Two memoirs search for lost fathers
"It's your day, Dad. Father's Day," Judith Levine tells her father, who has Alzheimer's disease, in her memoir Do You Remember Me? He responds:
"Father?" Indignantly: "Father!? I don't have a father!"
"I know you don't have a father, Dad. You're my father."
"You're my father?"
"No." I laugh. "You're my father."
"My father? I don't have a father."
The anecdote is Reader's Digest chestnut crossed with absurdist drama. But it's an oddly appropriate epigraph to both these memoirs by writers who live part-time in Vermont. Both are about family cycles of absence and abandonment -- children who grow up without fathers, as Stanley Levine did, and become absent, distant or difficult parents. And both books suggest that we'd all rather think of ourselves as the wounded inner child ("I don't have a father!") than the wounding, compromised adults we've become.
Joyce Johnson's memoir opens with a meditation on "negative space," a concept that fascinated her second husband, the abstract artist Peter Pinchbeck. Through-out the book, art and absence go hand in hand in various ways. Johnson's maternal grandfather, Samuel Rosenberg, was an immigrant from Warsaw who did poorly in the New World and committed suicide in 1908, leaving his four children to fend for themselves. He was also a poet.
In her youth, supported by her long-suffering older sisters, Johnson's mother was trained as a singer. Johnson speculates that her mother's artistic education was "the one thing she had from Samuel Rosenberg in the way of a birthright, which she would pass on to me -- not as a gift but as an obligation to be lived out, on her terms." The early chapters detail Johnson's mother's efforts to live through her daughter by pushing her onto the New York stage -- a world of avant-garde pretension and creative ferment, where Joyce meets the young Marlon Brando and understudies in the Broadway production of I Remember Mama.
It doesn't last long -- like most teenagers, Johnson refuses to be her mother's Mini-Me, and within a few pages we find her living downtown, frequenting artists' bars and dating Jack Kerouac. (The book simply skips the years of rebellious transition between Johnson's adolescence and her late twenties.) But the mother's influence and her "birthright" endure. Johnson writes, "I'd search for Samuel Rosenberg in exiles, in artists who could not find acceptance, in the rage and sadness of these men that would make me fall in love with them and ultimately leave me alone with my freedom."
It's a powerful statement, and as close as Missing Men comes to a thesis. "These men" are Johnson's two husbands -- both artists, fatherless children, and problematic fathers. Like Samuel Rosenberg, they create negative space. Jim Johnson abandons his Midwestern family -- including two sons -- to embrace the New York art world. Peter Pinchbeck, with whom Johnson has a son, doesn't know how to approach his offspring except as "a buddy, a potential [artistic] disciple."
Johnson is a deft portraitist and an unobtrusive narrator, and her story unfolds with novelistic ease, even in the chapters where she's using family photos and letters to reconstruct events prior to her birth. This makes the sudden shift in direction halfway through Missing Men all the more puzzling. Having followed the life-story of Johnson's mother, we abruptly leave her behind just when her daughter begins to question her; it's as if the two women's relationship never progressed beyond this point. Likewise, Johnson's father remains something of a cipher -- a present father, for once, but an amiable underachiever, whose most vivid moment comes when he castigates his daughter for confiding in him that she fantasizes about leaving her mother and "running away together."
These gaps in the narrative may be consistent with Johnson's themes of absence and loss. "What could you make of a story that wouldn't let you go because it had never been fully worked out?" she asks of her life with Jim Johnson. Life according to Johnson has plenty of endings, but precious little closure. Still, the time-jump halfway through the book feels arbitrary, and it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Johnson omitted her early adulthood simply to avoid overlap with the content of her earlier "Beat memoir" Minor Characters. Missing Men is compelling and at times harrowing in its day-to-day portrayal of relationships between people who are defined by what they lack. But sometimes one wishes that Johnson would take more frequent steps back to show us the big picture.
