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I Will Not Become My Father

[1]4,811 words

When my father died last month, we had not spoken since Christmas. A few terse emails were exchanged, but that was it. You see, over Christmas dinner my father had revealed that he was contributing money to the SPLC. This didn’t exactly sit well with me. What do you say to your closest relative when he announces that he is financially supporting your worst, most loathsome enemies?

I tried saying exactly that. I tried explaining that the SPLC is a racket that has smeared friends of mine, and would gladly attempt to destroy me (if they figured out who I really am). But my attempts were half-hearted, as I knew there was little chance I would change my father’s mind. There was also no chance of my not taking the whole matter personally – since my father was fully aware of my views, and of the company I keep. So mostly I spent the rest of our Christmas dinner (at a Thai restaurant, of all places) staring silently at my massaman curry.

Yes, my father turned into a liberal in his old age – a very unlikely liberal. Born in the South in the 1930s, an Eagle Scout, a graduate of a prestigious military academy, and a retired career military officer, my father didn’t exactly fit the profile of the typical Democratic voter. And, indeed, he voted Republican for much of his life. But in his last few years things started to go radically wrong. He began parroting the talking points of talking heads: “Russia hacked the election!” he told me at Thanksgiving in 2016. He despised Trump (partly, he said, because of his hair). He admired figures like Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert. He received junk mail from Chuck Schumer and Doctors Without Borders. And so on. Christ, it was bad. And baffling.

I returned home after what I came to think of as the SPLC Christmas with a great deal of anger, and the vague imperative that I needed to somehow find a way to deal with this if we were going to continue to have a relationship. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I had little desire to see my father again. The donations to Morris Dees felt like the final straw. I knew I would have to somehow overcome that, and I had enough self-awareness to realize that my anger actually had roots that went very deep. I caught myself taking pleasure in an imagined conversation in which I told him that next year I would be spending Christmas elsewhere. And just a few days after confiding all this to a close friend, I got a call in the middle of the night informing me that my father’s neighbors had found him dead in his unlocked house.

Yes, I’m just superstitious and guilty enough to think that this was my punishment. I had allowed politics to come between us, and had dithered about finding some way to repair our relationship. Now I would never get the chance. His neighbors informed me he had been going through a weeks-long period of deterioration, leading up to his death. My father had told me nothing about this; he had not alerted me that anything was wrong. The Bad Thoughts were thus inevitable: in response to my coldness, he had given up hope. Feeling himself now totally alone, he had allowed himself to die. Blah, blah, blah. When I first heard of his death I immediately worried that it had been suicide, partly because that was the death his own father had chosen. I was relieved when I found out that the cause was a heart attack. And my more reasonable side stepped in after a while to remind me of my father’s mean streak, which co-existed (especially in his last years) with a folksy, mellow benevolence that was sometimes real and sometimes merely a mask. I thus considered the possibility that he had kept me in the dark about his deterioration and imminent death as a last act of spite. It was a slim possibility, but you’d think it halfway plausible if you had known him.

The truth is that while the political stuff was bad, our relationship had frayed for other reasons as well. You see, in the last years of his life my father became a hoarder of truly epic proportions. A hoarder worthy of his own reality show. A hoarder of an unusual and perversely fascinating type. And I was inclined to think that the shift in his views to the loony Left was only one part of a general mental decline. It took four weeks of my life to completely sort through all of his possessions, working sun up to sun down. And the more I uncovered, the more it became apparent to me that my father was – to put the matter as delicately as possible – not entirely sound. Functional, but . . .

As I mentioned, my father had had a distinguished military career, during which he was the very model of neatness, organization, and efficiency. Being the son of such a man was no fun. My father was typical of many military dads in that he brought his work home with him. And as his assignments became more important, and his responsibilities greater, he became prone to venting his frustrations at home. There was abuse, some physical but mostly emotional. For the bulk of my childhood and adolescence, I felt no warmth for my father. And I loathed the military. I spent the first seventeen years of my life in that environment, and found it all gray-drab and joyless. It was only years later that I realized it had had any positive effect on me at all.

