The Dodd Family
Willard State Hospital
by, Darby Penny, Peter Stastny, Lisa Rinzler, Robert Whitaker.
When Willard State Hospital closed in 1995, after 125 years of continuous operation, 427 patient suitcases, filled with patient’s personal belonging, were discovered, abandoned, in an attic.
This interesting book attempts to bring to light the personal stories of ten of these patients whose suitcases were intensely studied. The authors chose these specific suitcases because there were a lot of personal notes and materials in each of these ten suitcases, that provided the authors with enough data, combined with patient records and charts, to try to reconstruct these ten people’s lives.
This is a fascinating book about these people’s lives and about the hospital itself. The authors are incredibly patient detectives, who tease out a great deal of facts and details from these suitcases, chart notes, and interviews with hospital staff members, many retired. They locate living relatives of the deceased patients and also interview them whenever possible. The reader feels as if one is reading a riveting detective story x 10, but it is non-fiction, which makes it all the more remarkable.
The “The Willard Asylum for the Insane,” opened in Ovid, New York in 1896. It closed in 1995. 54,000 people were committed to Willard during its 126 years of operation. Most patients stayed at Willard for an average of 30 years. One woman for example, arrived 1899, and died 77 years later in the hospital at the age of 100. Half the patients who entered the facility died there.
Many of the people who were admitted to Willard would not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization today. Many were immigrants, who had experienced a series of major stresses in their lives such as the death of a spouse, loss of a job, poverty, homelessness, one woman was regularly beaten by her spouse. There was a nun who left her order and had nowhere else to go. And of course, many patients did have major psychiatric disorders.
Today most of these people, if lucky enough to be able to GET treatment, would receive short-term treatment on an outpatient basis, living in board and care homes. Or they might live on their own with case management, or as quite often occurs, they would live on the streets with no medication or treatment at all, either because services are unavailable, or patients are non-compliant. Many mentally ill people today, who could be helped by a short stay in a psychiatric hospital, therapy, and medication, are unable to receive these services and end up living on our streets (Barton, C. 2006).
What makes this book so interesting, is not these grim statistics, but the detective work the writers embark on to tell the stories of these people’s incredible lives. Who were these people who were left behind and forgotten? Where did they come from? Why were they left here for so long? What was their story?
The bulk of the book examines these people lives and answers these questions, and it is a riveting read. You will find yourself drawn into to these people’s lives and experiences, taken back to the times they lived, and you will see their experience through their eyes. This is a major accomplishment on the part of these four authors. The authors, one of whom is a psychiatrist, and another a journalist and advocate for the mentally ill, are all exceedingly patient, master-detectives.
The suitcase project eventually became an exhibit, that traveled around the country and I have included the following link for you to see. It gives an idea of how interesting and compelling this book is.
(Photo Source: The Suitcase Project: The Lives They Left Behind).
Not the Royal kind…
But the real kind?
How about lesser visited Eleuthera?
The fried conch is to die for……
The beaches are pink and warm in January
The island is beautiful
So, why not, visit Eleuthera?
It’s not that far from you.
Neil White was a supremely successful southern business man, first a reporter, than a publisher, with a beautiful wife, lovely children, gorgeous homes and a yacht. He was a leader in the business community, contributed to many charities, and was an elite philanthropist, who traveled the world in high style.
White’s world came crashing down when he was arrested for kiting million dollar checks and committing financial fraud by the FBI. White was sentenced to 18 months incarceration in Carville Louisiana, a picturesque, verdant, small, community in Louisiana.
It was not until White arrived at the locus of his incarceration, that he realized he was to serve his time in the nation’s only remaining Leprosorium, for people who were disfigured by Hansens disease. Many of the people in the facility had contracted the disease as children and were living out their entire lives in Carville, to protect them from the cruelties of the outside world. Most had been there for decades.
Other white-collar criminal types were also incarcerated at Carville. One was new White’s roomy, a Russian born physician and pharmacist, convicted of Medicare fraud for using an compound banned by the FDA, but quite effective for weight loss. He estimated that he had billed Medicaid between $15-$37 million for these useful services. He was sentenced to 15 years in Carville. He was an very interesting man.
