Throughout my adult life, I’ve tried to understand what experiences and influences Nancy, my mother, endured to warp her into the woman she became.
One incident is heartbreaking: Shortly after my birth, she took me to visit my grandparents in Pennsylvania.
While we were gone, my father had wild homosexual orgies in our house.
When she returned, there were broken whiskey bottles and cracked eggshells everywhere; the eggs had been thrown at the walls.
The silverware from her great-grandparents had been stolen.
Years later, Robert, my father, painted a Matisse-like watercolor that included several dramatic elements of that night—broken bottle, cracked egg, his childhood home in Arkansas, hers in Pennsylvania, broom (her “career”) (I am certain that he was also imagining the classic witch’s broom), paintbrush (his “career”), leafless tree with gnarled, exposed detached roots (his family and marital life).
The gestalt is eerie and disturbing.
My parents were a lifelong mystery to me. Whenever I was alone in their house, I would rummage through their chests of drawers—always meticulously returning items to their original placement—in hopes of finding clues to their behavior, which seemed so alien compared with the love and warmth I witnessed among my friends’ parents.
In my father’s bureau, I found pills for treating venereal disease. In his bookcase, he kept several novels by Gore Vidal and a copy of Great Cases in Psychoanalysis, which I found fascinating because of the kinky sexual case histories.
I believe that my father was trying to understand himself. He was born into a cruel era for gay men. On some level, I think that he felt that he needed to be punished for his relentless desires.
Our WASP culture before the 1970s, harshly frowned on the psychiatric profession. Our culture said: Fix yourself. Self-reliance above all.