The military has a funny way of encouraging men in thinking that once they’re done with it they never have to live up to any standards again. The father of one of my best friends likes to say, when bidden to exercise by his doctors, “I swore when I left the Marine Corps I would never exercise again!” “I’ve done my bit,” is the philosophy of a lot of these men, and once they retire they often turn to lives devoted, in some fashion or other, to a benign self-centered self-indulgence. Had my parents stayed married, my father might have been spared this fate, but my mother divorced him several years after he retired, unable any longer to endure his volatility and uncommunicativeness. It was after my mother died, and he no longer had to pay her a fat monthly alimony check, that my father began his steep decline.

In a rare moment of frankness, and self-reflection, my father once told me that the divorce had severely depressed him. He began dealing with this by cultivating various hobbies, some of which were revivals of interests he had had as a boy, and then given up. On one level, this showed some real psychological insight on his part: he was consciously dealing with depression and loneliness by reconnecting with things that had made him happy in the past. For example, he was fascinated by old postcards. So, with great earnestness, he began collecting them, and, for a while, this was his obsession. When my father chose to cultivate some interest, he didn’t do things halfway. In the end, thousands of dollars were spent on postcards, all of which were carefully placed in protective, plastic sleeves in large binders – and all carefully cataloged in endless lists he kept on his computer.

Making lists was one of my father’s specialties. I had long thought that he had learned this in the military, but it became clear to me over time that it was somehow a part of his makeup, for which the military had simply found a good use. Thus, the desk he kept in his living room was literally covered in stacks of lists. And not just of the postcard collection. For example, there were stacks of steno pads filled with hundreds of usernames and passwords. He never used a password twice. Security’s got to be tight! All of them were randomly generated strings of characters, and all got changed periodically. It was like he thought he was guarding the launch codes to the Doomsday Machine [2].

Once all the postcards had been duly filed and cataloged, they were placed in carefully labeled banker’s boxes (my father had beautifully legible, draftsman’s handwriting). And then they were deposited in storage units and never seen again. Eventually he acquired six such units, all of which became packed to the gills with his collections. He was paying more a month for those units than he was paying on his mortgage. Mind you, he had only rented the units as a matter of necessity, once his house had become completely filled. And when I say “completely filled,” I mean that all available space was occupied either with furniture or with stacks of various kinds, including stacks of boxes. His spare bedroom was so jam packed it was impossible to walk in the door. The basement was entirely filled. And his bedroom looked entirely filled, until one realized that the bed was surrounded by boxes, as if he had built himself a fort.

Once my father tired of the postcards, he graduated to other hobbies. For example, he collected model planes and ships. So many, in fact, that they filled around one hundred and fifty boxes, occupying two storage units. Other collections were intrinsically less impressive. He went through a period in the ’90s when he was videotaping everything on television that interested him. Four VCRs were set up to record all day long. He quickly accumulated more than he had time to watch. And so the tapes were carefully packed into carefully labeled bankers boxes (all alphabetized by title: “A-B, “B-C,” etc.) and whisked off to the storage units, where they remained unplayed, until I threw them all out.

Some of the items in the units were covered with close to an inch of dust, in some cases packed with newspapers dating back to the 1970s. In fact, there was so much dust that a friend who volunteered to help me sort through them had a severe allergic reaction and had to quit. In all honesty, I was content to go through the units alone, as I had high hopes I might find an epic porn collection. I imagined my father as another Ralph Whittington, the celebrated “King of Porn [3].” Sadly, I found that he had put a lot less effort into this area. Still, what he had (all DVDs and VHS tapes) was carefully inventoried in long lists: name of film, names of performers, number of scenes, etc. (These lists were the first things to go into the trash once I had access to his place.)

When the storage units were entirely filled, my father at some point apparently faced a crisis: his mess kept growing, but he had nowhere to put it. He must have ruled out the possibility of renting a seventh unit, because he started stacking boxes outdoors, behind the house. He had a neighbor help him cover them with a water-proof tarp. What items of importance did I find in those boxes? Mostly old mail and obsolete electronic equipment. Without any irony, the boxes of old mail were labeled “To Be Sorted and Culled.” It was this discovery, more than anything else, that forced me to confront the issue of my father’s sanity. What kind of process led to this man thinking “I just have no alternative but to stack all that old mail behind the house and get somebody to help me cover it up so it’ll be safe . . .”? Was there any moment at which he considered that it might be better to just throw it away? Apparently not. And what kind of “friend” would help him cover that mess in a tarp, and carefully tie it up with inscrutable nautical knots?

