This Truth About Chaos

John Freeman

If my father smelled of anything through my childhood, it was cut grass and sawdust. Most evenings, before dinner, I’d find him in the garage, standing in shirtsleeves before a table covered in screws and greasy rivets, wrestling with a machine. A lawn mower, a sprinkler head, some piece of pipe. If an appliance broke, he fixed it, and if it wasn’t broken he made sure it would be by tinkering with it. My father wasn’t particularly handy, but he grew up in a generation that distrusted objects they couldn’t master. When these things resisted him he’d let loose a string of compound epithets and I knew it was time to lie low.

Even then, in my early teens, I understood his fiddling with tools was a displacement activity. By day my father ran a nonprofit family service agency that provided what the government no longer would. The agency employed social workers to counsel people going on or off welfare, drivers to deliver meals to shut-in seniors, patient and skilled therapists to operate a suicide hotline at its Sacramento offices. It was good work, and I know my father was proud of it, but I also sensed—from being around him—that the job was like bailing a leaky boat. One day he arrived home flecked in blood: a client had cut her arms open and died in the office’s entryway.

The state didn’t fund these services and so part of my father’s job involved scrounging five- and six-figure checks from the very people who’d voted to undo the government safety net that had once protected the poor and indigent. Occasionally, my two brothers and I were roped in to work the coat check at his fund-raisers. We’d put on our blue blazers with brass buttons and accept folded dollar bills to watch over the belongings of wealthy Californians who paid $250 for a dinner to benefit a good cause—a fraction of a fraction of what they’d probably received from trickle-down tax breaks. On one of these nights, I was amazed at how a few hours’ worth of tips filled my pocket fatter than a month of delivering newspapers. Then I realized that was exactly what my father was probably thinking in that room, shaking hands, smiling with gritted teeth. His patrons’ financial dandruff would keep his operation running.

This position of dependence made my father irate. It seemed obvious to him that if you had enough, you gave some away; if you had a lot, then the size of your giving should follow. But we were living through a time that has reached perhaps its apogee now, a period of defining poverty as a choice and mental-health problems as weakness and government intervention as a form of idiocy beyond words. One night in the middle of a heavy grant-writing period, my father nearly turned the dining table over with frustration. “What if I tell them we help burned children,” he yelled at my mother, who, as usual, was trying to talk him down. “Do you think that’d be enough? We help burned children.”

My father almost didn’t become this person: the class warrior who rejected a silver spoon for a life of social work. Growing up he’d been a class clown and mama’s boy who played football and drove a brand-new Chevy V8. His family lived in the Fabulous ’40s, a Sacramento neighborhood made famous by the film Lady Bird. Governor Reagan was a neighbor; my grandfather, who’d been raised in San Francisco after the earthquake fire, was in the Gipper’s cabinet. Meantime, my father drank and partied and very nearly didn’t even get into community college. It was by the skin of his teeth that he’d later manage to transfer into Berkeley, where his father had paid his own way during the Depression, and after graduation my father was so lost he briefly worked as a prison guard before joining the seminary. Which he then dropped out of after reading Nietzsche. I don’t know how he found social work, but he did and eventually, in his  midthirties, realized it was what he was meant for.

As counselors, my parents both worked in a form of narrative therapy—people told stories to them to sort out who they were and why they were so troubled. Similarly, my parents told their own stories to us—in particular, my father’s. Oddly, it was my mother imparting my father’s origin story most often, not him. At nights, if he lost his temper, she’d slip into my room on tiptoes and explain how badly my father didn’t want us to live the same way he had—zigzagging, emotionally neglected. That and work were why he was so tense.

I didn’t for a second doubt her, nor do I now. I know my father loves us, I am lucky to have him in my life, and to believe this with all my heart. My father’s approach to fathering, though, was to “flood the zone,” to borrow a football phrase old New York Times editor Howell Raines used to describe his approach to covering big stories. No activity I participated in growing up went unchecked, unsupervised, or untested for nutritional value. If I appeared to have free time my father would dig up a reading list from a school district back east, as the East Coast was called. Or I’d be dispatched to earn a Boy Scout merit badge so rarely pursued it even stumped the scoutmaster. Huh, they have architecture? By the age of thirteen, stoked by my father’s horror stories of the career-less and dissolute—You want to be driving a Subaru and watching Sacramento Kings games your whole life?!—I’d interned in several possible careers—medicine, architecture, and even law—and found them wanting.  

