When I was a senior in high school, I became obsessed with the home movies Dad kept in his armoire, behind bottles of cologne. Every day I’d reach through a cloud of Brut and vanilla musk, remove a tape from the stack, and watch the footage alone in our basement, captivated by images of the kid I used to be.
There I was at the age of eight, playing baseball in the backyard. Dad was recording me through the kitchen window, so I thought I was alone. I wore a full Yankees uniform, complete with cleats, stirrups, wristbands, and eye black. First I imitated a half dozen Major League players’ batting stances — each very accurate, Bernie Williams and Jim Leyritz in particular. Then I played imaginary center field, catching invisible fly balls in slow-mo, extending my mitt at a snail’s pace, no doubt envisioning myself on a SportsCenter highlight reel. The camera jiggled when Dad laughed. Watching the video, I felt grateful that he’d decided to secretly record me. His loving presence behind the lens was what made the video special.
It hurt to watch clips of Mom and Dad kissing my siblings and me. Now seventeen, I still kissed Mom good night, but it was just a peck. Dad and I never kissed anymore. We’d give each other a fist bump instead. In the videos Mom and Dad smooched us often and shamelessly, like nothing could make them happier. I ached to have that sort of affection back in my life. I played high-school football and had no girlfriend, so I existed in a world devoid of gentleness, where most physical contact involved smashing into people as hard as possible. It had gotten to the point where I looked forward to haircuts because it was pleasant to have the stylist softly touch my head.
In fall 2004, the beginning of my senior year, my social life had reached a breaking point. My only friends were other football players, and it was hard to think of them as friends anymore. They were always making fun of me because I avoided alcohol, couldn’t talk to girls, and never wanted to do drugs or go off-roading or leap into rivers from high cliffs.
Yet I felt stuck with those guys. Though they were mean, I was used to them, and they frightened me less than new people did. I’d always hoped that success in sports might help me transcend my social awkwardness, but even being named varsity quarterback — something that automatically made people cool in TV and movies — didn’t change me. I remained shy, isolated, and scared to invite anything new into my life.
I searched these old home videos for clues about what made me so stilted and nervous. What was I afraid of? Why was I so bad at socializing? Was it just shyness? No, because I wasn’t always shy. When I got excited, I could talk loudly and nonstop. In elementary school, for example, at the lunch table, I’d list archaic baseball stats, hoping the other kids would find it as crazy as I did that Babe Ruth hit more home runs than any other team in the American League in 1927, or that Old Hoss Radbourn had an otherworldly sixty-and-twelve record in 1884; no pitcher in the 1990s could win even half that many games without throwing his arm out. Eventually a ruddy-faced boy peered over his bologna sandwich at me and said, “Oh, my God, shut up. You sound like a psychotic retard.”
This is just one of many memories in which the world taught me to muzzle myself.
The hardest video to watch was from December 1993. The camera was low, perhaps resting on a coffee table. Centered in the frame: a naked Christmas tree surrounded by cardboard boxes from which my little brother and sister were extracting Disney- and New York Giants–themed ornaments. I entered stage right, seven years old and “walking like an Egyptian,” my eyes looking past the camera at Dad. “Watch me,” I said. While my siblings started decorating the tree, I continued zooming in and out of the frame, doing my Egyptian dance, imploring Dad to watch. This went on for several minutes. Finally Dad said, “John Paul, that’s enough.”
But I kept doing it.
Dad said, “John Paul, you stop it right now. You’re acting like a fool.”
I kept doing it.
Dad said, “Is this how you act at school? Are you a fool there, too?”
I kept doing it.
Dad said, “John Paul, you’re making me worried. Stop it!” He didn’t scream, but he was on the verge.
I froze, my face going stiff, my eyes wide and distant. Then I walked rigidly to the box of ornaments and began decorating the tree, my movements almost robotic.
I hated that clip. Not because of Dad’s frustration — which was, for him, fairly mild — but because he had seen something was wrong with me. I’d failed at hiding it.
I didn’t know what to call “it,” but throughout my childhood I lived with a gut awareness of the problem. I’d think things like Don’t be a weird idiot and Don’t get too excited and Act calm and Talk quiet and Don’t piss anybody off. In other words: don’t act like a “psychotic retard.” I carried these internal directives everywhere, hoping that if I could pass myself off as a quiet kid who was good at sports, I could integrate into high-school social circles. But here I was, the varsity quarterback, watching VHS home movies while my peers were out partying, which I couldn’t do, since parties were chaotic and unpredictable, and I hated social spaces that had hazy rules about how to act. I was drawn instead to situations that had explicit, even choreographed, expectations: church, football practice, the weight room.
The home movies served as a stern reminder to conceal the parts of myself that seemed to bother people. I lived under the assumption that I’d make Dad and others explode in anger if I wasn’t careful. So I tiptoed through life, aware that my obsessive enthusiasm could set people off like a bomb.