In the end it took four days and just as many crews to completely empty his house and the units. This is not counting the day I transported a truck full of his stuff back to my place. I kept quite a few mementos of his military career, and all family-related items (including photos, some of which dated back to the 1890s). The collections, all except the lonely, unwanted VHS tapes, were sold to dealers. And the rest was simply hauled away as trash. This included the centerpiece of the sad, strange world my father had created: an old, stained recliner of indeterminate color. Never was I so happy to see a piece of furniture sitting on the curb.

Once everything was gone, another layer of the mess was exposed – and, it seemed, another layer of my father’s madness. I had known for several years that he had a mouse problem. I would see the traps when I visited him, and sometimes watch as he baited them with peanut butter. On one occasion I actually saw a mouse: a little gray blur in my peripheral vision, darting around a piece of furniture. My father explained that it was a general problem in the neighborhood, and that he had it under control. This turned out to be far from true. For when all the debris was removed, there were mouse droppings literally everywhere – even behind the pots on the kitchen counter. Crumbs had fallen beneath an old toaster, unmoved for years, and the mice had dined on them and left their poop there. Underneath one cabinet were the remains of several candy bars. The mice had apparently spirited some fallen candy away and eaten it under the cabinet, again leaving their feces behind as a sort of calling card. Several banker’s boxes had been invaded by mice, and some of the old mail had been shredded to form nests.

I had no idea of the extent of the filth until the place was emptied. Despite the egregious clutter, everything seemed “clean” to me whenever I would visit. His house had an antiseptic, hotel-like smell to it. And my father himself was always well groomed and neatly dressed. In my mind, the mouse poop quickly became emblematic of what disturbed me most about the whole situation. Here was a person who, on the surface, was a model of organization, efficiency, planning, and dutifulness. But beneath the surface he was a mess.

There were other things as well – little things, that seemed in retrospect like more pieces of the puzzle. For instance, there were his neurotic driving habits. He had a morbid fixation that people standing on street corners were going to run out in front of his car and be hit. So he would stop and wave at them to cross – often well before they were ready to, much to their consternation. And when stop lights turned yellow he would SLAM on the brakes, for fear he might be caught by a traffic camera and sent a ticket. Several times when I was with him he was almost hit from behind by cars following a little too closely.

This was all evidence of “OCD,” a psychologist of my acquaintance has suggested. And he had more to say. Upon hearing a description of my father’s collecting and listing, and his walls covered in nothing but pictures of machines (planes, helicopters, ships), my friend was ready to locate him somewhere on the “autism spectrum.” That made a lot of sense to me. But what about the hoarding? What about the irrational retention of old mail, VHS tapes, old clothes, electric fans, obsolete electronic equipment, post-it notes, rubber bands, markers, file folders, etc.? An anxiety disorder was the suggestion. When he contemplated throwing something away, he experienced anxiety: “But what if I need this?”

And anxiety could also explain his political views. He had lived all his life with the idealistic smarm about our land of “all races, creeds, and colors” – drummed into him from wartime propaganda, the Boy Scouts, and the military. But I suspected he was well aware that all of that was unraveling, and that “diversity” had shown itself to be a curse and not a blessing. A lot of old people reach a point where they need to believe that everything is going to go on just the same way after they die, and that all will be well. What my father saw with his own eyes in today’s America, and what I relentlessly reported to him, must have been terrifying. In talking to him about my own beliefs, I assumed he was honest and open. Big mistake. And if I had it all to do over again, I would have let him slumber peacefully.

