The Writing Disorder



New Nonfiction


by Henry F. Tonn

      My earliest memory is the day my father returned home from the war. It was a fall afternoon in 1945 and I was not yet three years old. A gentleman in a gray suit walked into our house and I shouted, “Are you my daddy?” He looked a little perplexed and my mother hastened to explain, “His father’s coming home from the war today.” They both chuckled, and then got down to the business at hand− an insurance policy. I have often thought this is where my life began to go wrong: my earliest memory is of an insurance salesman.
      I don’t remember my father actually arriving home that day. Memories come in bits and pieces. We lived in a row house in Philadelphia near Hunting Park, a working class community, and children of all ages filled the streets. It was an exciting time and my first six years were happy ones. In the beginning, my father took an avid interest in his only begotten son. I distinctly remember being taken on walks to the park, riding on his back like a cowboy while he crawled around on the floor, and playing checkers with him. We also played a game that involved peeing in the toilet together and racing to see who finished first. I always won.
      Unfortunately, there was also a malevolent side to my father. He was a genuine control freak, and expected things to be done his way. When he returned from the war in Asia, where he had served in the Marine Corps as a sniper, he was confronted by a child whose personality had been shaped by a doting mother and grandmother—“a spoiled brat” in his terminology. He believed in the old adage of “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and immediately set about correcting the fallacies of my mother’s lax child-rearing practices. His favorite tool of enforcement was a riding crop he had purchased during his equestrian days. He would whack me on the behind or the legs whenever I committed a transgression, and our relationship quickly became a battle of wills. It was a battle I was destined to lose.
      In 1946 my sister was born, completing the family. My father’s first job on returning from war had been a factory tool mechanic, but eventually he decided to become an insurance agent. He was a handsome man: thin, athletic, with dark, curly hair, noted for his proud, erect posture. He could be extremely charming — charismatic, even — with a winning smile and a quick wit. He knew how to flatter people, and did it freely whenever it suited his purpose. Consequently, he became relatively successful as an insurance salesman. When I was five years old our family bought a brand-new Pontiac, drawing the envy of our neighbors. It was the nicest car on the street.
      But Philadelphia really did not suit my father. It was too noisy and crowded for his taste. He feared his only begotten son would become a juvenile delinquent if he continued to hang around the riffraff that inhabited our neighborhood. He yearned for the countryside where he could smell the fresh air and go hunting whenever he chose.
      He discussed the issue with my mother:
      Dad: “We need to move down south where it’s less crowded and there’s not so much crime. Henry needs to get a big chest.”
      Mom (raising eyebrows): “A big chest?”
      Dad: “Yeah, breathing clean air gives you a big chest.”
      Mom: “You don’t have a big chest, dear. Nobody in our family has a big chest.”
      Dad: “If we move down south, he’ll get a big chest.”
      Mom: “I doubt it. But whatever you say, dear.”
      I never got a big chest. Nevertheless, when I was six years old the family pulled up stakes and moved to the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina, where we constructed a house in the middle of the boondocks. My father continued to work for the insurance company, my mother became a secretary. My sister and I adjusted as best we could to the new environment.
      But forces were now in motion that would bring tragedy to everyone concerned. My father’s Northern charm and Yankee accent did not go over well in the South, and his ability to sell insurance policies dropped accordingly. After two years the family was in considerable debt, and my father decided that police work was his true calling. He was charming; he was good with a gun; he would no longer be dependent upon commissions for a living. We slid into borderline starvation while he attended the police academy, but things got better upon his emergence.
      At this point, however, my father developed the compulsive work ethic that would dominate the rest of his career. Money became very important to him, along with success. A policeman’s salary, however, did not pay the bills, and it was necessary to take side jobs to supplement the income. He worked as a security guard at football games and as a night watchman at businesses all over the city. Soon he was devoting almost as much time to his part-time jobs as to being a policeman. Often he would come home in the afternoon from directing traffic all day, take a shower, eat dinner, and leave for the night job. We seldom saw him. Basically, he worked all the time.