Dad never exploded in the videos — in large part, I’ll bet, because the camera was rolling — but I could sense him restraining himself. I was so accustomed to his rage that I could hear its initial rumblings in the staccato way he’d pronounce my name. If there was no camera present, and Dad couldn’t get me to shut up or stop doing something, he’d fill the house with his voice until I was still and silent and scared. To this day I sometimes wake to the sound of him screaming, and, in the moment before I realize it was just a dream, I feel angry at myself for bothering him.
I feared that if I upset him too much, he would beat me. And yet he never beat me. He just implied that he would. Sometimes he’d snap his belt and say with a grin, “You better not make me use this,” like it was a joke — Ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if I whipped you with this belt?
Actually he did hit me once. I can’t remember what I’d done, but he threw me down on my bed, flipped me over, and slapped me on the ass. I scrambled away, pointed to him, and said, “That’s child abuse!”
I was crafty. I knew that accusation would cut him to the core. “Relax,” he said. “I didn’t even hit you that hard.”
But I doubled down, realizing that I had the upper hand, that my dad wanted more than anything to be a good father, and that he was ashamed of his temper and always fighting to control it. “If you hit me, it’s abuse!” I shouted, crying hard now, ramping up the drama on purpose.
Dad held up his hands and said, “All right, take it easy, John Paul. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
After that, I felt safer, like I’d won a standoff we’d been locked in my whole childhood.
In one video I was seated on the living-room couch, eight years old, holding a Little Golden Book version of The Night before Christmas, which Dad had instructed me to read. I opened the book and began: “ ’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house . . .” Then I paused and said, “Hey, Dad, I don’t need to read this. I know it by heart!” I held the open book up — words and pictures aimed at the camera, spine pressed against my forehead, the pages occupying the space where my head was supposed to be — and I recited the words on the first page. Then I turned the page and recited the words on the next. And so on. As I did this, my pace sped up until I sounded like an auctioneer with an Italian American accent.
“Slow down,” Dad said. “Just read it normal. John Paul—”
Then there’s a quick cut to me in that same spot on the couch, the book open on my lap. I read the story slowly, my eyes on the page, my tone resigned and unenthusiastic. I don’t remember what happened off camera, but I imagine Dad — probably livid, afraid I belonged in special ed, using every ounce of his will to change me — showed me how to read aloud like a normal person.
By the time I was rewatching these videos as a teen, Dad never yelled at me. I’d learned how to keep him calm: Don’t complain. Don’t speak to him when he’s focused on a task. Be where he wants you to be at the precise time he wants you there. Do what he tells you to do immediately. Don’t talk back, don’t cry, don’t be noisy, don’t ramble about your obsessions — besides football. He liked to hear me talk about that.
As I’ve become an adult and struggled to manage my own temper, I’ve realized that Dad, like me, craved a calm and predictable environment, and his atypical eldest son’s chaotic energy destroyed his sense of equilibrium. I don’t fault him for this. His impatience, his need for control, his fury — these traits were a part of him long before I showed up. From what I can tell, we all have little or no control over who we are or how we operate. Our personalities just happen to us.
I remember a clip from my fifth-birthday party. The camera — resting bazooka-style on Dad’s shoulder — zoomed in on my face as I stared at the birthday cake, the number-five candle’s wavering light illuminating my stiff grin. The adults, just dark shadows around me, sang “Happy Birthday to You.” As I sat on my basement couch, a muscular and lonely teenager, the sound of my aunts’ and uncles’ voices coming together to sing my name moved me. Then the song on the video ended. I blew out the candle. The lights came on, and I said to my mother, “That didn’t take too long!” This made me laugh every time. Even at the age of five I’d just wanted everything over with as quickly as possible.
Watching this video, I realized that I’d never made a birthday wish in my life. I was always too preoccupied with exhibiting happiness and extinguishing the candle in one clean blow. When people asked what I’d wished for, I’d lie and say, “It’s a secret.” I wanted to wish for something, but I had to focus on acting like a normal kid. Even in my early years I knew, as if by some animal instinct, that if I didn’t pay close attention to my behavior, I’d betray myself, and everyone would know I was different.
There were more than a dozen VHS tapes, and I watched them all repeatedly for months. It killed me that I wasn’t a kid anymore. I still felt the same as I had back then, only now I was expected to act like a six-foot-two male capable of finding a girlfriend, getting good grades, making money, applying for college, reading a defense, taking a five-step drop that got me seven yards away from the line of scrimmage, lifting huge amounts of weight, making Mom and Dad proud, staying calm, and acting happy. It was exhausting. And I was unable to appreciate any of the good parts, since I dedicated so much of my mental energy to performing my role. All of life — school, socializing, quarterbacking — felt like blowing out those birthday candles: I was so busy doing it correctly that I’d forget to make a wish. Then I’d be stunned at how fast it had all gone by.