I struggle, more than most, against lifelong impediments installed in my childhood. My parents were generally united in their theories, rationales and accusations, but most of the hostility I faced was generated by my brilliant father, a perplexing contradiction of a man to be raised by. There is nothing more difficult for a child to make sense of than sentimental tenderness expressed with humor alternating with sudden rage, particularly when the anger is defended in a unified front by both parents.
For example, it was beyond debate, according to them both, that I had been born a very angry baby. After all, they’d say, I’d displayed red-faced rage and challenged my parents on everything from the time I was a few days old. My father referred to the accusing way I stared at him from my crib, with huge, unblinking black eyes, from the day I returned from the hospital, a newborn. This creeped him out so much they moved my crib to my mother’s side of the bed after a couple of days.
It always seemed crazy to me, this insistence that I was born angry, stared “accusingly” at my father from the second or third day of my life, and that there was no concievable explanation for my natural born intransigence as an infant, and my constant anger, but that was always their position, at least until the last night of my father’s life.
I struggle against the damage done to me by insistent, unlikely theories about my character in several ways. One is a determination to avoid any echoes of the unfair, opinionated, sometimes insane, beliefs about me that I was expected to accept as true. I am attuned to the sometimes subtle machinations of angry self-defense and how it often becomes intent on blaming others for sudden outbursts of anger. Such displaced anger is a common thing most people encounter and sometimes practice, the assigning of unfair blame for grievous acts a loved one never committed. It is commonly done by people close to each other, because that is the safest place to prosecute such anger. Or maybe not, most murders, we’re told, happen between people who know each other, often within families.
Another way I struggle is by researching and pondering, often while tapping these keys. It took me years to discover the source of my father’s frequent rage and how that rage shaped my view of the world. I sat down finally, in 2016, at sixty, to write out everything I knew about my father’s life, to write his biography as best I could. I found myself putting together a puzzle with thousands of missing pieces, working in almost total darkness. I wrote daily for two years. Much of it was like searching history for a trace of the muddy hamlet my father’s mother came from, a place wiped off the map in 1942 along with everyone in it, like literally thousands of other little Jewish hamlets and towns in those years.
Initially I was looking for a scene to dramatically convey the severe damage my father inflicted on my sister and me. This was devilishly hard work because his techniques were frequently very subtle, the withholding of an encouraging word, a glare, often just silence applied, by reflex, to strategically cruel effect. I couldn’t point to a busted nose or a broken arm, a tearful midnight trip to the emergency room. The damage that can be done with words alone, backed by an implacable will, is impressive. It is also often fiendishly subtle. We all get hurt by words sometimes, and we can all say, together “boo hoo!”, though the pain hurtful words can inflict is as sharp as the entry of an arrow into our flesh.
I struggle against a ready temper, every day. I overcompensate sometimes in my efforts to remain mild. This has sometimes driven others to rage, that I try not to react with anger when provoked, goadingly clinging to the high road, like a superior fucking prig. This is maddening to people who want a good fight. I don’t want a good fight. I never wanted a good fight, though I was forced to fight daily for the first few decades of my life. Like most experienced fighters, I’m aware that facial expression, tone of voice and body language are potent weapons of war. Part of my struggle against my temper is against an inability to keep these reflexes under control. A look on the old face, no more than a telltale micro-expression, a tone saying otherwise polite words just so, a tensing of the body are still fairly automatic when the heat is being turned up. Mastering that shit, my friends, may well be beyond my powers.
I’m aware that many people may view these struggles of mine as a kind of vanity, if not also folly. My father, for one, put forth a lifelong argument that people cannot change anything fundamental about themselves. He denounced as deluded the belief that a skilled psychiatrist or other therapist can help us gain insights and change anything about our innate natures. As proof he’d point to the reflex to become angry. Some are born with a hair trigger temper and some are born with a more placid disposition, no amount of work is going to change the reflex in a born-angry person to get mad easily. As if in proof of this theory, as much as I consciously try to remain mild, I fly into a rage instantly when a computer or smart phone bends me over, even momentarily. I wax Tourretic when forced into a corporate or bureaucratic cul du sac, or encounter idiocy built into their help line, like having to navigate five menus to learn the help line is currently closed (easy enough to post hours of operation next to the number, no?). I have also provoked a couple of people in recent years, at times by not showing I was hurt by getting angry, as any normal person would.
I can say this with certainty — had I not gone through a painful course of psychotherapy toward the end of my father’s life, I’d have never been able to be calm and supportive the last night of my father’s life as the poor devil was expressing his sincere regrets, and for the first and last time in his life, his apologies. Without the twice weekly wrestling matches with my demons I’d have never realized that letting go of much of my anger toward my father, rightful as most of it undoubtedly was, was a necessity for my own life, growth, ability to evolve into a more insightful, hopefully kinder person than my father was. If we can’t make 100% progress in such changes, I’d say, 50%, or 30%, is still pretty good. At the very end, even my father had to agree.
I can also say this with certainty, virtually any of us is capable of acting like a fucking tyrant, given the right context. And we almost always believe we acted that way with perfect justification.
In the end, the story of the Book of Irv is about anger, insight and the power of repentance and forgiveness. I believe the story of the long, senseless, ugly war between my father and me, and its unexpected peaceful conclusion on the last night of the old man’s life, could be useful to many readers. It is a story of persistence, and the durability of love even under brutal conditions. If I can tell it properly it will evoke the power of learning to forgive, ourselves and others, though the lesson came too late to do my father much good, though my own struggles are lifelong.
My father’s life was an example of a very smart, funny, likeable man, a friend of the underdog and lover of animals, often trapped in the emotions of a two year-old viciously assaulted by an insane mother, a life he told me, hours before his death at 80, had been pretty much over by the time he was two. He said this, in the passive voice, after a lifetime of angrily denying that childhood has anything to do with the adult, that only whiners complain to shrinks about how mean their parents were and snivelingly try to blame their parents for their own problems.
I am a fairly old man myself now. The clock is ticking on my time to put everything I learned in those two years of daily writing into a coherent book that others can read and consider. Much of the first draft is a conversation with the skeleton of my father, the skeleton applying a dead man’s too late insights to much of the discussion, somehow providing me with details it was impossible for me to know from the scant record. The skeleton showed up one day early on in my writing, seemingly of his own accord, and I came to look forward to sitting down each day to talk to the spirit of my dead father, much wiser than when he was alive and struggling in the world, between the beating he took as an infant and his deathbed realizations.
Think about this too, just because serious damage can be inflicted in subtle, deniable ways doesn’t mean we have to accept it and move on. My father’s life, and mine, demonstrate the impossibility of just accepting it and moving on. The price of accepting what is unacceptable, without understanding it and learning lessons from it, is a price nobody should have to pay. To my mind, it is a merciless fucking price to demand someone pay.