      When not at a paying job, he worked around the house. He chopped down trees and sawed them into wood for the fireplace. He built a rock wall all around the front of the house and a small fish pond in the middle of it. He planted flowers, shrubbery, and bushes. In the summer he tended a vegetable garden. He worked constantly and compulsively, and snarled at the rest of us for not doing the same. His only recreation consisted of reading cowboy books in the living room, ensconced in his favorite chair, by the picture window, in his underwear. He was particularly fond of Luke Short and Zane Grey, and grabbed their books as quickly as they appeared in the bookstores. Later, when there was television, he gave up his cowboy books for comedy shows.
      My father was a poorly educated man who probably did not graduate from high school, though he attended Drexel Institute for drafting briefly after the war. On the other hand, he held forth authoritatively on all subjects, and if you did not agree with him you were considered stupid. His opinion was the only opinion, and intellectual discourse in the family was a foreign concept. He became angry and defensive when challenged, and woe be to anyone who actually proved him wrong. And yet some of his pronouncements were so idiotic they defied logic.
      “Brush your teeth in the morning or you’ll get ulcers,” he would say.
      “My health teacher says that’s not true,” I might reply.
      “I said, brush your teeth in the morning or you’ll get ulcers,” he would repeat, giving me a violent look for questioning his wisdom. And the discussion was closed.
      Since he worked constantly, he had no time for his children. We were just appendages to be fed and clothed, without involvement in our personal lives. This responsibility was relegated to my mother whose entire existence was centered on the family. She monitored our homework, attended PTA meetings, drove us to events, bought clothes, and tried to solve our little problems. She spent more time with my sister than with me because, as she admitted, “I don’t understand little boys.” She supported my sister’s interest in dance lessons and never missed a recital open to the parents. On the other hand, she did not understand sports and had no interest in them, so my endeavors in those areas were largely ignored. I played basketball in the eighth grade and was a tennis star in college, but neither of them ever saw me play either sport.
      My mother was a petite woman with a round face and Betty Grable legs. Her dance skills during youth were so outstanding that a professional on the international circuit once offered her a contract to accompany him all over the world. Despite being orphaned as a child and reared in a highly dysfunctional foster home, she was vivacious, upbeat, and bubbly, with a loud, infectious laugh. She also possessed the patience of Job, a necessary requirement for being married to my father, who was, by general accord, narcissistic and demanding. She loved him passionately despite his faults, and laughed because he had so many.
      “I don’t think he ever grew up,” she said to my grandmother one afternoon over tea. “He’s like a third child.”
      “He demanded a lot of attention when he was young,” My grandmother said, shaking her head mournfully. “He was quite difficult.”
      “Nothing has changed,” my mother said.
      “No, nothing has changed,” my grandmother agreed. And they both laughed.
       My father’s anger and compulsive drive for money and success came somewhat legitimately. A considerable portion of his youth had been spent in Girard College, a school for orphans in Philadelphia, because his father died early and his mother did not have the means to support the children. He was notorious even in Girard College for being hotheaded and defiant, and he abandoned his education early in order to get a job and make money. He resented the poverty of his upbringing, being prematurely separated from his mother, and being reared in an institution with so many rules. He recognized early in life that there were haves and have-nots in the world, and he was determined at all costs to be one of the former.
      I am certain being a family man was important to him, but he never gave it much thought. The idea that his children might need some positive feedback probably never entered his mind. One would have expected him to mellow somewhat as the years passed and the family moved out of debt, but the reverse actually occurred. He was the epitome of charm and good will in the community, and an ill-tempered, negativistic, critical human being at home. He had nothing positive to say about anybody or anything, and compliments were foreign to his nature. So everybody walked on eggshells because any little thing could set him off. He was like an octopus, with tentacles reaching out and squeezing the joy and spontaneity out of each family member. His violent rampages were legendary.
      Once a year or so a volcanic explosion occurred in which he would smash up the house. Generally, it was triggered by some minor event, but once the lava started flowing, there was no stopping it. He would throw my mother around and beat me and my sister. He would overturn furniture, smash lamps, and hurl dishes against the wall. Sometimes it was necessary for us to run into the woods until he left. None of this, however, was ever viewed by the public. In fact, on one memorable occasion he had just completed a rampage and stormed out of the house when company drove up the road to visit us. He instantly changed into the charming, congenial person he was known to be, and welcomed everyone in. He stalled them outside while we scurried around putting furniture back into place and hiding broken items. Then, everyone sat politely in the living room and entertained the guests for the next two hours as though nothing had happened.