In essence, my father treated my brothers and me as if we were being homeschooled, even though we attended school for ten hours of the day. This was a luxury to have such care, but also a burden, because it is in the nature of adolescents to be fickle and lazy, to discard interests like snakeskin and find new things. We did all of this, and it incensed my father. He was so desperate for us to succeed as adults, he treated us like adults, explaining what could go wrong at adult levels—Do you want to wind up in prison, maybe you start drinking and then what, you accidentally hit someone driving home at night?—even giving us condoms at age ten. I socked mine away until they rotted; my older brother eventually used his; my little brother turned his into water balloons and threw them at passing cars.

My father had a weird and unexpected sense of humor in those days, but not about failure. Growing up in the shadow of his love, we felt like failures waiting to happen. This wasn’t misinterpretation, because he often used those very words. Listening through the wall one night as he tried to help my older brother complete his math homework, I heard my father shout over and over each time Andy offered up the incorrect answer: “Wrong! You’re a failure! You’re a failure! Just give up!” And then I heard my father storm out of the room, slamming the door, making the house shake.

The zoom and swerve of my father’s anger was the weather system of those years and it was frankly terrifying. A conversation often escalated from questions across some unseen thermal to tornadic interrogation so fast it was bewildering. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was dense and phenomenally strong, and we came to know this. My father once caught my older brother and me wrestling in our front yard and a split second after I saw his shoe in my peripheral vision we were airborne. He’d flung both of us into the bushes as if we were lightly packed duffel bags. It got worse and it was unpleasant and I spent a lot of my early teens in a constant state of fear.

My older brother bore the brunt of this fury; my younger brother assumed a posture of the victim; my response was to become very, very independent. I took on after-school activities and rarely turned up at home before seven. I became a reader, so my mind was literally elsewhere. Playing six sports a year, I sculpted my body into a defensive weapon. I didn’t get into fights, but people would have to think twice before pushing me around. Including him. The result of these strategies was that I developed a sense of doubleness that has become permanent over time. As if I watch everything happen in front of me a moment before it actually happens, and then dispatch the person playing me to handle it.

For this reason, I have come to feel at home around volatile people. Around those who demand a lot and create the mood, who make decisions and set terms. It’s familiar. I don’t even need to deploy this doubleness; it just happens. Whenever I felt the ground shift, when I knew my father was at the edge’s edge, I learned how to deflect and anticipate, I figured out when to disappear. I did this so well I became a seismologist of mood and could even predict the tremors before they happened. And so now, as a forty-four-year-old, when a fault line slips in virtually any situation, I am already halfway there to meet it. I have begun booting up a whole variety of de-escalation strategies—conversational, nonverbal, physical. In other words, without realizing it, my father spent a lot of my teenage years molding me perfectly into the shape of a receptive editor.

Someone who could adapt to a wide variety of intensities and insanities.  

As I writer, I say this with affection and knowledge of my own insanities. We are terrible people sometimes, writers. Narcissistic, belligerent, single-minded, and strange. The rising forms of mania that accompany peculiarly small details are endless. I understand why. Writers are in control of their work and nothing else. And yet their survival often depends heavily on that nothing else. Getting reviews or teaching jobs or book sales over which they have often very little control. This is a recipe for intense anxiety. Even if you discount the attendant worries about whether work will last, if it is in fact any good, people also have to eat, they need health care (in America), they need roofs over their heads and school for their children, if they have them. Providing any significant part of this on a writer’s salary is virtually impossible. It’s ludicrous. We may not require the services my father’s agency provided, but our needs are part of the same spectrum: domestic requirements cannot be ignored. They have to be taken care of and the money earned from writing almost never suffices. Even Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri teach, what does that tell you? Given the influence of reputations on grants and awards, the bind of dependency writers live under is ever more stressful.

