The Harm my Father Did

It’s probably past time to begin laying out the devilish details of what made my father such a dreaded man so much of the time.   He was tragic, yes, but also cruel, with intellectual gifts, and emotional disabilities, that made him capable of terrible destructiveness.  He expressed this most consistently in the airtight case he could always make for reducing anyone to the helpless, hopeless sum of their faults.  

Reducing someone to the sum of their faults is generally something we do only when someone’s faults have become unbearable to us.  My father was all too ready to do it any time, he wasn’t prissy about needing a deep cause, he did it from the outset with both of his kids. He had several main weapons that made him so effective at this, along with a supremely calm and subtle touch much of the time.  He also had the sadist’s gift for perfect timing.

This uncharitable tendency to make others feel like shit often bubbles up from a withholding personality.   Someone who lacks emotional generosity will rarely do anything to make anyone else feel good.  It is apparently more satisfying for this type to make people feel like shit by ignoring or belittling their needs and slighting their vulnerabilities than to take even minimal care of the other person’s feelings.  I guess it operates under the general principle of ‘misery loves company’, in making you feel bad about your life they get to feel a bit better about theirs.  Fortunately for these ungenerous types the opportunities for such withholding are almost unlimited, especially with kids, although it works as well for people of any age, particularly when delivered at moments of greatest vulnerability.  

I guess the unconscious theory these types cling to for justification is a kind of karmic one: nobody deserves better than I got, and I got jack shit outside of my dear mother’s energetic lashes across the face, I got less than jack shit, you fucking needy fuck, with your entitlement to the middle class life I’m literally busting my ass to give you, you ungrateful little bastard.  I suppose, on one level, my father’s case boils down to that.  My father was in so much pain so much of the time, high threshold for it or not, that he had little generosity to spare for the needs and demands of his children.

“Thanks for dinner, dad,” I’d always say when we emerged from a restaurant.  One good habit my parents instilled in us was to say thank you when someone did something nice for us.   We had a neighbor, Bob Coughlin, who reportedly got a kick out of asking three year-old me “whatta ya say, Elie?” and being told “thank you!”

“You never have to thank me for food,”my father always responded when I thanked him for a meal at a restaurant.  I’d recite it in unison with him after a while.

My sister once paid me the great compliment of asking me why I wasn’t like either one of our parents.  To her dismay she’d come to realize she had internalized some of our father’s main methods and motivations.  

“I’m the D.U.,” she told me in horror at one point.  The D.U. was “the Dreaded Unit” her perfectly apt name for the worst of our father, who embraced it happily.  

“Jesus,” I said sincerely, feeling her great pain to realize this unbearable thing, “what are you going to do about it?”  

“Being the D.U. means there is nothing you can do about it,” she said, foreclosing the possibility of anything good in that ingenious, lightning quick way the actual D.U. had.

To her credit, she took great pains to overcome this, and in many ways she did.  The reflex, however, remains deep in there, the ability to act in that dreaded way is intact, even if held down.

In choosing between them to find a role model, the choice was fairly stark, on a pure survival level.  Our vulnerable mother, an easily victimized person who was often reduced to tears or our indomitable father who cried only once in our mutual memory.  (He would cry one other time, for teen-aged me alone, while begging me not to become like him, to let people, especially my mother, show me love and affection– but this was way out of character for him).  It was not difficult for my sister to select her role model.  To her credit she fought against it, but she recognized his strong influence on her.  

“How come you’re not like either one of them?” she asked me once, and I remember being naively flattered by the question.  

“If those were the only two choices, I’d hack my own head off,” I told her without exaggeration.  And it’s true.  Yet I also know it’s a life’s work to escape the traumatic influences of your earliest years.  I was an infant accused of looking at his father accusingly long before I could speak.  The obvious question: was I some kind of a prophet?  How could I have known at a week old, a month old, that I would have reason to accuse this man of anything?  Self-fulfilling prophecy on my father’s part, I suppose.  

At ten weeks old, ten weeks, the story goes, I became stiff as your proverbial board, and red, my little fists clenched, and I screamed in pain, or rage, or both.  My parents rushed me to the doctor, in what would be scene two of this famous origin story.  The story was of the ineffable origin of my constant irrational anger.  The rigid, purple ten week-old is examined by the concerned pediatrician, this would be toward the end of the summer of 1956.

“And the pediatrician suddenly burst out laughing,” said my mother with a highly complex expression of mostly amusement on her face, “and he says ‘this baby is definitely having a temper tantrum!  My God, I’ve never seen it in a child this young, but this little boy is having a temper tantrum!'”  Relieved, my parents took me home and, as near as I can figure, told me to just shut up and stop acting like such a goddamn baby.  

I’ve often thought about what a casually arrogant dick this glib pediatrician must have been.  Let’s assume his diagnosis was correct– are there not some very logical and sort of inevitable follow-up questions for the parents of an enraged infant that a doctor bound by his oath to ‘first do no harm’ should ask?  