      The worst beating I ever got took place when I was twelve. Despite being warned not to hit tennis balls over the house because I might break a window, I could not resist doing so one afternoon after school. Unfortunately, at that very moment my father arrived home from work and saw the ball bouncing in the front yard. I remember his face turning white as he silently stared at me, then he strolled into the house to retrieve the riding crop he always kept by the fireplace. The savagery of this beating is difficult to depict in words. He beat me with the riding crop for a while, and then switched to the strap of his blackjack. Eventually, he slapped me in the head with his open hand. As his rage reached a crescendo, he grabbed me by the throat and threatened to punch me in the face with all his might. I was reduced to a cringing, sniveling animal, and genuinely thought I was going to die.
      My mother tried to protect us as best she could, but she was not always around, and his anger could just as easily turn on her. We often encouraged her to leave him or report what was going on, but she demurred. Social Services in the 1950’s was not the agency it is now, and the police department was not likely to help. He was, after all, a cop, and they took care of their own. The fact was, though, that my mother loved him blindly and passionately, and often remarked that when things were good between them, they were great. “Besides,” she pointed out, “he works hard and he’s a good provider You could do a lot worse.”
      By then, of course, my father had destroyed any hope of independence my mother ever possessed. His relentless negativity and criticism had taken its toll, and her once bubbly personality receded to a memory. In her youth, she had been open and effervescent and had many friends whom she visited on a regular basis. But those friends gradually faded away, and our dysfunctional family became her entire social life. Eventually, she could no longer handle a job because she constantly found fault with her employers. She would carp and complain about their numerous alleged transgressions, and sooner or later would either leave the job or be terminated. She stopped working altogether.
      In 1960, mercifully, I went off to college. I had decided to become a psychologist because somewhere along the line I realized I was different than other people. I did not understand why I was different, however, and wanted to find the answer. By this time, I lived in a constant state of anxiety and depression — twin afflictions that would haunt me for the rest of my life. On my first day in college I was so happy I could not fall asleep. I kept smiling at the gray ceiling above. College was the great deliverance.
      In 1964 my sister entered the university system also. She was born in Philadelphia and was such a beautiful child at the age of three months that she won a city-wide beauty contest. She never knew a stranger in her youth and had a smile that lit up the proverbial room. She withstood my father’s rages better than I because she was less often the brunt of them, and also had my mother’s close companionship and support. I watched the glorious innocence of her youth erode with time, however. I hoped she would fare as well in college as I did because she had been a veritable superstar in high school — excellent grades, head majorette, popular with the boys. But it was not to be. Within six month, she was seeing a psychiatrist for a multitude of problems, and at the end of the school year she packed up her belongings and moved back to Durham permanently. Whatever potential she possessed never materialized.
      My sister’s departure to college affected my mother the most profoundly. The past twenty-two years her life had been devoted almost entirely to the family, and now there was nobody to take care of. The house was quiet and there was nothing to do. She was no longer able to work, and my father was out pursuing his own interests — including, it is rumored, several affairs. Her friends were gone and she had no hobbies. As the days ticked away, her anxiety rose
      She called me once to complain. “I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel nervous all the time. The days go on forever.”
      “Mom, you need to get more interests,” I said. “You can’t just sit around the house all the time.”
      “I’ve been drinking to calm my nerves,” she confessed.
      “That’s not a good idea.”
      “Well, I’ve got to do something.”
      At first it was a few martinis, then a few more martinis, and within a year she had developed a serious alcohol problem. My sister tried to intervene because my father didn’t seem to understand, but the wheels of fate had been set in motion. Two years later my mother experienced her first blackout spell.
      In 1969 my father called me on a chilly Saturday afternoon and expressed his concern about my mother’s health. She simply was not doing well, he explained, and wondered if I would take her into my home for a few days. My contact with family members had been desultory over the past few years, and I was unaware of how dire things had become. My wife and I drove up that evening to evaluate the situation, and I was confronted with a woman who had become a shadow of her former self. Bruises covered her entire body, and the left side of her face was purple.
