|Apr/May 2008 Nonfiction|
On top of my dresser is a photograph, a portrait of my wife and myself. It's an enlargement of a snapshot taken by my younger son (my wife's stepson) when he was ten or eleven years old. For some reason the print is sepia-colored, like those old wedding pictures from the early part of the century. Its antique appearance is appropriate, because it could be a picture of my father and mother. There's the same forced conviviality that my father used to put on, the sort of pose drinking buddies assume when someone asks them to bunch together for a group photo, arms around each others' shoulders, heads thrown back as if they never had a care and were posing triumphant over the carcass of a slain lion instead of just some half-full beer glasses.
We're seated together on a wide stuffed chair, a proximity my parents rarely achieved except when there was a camera nearby. My arm is around my wife's shoulders, not a gesture that would ordinarily cause her discomfort; the unease in her smile is the result of her not liking to have her picture taken. But it's very much the same expression my mother assumed, for very different reasons, under the same circumstance.
It's a picture of an alcoholic and his spouse. There must be millions like it, tens of millions, lying in boxes filled with vacation snapshots, pictures of first-birthday parties, weddings and anniversaries. Especially anniversaries. That's when men like the one in the photo are most apt to assume that false celebratory expression, fooling no one, least of all the camera, about what is really going on inside their marriages and themselves. Everything about the photograph cries sham and falsehood, an attempt to literally put a good face on something that is not good, namely the state of their souls.
What makes the photo all the more remarkable, at least at first, is that I am not an alcoholic. I hardly drink at all. But that fact, I now know, is not of paramount importance. More importantly, I am the son of a man who used alcohol to assume a personality that he lacked--or believed he lacked. It should therefore not have come as a surprise to me that I ape him emotionally as well as in front of the camera. If he had been schizophrenic or dyslexic I would hardly be shocked to find I suffered from those same disabilities. Why did it take until the onset of my fifty-sixth year for me to see who the man in the photograph is?
My surprise came also because I never believed my father actually was an alcoholic until I chanced upon a description of the symptoms of the alcoholic's child--a profound sense of shame and unworthiness, a compulsion to curry the favor of everyone he meets and never to displease or anger anyone. I had known for decades that I was in trouble emotionally, but I always assumed that whatever was wrong was specific to myself, not something handed down from the previous generation. It never occurred to me that I had inherited an attitude toward myself and the world around me that was far more destructive than anything that could come out of a bottle.
Had my father drunk every day or even most days, lost his job because of alcohol, beat his wife or committed any of the other sins we associate with the "classic" alcoholic, I might have been forced earlier on into acknowledging the sort of man he was and had had a different take on my own demons. But the man went to work sober every day, rain or shine, even when snow closed the roads and he had to walk most of the way. When he did go out drinking instead of coming home for dinner at his usual time, he got up for work the next morning the same as always, merely substituting Milk of Magnesia for his customary bowl of Wheaties before heading off to catch his bus.
He retired, five years after a successful bout with lung and bronchial cancer, an honored member of his firm where he had worked his way up from clerk to department head on less than ten years formal education. He had hit bottom in the late 1940s, a victim of his own worst inclinations, and we lost our house as a result. But from that point on he was a model breadwinner. We lived comfortably, well-housed though always as renters, were well-fed and owned a second-hand car. Everything except food and rent was bought on credit. But the 1950s were prosperous times for white males in America, even relatively uneducated ones, and we reaped the benefits of that prosperity. In a different decade, this one perhaps, it might have been a very different story. As it was, my father never earned more than $125 in any given week including overtime, but back then that was enough to raise a family.
His hard work, even devotion to his livelihood, encouraged me to think of him as anything but the irresponsible drunk portrayed in the media. My first wife was the child of a man who ended up in emergency rooms and had to be periodically "dried out." That was an alcoholic. I judged my father solely on his ability to sustain himself as breadwinner rather than by any dysfunctional psychology in his offspring.
Looking back, I can see now that it was work that sustained him, provided the sense of self that he otherwise found only in half a dozen beers, or thought he found. And he had had to hit bottom before he righted himself even to this extent. Even so, on weekends he was ill at ease with his free time and spent it repairing something. When he had nothing to occupy him his demons caught up with him. But come Monday he was himself again, and the man his co-workers and subordinates knew was a very different person, or at least a very different side of the same person, from the restless one we knew at home.
At work he was gentle, considerate and devoted to his job and the people around him. He even acted as counselor when someone's favorite aunt died or some other family crisis befell one of his workers. He was liked by those he worked with and appreciated by his superiors who invited him to lunch with them in the executive dining room, an honor that meant a great deal to a man who had little more than a grade-school education.
My own work, writing, has been an enormous help in not only keeping together a personality that threatens almost daily to fly apart, but in creating for me an identity with which I can feel comfortable. While other young men achieved status through scholastic achievement or sports, I inadvertently forged a literary life raft that would keep me afloat through years of self-doubt and occasional bouts of depression.
I sought out professional help twice, when I was in my second year of college and when my second marriage was coming unraveled. But by and large I was not able to see the dimensions or causes of my emotional distress, sometimes exaggerating it to the point that I believed I was harboring within me a full-fledged lunatic, even a serial killer. Other times, when my love life and career were going well, I minimized it, thinking that all that anxiety and rage were safely in the past.
There's been a lot said and written about the "co-dependents" of alcoholics. What seems true in my experience is that women who have had alcoholic fathers (or, presumably, fathers who use other drugs) are attracted to alcoholic men and the sons of alcoholics. Whether consciously or not, my first wife must have found something very familiar in me despite the fact that I did not drink to excess. For my own part, I badly needed someone like her, caring to the point of indulgence, non-judgmental. Our roles as husband and wife had thus been determined for us by our parentage. By the time I was marrying age, twenty-three, I had already had one "breakdown" which took me a couple years to recover from, virtually with no help. When, a couple years into my marriage, I retreated into a back bedroom much as my wife's father used to do, she adjusted to the alteration virtually without comment.
