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Original Essays

This One's for You, Dad

by John Matteson
  1. Eden
    $27.25 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

    "Matteson's lucid, commanding biography casts new light on an unusual father-daughter bond and a new land at war with itself." Booklist (starred review)

    "Matteson capably describes Louisa's feverish devotion to her family and to her writing....Carefully researched and sensitively written." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

They tell me people are supposed to write books in Brooklyn or Manhattan, but I didn't get that memo in time. Outside my window in the Bronx, neighbors exchange greetings in Greek by day, and Manhattan College students stumble riotously home from parties at night. When I'm writing, though, I tend not to look outside but inside, often at the pictures of the people without whom I would write next to nothing. One photo in my work area shows my daughter Rebecca. Taken in infancy, it shows her with a smile that manages at once to be jaunty and placid; she looks as if the teddy bear beside her is all the protection she needs in the world. Another snapshot shows my mother and father, perhaps from 20 years ago. They stand in a formal garden in some holiday destination, well before their current infirmity ended their traveling days. My mother, otherwise not a vain woman, always refuses to be photographed with her glasses on. In this image, she squints smilingly toward the camera as she clutches her spectacles in her gloved hand. My father, in profile, looks at her with evident satisfaction and pleasure. This, to me, is the curious aspect of the scene. I cannot recall his ever looking at any of us — my mother, my sister, or me — with this kind of enjoyment. The inspiration I take from these two pictures is considerable, but it is of a more complicated kind from that which other people might suspect.

Family often supplies reasons for writing, I suppose. Braces and tuitions must be paid for, and the vicarious ambitions of parents make their own insistent claims. But I also think people tell stories in order to fill gaps and build bridges. Perhaps the very act of writing is a confession that there is an incompleteness somewhere that the writer is struggling to repair. Sometimes, that lacuna has evidently nothing to do with the author's apparent subject matter. So, indeed, with my book Eden's Outcasts.

My mature sense of the matter is that my father was fated for misunderstanding. He was born the younger of twin boys in 1920, and the details I have of how unevenly the family's love was divided between them make the story of Jacob and Esau look like Leave It to Beaver. Even in their naming, my Dad's brother received the birthright. He was named Herbert Jr. My father was second banana from day one. They named him Thomas. Look it up. It means "the twin." But it was also nature, not just his parents, who played a trick on Dad. He seems to have grown up with an innate aversion to human contact. Hug him to this day, and every muscle in his body tenses. He actually growls. If you played a game with him, everyone in the room abruptly vanished, as he focused mutely on the object of winning. In the photograph from his childhood in which he looks happiest, he is playing with a mechanical toy. When my father was a boy, no one knew the phrase "Asperger's Syndrome." Even if they had, he would never have gotten a diagnosis. Both my parents were raised as Christian Scientists, believing that all defects, mental or physical, stemmed from a failure to perceive oneself as a perfect child of God. Always evaluated morally, never medically, my father may never have understood the real reasons for his awkward placement in the world.

In his professional life, he indulged his fascination with mechanisms by becoming an airline executive, passionately devoted to problems of aircraft reliability and coming up with a theory of maintenance that, I am told, changed the way the people take care of airplanes. His spare time was also immersed in gadgetry; with deep patience and instinctive understanding, he tinkered obsessively with engines, made furniture, and restored antique clocks. Yet when his attention turned from gizmos and blocks of wood toward his family, the patience and understanding promptly fled. He became a man of savage jokes and easy anger. He was exquisitely skilled with a dovetail joint or a stubborn gear, but ham-fisted and unthinking in the presence of a beating heart and a vulnerable soul. He took daily pleasure in scanning the local newspaper for typos, shouting with glee "San Mateo Times strikes again!" whenever he found one. In his children, too, he hunted for failures as ruthlessly as he would have scanned a defective turbine.

Growing up with such a father, so alive to one's failings and so deaf to one's emotions, I suspect that one either tries furiously to win his approval or stops trying altogether. I chose the former path, driving myself toward academic excellence in hopes that the next A would be the one to garner the desired reaction. It never came. In the process, though, I earned bachelor's, law, and doctoral degrees. (I also appeared on Jeopardy!; Dad, of course, pointed out that one of my correct questions was technically wrong.) At some point, I must have stopped expecting our relationship to transform, but the habit had been formed. In a certain way, I became the thing that my father liked best: a well-oiled machine.

Then, in 1994, on the first day of spring, came my daughter Rebecca and my own turn to be a father. I was still in graduate school then, and my wife Michelle had to return to work almost at once to pay the bills. I had to become what my father could probably never have been: a hands-on dad.