      “What happened to her face?” I asked.
      “I hit her.”
      “You hit her?”
      “Yeah. She was talking crazy, so I tried to knock some sense into her head.” He seemed confused.
      The trip back home took two hours, and my mother slept the entire way. When we arrived, I began questioning her about the recent events, but she was vague and unhelpful. “I don’t know,” she kept repeating. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
      “Where did you get all those bruises?”
      “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head.
      She remained in our home for the next week, my wife caring for her all day while I worked in the clinic. She was like a child. She stared about her with perplexity and referred vaguely to things of the past. Periodically, she would assert that she needed a drink. Talking to her was pointless because her conversational skills were gone. The following weekend, we returned to Durham and had a family gathering. My mother sat there wide-eyed and mute, not comprehending what was happening. I outlined the situation and suggested we find her a good psychiatrist and alcoholism counselor. My father was shocked.
      “Do you think she’s that bad off?” he asked.
      She got the best of treatment available, and for a while appeared to be improving. Nine months later, however, my sister found her hiding in the cedar closet guzzling down bourbon straight from the bottle, liquor dribbling down her chin. In 1971 she had several automobile accidents and my father took away her driver’s license. Soon after, she was admitted to an alcohol rehabilitation unit where she remained for a week. Three months later she returned. I visited her on this second occasion and we sat on the bed of her dingy little room and talked about her condition. She waved her hands in the air and stared at me helplessly. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. “I’m not like these other people. I don’t drink shaving lotion and stuff. I drink liquor.”
      I was left speechless.
      One week later she committed suicide.
      My mother’s death rocked the family, particularly my father. He hadn’t expected this, and went into something of a funk. He was used to going home and having my mother take care of him, not fend for himself. He could not stand to be alone. In fact, he had never been alone. So six months later he remarried. It happened suddenly: an old friend from Philadelphia introduced him to a widow with two grown children. My father and the widow courted briefly, they were married, and she relocated to Durham. Their relationship turned out to be a hundred and eighty degrees different from my father’s first marriage. She wouldn’t put up with his nonsense, so he didn’t give her any.
      Things work out that way sometimes.
      Meanwhile, the passing of years had not been beneficial to my sister. She never completed her education and spent twenty years performing a mundane office management job at Duke University. Her once glittering looks faded and she gained weight. At twenty-seven she married a nice guy with a PhD from Duke University after a three-year courtship and moved to Costa Rica where he had obtained employment. Three months later she returned, the marriage over. She continued dating, but the quality of men steadily declined, and by the age of forty she was a bitter woman. One day she legally changed her name; six months later she packed all of her belongings into her Toyota and drove away. She left no forwarding address, and was never seen again.
      My father retired from the Durham Police Department after thirty years and moved to the west coast of Florida. With his pension and various accumulated assets, plus his wife’s money, they lived a comfortable existence. He adjusted to retired life relatively well according to my aunt, with whom he corresponded periodically — I had disowned him by then. He played golf, visited friends, and indulged himself in various creative endeavors such as painting and making cut glass. Toward the end, I understand, he was writing a book. His health remained fairly robust until he was eighty-five, when he came down with leukemia. They admitted him to a hospital, but his condition deteriorated rapidly, and soon he was in a coma. He died in his sleep.
      I often wonder if my father ever took stock of his life− his accomplishments, his potential errors. He was not a contemplative man by nature, and did not like to admit failure. He left behind a prematurely deceased wife, an absentee daughter, and permanently neurotic son. But mulling over these things would have been contrary to his temperament. It is likely he died with few regrets.

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary and book reviews have appeared in such print journals as the Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Connecticut Review, and online journals such as the Summerset Review, Front Porch Journal, and Eclectica. He writes monthly reviews for "Octopus" is an excerpt from his recently completed memoir, I NEVER MET A PARANOID SCHIZOPHRENIC I DIDN'T LIKE, which covers the first twenty years of his career as a psychologist in various mental health settings.

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