“Nothing wrong with this angry little fuck, I mean, he’s clammed up completely, look how fucking smug he is, won’t even give you a single reason he’s so fucking angry.  Fuck him, you know?  How is any of this your fault?  Nothing you can do, just luck of the draw, some babies are, unfortunately, just complete irrational little shits.”

My parents heaved a great sigh, realizing that they had simply produced a randomly enraged baby.  Some babies, it is well known, are by nature easy babies while others are just born cantankerous pricks, and that it often has nothing to do with anything the parents are or are not doing.  I can imagine their relief.   What, really, is the harm, you will ask?   It is the earliest origin story about my irrational anger and it sets the stage perfectly for the adversarial childhood that followed.  

If I was ever angry, well, what had that to do with my parents?  I was born that way.  The doctor said so!  Don’t look at us, look at the expert pediatrician, look into your own irrational fucking rage, you goddamn merciless fucking terrifying cobra!  The pediatrician laughed it off, why can’t you?

 My sister’s compliment aside, I have also always had to fight my father’s worst tendencies in myself.  I went through a period of many years when I used my sense of humor the same way my father’s mother used the rough, heavy cord of her steam iron against my young father’s face.  It was my reflex to use my quickness with a phrase to dash off a spontaneous, often hurtful, one-liner from time to time.  It was a deeper, darker thing than that.  

When I was in my twenties I met a pretty woman who was clearly anxious to be my girlfriend.  I had no objection, in fact, I jumped right in.  It became clear at once that this caramel colored former army brat, who had grown up in various places with her angry black G.I. father and her timid French mother, regarded me as the alpha dog in our little pack.  

She was not from New York City and was a bit unsophisticated about how to act in the Big Apple.  She was ready for anything I could show her, and I didn’t hesitate to use my influence on her.   How, then, exactly, was I like my father?  You will laugh as you learn, or perhaps, if not a sadist, you will grimace, or shudder.

Francoise had a beautiful singing voice, had studied classical singing in college.  Her tastes were, in the beginning, a bit corny, leaning toward the bland end of country music and the kind of middle of the road pop standards one might hear among the bubbles of the Lawrence Welk Show.  Over a short time she developed much hipper tastes and we began playing Motown tunes, songs of Philadelphia and clever jazz standards together.  I would accompany her on guitar, something I quickly began to love doing.  Now here’s the monstrous thing I learned from father and did so naturally it required no effort, or even awareness, on my part.

She had a great sense of pitch and a beautiful voice.  She sang professionally in church choirs, had sung on stage and was a fine singer.  I’d tune up the guitar, we’d begin to play, and, as often as not, she’d start singing slightly off pitch.  If the singer has good pitch there is only one reason she will not sing on pitch.  It is a tightness in the vocal cords, brought on by nerves.  The inability to relax the voice box starts a self defeating cycle of self-consciousness and fear.  I would sometimes make her so nervous, merely by my disapproving vibe (perhaps because we were doing a tune from Godspell I found insipid) that she could not find the exact note.  Then, of course, I’d have to point it out, and then it would become hopeless.  Sometimes she’d end up crying.

This may seem like a small, petty thing, but I assure you, it is not.  It stands in for being the kind of person who, instead of being generous while supporting a friend’s creative expression, makes them feel ruthlessly judged and monstrously inferior.  It is a great example of what an asshole I was to poor Francoise at the time.   I was not unique in this, “don’t quit your day job” is a standard quip offered to those trying out a new talent on friends, but it is no less deadly for being a fairly common thing.   That the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, the vulnerable young country girl would soon see first hand.  

I took her to my sister’s, to meet the family.  She and I had been together more than six months, there was some occasion when my parents would be over at my sister’s and I took the opportunity to introduce them all to each other.  She was nervous as we headed over there and I assured her everything would be fine.  Everything would not be fine.  My sister greeted her warmly, my mother was friendly, my brother-in-law engaged with her.  My father, the D.U., grunted hello and went directly into the other room, where he sat watching a football game the entire afternoon until we popped our heads in to say goodbye a few hours later.  He literally said nothing to her, or to me.

“Your father hates me,” she said miserably when we left.  

“My father hates everyone,” I told her as I stroked her back in the elevator.  She assumed he’d acted like Archie Bunker because he was a racist, hated that his son had brought a pretty brown-skinned woman to meet the family.  I assured her that it wasn’t a racial thing, that he merely hated that his son had brought a pretty woman to meet the family.  It disgusted him, no doubt, that his son got to hang out with a cutie like that, had the chance to do all kinds of things with such a fine young woman.  I don’t know what it was all about, exactly, but I can still taste the sickening taste of it.

It would take many years, but I  took pains to make myself conscious, to stop acting like that.  It is, as a general rule in relationships, far better to gently encourage others, especially when they put themselves out there, than to make them feel like vain, self-deluded idiots hopelessly setting themselves up for failure.

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