PUBLISHED IN: August 2017.
THE AUTHOR: G. Thomas Couser.
THE PUBLISHER: Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield
SUMMARY: Having wounded my father with a hurtful letter when I was twenty-three, I felt somewhat responsible for his later mental collapse. When he died, I found personal documents that revealed facets of his life of which I had known nothing. Too traumatized to grieve properly, much less to probe Dad’s complicated history, I boxed the documents and stored them—for over thirty years. When I finally explored my father’s rich legacy, I achieved a belated reconciliation with a man I had not really known.
THE BACK STORY: see summary.
WHY THIS TITLE? The title refers both to the hurtful letter I wrote my father at the age of 23 and to the memoir itself, which I conceive of as trying to achieve a posthumous reconciliation—a kind of atonement.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: As a friend of mine said when I described the book to her, “Well, everyone has a father.” I can’t claim my story is universal, but two aspects of it resonate strongly with those who’ve read it: one, the hurtful letter (or remark) to a parent (not necessarily a father) that haunts the parent-child relationship; two, the “box in the attic” that contains documents that illuminate the lives of the parent. In my case, I came to know my father much better long after his death than I had growing up as his son.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: “Crucial parts of it concern the very different deaths of my parents: my mother’s death from ovarian cancer—just as she was celebrating ten years of remission from breast cancer, and my father’s death, which I view as a quasi-suicide. He drank himself to death while suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Readers have found these chapters especially moving.”
“Couser’s family memoir goes deep into his father’s hidden earlier life, as revealed in a cache of letters he left behind. The book probes his complex relationship to his father, including unresolved guilt, anger, and yearning for connection. This is a fascinating depiction of the process of writing a family memoir, which requires detective work, the emotional challenges of mourning and grief, and finally a metaphorical saving of his father’s life, yielding hard-earned meaning, discovery of reasons for admiration and gratitude to his father, and continuing sadness. A leading scholar and theorist of autobiography, Couser can also tell a good story in a moving way.” — John D. Barbour.
“This is a remarkable book. We have too few memoirs about fathers, and Thomas Couser fills the gap admirably. The book is carefully and sparingly written with a great deal of restraint but it conveys a depth of emotional complexity and engagement which is rare. This is a book which anybody interested in memoirs, and in what it means to be a father or a son, should read.” — Prof L.P. Swartz.
In My Father’s Closet:
Life, Death, and Letters
When I was 23, I killed my father–with a letter.
Not literally, of course. This is not a confession—at least not of a criminal act.
In the summer of 1969, I returned to my home in Melrose, Massachusetts, from Oxford, England, where I’d spent the year doing graduate work in English. I was stunned to learn one day, quite by accident, that my hitherto well-behaved father, a respected high school English teacher, had begun to drink secretly, to a degree that imperiled his job, his marriage, and his health. That fall, from a New Hampshire prep school where I was teaching, I sent him a long letter confronting him about his drinking and reflecting on our relationship, which had been severely damaged by this revelation. I intended it as a kind of long-distance intervention–an attempt to get him to acknowledge the seriousness of his situation and to change his ways. I felt I could express on paper things I would have difficulty saying face to face. I hoped my letter might initiate a healing dialogue between us.
Whatever my intentions, the letter proved counterproductive. Dad was devastated by it. Or so my mother told me; he declined to discuss it with me. So instead of initiating dialogue, I foreclosed it. Worse than that, I further damaged our relationship. I came to regret writing it.
Five years later, in November of 1974, my mother died from ovarian cancer at the age of sixty-five. Eight months after that, Dad died of drink and depression at the age of sixty-nine. At
that time, I feared my letter might have accelerated his decline by undermining his self-esteem. I regarded it as toxic, if not fatal.
That summer I gradually emptied the house in which I had grown up and prepared it for sale. Doing so compounded my grief. Having lost both parents in quick succession, I had to purge our home of the material traces of our family life, leaving it an empty, echoing shell. The only consolation in this dispiriting process was my discovery of a trove of personal documents in a closet behind Dad’s bed. From a quick perusal I learned things I hadn’t known, or even suspected, about him:
· In his thirties he had earned a private pilot’s license.
