by this, but mine were delighted. My mother loved any grand gesture, especially when it was made by one of her sons, and my father regarded my response as confirmation of his deeply held belief in childhood sexuality and the Oedipus complex.
But having your five-year-old son threaten you with castration is one thing; having your adult son write an essay in which you come across like one-half of the warring married couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another.
The inner door to the waiting room opens again, the young male patient leaves, and my father emerges and gives me a quick hug. As he ducks back into his office to grab his coat, I try to decide whether the hug felt perfunctory or hearty and forgiving. Not surprisingly, I think it could go either way.
I TEACH college writing workshops on the personal essay. I also lead seminars on the ethics of the nonfiction narrative. And I coedit an annual collection of student essays, often asking the teenage authors whether they’ve considered the possible consequences of publishing revealing details about their parents. In other words, I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of memoir, and, until I got that e-mail from the magazine, I’d figured I had pretty well resolved those issues in my own writing. I believed that it’s OK to reveal painful details as long as you are getting at some larger point, and as long as you are at least as hard on yourself as you are on others. I have followed those guidelines in my essay. I am not simply venting. I make it clear that my understanding of my parents and their marriage is flawed. And I believe that if we allow other people’s perceptions and feelings to dictate what we can and cannot say, both the quality of nonfiction writing and the pursuit of truth will suffer.
But that argument, too, played better at home in Maine than it does now in my head as my father and I walk to the restaurant. For one thing, even though I’m certain that all the events in the essay really happened, I can’t be sure they happened for the reasons I give. I remember the time I watched a silent home movie with my parents. On screen my brother Joe, six, and I, three, were standing on top of a jungle gym, precariously high off the ground. Joe leapt safely down, and then my father appeared in the frame. He reached for me, drew his arms back, reached again, and then pulled back again. I was agitated and shouting at him.
Sitting behind me, watching the movie, my parents laughed.
“Just classic,” my mother said.
“Why?” I asked. “Because Dad would always pretend he was going to catch me and then pull his arms back at the last second?”
“No,” my mother said. “Because you would always yell, ‘Go away! I want to do it myself!’ ”
I think of all the students I have advised over the years to share their writing with the people they were writing about — most often their parents. I doubt every conversation they had went well. I imagine some parents felt hurt or betrayed by what their children wrote. But a few students have told me their relationships with their parents actually improved as a result. As my father and I sit down in the nearly empty restaurant, I’m hoping this will be one of those stories.
My father looks up from the menu and asks, “Do you want to share some things?”
For an uncomfortable second I think he means “share” as in “disclose.” Then I realize he is talking about our lunch order. He suggests the borscht, the blintzes, the chopped liver, and the stuffed peppers. I say that all sounds great.
Unable to stand the tension any longer, I decide to ask: “So, Dad, what did you think of the essay?”
“Oh, I loved it,” he replies, as if he thought I already knew this. “Like you said in your letter: I might remember things a little differently, but this is your memory from your perspective at that time.” He admits the essay did make him feel ashamed in places, but he trusts that readers will feel sympathy for everyone involved. He says he believes that the more intense a couple’s struggles are, the more passionate their relationship is, and therefore he is proud that I showed that dimension of his marriage. He’s happy to give me permission to publish the essay.
Humbled by the generosity of his response, I want to embrace him, or weep with relief, or both. Instead I ask if there are any issues I wrote about that he wants to discuss.
Yes, he says. All of them. He would never have brought any of it up himself, but since I did . . .
And with that he begins to talk about the early years of his marriage, about his fights with my mother, about what made her such a remarkable woman but an almost impossible partner, about his fears as she grew sicker and weaker toward the end. I slowly realize that my essay has given him permission to open up.
He tells me that my mother first threatened to leave him when they were in their mid-twenties, with two young sons and a third on the way. My father, just out of medical school, was working as a psychiatrist at a naval base in Oakland, California, treating Korean War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder before that was the term for it. My mother, overwhelmed with loneliness, was stuck in a strange city far from her family and friends. One day she announced that she was taking my brother and me back to Chicago. “I completely broke down,” my father says. “I just fell on the floor. I told her she couldn’t leave me there all by myself.” He says he never told me this because he didn’t want to do to me what his father had done to him: burden his child with his own troubles.
I understand his desire to be a different kind of father from the one he had; I’ve tried to be more emotionally available and affectionate with my daughters than he was with me. But I also understand how the best parenting plans can go wrong; how my effort to be an attentive, loving father created different problems. In fact, my daughters might say, with good cause, that when they were young I paid them too much attention, that I reacted too strongly to every success or setback, that I sometimes didn’t give them enough room to breathe.
If one of them were to ask my permission to publish an essay about that, I know I would give my OK, but I also know that I’d feel panicked and would have to fight the urge to offer excuses and explanations and extenuating circumstances. I’d like to think I would remember what I tell my students: that no matter how hard a writer strives to get the details right, a memoir is always just one of many different true stories that can be told about the same events.
As my father and I walk back to his office after lunch, I try to take in everything that has just happened: I got his permission to publish my essay? He and I can have an honest, heartfelt conversation? Wanting to share my good mood with him, I ask if he remembers that episode at the backyard barbecue when I was five.
“You told that story to Kohut when you were in his class, right?” I ask.
Yes, my father says. Heinz Kohut was a prominent psychoanalyst who placed less emphasis than Freud on early-childhood sexuality. As my father was completing his analytic training, the Institute for Psychoanalysis was beginning to divide into Freudians and Kohutians. My father, a Freudian, offered the story of my Oedipal outburst to Kohut as proof that Freud was right.
I ask how Kohut responded.
“You don’t remember?” my father says. “He said, ‘We’re talking here about normal child development. Your kid is clearly nuts.’ ”
Longtime readers may recognize the magazine mentioned above as The Sun and the essay in question as Lad Tobin’s “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Association” [September 2010]. As Tobin describes, when someone writes for us about the private life of a friend or family member, we sometimes ask the author to show the piece to that person prior to publication. We don’t refer to this as “asking permission,” but we do want to know if the subject objects to what the author wrote. If the person does object, we will often take steps to conceal his or her identity, including asking the writer to use a pseudonym if necessary.