At White’s first prisoner group meeting upon his arrival, led, of course, by a priest, another newly arrived con-man criminal, tells the priest group leader, that he didn’t want to “become no leopard.”
Shortly after this first fun group orientation, White receives notification that his wife has, understandably, filed for divorce.
So starts this absolutely incredible memoir. It’s reminded me in some ways of Thomas Mann’s, “Magic Mountain,” except that Mann’s sanatorium was in a TB Asylum in Switzerland, not in a Leprosorium in Louisiana.
White is an astoundingly good writer, and he strips himself raw in this memoir, examining himself and his life. He enters the leprosorium, an arrogant and self-involved man, and he leaves it profoundly changed by the experience.
The book is not a depressing read. It is incredible, at times uplifting, sometimes tragically sad, but also moving. It is, of course, also true.
The residents the reader meets who live in the Carville facility seem to exist in an alternate universe, separate entirely from our world and ways. The reality of people sequestered away for their entire lives for a treatable, manageable, disease is heartbreaking. More so when you consider the separations and horrific losses this would have necessitated earlier in their lives. By the time White enters the facility most of the permanent residents had lived there for decades. This was their home.
At times, similar to when reading Mann’s Magic Mountain, I felt the residents sense of safety, their adjustment to their completely removed sanctuary, even if it meant they were outcasts.
After all, don’t most people feel like a bit of an outcast at some time or another in their life?
Shakespeare certainly did. He wrote Sonnet 29 about it:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.”
But then he remembers, no matter how outcast he might be in “fortune and in men’s eye’s,” he is not an outcast …..
“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Something similar to this occurs in this book . Some of the people in the sanctuary, form bonds of friendship, respect and emotional attachment to each other, that results in an unexpected community, that is quite moving to read about.
In fact, later when I learned they might move the residents out of the only home they had known for many decades, I became quite upset, thinking you can’t rob these people who have suffered too much, of their only sanctuary.
White forms a close friendship with Ella Bounds, an 88 year old black woman and double amputee, who contracted leprosy as a child. She is a dignified and impressive person, who clearly had a powerful effect on White, as she does on the reader. There are more people and stories here that will at times humor you, possibly anger you, definitely surprise you, but in the end, move you profoundly.
White leaves after eighteen months, a changed person, and the reader is a better person also, for having read this book.
For more reading on the history of the Carville Facility and the current location of the present facility, please see:
Memorial to Those Who Perished in Struthof.
I have a long standing interest in the history of WWII and the European Resistance Movement. I have read extensively on the subject, visited The Holocaust Museum in the US and toured Dachau in Germany.
In 2010 we visited Obersalzburg where we visited the site of Hitler’s Bavarian residence, Berghof, and his house, the Eagle’s Nest. Hitler rarely visited Eagle’s Nest because he was a severe acrophobe. There is a museum very worth visiting about the Third Reich in Oberslazburg. Goring, Speer and Borman also had residences nearby.
We visited Obersalzburg on a freezing cold October morning, which seemed appropriate for what we were seeing and experiencing. It was a little difficult to find the site as there were very minimal road signs to indicate the way. The most remarkable thing about Hitler’s Berghof is the extensive underground redoubt system he constructed. Goring had one also. These underground bunkers had extensive tunnels with elevators, air shafts, multiple interconnected underground rooms, some with chandeliers, storage facilities and a location for snipers to kill anyone entering the pass. Hitler planned this as a place to hide, fight, and win his last battles. What struck me most forcefully in Hitler’s redoubt was the true insanity of the man and his followers. He literally thought that if he was losing the war, he could live for an extended time frame underground with his loyal followers. This is a surreal place, and if you are in Salzburg, I recommend you visit. We need to understand this type of insanity so we can better recognize it when it rears it’s ugly head.
Hitler’s Underground Redoubt
I also wanted while in Alsace to visit Struthof, which is a lesser-known concentration camp that housed many members of the European Resistance. So on another unseasonably cold day in July the subsequent year, we made the journey over the picturesque mountains and forests of Alsace to Struthof.
