Pat recently asked me to write a bit about my father. My father was a Hollywood writer/director and Pat said that I looked like him.
It dawned on me that to write about my father meant that I first had to do a portrait of my mother. Some of what follows Pat has published, but I am here offering a complete account of this woman who damaged the children entrusted to her care.
My mother was a small-minded, emotionally forceful, vindictive monster of unassailable selfishness who didn’t look the part in the least. Although she was short and dumpy, with huge thighs, but she had an extremely very beautiful face and amazing, sincere blue eyes. She was a rigorous Christian Scientist. In public, her carefully composed expression in church radiated kindliness and goodness and charitable forgiveness. In private, she didn’t radiate any of those things.
She had been born a Roman Catholic from an Irish mother, but she lied about this to everyone, including me, in order to rise in Christian Science hierarchy. My Grandfather told me about her birth much later, and she reacted with fury against him and me. She thought herself a “good” woman who believes in her self-righteousness and thought herself passionately noble, but I reality, she was a woman who was spiritually derelict, domineering, and narrow-minded.
The question must be asked, if your aim is to domineer over your family, and you are a person with no special gifts of thought or speech, how can you do this?
A divorced wife in her thirties with two children, a woman with no friends, and no position in the world, she appointed herself as the spiritual head our tiny family. After the divorce, I was 7 or 8 and my sister was 11, but my mother was the one who was closest to God, the one whose advice, whose interpretation of events and happenings and whose estimates of her children and their acquaintances was not to be questioned by anyone.
My mother was expert at clothing herself in God’s power. In my mother’s case, she clothed herself in the Truth. When she was about to say something painful and annihilating, she would lock her eyes in mine and say, “Let me give it to you straight!” Since my mother was closer to God than we were, by far, what she said and did was simply what God required for our good. Not her good, mind you, but our good. Her possession of Godly spiritual power made her unchallengeable, for next to her, all we had was our weak and unworthy gifts when compared to hers.
My mother understood with genius that to inflict pain on those subject to her was to make them remember and fear you. Pain is a strong, intimidating sensation, a shattering, unnerving sensation, and those who suffer pain are always conscious of its source and cause. Pain made you feared and respected. It created awe. Inflicting humiliation and pain by a parent was a sure way to force an uneasy, resentful and unwilling obedience while asserting your superior spiritual power.. Thus, through inflicting pain, her children were always made incessantly conscious of her. If she had made things pleasant and carefree, her impact on us, her hold on us, would not have been as sure and unrelenting. Pleasures are enjoyed and forgotten. She would not be pleasurable. She would be remembered instead.
Since she wielded power in God’s name, she went to any length to ensure that we feared and respected that power. She lied, she fabricated, she misrepresented, she was unjust, capricious, arbitrary, cruel, even brutal -- an emotional terrorist of the utmost ruthlessness – all for the sake of the pretense that she, and not we, were in the right and had the backing of God. Her closeness to God and her concern for our welfare excused everything she did because it was vicious cruelty for a good cause. In other words, it was cruelty that our own wickedness had called forth. The cause of her faults was our faults. It was not really her being cruel and liking to be wicked that caused discord in the family. It was our incurable faults and defects, she said. So she maintained that her cruelty was sent by God to punish us for our moral failures.
Her desire for power over others was unbounded. She sought complete dominion over the innermost recesses of our souls. That was why she warred with anyone who was in any relation to her, if that person manifested any action that implied their independence of her. Her relations with people were based on their total submission to her prestige. She had no friends, only subjects.
She hid her wickedness well. With outsiders, she talked with gentle, assertive and compelling authority, Bible in hand, she would talk of the missteps they had made in life. It was not her opinion, she said, no, she simply saw that the sinning person had a need for guidance, and, as the servant of God, she would guide them. Her subjects were ordinary intellectually limited people who had no general intellectual interests of army kind. Most had no culture. Most had no interest in history. Thus, brandishing her authority, my mother worked constantly to pull people into her orbit. Any joy in learning she savaged with an almost military resolution. “I know I haven’t read as many books as you but I know what god requires and it isn’t knowledge of books.” Any sort of knowledge she saw as a threat to the Faith, in other words to her power over people.
