DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations. Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston. (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)
The cover of your compelling new memoir Sweet Dreams (a family history) shows two disparate images juxtaposed. The “house” image could be a sweet Victorian postcard, while the “sleeping man” image is a disturbing one. During the reading of this book, I found a steady reliance on cameras and home-movie equipment used by the family over the years. As if the memories, left on their own, might somehow jump out and distort; or disappear entirely. While “the camera never lies.”
The sleeping man on my book cover is my father. As I wrote in Safe Suicide: “I took a black and white photo when I was sixteen or seventeen, which sums up my feelings about my father then. He looks dead, as in some part of my heart I wished him to be.”
We had home movies as a family, usually taken by my father; later on, our family events were captured by a Polaroid, with instant prints. Inspired by these, I became a shutterbug as early as fifth grade. My older brother, Chuck, brought back a slide show of his tour in occupied Korea, and I rivaled him with my own photos, not of exotica, but of felt minutiae around home: still lives.
In any case, photographs serve not only as detailed evidence and prompts to memory, but also as clues. Who took the picture and why? What made that framing salient? So much of my family’s story was deliberately hidden from me that I sought its secrets through these artifacts. But then the pictures that never were taken were significant as well. For instance, our family maid, who served as a surrogate mother to me, was never photographed by me or anyone else in the family.
You mention your book Safe Suicide. Is there such a thing as safe suicide? Does it play into your memoir, Sweet Dreams, as a theme or sub-plot?
A bungee jump is a safe suicide. You experience the fall, but then are saved from disaster by the elastic cord. I see imagination as a bungee cord: dreaming the experience, if you will; then waking from the dream to life. No literal suicide is safe; nor literal adultery or addiction. If there is a connection between this metaphor and Sweet Dreams, I suppose it involves my effort to perceive my father’s fall, which I never witnessed, although his damages to himself and to the family were real. Beginning when I was born in 1941, and peaking in 1948, he was an abusive alcoholic while struggling to keep up the appearances of being a candy executive and family man. I have no memory of him during those years, while I do remember most everything else. From 1949, he underwent treatment and therapy, and the father I suffered with growing up— a recovering alcoholic—seemed lobotomized, rigid about rules, distant, and infantile. My mother stayed with him “for our sakes.” In college, I joked that I had Kafka’s father and D.H. Lawrence’s mother.
Kafka’s father and D.H. Lawrence’s mother… DH as in DeWitt Henry? Was that intentional on your part to choose D.H. Lawrence to link to your mother? As opposed to, say, Arthur Miller’s After the Fall? Since falling seems to be the subject at hand.
I’m not familiar with After the Fall, but do love Death of a Salesman, which is about destructive dreaming, and which my father labeled “morbid.” The Kafka and Lawrence reference was about Oedipal tensions. Towards the end of Sweet Dreams, I recount a correspondence with my mother, where she sent me a Lawrence quote “suggesting that some things are better kept private between parents and children.”
Your mother is presented as very typical of upper middle class Mom’s during the time after World War II. She ran a traditional household, but she was also a painter and a book collaborator. So she had an artist’s sensibility. You say she resembled Katherine Hepburn. Lovely. Your father’s alcohol problems really did a number on her, and she left a few times to recuperate physically and emotionally in Bermuda. You were the youngest child. Did her absences make you feel deserted?
The most significant absence was while she contemplated divorce, alone, in Bermuda, although at seven, I had no idea that that was the issue. I cried myself to sleep. I got an ear infection that kept me bedridden and supposedly forced her to return. Feverish, I coveted a medallion with her picture in color. And then she suddenly appeared in my doorway and gathered me in her arms, “all in one delirious rush.” As an adult, later, I felt that I was deserting her, visit after visit. I think we all did, especially while she was dying. I write: “She left us, at last. We were the ones left. The ones staying.” While much of Sweet Dreams concerns my mixed feelings for my father, the deepest and most moving story is my mother’s, and I could only tell it obliquely. Hers is a story of being gifted and socially bell-jarred. I appreciated a recent comment by Elizabeth Mosier: that as subtext to my coming-of-age, “Henry develops his mother’s and sister’s stories, which resonate with his moving epilogue reflecting on his daughter’s less circumscribed potential.”