First, some facts about this camp.
Struthof Concentration Camp is located in Alsace France, thirty-one miles southwest of Strasbourg. This camp housed many members of the European Resistance, mostly from France, Norway and the Netherlands. An estimated 7000 prisoners were from the French resistance alone. Many communist resisters were incarcerated in this camp, along with Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. An estimated 52,000 people were incarcerated here with a death rate of approximately 40% of total inmates, or 22,000 people. The youngest inmate was eleven years old and the oldest was seventy-eight. (source: http://www.struthof.fr)
Struthof was “one of the most murderous camps of the Nazi system.” (www.struthof.fr) Prisoners were used in forced labor for the Nazis. Medical experiments were conducted onsite by Nazi Physicians from the Reich University of Strasbourg, mostly on Gypsy prisoners. It contained a gas chamber. The medical experimentation rooms are still there and are quite distressing to see. Most disturbing of all to me were the pens where prisoners who were selected for special punishments were kept for extended periods. They resemble dog pens in a pet store, prisoners could sit in them but not lie down or stand, as they were just over 3×3′ in size. If Devil’s Island was malevolent, which it was, the evil in this place and in Dachau is non-describable by me.
It is worthwhile when visiting Europe to take time to visit some of these places. It leaves a strong impression and will to stand up for what is humane all over the world. Estimates vary but between 11.5-17 million people were killed in The Holocaust during WWII. Jews, (Roma) Gypsys, Russians, Poles, Slavs, allied military personnel, people of conscience, intellectuals, dissenters, Christians, homosexuals, members of the resistance, handicapped people, the list goes on and on (See references for source information regarding statistics.) My uncle was in a POW camp in Europe after he was shot down in a mission over Germany. He was an Air Force Navigator. 3.5 million POW’s were estimated to have been killed in these camps. WWII would eventually claim the lives of more than 62 million people. This is most likely an under representation because there are not accurate counts of the dead in China (whole towns were obliterated) and Russia where countless millions of souls perished.
(Please see link below for discussion of latest population statistics on the war as they do vary, but contemporary consensus seems to be that numbers are under-reported.)
Visiting Struthof is difficult and disturbing, but important, in that we need to remember and honor all those who perished in this terrible war.
A Mosaic of Victims: Non Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. Ed: Michael Berenbaum. NYU Press. 2000.
Ellis, John. World War II: A Statistical Survey, Facts on File. 1993.
Niewyk, Donald. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2000.
My husband, Jim, handed me a travelogue he kept of our Antarctica trip in 2008. I had forgotten that we both had written trip journals and it is interesting to see a lot of the details I had forgotten. The following include excerpts of these travel journals that weren’t included in my prior post.
Day 1-2: Jim’s notes state that we cross the 400 mile Drake Passage with Beaufort force 3 winds. The Beaufort Scale winds range from force 1-12, and relate wind speed to observable effects on land and sea. Force 3 winds are gentle breezes that create wavelets that begin to break, causing whitecaps, i.e., easy-peasy seas.
We pass the Antarctic Convergence in the afternoon. This is a continuously circling body of water where cold Antarctic waters converge with warmer subantarctic waters, causing the colder water to sink, leading to upwelling where marine life is intensely prevalent, including pelagic birds such as several types of Albatross, and Skuas.* The Antarctic convergence is the largest biological barrier on earth. Crossing the convergence marks entry into the Southern Ocean which has it’s own currents. We are entering the world’s largest wilderness, with the highest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. It is also the coldest, highest, windiest, iciest and least visited of all the continents i.e. PARADISE!
Day 3- Reach Elephant Island part of the South Shetland Isands, that is named after resident elephant seals. Along with the seals there are several species of penguins. Air & water temperature mid-day, 1 degree. Floating icebergs becoming impressive. Our naturalist explains that most of the bergs we are seeing now come from The Wedell Sea, via The Antarctic Sound. When we leave this area, we will be sailing on seas that will be covered in sea ice all winter.
