I pause to remind us all again that consistency is not a particularly human trait. Dogs and cats may be pretty consistent, we are not. We bark or meow according to circumstance, and as much as we may claim to abhor barking or meowing, we will do either one much of the time if the occasion calls for it loudly enough. More than that, our own contradictions rarely trouble us, even if the same quirk in others usually will.
The mark of an evolved mind, it is said, is the ability to hold two or more contradictory truths in mind at the same time. The greatest recent example I’ve seen was performed by Jane Leavy in her great, supremely nuanced biography, The Last Boy; Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. On virtually every page we have evidence of what a heroic man, loyal friend and lovable character he was, along with as much evidence of what a despicable asshole he was. On the same page, in the same paragraph. And there is no contradiction, Mantle was apparently all of those things. I try to offer this installment on my father’s impressive honesty and chilling denial in the same spirit.
My father loved Lenny Bruce. He loved Malcolm X and Richard Pryor. He loved them for their brilliance and originality and, just as much, for their unflinching honesty about intolerable injustices. He hated hypocrisy and valued true honesty above most things, and he instilled those values in me and in my sister. But not without a fabulous twist he himself had no insight into.
There were things he defended tirelessly and blindly. He constructed towering, complex, unassailable cases for things that were absolute bullshit and would not hear the other side of issues he dismissed. He prevailed in these hectoring arguments primarily by constantly refocusing the argument to narrower and narrower grounds, further and further from the point he was trying to avoid. He had regrets about this as he was dying, his almost insane capacity for denial, the ultimate untruthfulness in a man who truthfully loved honesty.
This capacity for denial extended, amazingly, to a kind of Holocaust denial [see body of previous post– ed.] when he insisted my mother’s twelve aunts and uncles killed by Ukrainians, while Nazis nodded approvingly and smoked, were just abstractions. No reason to be upset about strangers being killed face down in a mass grave, was his position to his upset young son, even though these strangers were undeniably his grandparents’ siblings. It doesn’t get crazier than that, I think.
At the same time, he was a lover of the truth, particularly when it was dispensed sharply and darkly, with wit and irreverence. He quoted Lenny Bruce at the dinner table, when he was in a good mood. We all laughed with him and Lenny. My father took great delight in this guy pointing to the strutting emperor, clothed only in his arrogance, and calling out, look, you can see his dick! Look, there’s a mole on the side of his dick and one ball is twice the size of the other one! Holy shit, how does he fuck with that thing?
At the magic word “fuck” the cops storm through the tables to put him in cuffs, as he continues to riff, the band cracking up, the guys from the kitchen hanging out the door to listen. They’re laughing their asses off until Lenny starts reading his trial transcript every night instead of doing his act, goes broke, is found dead, naked by the toilet, with the needle still in his arm.
Malcolm X, too. Check out the statements he made, particularly in the final chapter of his dramatic life. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. at the end (he remained Jr. to the end of his life, his father, MLK Sr. outlived him by decades) he was calling out monstrous institutions and fearing no man. Marked for death he continued to speak out clearly about the things that mattered to him most passionately. Not a Civil Rights movement, he argued after leaving the fanatical Nation of Islam, a Human Rights movement. Take this to the United Nations, America is persecuting a large minority, formerly held as chattle slaves, denied the rights guaranteed to them in America’s own amended Constitution. A Human Rights issue, he insisted, phrasing it correctly, putting it in its proper context. Shots blew him apart, police and government involved in the cover-up, likely the killing too.
I understand that we are not consistent, and it is not the worst thing in the world to be inconsistent. It is not like my father didn’t have the capacity to reflect and change his positions, it’s just he was extremely well-defended. He had a lot to defend against. Seeing his excruciating past too clearly, rather than focusing on becoming and remaining middle class, might have crippled him. That was his fear anyway. It is not an uncommon fear, open the door to the horrors you avoid and— arrrrghhhhhh!!!!! Most people correctly work overtime in any job they can find to avoid winding up in that shadowy, terrifying room.
Irv always opposed capital punishment, except in the case of child molesters. He believed their crime was the most heinous of any, was a compulsion, that they could not be rehabilitated and the only way to prevent the incalculable damage they did, and would continue to do, to people at the most vulnerable time in life, was by killing them. I understood, and understand his passion on the subject, though we disagreed about his conclusion. After all, it’s a short step to executing all rapists, violent sadists, guilty looking career criminals with court appointed lawyers working for pennies on the dollar, or random poor blacks, charged with crimes and at the mercy of a merciless system of justice.
We argued about the death penalty for these abhorrent creatures from time to time. Then a neighbor of his, a friendly fell0w retiree with a good sense of humor who my father got to know when they’d walk their dogs together, was arrested for having sex with several neighborhood boys. Apparently it had been going on for a while, in a house I’d visited many times when I was a boy. The pedophile was the father of my first best friend. A likable man, a former marine, I’d always thought he was cool.
My father told me the neighborhood boys were all crying when they took Shep away. They loved him. The police found Danish child pornography and anal extenders, I remember my father telling me. It was kind of an open and shut case against the retired dentist. The next time I was over at my parents’ house for dinner I put the question to my father.
“OK, dad, they’ve got Shep in the electric chair, all the documents signed and no pardon from the governor. Can you pull the switch?”
I watched my father’s face as his mind worked. It was a sophisticated mind that reflected honestly, if given the chance, and his answer was not long in coming.
“No,” he said, “I’d have to conclude that Shep is a very sick man, not evil. No, I couldn’t put him to death.”
Thinking back on that moment now, it makes it all the more poignant that we didn’t have these kind of reasonable discussions more than a couple of times over the decades we knew each other.
The next one like it was many years later. As far as I recall he was on his death bed in a Florida hospital.