At first I was practically clueless. Slowly, though, I worked out ideas that seemed to express my idea of the best environment for my daughter: a quiet atmosphere with lots of hugs and minimal criticism, one where disputes, whenever possible, were settled by the exercise of reason, not authority. The first of all the things I wanted to teach Rebecca was that she was loved.

After I had become a professor and it was time to write a book, I wanted to write about 19th-century Utopian communities. The first one I researched was Fruitlands, founded by Bronson Alcott, a close friend of Emerson and Thoreau and the father of Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame. To my great interest I soon discovered that Alcott was among the first Americans to theorize about child development and early education. A possibility glimmered. Perhaps a book about the Alcotts might help me traverse some generational gaps in both directions. I sat down at my computer and started building bridges.

People familiar with the Alcotts may see some irony in the idea of getting parenting tips from Bronson Alcott. In fact, he lacked two of the attributes that somewhat redeemed my own father in that role: a practical understanding of the world and a capacity for making money. But Bronson got some things that were opaque to my father. He took it as a matter of faith that children's souls were sacred things. He approached children with humility and respect, always aware that they might know something he didn't. Conscious that the word "education" means drawing out, not cramming in, he asked children questions and listened when they answered. He made it a maxim to teach "appreciating the value of the beings to whom instruction is given." As my book relates, however, it took him decades to give that appreciation to his daughter Louisa, who climbed trees, tried chewing tobacco on the sly, and generally showed no interest in proving her father's theories about child rearing. Like me, however, she wanted desperately to please her father. She never succeeded until, as a nurse in the Civil War, she nearly gave her life for the causes of freedom and union. In later years, she and Bronson touchingly reconciled. Might my book about them bring a rapprochement with my father? I could only hope.

As my manuscript got fatter, I continually revisited the same questions in my mind: How were my father and Bronson alike or different? Might Louisa have had feelings comparable to mine? And, most importantly, what could the Alcotts' story teach me about being a better parent? A cross-pollination took place. As my writing became more incisive, my parenting became more sensitive. I studied how to help Rebecca toward the same strength and self-reliance that Louisa had acquired. I knew I was doing all right the day I told Rebecca I wanted her to have a wonderful life, and she replied brightly, "That's just what I was about to do."

One down, one to go. Sadly, though, my effort to reach my father ran out of time. As I began writing Eden's Outcasts, my family noticed that my father's memory was slipping. Before the manuscript was done, the falloff in his mental health had become precipitous. The last time I visited my parents' house — they have since relocated to a more manageable apartment, where they are bravely resisting a transfer to assisted living — my father introduced himself to me. He also invited me down to the basement, where, he believed, he had built a massive airline maintenance facility. He was bewildered to find only his old woodworking machinery, mostly covered with dust and cobwebs. I had hoped to finish the book before his descent into oblivion was too deep. I had failed. A guilty part of me, however, was now almost glad that he would be no longer able to criticize the best work I had ever done.

Although I'm much more on board with the medical profession than my parents were, my knowledge is still far from cutting edge. It was not until after I had submitted my manuscript that a friend told me about Asperger's and suggested that my father had it. Hearing about the syndrome brought both revelation and, curiously, relief. While I felt terrible knowing that, all his life, my father had been blamed for an emotional estrangement that he may have been helpless to correct, it eased my mind immensely to think that all that had passed between us had not really been his fault.

Probably one of the most important correctives to an author's psyche at the end of writing a book is the drafting of the acknowledgments page. However many superb mentors and marvelous friends you encounter when writing a book, you still have to do the writing yourself, and you can easily succumb to the egotistical illusion that you did it all. Writing the acknowledgments page fixes that: it is a powerful ritual in which one remembers one's most vital connections with the world beyond the word processor. When I wrote mine for Eden's Outcasts, I tried to think of everyone, though, regrettably, I forgot one or two (Are you listening, Kay Redfield Jamison?). But there was one person very much unforgotten whom I did not include. Try as I might, I could not find a way to include my father. If he were still able to read it, he would probably have criticized the book as harshly as anything else I had ever done, and he would never have gotten its hidden message, so why invite him to the party? Undeniably, he deserved gratitude, but I found I could not thank him in a way that felt sincere. I discovered that I was slightly too small of a person to give him the approval and acknowledgment that he had denied me.

Since then, the Pulitzer has happened. For the first time ever, I have been able to allow myself to feel like a success, in a way that no paternal criticism could take away. And, looking back on it all, I confess that I have no way of knowing whether, without the burden of my father's perfectionism and the unending struggle to please him, I would ever have been good enough to win this prize. Like Louisa, I have prevailed both because and in spite of my father. Admitting his influence, for good as well as ill, no longer costs me what I once felt it did. And so, Happy Father's Day, Dad. This one's for you.

÷ ÷ ÷

John Matteson's first book, Eden's Outcasts, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. spacer

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