If the lack of authorial analysis and commentary in Johnson's book is occasionally frustrating, Levine's memoir has the opposite problem: a surfeit of both. Levine, a journalist whose last book, Harmful to Minors, railed against the social hypocrisies surrounding children's sexuality, is a compulsively argumentative writer; bits of her thesis squirm their way into seemingly neutral vignettes. She inherited this combativeness, she admits, from her father, a man who "can't take yes for an answer." And at times this contentiousness detracts from her most interesting insights, which emerge not from argument but from stories.
There are two stories in Do You Remember Me? In one, a loyal daughter goes to bat for her father's "personhood" after becoming convinced that modern American attitudes towards Alzheimer's disease have done at least as much to dehumanize him as the disease itself. Levine scores persuasive points against her targets: our cultural pursuit of perfection, our medicalization of what used to be considered "normal" aging, our terror of becoming mentally incompetent, and our reluctance to share our lives with those who are. She also skewers the government for focusing its Alzheimer's funding on medical research rather than providing support and care.
Right or wrong, these arguments will spark productive debate about a disease that's increasingly seen as a modern epidemic. But threading its way through Levine's fairly straightforward, contrarian argument is a second story, more contorted and also more compelling. It's the tale of a daughter who's been estranged from her father since childhood, who can "chart our relationship as a series of jagged spikes connected by flat lines: arguments interspersed with absences."
What brings father and daughter together is, strangely enough, Alzheimer's --a transformation also reportedly experienced by Ronald Reagan's estranged daughter, Patty. Levine explains: "[My father's] intellect was the bayonet with which he kept me at bay; I fought back with my own smartness." Progressively deprived of his sharp intellect, Levine's father is forced to discover new ways to approach her, and she finds herself having new, gentler, and surprisingly enriching interactions with him. Media and medical accounts of Alzheimer's describe the patient as someone who is slowly disappearing. But, says Levine, "I am just meeting my father. To me, he is still here."
As she gets closer to her father, Levine finds herself increasingly at odds with her mother, who embodies the social attitudes toward Alzheimer's that Levine attacks in the abstract. Lillian Levine wants, perhaps needs, to see her failing husband as "not even a human being anymore." But this need is colored by the weariness and self-righteousness that comes from having spent 10 years caring for a difficult patient. The conflict comes to a head when Levine's mother begins seeing another man.
The underlying theme of Do You Remember Me? is what happens when theory -- be it the standard "social construction" of Alzheimer's or Levine's efforts to deconstruct it -- meets reality. In a revelatory passage toward the end of the memoir, Levine finally confronts a problem she's skirted so far: If she's dead set against her mother's plan to put her father in a nursing home, why not take over his care herself? "I've been trying to figure out how to respect Dad's remaining selfhood by engaging him in decisions about his own life," Levine confesses. "Yet when it comes to thinking about incorporating him into my life, that respect feels like an abstraction."
Earlier in the book, Levine has wondered about reviving the traditional concept of "filial duty" -- the things you do for your parents simply because they are your parents, regardless of how well they've done their job. In the age of self-fulfillment, it's a radical notion: someone has to keep the family a family; the buck stops here. In the end, though, Levine admits that she can't embody this ideal. While she's appreciating her father's company more and more, she's unwilling to devote her own life to his care. Like her mother, she ultimately chooses herself, and the choice seems to free her to grieve for her father -- his human frailty as well as her own.
What makes it possible for Levine's book to move from abstraction to reality is her skill and subtlety in depicting her father as a person, even in his decline. The memoir is loosely structured -- journal entries interspersed with reviews of Alzheimer's literature -- and judicious pruning would have produced a starker, stronger argument. But the indispensable passages are those in which Stanley Levine holds forth, rambling but not random, showing his daughter that "the self, rather than bow out gracefully, holds on by its fingernails to the end."
It's ironic -- but perhaps not surprising -- that in both these books about the absence or distance or insufficiency of fathers, the central conflict is between mother and daughter. Both Johnson's mother and Levine's revise history -- or so the daughter believes -- in order to make the father responsible for the wrongs of their lives. And both daughters call the mother on this bad-faith maneuver. Referring to Freud's attempt to explain the female equivalent of the Oedipus complex, Levine calls this a drama of "Electra by default. The daughter inherits the father, if only because the mother doesn't want him anymore."
