A friend, after his father’s death, found a small box containing his father’s most important documents, arranged in a neat pile. The several most valued were banded together in a short stack, wrapped in paper. Looking through this small collection of selected membership and identification cards, dated photos, important legal documents and concise, hand-written notes my friend was able to assemble a chronology of his father’s life, learn a few things he hadn’t known about his father.
My uncle, a meticulous man with an impeccably organized file cabinet, left labeled folders containing his life’s work. My cousin, who couldn’t stand his father, looked over these papers and tossed most of them.
“He wrote two children’s books he never did anything with,” my cousin told me the other day about my father’s brother. That his father had never pursued publication provided yet another reason for my cousin to be disgusted by his narcissistic father. It surprised me that my uncle had written two children’s books. I asked if they were any good.
“No, they were both complete shit, corny Jewish-themed stories illustrated with kind of stick figure drawings, but, of course, he never did anything with them, made a feeble attempt to get them published and left them in his file cabinet for me, along with sheafs of plans and proposals for his National American Civil Servants’ Museum, which, mercifully, died with him, ” said my cousin.
This is a perfect illustration of the hanging judge’s modus operandi, turning a reasonable conclusion– my book attempts were feeble so I won’t persist in trying to publish them — into an another proof of why the defendant deserves to fry.
“We’re all prosecutors or defense attorneys, most of us constantly switching roles,” said the skeleton of my father, who left virtually no papers behind, but had been skillful and active for both the prosecution and defense his entire life.
After my father died I found a leather-bound volume with my father’s name embossed on the cover. The leather was soft, thick, reddish tan, and there was no hard cover beneath it. In the bound volume was my father’s Masters’ thesis, a few hundred typed pages on onion skin paper. You could see the indentations the typed letters left in their carbon impression on the copy that was bound for my father. The thesis was about the abortive attempt to form a third political party, the Union Party, to help unseat FDR, who would go on to win the 1936 election in a landslide.
At the center of the story was the party’s founder, a firebrand Catholic priest called Father Coughlin, a man my father mentioned from time to time as an early example of a dangerous mass-media demagogue. Coughlin broadcast his populist, increasingly antisemitic talks to an audience of millions coast to coast on the new medium of radio.
In 1938 Charles Coughlin’s popular weekly magazine, Social Justice, would publish, in installments, the famous 1903 Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols, still cited by anti-Semites as proof of their deepest suspicions, sets out the imagined minutes of a sinister meeting in which leaders of the international Jewish conspiracy that controls the world set out their twisted beliefs.
My father’s thesis does not focus on this sordid, tasty part of the story, which in any case only emerged full-blown a couple of years later, when Coughlin began expressing admiration for Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini. This was after the assassination of the charismatic Huey Long, Coughlin’s intended presidential candidate, ended any real chance for the Union Party.
My father’s thesis has little dramatic color, it is a workmanlike, academic description of the failed attempt by a group, with Father Coughlin its most important component, to oppose the popular president whose New Deal had begun to create the social safety net Americans are protected by to this day.
“Look, man, you never listened to me, that I can recall, but you might want to listen to this,” said the skeleton of my father. “You’re reminding me of your boy Woody Allen as the young Alvie Singer in Annie Hall, avoiding sex with his first wife, Alison Porchnick, by fretting over Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship. You remember him pacing the room, chin in hand, as Alison sighs on the bed, and he’s ruminating out loud about whether the fatal shots could have come from the angle of the book depository window, out of the barrel of that crude rifle?
“Father Coughlin, really, Elie, who gives a fuck about the Rush Limbaugh of the 1930s? The hard work, taking what you’ve written and making a compelling pitch out of it– well, that’s a lot harder than daydreaming about moving the hearts of your readers with an endless series of arguably interesting asides. You want to move the hearts of your readers? You already know what to do, tell them a moving story. There is one gigantic story here, staring you in the face.
“The story is about rage and the difficult project of seeking a healthy refuge from rage, and finding forgiveness. Rage was in the hearts of the people who ripped through areas of Europe where terrified strangers, among them almost our entire family, waited to be murdered. Rage was in the heart of my tiny mother, whipping me across the face. My own rage, expressing itself through the bursting skin that could no longer contain it. I’d be carted to the hospital, snarling, insisting that I was the most sane, balanced, reasonable man in the world. Left you and your sister twitching, wondering for decades what the hell was wrong with you that you could drive your father to such anger.
“How old were you before you realized how insane it was that your mother and I believed, until our deaths, that you were an irrationally enraged baby who accused, challenged and attacked us from the moment you were born? ”
I was probably a young teenager, I would guess. Though, outside of fighting it, I had little idea what to do about it until I was in my early thirties.
“How many decades passed before your sister realized she’d been blamed for things, tried and found eternally guilty, on the flimsiest of evidence, tiny indiscretions that should probably not even have been made an issue of at all, let alone set out as the bedrock of her supposedly defective character?”
Decades, she told me. She was literally forty before she began to piece it together in any meaningful way.
“Right, so you blame yourself, that’s the only natural conclusion. Believe that if somebody is beating the shit out of you it must have something to do with you. Like the Jew who ran the little store in the muddy shit-hole in Belarus. What did his actions have to do with the horde that stomped in, raped his family and cut his throat?
“Wait, I retract that. Nobody wants to read a long, musing account of anonymous slaughter. It’s like my Masters’ thesis– it served the purpose it was intended for, fulfilling my academic requirement for the degree, but I’d never think of having something so dry published. True, well-researched, arguably insightful it also may be, but dry. Too dry for the mass audience any writer even minimally hip about marketing would even consider sending out.
“Look, here you are, once again betting the entire farm on this project, that you will succeed, against all odds, in writing such a nuanced and moving portrait of an alternately endearing and monstrous man that your audience will coo over your discussions with Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate. You’re going for the fence on every swing. You imagine that following this book, two or three others, then the elusive MacArthur grant that will enable you to fund your society-changing democratic problem-solving workshop for poor kids.
“In the end, it’s your papers, Elie. Not a small, carefully selected, preserved batch that tells a concise, simply told tale, but a rambling, sprawling, meandering, tortuous, recursive attempt, a hundred thousand papers long, mostly on colorful, incomprehensible scraps, to tell the simplest story ever told: I was alive.”
The skeleton seemed to sigh, no longer alive, the telling of his story left in someone else’s shaky hands.