But despite a persistent sense that I was damaged goods, I had no idea how I had gotten that way. I had been subjected to an oppressive religious upbringing, but other people had been exposed to similar experiences and even worse and did not seem as badly off as I was. The only answer I could come up with was that I was some sort of freak, a bad seed, and much of my energy went into trying to prevent other people from finding this out.
It was that photo on my dresser, put there initially because it seemed flattering, a good likeness as well as something else that I could not yet put my finger on, that finally brought me literally face to face with my fractured identity. At first I saw only what I wanted to see, an "adult" male at last (I have always seen myself as a child, all six feet of me; when the draft was still in effect I hardly thought about it -- what would the Army want with a ten-year-old?), striking a pose appropriate to someone in his mid-forties. The man in the picture had finally come of age, meaning--though I didn't realize it for several years--I had, in effect, become my father.
Now what I see there, not without considerable discomfort, is a man, two men really, skating on emotionally thin ice. Just under the barroom bravado is someone riddled with fear and anger, a bully and a victim in one, a child playing at grownup. Perpetual infancy is the ordinary fate of someone saddled with a psychology like my own. The rages and phobias (my father was a claustrophobic and I have become more and more so as I grow older), might seem appropriate in a young child. One expects an infant to fear the stranger and react with fierce indignation when he doesn't get his own way. The degree to which he learns how to adjust his expectations and reactions to a reality outside himself is how we judge the extent of his maturity. But people like myself, while consciously aware that a traffic jam will eventually move again and that it is absurd to insist that everyone love me, cannot reasonably bear the wait or accept the rejection. If I did drink, I realize now, I would do so just to get through the ordinary events of my day--making a telephone call to correct a misbilling, facing the checkout line at the supermarket, making conversation with a neighbor. On a bad day, I either avoid such situations altogether or, more typically, suffer a level of anxiety which takes a toll both mentally and physically.
But the man, or men, in the photograph is pretending that he is otherwise and does so in the only way he knows how when confronted with the camera's insistent eye--he mugs it up like those drinking buddies who only feel secure in the company of other men like themselves and even then only with the help of alcohol.
There is another person in that photograph, and her presence has been hovering about everything I have so far written. Confused by the role she is supposed to play for the camera (barroom camaraderie does not come naturally to her), herself terrified of the lens's unblinking eye, she looks like a captive locked in the ambiguous embrace of this man to whom she is legally and emotionally bound. The legal attachment she walked into willingly, if with nothing more to go on than good intentions. But the emotional role is of an order she doesn't consciously understand, anymore than he does, knowing only that it requires a patience and loyalty that could leave her feeling permanently cheated. At that moment she is as much nanny as wife, and a psychiatric nanny at that. But she was chosen for the very reason that she is so ill-suited for the job. The man in the photo doesn't want understanding or a partnership of equals, certainly not equal adults. So she was chosen because she can be kept in the dark and at arm's length, never daring to demand her full rights as woman and wife. She is, in effect, married to a child.
Of course, the man in the picture did not make her into the sort of person she is, he merely took advantage of the opportunity. She was prepared for the job by her own childhood. She may not have had an alcoholic father, but the chances are good that he was in some other way dependent. Looking after a man who is less than psychologically self-sufficient comes natural to her. Doing so even fulfills some deep need of her own.
My own mother never knew anything but heavy drinkers. Her father was one, so were her brothers, and of course she chose the same sort of man for a husband. She expected men to drink, carouse, become abusive. She even seemed to consider it "manly." How could she think otherwise, given the narrow range of her experience? She nevertheless stood up for herself and was willing, even eager, to take on any man who attempted to dominate her. When my father, unable to hold his own verbally, told her that he felt like hitting her, she would thrust her face into his and dare him to do so, knowing full well he would no more lift a hand to her than he would strike his own mother.
Sometimes I feel I am permanently stuck with him, the man in the photograph, my all-too-proximate doppelganger, me and not-me, a visible representation of my own troubled soul as well as of the souls who begat me. I cannot and dare not any longer close my eyes to who he is. But the accommodations I must make to accept him as he is are still, at least on a less conscious level, almost more than I am willing to make. I would much prefer that, having identified the source of his disability, he should now be able to rise up and be free of it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, after suffering a nervous breakdown, compared himself to a cracked piece of china. Such an object is not worthless, but it can never be used again as it once was, certainly not when entertaining company. Damaged goods of the human variety were as unpopular then in American culture as they are now, and Fitzgerald was all too willing to consign himself to the trash heap, like one of those sick or antiquated members of a primitive society who quietly accept the same fatal destiny for themselves that they have themselves imposed on others. Ours is not just a youth-centered but a health- and wealth-centered society. We have our own ways of leaving behind the sick and wounded.
I too would like to leave behind the Dorian Grey on my dresser top. Yet I know, and have known at odd moments throughout my adulthood, that his greatest weaknesses are, seen from a different perspective, his greatest strengths. But his fear of being found out for what he is drives him to become the very sort of person that he most wishes not to be--vulnerable, insecure, unworthy of the love of any human being, not even the woman he has his arm around. He has become a prisoner of his own elaborate, however ineffectual, pretenses.
What would it take for him to face the camera as he is, without the mugging or other subterfuge? Merely a willingness to be himself, whole and entire, crazy and sane, weak and strong.
I remember how in my early twenties I would suddenly think: What would you be if you could be anyone or anything you wanted? My answer, which seemed to come from a part of me with which I was only distantly in touch, was always and without hesitation: Myself.
It still is.