Day 4- Cross the Antarctic Sound enroute to the Esperanza Research Station run by Argentina. Winds are force 8, which is gale force, wind knots 34-40, waves 18-25 feet. Cannot attempt Esperanza due to conditions. By mid-afternoon, weather improves dramatically, captain sets course towards to Admiralty Bay on King George Island. We reach the Chilean and Polish Research Stations and visit with the Polish Scientists, who after many attempts board our ship for dinner. By now penguins are everywhere in the millions, Gentoo, Macaroni, Chinstrap and Adele. Later we will see Kings. The weather is excellent and the scenery magnificent. Sun sets at 1 am rises at 4 am.
Day 5- Captain sets course south through The Branfields Strait. Continue southerly course. Navigate through the incredible Gerlach Strait. Force 3 winds, air temp 1 degree mid-day. Ice surrounds us everywhere. The ship, navigated by the ice pilot, seems to sail through ice not water. It is daunting. Growlers slam against the hull. We hold our breath when the ship approaches the larger ones, they bang along the hull making constant noise.
Day 6- We head to the Neymayer Channel with incredible scenery, glaciers calving into the ocean, craggy cliffs, ice precipes and peaks, boundless untouched snow and ice, sea mammals, birds and penguins everywhere. They are friendly and approach. We see Wedell, Crabeater and Leopard Seals, Orca, Humpback and Minke whales.
Day 7- Course to Deception Island, a collapsed volcanic caldera. Deception Bay is stunning and the island is full of very smelly, very friendly penguins. The waters are warmed by volcanic process which also makes the island the most ice-free that we saw. You can take a dip if you choose. The water is a mixture of very hot and cold currents, moving in little riverlets around you. Weather this day was gray, foggy, and overcast.
Day 8- Course north back through The Drake Passage. As we cross the convergence, the temperature rises to 7 degrees, the warmest in a week! Again we have smooth seas and the albatross are our friends. Enroute to the stunning Beagle Channel and Strait of Magellan.
Towards the end, we get our roughest weather yet, force 9 winds, 41-47 knots, waves 23-32 feet. Strong gale. Wow! It was spectacular and unforgiving. And then we are in the blissful Beagle Channel, through the straight of Magellan to Chile.
We are going back in 2013, to Patagonia & The Beagle Channel. Less than 30,000 people are visiting Antarctica annually now.
* Note: we saw a similar fascinating upwelling phenomena crossing out of the Sargasso Sea which is essentially a large gyro, an ocean bounded and defined by currents. We sailed through the Canary Current where the upwelling attracted scores of Blue Whales, Pilot Whales, Orcas and other marine life, everywhere in incredible quantity! The Sargasso Sea itself seems desert like. Crossing it for eight days, we saw no animals, birds, or ships. Will write about this trip, that we did this year, in another post.
(Click on photos to enlarge.) We have done some interesting trips since our retirement. Definitely self-driving through Africa was one, as was our incredible trip to Uruguay, The Malvinas Islands, Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, and Antarctica. Another amazing trip was our river trip up the Amazon. If you want to do this trip prepare yourself for bugs, bugs, bugs, some discomfort due to heat and humidity, and an unforgettable experience!
Our Amazon experience started with a visit to Devils Island. The island is part of the Iles du Salut Island group in the Atlantic, located 9 miles off the coast of French Guiana in South America. This island was a infamous penal colony run buy France for over 100 years discharging its last prisoner in 1953. It was in fact one of six prisons run by France in South America during this time frame.
Famous inmates included Alfred Dreyfus who was innocent but imprisoned for treason, and Papillion.
The island still contains the cell block structures, the “insane” asylum, the hospital, and the solitary confinement cells, where prisoners like Papillion were held for years. All can be toured except the asylum, which we toured anyway. (Hey, I wanted to see it!)
This place is truly one of the most forbidding places I have ever been. The temperature and humidity seemed equally in the 100’s. The insects, despite industrial strength DEET applied all your body and hair still tortured us. We learned to slather DEET on ourselves, then cover with mosquito proof clothes and hats, and then spray your clothes, hair and hat with DEET. This helped. The insects that bit my husband on Devils Island caused huge ulcerating sores that lasted for several weeks. Sharks surround the island.
