Today we're talking to Peter Birkenhead, author of Gonville.
FQ: Your memoir is about growing up with a frightening, eccentric, abusive father. As a boy, did you know that your father was different from a lot of other fathers?
The first thing a frightening father teaches you is to pretend he isnít frightening. But, as I watched my friendís fathers make good-natured jokes about spilled glasses of soda or unfinished homework, my mouth would start to open in preparation to laugh, and then Iíd realize that they werenít doing wacky send ups of normal people, they were being normal people. The truth about my father finally began to dawn on me in earnest in adulthood, slowly and sporadically, like bits of a remembered dream.
FQ: Did you realize that your childhood was unusual?
The unusualness of my childhood wasnít something I wanted to think about when I was a kid, but it gradually became unavoidableÖ I could feel the truth looming in the shadows. I could see it in the eyes of our friends when they saw my Dadís gun collection, or heard him rant with pitch-black venom about the latest ďmonsterĒ in his lifeóa boss or friend or rival he felt threatened by. And there were flat-out, over-the-top moments of intense mortification for me, when my Dad became crazy or violent or abusive in public. He threatened to blow one of my teacherís heads off because he gave me a bad grade. He threatened to blow lots of peopleís heads off. He openly hit on a lot of my female friends. But we were kids and we did our best to believe in the idea that we were living a basically ďnormalĒ life, because thereís nothing worse for a kid than being ďabnormal.Ē
FQ: But as bad as experiences like that were, you claim they werenít even the hardest part about living with your dad. What was?
The hard part was the love. The hard thing was having your Dad throw his arm around your shoulder, kiss you on the cheek, and tell you itís okay that you struck out in the Little League game. Because thatís the stuff that pulls at you in a vicious tug-of-war with the other stuff, the darker stuff. It keeps you hoping for more, keeps you coming back for another shot. If Dad had been an all-out, black-hat villain, things would have been a lot easier. I found myself wishing, often, for a Dad who was all bad instead of almost good. And so did my brothers and sister.
FQ: Your father is still alive. What is his reaction to the book?
Iíve learned that he is not happy about it, and that he doesnít plan to read it.
FQ: Do you have a relationship with him now? Do your siblings?
I have no relationship with my father. We stopped speaking years ago. Some of my siblings are still in touch with him and some arenít. I hesitate to speak for them, but I think itís safe to say no one has an easy or satisfactory relationship with our father. Itís no longer volatile or tumultuous, but itís uneasy. My father has never acknowledged any of the things that happened in our house. Heís certainly never apologized for any of it. Heís not really capable of the kind of self awareness that makes real relationships possible.
FQ: Your mother escaped into musical theater and, thus, found release and relief from life with your dad. What happened when she left him?
She left him in 1980, and has pretty much never looked back. I donít think itís an exaggeration to say that her work saved her life, that it gave her a newfound purpose and strength, and a way to make sense of and give meaning to the life she left behind. It was very scary for her when she left. On her last day with my father he brutalized her in a pretty grotesque fashion. She escaped from the house naked, her hands still bound together by my father, and fled to a neighborís house.
FQ: Was writing the book difficult?
I had a less difficult time writing it than I expected to. Thatís not to say it wasnít painful revisiting all those bad memories. But I donít think I could have written the book without the perspective on them I have now. I think if Iíd written it fifteen years ago it would have been either a boring rant or a boring lie. I did have to go to some places that on most days Iíd rather not; I donít usually wake up and look forward to spending the day thinking about how it really felt when I learned that Dad slept with my girlfriend. But, as weird as it might sound, while I was writing the book I did look forward to it. It was frightening and uncomfortable, but liberating, thrilling, and in the end, a source of comfort and strength, because I was okay. I was sitting here, all these years later, at my desk in the home I share with a woman I am head over heels in love with, and our beautiful baby daughter, and the old fights are over.
FQ: You are frank about the behaviors and instincts you inherited from your father and how they affected your relationships with women. Do you ever find yourself slipping back into those bad habits? Or did writing the book truly free you from the past?
It really was the other way around. Freeing myself from those old mental traps and habits allowed me to write the book. The writing process couldnít help but be therapeutic to some extent, but most of the important therapy, clinical and otherwise, had already taken place. Once I really understood that I am not my father, nor doomed by his DNA, it was a lot easier to not sometimes behave like him. Not being rage-ful is no longer a struggle for me. My grandfather once said to me: ďThe best way to not become a monster when youíre fighting a monster is to not believe in monsters.Ē A difficult paradox about growing up with a Dad like mine is that, while fighting him seems like an imperative, itís actually the surest way to lose. Because, like I said, the fight isnít really with him. Itís with the parts of you that want to kill him, and that are afraid of him.