In her little realm, she sometimes slipped and exhibited had a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial spirit especially when someone’s back was turned. She would say to a friend, “Don’t you think it’s odd that a neighbor like Mary, practically up the street, spends so much time at with her neighbor's husband?” If you asked what she meant, she drew up and got huffy: “Hinting is not among my flaws.” And if someone asked, what did she mean? Was Mary having an affair?” She exploded with venom, “I didn’t say that, and you would have the thought the same thing, you little hypocrite.”
Her catty malice had many targets. If she saw a woman with a good figure, and knowing she had a very bad one, she would say, “I think it is better to spend time thinking of the goodness of God rather than trying to turn people’s heads.”
She loathed being disagreed with. Disagreement was another threat. When you are on an authorized mission from God, there is only one reason a child or a friend disdains your advice or turns aside from you supervision – because their minds were clouded by wicked darkness. She therefore attacked them with unbridled savagery, the way people used to savagely beat the mentally ill – in order to drive out their demons. Any tactic was justified, from pulling their hair, slapping their face, spitting in their face, hitting them with hairbrushes, a hockey stick, pots and pans, cancelling your outings with friends, withdrawing small pleasures like a long-awaited movie. What sound in the world was more ominous than to hear that she had returned home from shopping, taking away any chance of safety from her?
She had a unique way of arguing. I found in my files a scrap of conversation, done from a memory ten years later, that took place just after I had graduated from high school. My mother was ensconced on the big bed upstairs, where she usually conducted interviews, and I was standing uneasily at the foot of the bed. I was eighteen. The argument begins with me sputtering the word, “Mother….”
“I wasn’t chosen as valedictorian because my school asked me to address our chapel. It was an honor. I was the first to be chosen to speak there in the 25 year existence of the school.”
“Yes, and you have an answer for everything. What was the real reason?”
I didn’t know what she was asking. “Mother...l.”
“Answer me, you sniveling little idiot. The wonderful Dean of boys loved you. We all know that. He loved you because he didn’t know you. He didn’t really didn’t know you did he?”
“No.” I said, surrendering weakly, wanting the venomous conversation to end..
“No, you’re damn right, he didn’t.”
“No one knows you except me. I know you because I had you. So don’t talk to me! And don’t talk to me about teachers! What does your teacher know, anyway. Huh? Tell me. Teachers,” she spat.
“I’m going to bed.”
“You go to bed when I tell you to go to bed. And all your little looks and simpering and little courtesies and little cut bows – do you think that everyone is an idiot? Huh?”
By then I was getting upset because I held my Dean of Boys in high regard because he had given me a chance at a fresh life. He had rescued me from the private hell of my childhood.
“I do not.”
“Yes, you do!”
“I do not!
“Yes, you do!”
“I do not!”
“Listen, you,” she said menacingly. “Don’t interrupt me, you sniveling little girl.” Because tears had sprung to my eyes.
“I am not a girl.”
“You’re crying like a girl. Is that why your teachers gave you such nice grades? Did they like little girls?”
“I’m not a girl.”
“You cry like one. I should have dressed you in little pink diapers. So nice, so outstanding at school,” She sneered. “I bet you were nice. Always so nice. Always so charming. I bet that’s how you got good grades being so nice so charming. Well, you make me sick. Go to bed!”
When in a mood of rage she would shout, shake her fists, her cheeks flushed and she would walk and down until her face was very close to your face, and she would then stop and hurl her next accusation.
Even when I was very young, I could do nothing that would please her or make her happy or proud of me. From my early childhood I learned to live with the inevitability of being scorned, belittled and misunderstood. As a child I was treated as a cipher. When I was extremely young, I was frightened all the time. Around my mother, I was a miserable, feeble, frail, fearful soul. When I, in my innocence, believed that I had done something praiseworthy, I was always startled to find that it always fell short. My mother was always comparing me to other boys. Other boys my age were making their mothers proud, but when it came to me, I had done nothing but make her regret that I was born. She thought me stupid and loathsome by birth, and every day that had passed, she felt I had increased my birthright.