Not exactly a typical tourist destination. Although several people who were yachting around the world were anchored off the island and there is a small restaurant.
We next crossed the area where the contents of the Amazon empty into the Atlantic Ocean, called the Atlantic Confluence. An amazing sight! The fresh water from the river, being lighter, flows up on top of the seawater, diluting the ocean and changing its color over an area up to 250 square miles. This is a big river confronting and beating, for the aforementioned miles, a really big ocean. Remarkable.
See photos: (Hard to get good ones.) The process was so diffuse, lasted so long, and was so frustratingly hard to photograph, because there was no clarifying markers. In the photos you see odd brown water mixing with ocean water. This is something you have to see yourself to fully appreciate.
SANTAREM (Note: the river was seasonally low when we visited. The Houses, ramps, etc., are built to accommodate seasonal changes in the river.)
Our next stop was Santarem, a town 500 miles upriver, near the confluence with the clear water of Rio Tapajos. This was once a thriving rubber port supplying Henry Ford with rubber for car tires. It is the third largest town on the Brazilian Amazonas.
In Santarem we saw “The Meeting of the Waters,” where the blue Tapajos River and the silty Amazon River meet. We went on jungle hikes admist the incredible flora and fauna and saw monkeys, boas, many different types of parrots, sloths, turtles and a huge variety of large and small insects. We visited the incredible Mercado Modelo, which is a large market halfway between Belem and Manaus, selling amazing fish, produce and supplies.
Traveling further upriver we were constantly sighting the elusive pink dolphins which was quite exciting.
BOCA DE VALERIA
Our next stop was Boca De Valeria, home of the Cabacio Indian Settlements. This was an incredible place. We hiked in the jungle with indigenous guides seeing much more flora and fauna. We took a trip up a tributary off the Amazon in a dug out canoe with a native guide and his two-year-old son and visited villages scattered all around. We spent time in the main village and interacted with the very friendly people. We toured their school and donated school supplies we had brought for this purpose.
One does get a very clear sense in the Amazon that one would probably not be able to survive here if lost for several nights. It is a stunning, but sobering place. The people who have adapted to living here permanently are remarkable and impressive. They were also very nice and were welcoming towards us. Once you have been here, your desire to protect and preserve the people, animals and jungle becomes even more intense! It is a amazing place!
Parintins is an island town halfway from the mouth of the Amazon to Manaus. It has a population of 100,000. In Parintins we toured the interesting floating markets, essentially shops on boats on the river.
We explored downtown and the water front markets, visited the cathedral and most exciting of all took a small riverboat down a tributary for a day, where we fished and caught piranha, observed the incredible homes along the river and watched the spectacular wildlife.
We were mesmerized by the constant flow of water taxis up and down the river. People jump on the boats with the items they came to buy, sling up their hammocks and get ready for the ride up or down the river.
Our final stop was Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas. This is the most populous city in the Amazonas, located 1000 miles from the mouth of the Amazon. It is situated near the confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes, the two major rivers that form the Amazon. Manuas is becoming an eco-tourism destination and has some wonderful Eco-resorts which we did not stay at.
In Manaus we explored the city on foot, visited the Teatro Opera House, The Our Lady Immaculate Church and took a tour by riverboat up the Rio Negro to the January Ecological Park where we saw the giant water lily pads, more of the natural flora, fauna and Riberinhos (river house) settlements along the river banks.
This was the end of our Amazon experience. Several people we met were continuing on up the river for more adventure. Highly recommend you add this experience to your bucket list. It is a fascinating other world!
Interestingly The Opera House in Manaus had a plaque on the front of the building, stating that Matt Damon had paid for the building to be restored. It was strange seeing this sign in the middle of the Amazon. I guess he gets around!
We flew to Eleuthera on our way back to the US by puddle jumper. This is an interesting Caribbean Island in that is uncrowded and untouristed. The neighboring Harbor Island receives the bulk of visitors, so Eleuthera gives one a sense of the Caribbean without all the development. Apparently it was once a major tourist destination, but the tourist infrastructure was destroyed by a hurricane and never rebuilt.