In the end, my father reacted to his repressed horror at what America had become by digging in his heels, and adopting a radical version of American civic nationalism. He was very much like a religious man beset by doubts who reacts by going full fundamentalist. Indeed, it might actually have helped if he’d had a genuine religion to turn to – like his brother, who in his old age became a lay preacher. But my father was sort of a flat-souled skeptic who reflexively blamed “religion” for the world’s problems. The only thing in his will that went beyond standard boilerplate was a request that no religious service should be held at his gravesite. He couldn’t strive upward so he strove outward, filling more and more space with things he couldn’t take with him. Appropriately, there was a Scrooge-like aspect to my father as well. He spent thousands of dollars each month on storage units, toys, and clothes (did I mention the huge wardrobe stored in boxes, much of it still in plastic wrappers?). Yet he drove around town looking for the cheapest gas prices and insisted on doing his own taxes. If only he had been visited by Marley’s ghost and the rest of the crew.

As an explanation for the hoarding, an “anxiety disorder” sounds tame enough, until you concretize it and remember that he was putting a tarp over boxes of old catalogs and VCRs because he “might need them.” This was just deranged. And there’s no way around this. I’d like to find a way, because this was my own father. His loss and its aftermath were difficult on multiple levels. First, there was the intense resentment at having to clean up this irresponsible mess. This was a reaction I knew in advance I would have, and that I’m sure he knew I would have. But somehow that wasn’t enough of a motivator for him to do something, even a little something, about the shambles his living situation had become. However, my resentment alternated with pity. I would go from cursing him as I tripped over stacks of catalogs, to intoning, with a sigh, “my poor father” as I uncovered yet another sad, strange list. How could someone who was once so shipshape and squared away have been reduced to this? There was no getting around what a sad end it was.

And he knew it. In the days and weeks following his death just about every friend and neighbor I spoke with reported that he would never let them into his house. I even found out that he had had a girlfriend for a while, but she broke things off because he would not let her into his place. I found a letter he had written to her on his computer and made the mistake of reading it. The letter began, “Dear Evelyn, I’m very sorry about my behavior at the Cheesecake Factory the other night, but I was never very good at talking about my feelings . . .” Instantly, I could reconstruct the whole scene in my mind, based on his relationship with my own mother. Poor Evelyn had pressed him a bit on some emotional matter and, feeling threatened, he had lost control of himself, blown up at her, and felt miserable about it later. It was just the sort of thing that had ruined his marriage. He was aware of that, and felt tremendous guilt over it – all of which came out when my mother was dying, years after the divorce.

So why couldn’t he have avoided doing it again? Why couldn’t he control himself? Why did he have to fall into the same mechanical pattern, like one of the machines that fascinated him? The truth is that he was probably wondering the same thing. And sifting through the wreckage of my father’s life made me think long and hard about the issue of my own freedom of will. My father doesn’t seem to have been able to help being who he was. Over and over again, as I vacuumed up the mouse poop, I asked myself whether I was headed for the same fate. One evening I had a nightmare that I had finished at my father’s and returned to my own apartment, only to find it intolerably dim. I acquired a sack full of light-bulbs and as I installed them and switched them on, I saw to my horror that my own place was filled with boxes and trash, and crawling with rats.

Like most of us on the Right, I’m a great believer in the explanatory power of genetics. And while I wouldn’t call myself a strict genetic determinist, I do believe that a great deal about us that we imagine we choose is actually genetically fixed. But now this theory struck a bit too close to home. I began feeling like the main character in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” who is horrified to discover that he is actually descended from the “fish people” he abhors, but then gradually feels himself identifying with them, becoming one with them: “Some frightful influence, I felt, was seeking gradually to drag me out of the sane world of wholesome life into unnamable abysses of blackness and alienage; and the process told heavily on me.” Am I headed for hoarding, and listing, and pretending I don’t notice the mouse poop? Is this the abyss of blackness and alienage that awaits me? Or will my fate be still more cromulent?

As I drove a truck full of my father’s things, all in labeled banker’s boxes, back to my place I began to wonder if I wasn’t inviting “the cursed hoard” into my life. Should I have thrown more of the old dragon’s stuff away? No, I thought, I only kept what I had to: items of value, sentimental or otherwise. Of course, I immediately realized that this was exactly the sort of thing my father told himself. I began to develop an irrational aversion to the stuff, feeling I had to keep it but not wanting to touch it; washing my hands every so often, after handling the boxes. It was probably the mouse poop association. And would I even have room for the stuff in my place? (It turned out I did.) A “helpful” friend suggested I simply rent a storage unit. “But that’s how it begins!” I shouted in response, horrified at the suggestion. I made a vow then and there that I would never acquire so much stuff that I needed to “store” it. I re-read D. H. Lawrence’s short story “Things [4].” And, yes, I heard Tyler Durden in my head: “The things you own, end up owning you [5].”