Such thoughts continually oppressed me, of course. Most young boys are very conceited and have a wonderful belief in their own future success. Disraeli once said at sixteen everyone believes himself the most exceptional man who ever lived. I never felt like that. I felt shunned and rejected, and constantly yearned for friendship and acceptance. I think that it was Bagehot who said that the proper food for a self-relying nature is solitude, and the most stimulating solitude is solitude in the midst of people. I had that gift. I was alone in a crowd. Only today, with my wife Carol, does that feeling go away.
I had quickly learned that my mother was a person of dull wits, a woman of obtuse feelings and inordinate vanity, stubborn and willful. I came to that determination very early. I always cringed when she would come into the bath to try to wash me and read to me from a children’s book, Peter Rabbit. One time she was trying to teach me to say the word “breakfast.” I must have been two years old. I couldn’t do it. She said, “Well you can say ‘break’ can’t you?” she said impatiently. I cringed, but admitted I could. “You can say ‘fast’ can’t you?” I could. She said, “Well just say them together really fast: ‘Breakfast.’” But when I said it, it always came out as two words. She gave up and said something venomous and ruined the book by tearing it or some other brutal, frightening and abrupt act. Of course all she needed to do was to point out that the word “break” changed its pronunciation to “brek.” To give another example, she would never use “”Xmas” because she said it was crossing the Christ out of Christmas” in utter ignorance of the Greek. It was a common habit of people at that time would call people “Mac.” My mother refused to let me use that word since “Mac,” truly meant, “Make America Catholic.”
Once my mother was left alone with two children, she turned her fury and her hatred on her kids. I was the prime object of her viciousness. Her abuse was not just psychological, it was extremely physical. Her perpetual ill-temper was quick to burn up in rage. You did not dare to go near her or feel easy in her company since you felt as if you stood on the edge of a volcano. Nothing was less inviting or comfortable than to be in this state of uncertainty and apprehension. When displeased – well I have already related that. One thing she did that still smarts –she would break my toys or abruptly forbid me to go a movie or buy a toy on which I had set my heart. As she stormed and brayed, she would take her hands and squeeze my checks with such force that she would leave bloody marks from her nails when she had finished. Another time, at Halloween when I was 12, I had run away on my bike, thinking to live off of Halloween candy. I came home when I realized I had not bothered to wear a custom. Her furious temper at my running away ended with her sitting atop me in the dining room, pummeling me and trying to scratch my eyes. (I ran away and stayed with my soon-to-be stepfather.)
At other times, I would be wakened up from a sound sleep late at night and summoned to her bedroom where I would sit on the end of the bed as she stormed and yelled at me until in my eyes her face began to go large, then go small, it went in and out as she ranted as I was forced to sit there for so long a time. She incessantly taunted me for cowardice her abuse had produced. When I began to cry because of all the jeers and pitiless upbraiding, she would sit and jeer: “Go ahead and cry. Crying is the one thing you do well. Go ahead and cry and I’ll dress you up in little pink diapers.”
When my father left home when I was five or six. He was a charming, witty writer of short stories and books. I loved him beyond description. He left my mother to marry an heiress in Hollywood where he became a director, and mother detested the sight of him. She was always implying he was “a fairy,” a homosexual. Unfortunately, I looked a lot like him, and her hatred of him was turned on me. She used to call my father such vile names that, later in life, when I was 18, I one day asked her, “Did you never love my father at all?” The question stopped her cold, and she blurted, “I adored him.” She said that she had liked being the wife of a man whose books came out and who people pointed out. But in private, after he left, she called him “a fairy, a fag,” and the like. So that was the basis of her hatred. I had no idea what those words meant at the time. I do remember the time when I was about 10 and was resting from soccer and stood with my hand on my hip, and she came and snatched away the resting hand.
So whatever the lovely and unblemished face my mother turned to the world, in her home, she displayed a very ugly, extremely unstable personality. She faked the qualities of goodwill, patience, fair-mindedness and gentleness to outsiders. At home, her personality was poisonously polite. If I earned a good grade, she would say, “This is fine, this is very good. Of course, other sons are doing much more to make their parents proud.”
So I was the product of a life that had rejected me completely. No wonder I have such sympathy for lost causes. I was one of them.