We didn’t have room in our luggage for all the shells we collected in Eleuthera!
A trip up The Amazon isn’t for everyone. I am grateful to my husband for going along with me. It was a trip of a lifetime, that we will never forget!
(Click to enlarge)
I persist in the occasional practice of buying lottery or scratch off lotto tickets despite regular feedback from my statistically savvy spouse that I have a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever winning.
Here’s how he explains the probability to me:
Your odds of winning the 5 of 5 California lottery as well as the mega number are less than 1 in 175,000,000
Your odds of winning 5 of 5 lottery are around 1 in 4,000, 000
Your odds of winning the super lotto 5 of 5 plus mega number are 1 in around 40,000, 000
In other words, you are never going to win, and this is a waste of money.
“Okay. FINE,” I say. “I’ll buy ten tickets then.”
He says, “In actuality that will not increase your odds of winning.”
“What do you MEAN?” I say, “If I buy 1,000 lottery tickets, this won’t increase my odds of winning the Lottery at ALL?”
His answer, “Mathematically yes, Actuality, no.”
You see, this is where I start to get peevish with these math n***s, I mean people, they’re so, equivocating……
Anyhoo, back to the subject of BINGO.
I recently bought 5 Lotto tickets. Upon scratching off the first ticket, I was able to ascertain that this card required more than the usual determination of whether I got a winning, $5 -$5 -$5 combo or, better yet, the lucky $50,000-$50,000-$50,000 combo, which I know I’m gonna get really soon since the odds are in my favor.
This matching three numbers type of computational activity is already stretching the outer limits of my most advanced mathematical capabilities.
This card had actual numbers, in COLUMNS, that required CALCULATIONS, plus additional WEIGHTING FACTORS!
Due to religious and ethical considerations, as I have explained before, I do not partake in such mathematical misadventures, and leave all of this type of questionable activity solely to my savant spouse.
So, I left the five tickets on his desk after he went to bed, with a nice post-it-note, asking him to figure out whether or not I (we of course) had won.
In the morning I found five of these sheets on my desk, along with a nice note attached saying:
“Please don’t buy these types of tickets anymore. They are too difficult to score. Your odds of winning $20,000 are 1 in 600,000. If you buy one of these tickets every week for 10 years, your chance of winning will be 1 in 8,000 and you’ll spend $15,600 for this chance. And by the way, you lose.”
Well. Clearly I did.
But, on the other hand……
I didn’t have to spend 45 minutes figuring this out now, did I?
He really does take all the fun out of gambling though.
Here is how the California Lottery doesn’t explain to you the probability of your winning their games: (in case you think my husband’s explanations are convoluted)
Odds and Available Prizes
Prizes Odds 1 in Total # of Winners
$20,000 600,000 46 15 31
$1,000 300,000 92 30 62
$500 60,000 460 192 268
$100 1,091 25,300 10,201 15,099
$50 632 43,700 17,501 26,199
$40 414 66,700 26,689 40,011
$30 333 82,800 33,598 49,202
$25 194 142,600 56,103 86,497
$20 125 220,800 85,671 135,129
$15 125 220,800 89,059 131,741
$10 125 220,800 85,861 134,939
$9 100 276,000 111,134 164,866
$8 56 496,800 190,363 306,437
$5 17 1,600,800 616,991 983,809
$4 14 2,042,400 777,826 1,264,574
Ticket 13 2,208,000 837,018 1,370,982
I must admit though, living all these years with a math whiz, has really improved my probabilistic abilities.
Which gives me a great idea……..
Let’s form a pool! If we all go in together and buy 500 tickets this will really improve our odds of winning!!!
The four best memoirs I have ever read, and I have read too many, are Frank McCort’s, Angela’s Ashes, “Tobias Wolff’s, “This Boy’s Life,” Geoffrey Wolff’s, “The Duke of Deception,” and Jeanette Walls, “The Glass Castle.”
