Letting Him Off the Hook

I was accused the other day of letting my father, The Dreaded Unit, off the hook for being the destructive monster he was, with few exceptions, for his entire tortured life. He was also an idealistic, sensitive, highly intelligent man with enflamed ethics and a great sense of humor. He was both a good man and a terrible man. I aim to present him as both of those things, as fully as I can. I am starting by describing what made him a good man, the subtle details of that. I haven’t begun to lay out his darker side.

That said, I am sensitive to charges of a white wash, cover-up, spin-job, flim-flam, sell-out. I’m sensitive because I hate these supremely common “inevitable” things more than most people do. I get that from my father, who also hated dishonesty wherever he encountered it. Our own dishonesty is always the hardest to see, of course, but few things are more maddening to me than the deliberate withholding or distortion of information, keeping the facts from people who need them the most. It is the first law of criminals and tyrants: tell them nothing they can use against us.

Unlike my father, who could insist to his traumatized eight year-old with all apparent seriousness that the murder of dozens of his family members had nothing to do with him, I try to take people’s feelings seriously, and I don’t run from the facts. Facts are slippery bastards, beyond question, and subject to endless recasting, but I’ve always believed there is a larger truth, an unvarnished version of the facts much closer to the complicated truth than others. Everybody probably believes some variation on this, I suppose, none more than the habitual liar, now that I think about it, but I digress.

I’ve been setting out these stories of my father’s life to put his shortcomings in their most tragic light. I want the reader to care about him, to show what he could have been, what he intended to be, how close he often came to that ideal of himself, rather than just the implacable destroyer he also was.

It’s like putting together a tricky puzzle, on a sticky table, in a dark room. I’ve been operating with the idea that focusing on his humanistic values makes his brutality, which the reader will grasp in stages, all the more tragic and horrible. Focusing on what was best in him, setting his best qualities out clearly has been my work so far. But then I am told that I am letting him off the hook. So let me take a few moments to show you the sturdy, razor sharp hook and how firmly he is hung by it. He described the hook as well as anyone could in those hours of his last night on earth. And I ain’t no holocaust denier, for better or worse, I’ve not gotten to where I am by backing away from difficult truths.

The rage my father displayed when listening to robots prattling about serving him better, instead of putting a human on the phone to help him resolve what he’d called about, was his default setting. He flew into a rage very easily, sometimes over almost nothing. Flying into a rage very easily is not the mark of a highly evolved person. Jewish sages considered being easy to enrage, unless offset by a capacity for quick forgiveness, as the mark of a wicked man. No-one could mistake Irv for a forgiving man. Life is full of outrages, true enough, and indignities are plentiful, but towering shows of temper do little but torture oneself and those around one, do they not?

Showing you the hook now, in a few paragraphs, is not easy. Not because I’ve ever had any hesitation about laying out my father’s childish, stubbornly defensive cruelty, but because it’s a huge subject. I don’t have a ready snapshot that stands in for the rest, though there are tens of thousands in the album. My father’s enduring legacies were rage and despair, let there be no mistake about that.

He was funny, and bright, and sardonic in a way that often came off as hip, if slightly menacing, to friends of mine who encountered him during his life. The most insightful of them could recognize what an overbearing bully the old man was, how his hipster act was just another part of being better than them. He despised many of my friends, people weak and stupid enough to be in a club that would admit somebody like his son as a member, though he could also put a cheerful face on his malice and he had a good deal of warmth and charm to use, when he felt like bringing that to bear. That surface cheerfulness, and his wit, misled a few about the darker essence of the man.

But what kind of book would I have, dear critic, if I told you the prosecutorial story of my father the unredeemed asshole? It would be a boring exercise in false therapy to present my father as a vicious, destructive prick and mentioned only grudgingly any redeeming qualities and values, though they clearly influenced my sister and me to a tremendous and often disabling extent. It’s the struggle to grasp and tell the whole dark story with clarity, like the uphill struggle to do anything difficult and meaningful, that makes the manuscript worth wrestling with. It’s the same struggle that will hopefully produce a book readers will look forward to reading.

There are complete fucking asshole fathers I have met, of course. The world has no shortage of such unredeemed creatures. The guy who punched his young son in the face in front of his friends, beat his wife, snarled everywhere he went and caused a bank teller in Fort Lee to burst into tears and run for the manager while teen-aged me watched, standing next to his son, waiting for the truculent old fuck to take us to a silent lunch. “I’m not dealing with him!” the bank teller wailed as she ran for the manager, my friend’s sadistic father watching with no expression. I’m sure there’s a backstory on him too, some tragic circumstance that molded him into the vicious bastard he clearly was. Hitler had a backstory, a sadistic father who beat him daily, but the backstories of these types hold only so much interest to me.

A mother who slaps her children in the face every day at the kitchen table. A strangled grunt and “whap!” across the kid’s face at breakfast and dinner every single day of childhood. Does the child have every right not to forgive such a mother? Of course. But there is more to the story of that parent than that. In the case of my father, the rest of the story, his many clearly admirable traits, the important work he did superbly, makes his life especially tragic and compelling to me.

Jewish law and tradition, which weaves through my father’s story and my own, even if neither of us in the end had much connection with the rituals, the congregation, the community of other Jews, often makes a subtle, sometimes merciful, point. Above everything else there is an appreciation of nuance in the greatest of our teachers. A friend told me about an illuminating interpretation of the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother. It does not command a child to obey a parent and certainly not to love a parent who is cruel or otherwise un-nurturing. It commands us to honor them and to recognize a duty to those who brought you into the world. What does honoring them mean? It means not letting them go hungry when they are old, not leaving them in an undignified situation.

I think that is part of what I am trying to do in this Book of Irv. I am giving my father the chance, as a decomposing skeleton, to express some of the things he was unable to make clear in life, until a few tottering steps in the right direction hours before his death. I am imagining the potential of the man, my father, in light of his beliefs and the regrets he expressed with seeming sincerity as he was giving his confession to me that last night on earth. I am treating his life with the empathy he was unable to show, except to dogs, abused animals, the gigantic masses of people who are inexorably fucked in our increasingly wealthy world. I am forging the links between his childhood poverty and abuse, his beliefs, and the crucial, often crippling, values he imbued deeply in my sister and me.

If you like, I am using the regrettably merciless fuck’s life to illustrate why I believe what I believe, why I pursue such a likely impossible life path, why trying to live with integrity is so important to me. I am trying to be the change the tyrannical, soft-hearted old man would have liked to have been in his own life. The book is as much about me, really, and my reactions and realizations, as it is about my father.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, have pointed out that forgiveness is primarily for ourselves, to relieve ourselves of the burdens of hatred, anger, injustice. Forgiveness is not an occasional act but a permanent attitude, said MLK, and I don’t doubt that. It is hard, Jack, hard, I know that too. Verging on the impossible if the person who did the damage is unrepentant, defiant, blaming the weakness of the victim for the perceived harm.

Although I was mild and comforting to him as the old man was dying, I don’t know that I can ever completely forgive my father for being such a needy and childish adult, the perpetually wounded two-year old so insistent on being right that he would burn all those around him. I don’t know if it’s possible to forgive someone who wasted most of their great potential in constant, unslakable anger. All he was left with as he was dying was regret and a son, far more merciful than him, to listen compassionately.

But if you have the impression I’m somehow letting my aggravating, bullying father off the hook – think again, dear Sekhnet.

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