The reference to Greek tragedy is fitting. Levine's book is a social critique interspersed with a family tragedy in which everyone is both wrong and right. It starts as a book about how cultural expectations of autonomy and rationality victimize the individual and ends as one about individuals faced with losses from which no change in official policy or public discourse can help them recoup. "Our imperfection is the living sign of our mortality," writes Levine -- and suggests that accepting this imperfection is what it really takes to keep families together.
Johnson's book ends on a similar elegiac note. Through-out Missing Men, she explores the conflict between the intensive labor of parenting and the equally time-consuming, perhaps inherently selfish, practice of art. Yet the memoir closes with a tribute to Peter Pinch-beck, who insisted while he
and Johnson were dating that "Artists had no business being married... children were a luxury he could neither afford nor support." Like Levine's fatherless father, Pinchbeck was ill-prepared for the paternal role. In a world that routinely labels families as "functional" and "dysfunctional," it can be hard to grasp that a highly imperfect father might be better than none at all. But Johnson, like Levine, affirms that this is so. "In his own way," she says of Pinchbeck, "within the boundaries that encircled his feelings, he grew into a father -- not a conventional father perhaps, but one who loved his son."
From Do You Remember Me?
by Judith Levine
On a warm September afternoon, Dad and I stop in at the galleries on the edge of Chelsea, not far from his and Mom's apartment. At first, I am uncomfortable. I hardly feel thin enough or chic enough to walk into these whitewashed high-modern temples of gentrification on my own, much less with a doddering boulevardier in a ski parka who talks to the paintings and flirts incomprehensibly with the receptionists.
Soon, though, I begin to relax. The fact is, it's interesting to look at art with Dad. You can be demented and enjoy nonrepresentational work; a little senility might even enhance the experience. When I'm with him, I enjoy a kind of contact dementia. The rational mind snookered, I respond directly to the colors, shapes, and images, the irrational reason of the contemporary visual.
We walk into one of the whitest, highest temples to see the work of the painter Terry Winters. . . At first Dad plays the anxious naif. "What? What am I supposed to--"
"It's anything you want it to be," I say. "There's no 'supposed to.'"
He considers the painting again, then moves away and stares intently at it, a mostly blue canvas whose swirling lines weave whorls over and through each other, pulling the eye into a distant vortex. Dad says, "In here there are worlds inside, and it's there and they are there, in there and there." He moves close to the painting, touches it ("Don't touch!" I scold, and he glowers at me). "The boy is crying, he's dreaming," he says, in the tone of a storyteller to a small child. Then, with the sly earnestness that indicates he still has a sense of irony, "-- but don't be sad. Don't worry. It will all come out."
From Missing Men,
by Joyce Johnson
From the time I was four or five, I'd often played with the idea of running away. The thought would usually come to me when Mother sent me downstairs to wait for her. How easy it would be to slip away, to not be there by the time she got out of the elevator, though where to go seemed an unanswerable question. I remember trying to calculate how much money I'd need to disappear successfully--at least two dollars, maybe as much as five. And how would I ever get that? I wondered. I tended to be a cautious child, not given to rash actions. At school, I was considered such a model of sensible behavior that a bad boy was forced to sit next to me after the teacher had separated him from his riotous companions. "Are you a good girl?" he'd sometimes ask me contemptuously, and I'd reluctantly answer that I supposed I was. Since for years I lacked a best friend, I never tried my lawless thoughts out on anyone. But on that walk with my father, I made the mistake of revealing what I was thinking.
He'd asked me to come out with him late in the afternoon while my mother began preparations for dinner. He'd smoked his cigar, and I'd chattered away, holding his hand, thrilled to have him to myself. We'd walked for blocks, all the way to the edge of another neighborhood. When we had to turn back because my mother would start wondering what had happened to us, I didn't want to go home. Not yet, at any rate--maybe never. The feeling that had come over me was so strong, I was powerless to stop myself from saying what I already knew I shouldn't: "Let's you and me run away together, Dad."