This whole book— your life— sprang up around sweetness, sweets, candy. Chocolate! The DeWitt P. Henry Candy Factory. A family business. I find it incredibly interesting how someone’s personal journey gets “set up” in a certain way. A certain country, certain house, certain family. Is it random? Some eastern teachings tell otherwise. Your house, at that time in history, the gardens, the brothers and sisters, the endless candy— it’s my reincarnation fantasy. But a peek past the blue shutters reveals real life. Not the candy palace.
Those were the Eisenhower Years. McCarthy rampaged. Homosexuals hid. African- Americans were denied nearly everything. In a way, your house and life and upbringing reflected that era. Did your parents take steps to hide their sadder truths from the outside world?
Despite AA’s insistence that alcoholism was a disease afflicting people of every class, we felt it as a primal stigma, as if Dad were a war criminal. He felt it that way. His own socially ambitious mother (who had been a factory worker, and whom my sister suspected of being part black) was in denial about it ever happening. Respectability was everything.
You mention the maid who worked in your house for decades, and how she began to fall down on the job as she started aging. Your father had a significant verbal reaction about her inability to fulfill her tasks.
In my most insensitive teens, I asked Mom why we kept Anna, since she did so little work. “Mom answered: ‘She knows too much. Your father wouldn’t hear of letting her go.’”
We kept this intense family secret. Where the public emphasis was on the good life and loyalty to the American way; and where, from Communist sympathizers to crime bosses, subversives were called to account before congressional hearings; in our family’s instance, we both rejected and hid behind proprieties. Our father’s alcoholism was our shame. At the same time, the fictions of public normality to which he aspired and clung, the two-dimensional code of conduct that had been prescribed for him as “sane”: all were easy targets for our ridicule and rebellion. I felt a thrill of intimacy the first time I told an outsider, my first love, Kathie, about his alcoholism. Likewise, with later girlfriends, it became a ritual confession, like revealing scars. (In fact, the original title of Sweet Dreams was Tribal Scars. I changed it when a friend suggested that no one would ever buy a book with “scars” in the title).
What a strange comment your friend made about the word scars. It’s a word I happen to like, though I think SWEET DREAMS is a better title for this memoir. As a child did you see your father as a racist? A lot of white people in those days were inherently racist.
My father’s racism made me feel defiant and ashamed, but at the same time made me examine my own prejudices. My public school was “integrated,” even if our local movie theater wasn’t. One of my best friends from grammar school was Rudy, who was black, and I went to his house, but Mom told me he couldn’t come to ours. I demanded why, and she said because the neighbors wouldn’t like it. Anna knew his mother, and they went to Church together. However, it was okay to exchange visits with my friend John, who was white and poor and lived on a farm, so the issue wasn’t class. Rudy went on to become one of the most gifted and popular guys in high school, but didn’t get to college, because he knocked up a girl and got married. Let me quote: “I always spoke up for Rudy to Dad, as my friend….So it was with some satisfaction, axioms verified, that Dad sent me a local news article later on, after I had moved from college to graduate school.” Rudy had shot a clerk to death in the dry cleaner’s, over drugs apparently, and been sentenced for first-degree murder and sent to prison. My classmates say he had become a hit man.
That sounds like a novel.
I agree. When I shared this story with Jim McPherson, my writer friend (who became the first Afro-American to win the Pulitzer Prize), he urged me to read John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers And Keepers for insights into Rudy’s life. I tried, but I have to admit that Rudy’s story, like my mother’s, is beyond my imagination. I don’t know enough. I’m not dedicated or talented enough. Actually, I hope that my failing is one of the appeals of Sweet Dreams.
I’m not quite sure what you mean here.
