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The Myth of the Uncommunicative Father

I read Sharon Olds and Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath, all these writers of recent rebellious generations, the ones of whom it was said you can never go home again — people who dig out the viscera of their relationships with their parents and slap them into the pages of novels. I admire these women. I often think you can’t write well without doing it. At least there’s a certain caliber of honesty which is easier to achieve once you’ve practiced it on this difficult subject.

But I don’t do the gut-digging myself. I almost never post anything about my family here; certainly never anything sensitive, nothing I wouldn’t want my parents to read. They read the blog before anyone else does. In a fit of frustration I posted something angry the other day, but I took it down. The fourth wall on the Internet is a piece of two-way glass, a very thin skin; it doesn’t afford the protection of a few hundred hardbound pages.

(cracks knuckles)

I am the one in the family who talks. I talk on paper, over the wires, on camera, and on stage, as well as face to face.

Maybe it’s not truthful for me to claim a monopoly on this skill; everyone in the family is good with puns and Scrabble, and Mom and Sly are also known for talent in foreign languages. I think it’s fair to say, though, that no-one in my immediate family is as obstreperous as I am.

(Obstreperous… gregarious? My thesis here is ultimately about failings of human connection, so it doesn’t matter that I’m loud or that I can put together a decent sentence; I’m just as big a failure as anyone I accuse when it comes to being a good friend or lover. And I’m trotting out the big obfuscatory words for this one, clearly. I want to say that singing in the mineshaft has its uses. One way or another:) Everyone else in the immediate family is more reticent; talking is my genetic recessive trait, my mutant ability.

For a while I thought my mutant ability was sheer emotion, summoned up like a ball of pure energy I could use for creativity or harm. I decided this after I failed my first driver’s test at age nineteen, when I broke down in furious sobs in the backseat. My fit evoked a new and startling kind of panic in my mother, who stopped the car and yelled at me to grow up. That was also the first day it was clear that adulthood was a slipcover thrown over unmanageable neuroses.

Let’s put the point on it thus: Everyone in the family’s got words. Mine just have the jo-jeezly electromagnetic mutant vigor in ‘em.

I have heard my mother describe the reasons for my parents’ divorce only twice, two years ago and again two weekends ago. The first time the metaphor she used was so strange I convinced myself she hadn’t actually said anything of substance at all. She said the marriage was like the two of them sitting back to back with a pillow, or something soft and squishy that represented their marriage, between them. Not talking. And she confronts Dad about not talking, and he whips around and stabs the pillow and hisses How could you?

The metaphor was weird, but to some extent it jived with what I had figured out at the time of the divorce. The period leading up to the divorce had been eerily silent; no yelling, no thrown dishes, no crying. The idea of the Noncommunicative Father fit into the crude protofeminist worldview I was beginning to fashion back then. My maternal grandfather was already estranged from the family. My paternal grandfather was very quiet. After moving out, Mom lived with another woman who was going through an ugly divorce from a man who was a truly devious person. Men were all clearly bad communicators, by nurture. I sided with mom.

During the summer after my parents announced the divorce, they dragged me to a shrink. How was I to know what I was supposed to say? I had been given no vocabulary for talking about feelings or relationships. I sat in sullen silence the entire time.

I knew a shrink was a doctor for your mind. Clearly they were telling me I was sick. That confused me and made me angry; the divorce was their problem, not mine. Why were they pathologizing a childhood I’d been happy with? In my view, it had only been marred by mild social isolation after our move across country when I was five. I tried to explain myself, but it all came out in pop-culture references.

I don’t ask why I was sent to the shrink. I did talk to my mom two weekends ago about the divorce, and she said the same thing she did before: Your father didn’t want to talk about the relationship. It still doesn’t make any sense to me: How is noncommunication a universe-ending problem, once you’ve identified it?

So much of my life has hung on the idea of the Noncommunicative Male. It has colored each of my relationships and a few of my courses with male teachers. It damaged my relationship with my father. I took it as gospel truth.

It didn’t occur to me for years that the silence might have been two-way, and that I’ve been trying to fit my life story into the wrong mold. Maybe I should have been trying to fit the story of my life into some other story — the narrative of The Woman Who Had A Fantastic Secret Inner Life, But Never Told Anyone About It, maybe; or, more broadly, The Family Struggling Against Its Tight-Lipped, Prudish Heritage (subtitled One Hundred Years Of WASP Solitude).

I figured out five years ago that I needed to reconsider how I understood my own history and motives in light of the fact that I am depressive. I learned a few years later that my father, also, is depressive. I’m still mad at him for not giving me advance warning that I was at risk. I’m going through other troubles now — ain’t doing right by my sweet, devoted, patient boyfriend — and surprise, I’m starting to find out this whole thing was foretold, in a way, by curious patterns in my family history.

Goddamn it, all I want to know is what other timebombs you people have planted which you haven’t told me about. Am I at risk for Huntington’s Disease? Is there a family history of pedophilia which I’m suppressing?

I have no role models for good relationships. I’ve had to practice over and over, leaving any number of young men gnawed and scratched and battered. To whom is silence fair?

We are still not talking, now, even as I call you and ask you and you finally talk. Maybe our kids will understand better if they can see this written down.

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