My father would go with that description. Fine, he was a complicated man. He would occasionally refer to the demons we all battle. The highly personal battle with one’s personalized demons is… complicated. In his case, gaining any useful insight into his demons was not an option. He believed that no amount of insight into the nature of one’s troubles could allow a person to make significant changes in their lives, the demons always got the last word. I never bought that pessimistic view of our lives here.
If you were impressed by Irv, as many were, you admired his nimble intellect, his command of language, his irreverence and his wit. He could be very funny. He had charisma of a certain kind. He could be self-effacing in a charming way, as when he joked about often being mistaken for Rock Hudson. He was persuasive. argued convincingly, often in the cause of social justice and basic decency, raising good point after good point based on irrefutable common sense seasoned with insights from his wide reading. He had an excellent memory. He could be a good friend and an excellent mentor. He was loved by many.
Those more attuned to intellectual bullying could observe in Irv the flexing that such types use to keep adversaries off balance, to put them down. The wit, dark, sharp and quick, would be used to parry, skewer, belittle, ridicule, deflate, humiliate. His style in arguments was to quickly prove that any intelligent person, armed with the facts, had to agree with him. He’d often do this by presenting the opposing argument in detail, then dismantling it methodically. He had little patience for anyone who seemed to be on to what he was up to in these displays of intellectual dominance.
We are none of us always our best self. The gifts Irv brought to friendship, teaching and mentoring, were not always at his disposal when dealing with his own little family in the house he’d bought to shelter them, as they ate the food he paid for. He’d grown up in grinding poverty and it had been his life’s mission to never know deprivation again. He succeeded, working two jobs, and his thanks, night after night, were two ungrateful little middle class pricks who had no idea of the despair and humiliation of poverty their father had saved them from.
The complication of this generally fine man arose when his talents were pressed into service by his demons. At the dinner table, after the litany of his wife’s complaints about their unruly kids, the rebellious boy, the sneaky girl, before he got ready to leave for his second job each evening, he’d explode in rage. He’d deploy his entire intellectual arsenal to verbally bludgeon his children, who returned fire according to their personalities.
Why am I writing about my father, a man who has been dead now going on sixteen years? I’m struggling to finally put this story in a clear frame, to tell it in a way that makes sense (we also note my reluctance to wade through the 1,200 page first draft I produced a few years ago– though that seems necessary at some point). I believe my father’s story contains a universal lesson, certainly something to ponder for anyone who was raised by an angry parent who was often impossible to placate. A parent like this puts a kid in an emotional bind that can last a lifetime.
The bones of this story will be familiar to many, the conclusion of the story contains a redemptive surprise, though the value of that gift is sometimes hard to see.
In a nutshell, someone who is prone to anger after childhood humiliation (as Irv was humiliated by the double monster of extreme poverty and an angry, religious mother who whipped him in the face from the time he could stand) will behave toward their offspring with certain emotional disabilities. In the case of a parent with severe emotional disabilities, since none of us want to see ourselves as wrong, they will actively construct, and become unyielding advocates of, a worldview where their fucking children are the real problem.
Now follow me here — if the child is to be made the real problem, you need to lay out, and reinforce, the reasons why, so everybody understands the terrain. So when the kid is an infant, several days old, accuse him of challenging you from his crib.
“You were born with a hard-on against the world. You had it in for me from the day I picked you up at the hospital, staring at me with those big, black accusing eyes, always glaring at me through the bars of the crib by my side of the bed.” The crib had to be moved to the other side of the bed, to mom’s side. Sheesh. You started this fucking war when you were a few days old and have not taken a minute off since then, you merciless little bastard.”
If you believe this remarkable story, and why wouldn’t you, at five, at eight, you are in for a lifelong wrestling match with your own demons, some of whom will insist, not unreasonably, “what the fuck?” You will grow up with cognitive dissonance, the things ascribed to you will not feel like a fit with what you actually learn about your own life. You will be subject to nightmares, dark thoughts, to fear and displays of anger, which you may come to regret, or, alternatively, cringing submission, a shameful surrender which you can later take out on yourself. There are few healthy ways to react to a parent intent on proving that you have the problem, not them, especially when you are a child.
Healing from this kind of upbringing is a hard, complicated process. It requires a certain optimism about our capacity to heal. It also takes learning to be the parent you never had, replacing the harsh internalized voice with a more merciful one. Your odds of success will also depend on the severity of what you were forced to suffer.
Irv was verbally abusive, something he admitted was as damaging as physical abuse — he rarely hit us. I eventually found a way to understand my father’s brutality, and depersonalize it, though if Irv had punched me in face every day of my childhood, I wonder if my path to recovery would have been the same. If he’d sexually assaulted my sister and me? The horrors humans do to each other are varied, I can only speak sensibly about the ones I experienced.
I had the luck, after striking up a friendship with my father’s seventeen years’ older first cousin Eli, a complicated character of infinite charm and equally deep hostility, to have someone turn on a light in a dark room. After talking around my father’s situation week after week, the sad adversarial relationship between us, my father’s arguable streak of madness, Eli revealed a terrible truth to me one day. Coming from him, who gave me the horrific detail one day with great sadness, it had the ring of absolute truth.
His favorite aunt, his father’s beautiful red-haired little sister who loved him to death, was Tante Chavah. He had many stories about Tante Chavah and her fierce love for him. Tante Chava was my father’s mother, the grandmother I never met (she died before my time). I knew she had a terrible temper, I knew she was very religious, I knew that although she was the poorest of the poor, she gave money to charity every week, I knew she had been barely five feet tall and a great cook. Eli confirmed all these things, telling me stories about each of them. One day he took a deep breath and told me how she treated my father as a baby, and throughout his childhood, the abuse she heaped on her oldest boy, who she always called “Sonny”.
This unspeakable tale of severe child abuse, told with infinite sorrow by my father’s much loved first cousin, suddenly made me see my father in a different light. He instantly became sympathetic. His irrational behavior as an adult suddenly made a kind of sense to me.
I count this revelation as maybe the greatest single gift I ever received. How do you understand a man who could ruthlessly bully his six year-old grand-daughter on the eve of her birthday, making her so understandably upset she’d vomit moments after he left the house, without understanding the abuse he’d suffered? Impossible, I think.
I count my unaccountable optimism about our capacity to take deliberate steps toward a healthier life as another great blessing. Both of my parents were confirmed pessimists. I don’t know where I got the feeling that our brains are elastic, our life experiences subject to improvement, our interactions with others improvable. No idea.
I will skip to the end of the story here, in the interest of a spoiler. Or, on second thought, nah. Back at you another time.