· Before he met my mother, he had had a decade-long romantic relationship with a woman named Rody.
· At the same time, he was in love with his best friend’s sister, who was married and the mother of a small boy.
· That best friend–and sometime roommate–was probably gay.
· His two other closest male friends in his twenties and early thirties were also evidently gay.
· In the summer of 1941, only months before he married, he had looked into joining the Royal Canadian Air Force.
· Immediately after his discharge from the Navy at the end of World War II, he had applied to join the FBI.
· In the early 1950s, he had applied for a job with the CIA.
His archive, as I came to think of it, disclosed much more than these discrete facts about him. The quantity and quality of the personal correspondence revealed that he had lived a good
deal of his early life in, or through, letters. An adventurous three-year stint teaching English in Aleppo, Syria, generated letters to various parties–his family, his close friends, and his church. His military service in the South Pacific at the end of World War II produced letters to my mother. He was a fine writer, and he cultivated friends who took pleasure and care in writing. It was no accident that he saved so many letters: he and his friends, male and female, took correspondence very seriously. He may have been most intensely alive when he wrote his letters; he certainly is most alive to me when I read them.
Not all of the letters in the archive were new to me, however. Among them was that lethal letter I had written him six years earlier. I recognized it right away; though yellowed with age, the Eaton’s Corrasable Bond™ paper retained its crinkly feel and glossy surface. But I was shocked to find it. Given his inability, or refusal, to respond to it in any way, I presumed Dad had long since disposed of it. His retaining it suggested that he may have valued the impulse behind it, even if he found my words painful. Nevertheless, when I discovered it, I was unable to read it, fearful of the guilt it might trigger, a kind of toxic blowback.
After sorting the documents, I placed them in a carton and sealed it. That carton accompanied me through several moves. When I settled in the house I still occupy, I stored it in the attic, where it would be out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind.
I did not touch that box for more than thirty years.
As I approached the age of sixty, however, I was keenly aware that I was nearing the age at which my father had fallen into a deep, lasting, and ultimately fatal depression. Fearing the same fate, I had always dreaded turning sixty. There was a strong family history of depression:
my sister’s suicidal depression in periods of great stress, an acute depression of my own in my twenties, and my recent diagnosis of chronic mild depression.
In addition to my biological clock, I heard my biographical clock ticking. I felt the need to come to terms, at last, with the sad ending of Dad’s life. I felt ready–sort of–to confront the documents I’d been avoiding for so long. So I retrieved the box from the attic and, with moist palms, opened it.
With thirty years’ perspective, I was able to read through the letters calmly and appreciatively. I found myself transported to the past, eavesdropping on intimate conversations. Doing this initiated a long-deferred process of reckoning with Dad’s complexity and my very conflicted feelings about him. Unbeknownst to me, he’d had a rich and gratifying life before he married in his late thirties. The contents of the archive have given me extraordinary access to his complicated emotional life during his early adulthood. It shed light on some mysteries, too. Excavating his past in this way also led me finally to a compassionate sense of why he succumbed to depression in his prime.
All parents elude their children’s complete comprehension, of course, but compared to my mother, my father was quite opaque to me. He always felt a bit remote; we were certainly never friends. I am therefore all the more grateful for his archive, my true patrimony. Purposely or not, he left behind a trove of personal documents, some quite intimate, which have enabled me to know him differently than I had when he was alive–even, perhaps, to forge a posthumous rapport with him.
I have come to think of this memoir, then, not as a mere record of my father’s life, which was quite extraordinary in some ways, but as a letter to him–a letter that might make up for my
letter of 1969, which so damaged our relationship. (In order to write this letter, of course, I had to reread that one. But I put that off as long as I could.) I consider this memoir an expression of love and affiliation. That is not to say that my father would have wanted to read it: there is much unpleasant truth in it. But as his letters have spoken to me, I have at long last written back to him, in the spirit of recognition and reconciliation.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Bank Street Books in Mystic CT. Savoy Books in Westerly RI.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon, or any other bookstore.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: email@example.com