As far back as I can remember my father had always been an unbeliever. He refused to set foot in church. The one time that he did for a Christmas program, the church was destroyed by a tornado the following spring. After this, he claimed his refusal to set foot inside a church was for the protection of the church. He didn’t want responsibility for destruction of another church building. Whenever his mother visited and insisted on saying grace, he told us kids to be quiet while Grandma talked to the table. There was a disagreement between my parents as to whether church attendance should be voluntary or compulsory. He, of course, advocated voluntary attendance, she compulsory. It might be supposed that his advocacy of choice sprung from some enlightened impulse. It did not. He did it to annoy my mother and to score points with us kids. He was a controlling, domineering personality in important things, in petty matters and everything in between.
As far as I can look back, my mother was always a good Christian woman. I say this without irony. She remained steadfast in her faith and sought to be as a humble and obedient wife and mother. She was kind and gentle and even angelic. When necessary she could be an avenging angel. There was that time she broke a broom across my backside for telling one of my sisters that she was going to die, but that is a whole ‘nother story. She was mostly quiet about her faith. She sought to silently witness to us and to her abusive husband. “Silent witness” is Christian speak for embodying Jesus’ Love and Grace. It is something not often seen from the Christian Right. Now when I think back as an adult on what her life was like with 7 children, a loveless marriage, constantly moving because of a husband unable to hold a steady job, and not even a high school diploma, all the while sequestered helplessly at home in the countryside without neighbors closer than a mile or two (sometimes further). Her greatest private comfort (apart from her faith) was a years long correspondence with her mother. Of course, Arkansas, not just Northwest Arkansas, in the 60s and 70s was impoverished, backwards and isolated. The great post-war boom passed us all by.
My parents seemed to disagree about everything. They never raised their voices against each other, at least not in front of us kids. My father rarely missed an opportunity to offend her sensibilities. He, in turn, infuriated by herposition on high moral ground in her refusal to fight back in kind. After they divorced after 38 years of marital hell, she told me once that he frequently accused her of infidelity. A charge absurd on its face. First, she was stuck at home. He did not allow her to get one, let alone drive. Then there was the 7 children underfoot. I suspect he was verbally abusive to her calling her names behind closed doors. One time one of my sisters in a fit of anger called me a son of a bitch. She heard and flew into my sister who thoroughly shocked and overwhelmed by the sudden uncharacteristic vehemence of her response. For my father everything was Mary’s fault. He never missed an opportunity to impress upon me (and I assume upon my siblings as well) both(!) how incompetent and scheming she was.
I don’t deny it, in all of this I find my mother the more sympathetic character. It’s hard to be an American and not completely sympathize with the victim of a story. The accepted wisdom was that I as a boy needed an exemplar of manhood to follow. I was the only male at home until I was 10 when my brother was born. Time with my father was important to me. Time with him was often enjoyable but unpredictably it could turn into painful and abusive manipulation.
This conflict between my parents meant as a practical matter that you could be on Dad’s side or on Mom’s side, but not both. He wouldn’t compromise with her and she wouldn’t compromise with her. Their terms were mutually incompatible. We would switch sides depending on the vagaries of the moment, sometimes being Dad’s darling, sometime’s Mom’s. When we were on Mom’s side we wanted to go to church with her. He chafed at taking us to church but usually did, so as to curry favor with us kids. When we were on Dad’s side, we didn’t go to church. Sometimes we went to church just to escape the isolation, especially in the summer.
The endless conflict between them was largely generated by my father’s various undiagnosed neuroses. Every now and then, he would try something that went too far for her, and she would put her foot down. I don’t remember specifics, so don’t ask.
It should hardly come as a surprise that my father and I did not get along very often with the conflict only getting worse as I got older. She tried to play peacemaker, telling me that the reason he and I fought was because we were so much alike. I think these sorts of things infuriated him.
My mother married my father when she was 16. Most of what she knew about the world and people was that of a pious 16 year old. This came into play most importantly when we began entering puberty. Neither of them would discuss sex or the changes we were experiencing. Arkansas being part of the Bible Belt, there were no sex ed classes in school. Nor did any of us have access to adults or older teenagers because of physical isolation from neighbors and the nearest town. I learned about the physical changes from a college zoology textbook. The emotional/social changes only when I was in my twenties. I don’t know how my sisters fared.
I grew up in a household of verbal, emotional, spiritual, religious, sexual, marital conflicts. Conflict is painful because of a desire for mutually exclusive alternatives. Being a good son means being with both parents. But if each parent’s love comes at the cost of the other? It’s hardly surprising that I alternated between a vehement militant atheism and equally vehement militant Christianity throughout my childhood and adolescence. By the time I was 19 or 20 I was desperate. Flopping from one to the other every couple of years only made for ever greater mistrust of my allegiance to one extreme or the other. It was undermining my capacity for decisions. It was threatening to dissolve my personality. Looking back, it’s impossible to say for sure, but some kind of psychotic break was a real possibility.
Then I stumbled upon Nietzsche in one of my college classes. A third possibility appeared. Rather attempting allegiance in fulfillment of one part of my personality at the cost of other parts, I could lay claim to both. Neither one nor the other at the cost of the other, but both at the cost of embracing never ending conflict without resolution ever. I am the war between the parents carried on by other means. Later I found out that there were more than two sides to this war.
Sure, I do it to myself
It’s what I am,
Some x set against some y,
A rampaging r against an innocent q.
Omni bellum from a to z.
All I had to do was reserve the right to change my mind. As I’ve said, virtue has a history. This might seem to some a shameless exhibitionism appropriate in an age of shameless social media. It’s impossible to tell the whole story, but even with what I know, a great deal has been held in reserve. The above is more akin to one of my father’s manipulations than it is to a truthful account. Lies are best told by omission.