These books are similar in describing horrendous childhood’s of upheaval and instability, complicated by mentally ill, vagabond, eccentric parents, and a sort of lower middle class poverty. (I know that’s an oxymoron, read the books and you’ll understand). But the similarities go much further and deeper. Each author is a brilliant writer, with an uncanny ability to recount his or her traumatic childhoods without self-pity. They don’t seem to hold resentment towards their incompetent parents. In fact they are able to recognize the strengths in their parent’s oddity and the positive aspects of their personalities. They find in their chaotic childhood experience, grist for creative tour de-forces, in each of these four memoirs.
Please see prior review of “Glass Castle”. I will review “Angela’s Ashes,” soon.
Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff are brothers. Geoffrey is eight years older than Tobias. When their parents divorce, Geoffrey heads off to live with his father and Tobias goes with his mother.
Arthur Wolff was a Yalie, fighter pilot, and ersatz aviation engineer, who was also a vagabond, con-man, flim-flam-man, forger and alcoholic. In the “”The Duke of Deception,” Geoffrey describes his chaotic life with his crazy father who bilks and cons everyone he meets, including friends, associates, wives, and Geoffrey himself. They move from place to place in continuous flight from debtors and jail. (They end up in La Jolla, where I was born and living at the time, with my father named Arthur and brother named Jeffrey.) Arthur forges credentials and lands a job as an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics, where my friends parents worked at the time. Eventually Arthur is committed to a mental hospital and Geoffrey heads off to Princeton.
Geoffrey’s descriptions of his father are brilliantly nuanced, remarkably sympathetic, and psychologically insightful. He says for example, ”As I dislike him more and more. I become more and more like him. I felt trapped.” This is a remarkable statement. As a therapist, one of the most difficult things to get across to people is the concept that without significant insight and effort, one tends to possess the very aspects of their own parents that they most despise. Geoffrey masters this in three short sentences.
Tobias Wolff’s book starts in 1955 with ten year old Tobias, fleeing in a Nash Rambler that was continuously boiling over, with his mother, who was leaving one of a series of continuously violent relationships. They were driving from Florida to Utah and had broken down once again on the top of the Continental Divide, when a semi looses it’s brakes, screams it’s air horn in one long wail, and flies off the divide with Tobias and his mother watching. Tobias’s mother was moving to Florida to strike it rich mining uranium.
So starts Tobias’s memoir. Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal of fiction as much anymore, when non-fiction is so much weirder, more incredible, and far more interesting. Tobias eventually ends up living in a town called Concrete (Washington) with a concrete, blockhead of a stepfather, who was a sadistic, martinet. Eventually he escapes all this chaos into the relatively more predictable Vietnam War and training in the special forces. (He wrote a great book about his tour of duty entitled, “In the Pharaoh’s Army: Memoirs of the Lost War.)
Tobias and Geoffrey meet up once, after a six-year separation in La Jolla, just before Geoffrey leaves for Princeton, after their father is institutionalized. Tobias comes out by bus. Geoffrey spends the summer writing technical manuals for General Dynamic’s under his father’s name, while assigning Tobias daily reading requirements of all the Greek tragedies. I was younger at this time swimming at Windansea, right next to where they lived.
Geoffrey eventually goes on to receive his Ph.D. in Literature, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was a Professor of Literature at University of California Irvine. He has published numerous highly acclaimed books. He had two sons and married a Clinical Social Worker. (I am a Clinical Social Worker. Weird coincidences). Tobias studied at Oxford, received his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Stanford and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Stanford. He also has written many highly acclaimed books. He married and had three children. A movie was made of the book, “This Boy’s Life,” starring Leonardo What’s His Name. Their mother eventually became President of the League of Women Voters. Truth is stranger than fiction.
The relationship between the brothers remained close and mutually supportive since their time together in La Jolla. Both are considered two of America’s finest contemporary writers.
It is remarkable and comforting to realize that all four of these authors overcame childhood’s of shocking hardship and trauma, and used their experiences to write creative, beautiful, and inspiring memoirs.
Highly recommend all four of these books. Recommend you read them in chronological order starting with “Angela’s Ashes,” then “The Duke of Deception,” “This Boys Life,” and “The Glass Castle.” (Toss in Pharaoh’s Army and you’ll be glad you did!)