I knew early on, watching my father work, and sitting next to my mother as she took down notes from patients dying of Parkinson’s and AIDS, that I didn’t have it in me to be on the front line of care for others. My mother spent most of my teenage years driving upward of 150 miles a day to remote houses to counsel people about to lose a loved one about what they were facing. It was grim and important and grinding work, and you needed more than belief to do it—you needed a temperament of patience and something else, something almost holy, I hesitate to say, to do it. I thought about this a lot when my mother too eventually fell ill, and then got worse, and finally became the kind of patient someone like her—a social worker in a car—came to visit. They were mostly there to talk to my dad, to see how he was doing, holding what must have felt like the earth on his shoulders all day. On the day she died, my father sent the social worker away. It was as if he knew right away that the next weight he would have to lift would be her absence. At first he’d want to do that alone.

I wished I had this temperament. I loved my mother dearly and admired her even more than my father for the way she contained all those terrible stories and made people feel better. When I became a writer, it didn’t even occur to me to make a story up: she had been living proof it wasn’t necessary. They were all around us, eating away at people’s bodies. My father may have been the bully sometimes, but my mother was the one who taught me the hardest lesson. In hearing about just a few of her cases, it was clear to me that chaos was out there, waiting for all of us in some form or other. Usually lying in wait in our bodies. In the end, it would catch us. My father pressed down hard, sometimes too hard, thinking he’d protect us from this truth about chaos, and in so doing he made me into someone who would try to help those with a rage to shape it.

I made this connection not long ago. I was in Sacramento visiting my father. He lives there today with his second wife in the old neighborhood where he grew up, driving a car he would have made fun of back in my teenage years, and doing a lot of beautiful gardening, some volunteer work—like escorting women to clinics that provide abortions—and vigorous walking. One of the bewildering changes for me about his life since he remarried has been a shift in his domestic sphere. The home I grew up in was terrific but in a constant state of disarray. The house my father now lives in and its gardens could be a museum.

Pulling into it late one night on a visit, I was so confused as to doubt I’d reached the right address. Sitting there, engine idling, it brought me back to the late 1980s and early ’90s, when no matter how hard I tried to avoid the house I lived in, I was beholden to it on the weekends.

Even when I had an away game or track meet, I had to spend thirty-six or more hours in our house. Living in the Central Valley meant you could plant, mow, prune, trim, and generally molest your yard for ten or eleven months out of the year. On weekends my father set to our lawns with a rage that was almost comical. One summer he ripped out the ivy in our palm tree one leaf at a time. Another summer he dug a sunken garden and planted eucalyptus trees so the pet rabbit we’d lost interest in had somewhere cool to graze. Almost every week she dug six feet down beneath the fence pilings and tunneled to freedom.

Every single task we performed in the yard was rapidly, hilariously undone by nature. Foxes ate grapes off the vine we planted. Raccoons nibbled the flower buds. The lawn browned in the baking sun just as fast as you watered it, and trying to get around sprinkler laws with slow-rotating backyard water dispersal units was dangerous. One Sunday morning I was woken by my father screaming in the kitchen—the thing had rolled over and nearly severed one of his gnarled ex-tight-end fingers.

I wish my mother were still here to fill me in on her version of this period of our lives together. She was the one who prised my father’s forefinger from the jaws of death, and I think she also told him he had to stop hitting us. Because at some point in this time it ceased—and more and more often she’d shake me from a dream on a weekend morning, her face twisted in uncharacteristic anger, and yell at me to go out there and help your father, he’s fifty years old, he’ll have a heart attack.

So I’d lope out to the backyard and find my father with his back to the house. Tending the sunflowers or clipping weeds, laying down mulch for the rhododendrons. Sometimes he’d give me something to do, but as I got older, he’d send me away or I’d have to force him to let me help. I think he just wanted to be alone. Sometimes, we’d drive off to the nursery to buy fertilizer for the azaleas or some new flower he’d nestle in against one of the fences. By sundown he’d be sunburned and salt-streaked and very, very quiet. After dinner, as we watched the evening news or a basketball game, he’d ask my brothers and me for backrubs. He had a huge back, and it took all three of us.

This essay was commissioned by Lise Funderburg for the anthology Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, available September 2019 from University of Nebraska Press.

John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and the author, most recently, of Maps.