That both I and my reader bear responsibility for stories outside the frame. Regardless of how well I may understand myself becoming—the “character” of myself—and how honestly I recall and portray my inner life through time, my own narrative is only a corridor, while these other stories stand like open doors along the corridor. As we pass by, we know they lead somewhere. They are calls to imagination and conscience.
“Calls to the imagination and conscience.”
Absolutely. That’s one reason I am drawn to writing memoir. I question the successes of fiction: the recognizable personality, the prescribed learning experience, the epiphany. Where the patterns of traditional narrative coincide with what seems true, I let them carry. But my search for meaning is also a search for the untold, the unspoken, the necessary witnessing. For instance, when it comes to “plot,” any closure is provisional. As I say, “endings are only for the dying.”
Very interesting. I have strenuously avoided memoir, except for one story I wrote some fifteen years ago that just recently got picked up. Is that a wake-up-call to me? I hope not. I’m afraid of writing my real life.
Let’s go back to some of the “subtexts” in your story. During the Vietnam war you evaded the draft with deferments for graduate school, as did many young men during those times. In the memoir you write: “I was more a baffled witness to public events of these years than I was a participant.” What about that?
War has been the backdrop of America in my lifetime. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and nuclear missiles, 9/11, Iraq and the War Against Terror. Tim O’Brien, a friend I first met in Cambridge, has been my generation’s spokesperson about this. He is wonderful about indicting our materialism as a form of denial: “I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simple-minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance…how they were sending me off to a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand…I held them personally and individually responsible.” He articulates the crises of conscience we all felt: “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile…all I wanted was to live the life I was born to—a mainstream life…I was ashamed of my conscience.”
Paul Fussel puts it frankly: war is an attempt by old men to see how efficiently teenage boys can kill the greatest numbers of other teenage boys. War is always, always criminal and obscene. The draft and the Viet Nam war twisted my twenties, and in writing about those years, I try to suggest how our lives on the home front were as profoundly impacted as my parents’ lives were by World War II. That said I still react against the easy sentimentality of anti-war demonstrations: “make love, not war.” Platitudes and pieties are not part of the solution. Forbidding your male children to play with toy guns is a desperate gesture, although my wife and I disagree about this. I treasured my childhood’s little atomic bomb ring that glowed in the dark.
I once read something Tim O’Brien said about his war experience, that he played the card he was dealt. He called it “the war card.” It’s an interesting take on personal destiny and quite an empowering one. But is there really anything that can be done by the common man (woman) today to reverse the downward slide? Grassroots movements are, by and large, greatly diminished. Without the aimed gun of the draft, for instance. The draft launched the big Vietnam war protests. We’ve evolved into a society of phones and personal hand-held technology.
Having studied Thomas More and the Oxford Reformers, I invoked them when McPherson and I co-edited a Ploughshares issue called “Confronting Racial Difference.” We have to write about correctable evils as we experience them, both within ourselves and between ourselves, and write honestly as “alienated intellectuals” who refuse to “accept the validity of the assumptions, objectives, and rewards of the power system of the culture we live in.” We must write and teach according to our consciences, and in a way that promotes decency. High fidelity memoir should always see the skull the beneath the face. The passage of a life, an ordinary life—if there is such a thing–is only representative as it implies, confronts, and tries to reconcile the world we share.
“Reconcile” is a good word.
I mean it in the sense of “find purpose in… make sense of…,” and I guess I see that as what literature can contribute to resistance and reform. I think of Thoreau’s wanting to determine whether life was mean or sublime. In Sweet Dreams, I encounter life as “harsh, sacred, precious, cruel, dangerous, tricky and inscrutable, impersonally judgmental, all at once.” You dream. You plan. You think life should go in certain ways and are baffled and challenged when it doesn’t. You have a lover’s quarrel with the world. You try to live in uncertainties and doubts. You play your cards. You mean well and are flawed. Any serious memoir is about destiny; but it is also about that struggle and who we become.