This was one of the lessons I have taken away from the whole experience. In many ways, my parents were both very fine individuals, and on the whole I received a much better upbringing than most people. I have to credit them – especially my mother – with much of what I’d like to think of as my “good points.” But, at the same time, they were damnably difficult and flawed people. In addition to all the good examples my parents gave me, they also did me a great service in providing examples of how I did not want to be. Many was the time I would react to something they said or did by thinking, “Gee, this is not how I want to turn out.” And my father’s final legacy to me was the most disturbing and effective cautionary tale I could ever have received.

Yes, I do believe that genetics shapes who we are. In certain ways, genetics determines us outright, and without wiggle room. In other ways, it merely inclines us in certain directions. I do see the seeds of my father’s madness in me: the OCD, the Asperger’s, the irrational anxieties. But the significant difference between me and my father seems to be just that I see these things. Yes, I imagine he had moments of self-awareness too. In fact, I know he did. When I first discovered the extent of my father’s hoard, while he was still alive, I was appalled and blurted out “You’re crazy!” “Probably, yes,” he responded, sheepishly. But such moments of clarity didn’t seem to amount to anything.

Now and then, I see myself trending in the same directions as my father, whenever, for example, I hesitate before throwing old mail away. But now I’ve seen where it could all lead. And while genetics is a powerful influence, so is will. I believe in the power of will, and in the power of consciousness. In other words, I believe that if we can see our habits and our tendencies, we’ve already achieved a certain distance from them. And that distance allows us to resist. I know several people who have no willpower at all – who are often well aware of their problems, but powerless to do anything about them. I’m not that kind of person. I have a strong will, and I do not shrink from self-criticism (quite the contrary, in fact).

However, the lessons here don’t reduce simply to an imperative to avoid hoarding and listing through sheer force of will. Another aspect to my father’s decline is one I have not heretofore remarked on, but which may now be obvious to my readers: the utter triviality of his concerns. His decline was not all an issue of unchecked accumulation. It also had to do with the completely trivial nature of his interests and preoccupations. My psychologist friend told me, “As people age, their worlds shrink.” I’ll say. By the end, my father had been positively miniaturized – like Stephen Boyd in Fantastic Voyage [6]. A life devoted to accumulating postcards and toys, keeping careful lists, and tucking them all out of sight where they couldn’t even be enjoyed.

By contrast, I’ve devoted my life to things that matter – and I don’t see that changing in my old age. My father had a meaningful life at one time, but, as I’ve said, that all went out the window when he left the military and decided to devote himself to acquisitiveness. I suppose there’s something poetically appropriate about that: after years of safeguarding the pursuit of “the American Dream,” perhaps he just decided to start living it. By contrast, what makes my life meaningful is doing what I can to save my race and my culture – and I would go so far as to say that there is nothing more important than the cause I have chosen. What makes my life meaningful are precisely the commitments that, unfortunately, so frightened and scandalized my father. (“I think you’re sick!” he shouted at me once. Oh, the irony . . . )

In the end, this redeems whatever mess I leave behind. My heirs (both of them comrades in the Movement) might be left with a few stacks of old mail, but as they toss it into trash bags they will say, “Yes, but he helped save the white race.” They may not know what to do with my collection of Dark Shadows memorabilia, but as they list it on eBay they will say, “Yes, but he wrote for Counter-Currents.” Indeed, when moving the furniture they might even find some mouse droppings (though I doubt this). But as they vacuum it up they will say, “Yes, but after all, he wrote The Importance of James Bond & Other Essays [7] and Heidegger in Chicago [8]. And he wrote even more important stuff under other pen names . . . .”

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we make a big mess, so long as we do it in the name of something big. So long as we believe in something important, and fight for something that matters – and keep on doing that, until the end. So long as we stay big, and don’t shrink. But I’m going to manage to do this without making a mess that burdens my heirs. My father’s final years cannot have been particularly happy. I hope he rests in peace. But as God is my witness, I will not become him.