A Child-Changed Father

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I’ve been reading James Carroll’s 1996 memoir An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came Between Us. The phrase, “a child-changed father,” comes toward the end of the book, after Carroll’s three-star general father (also a lawyer) has come out of retirement to defend his son Dennis’ right to be granted a Vietnam-war conscientious-objector status. His father’s willingness to do this startles, even shocks James because General Carroll has sat among the top American “brass” as brinksmanship with the Russians, then with the Vietcong played out across the second half of the 20th century.

To have this war-starred general advocate for his son Dennis’ absolute American right to oppose war as a solution to world problems ultimately unites them at one crucial point: the general’s fear of nuclear holocaust. The general explains his willingness to help his son this way: “All I know for sure is that if human beings don’t drastically change the way they resolve their conflicts, we won’t survive this century…My son Dennis certainly represents a drastic change from the way we were brought up. And that may be just the change we need.” (pp. 248-49)
At this point, the author admits that he never understood until then the depths of his father’s fear of “the bomb.”

The phrase a “child-changed father” comes from Shakespeare’s play “King Lear.” It refers to Lear’s penultimate admission that his daughter Cordelia’s subdued assessment of him meant far more than her two sisters’ extravagant praise. That extravagance turned into hateful greed; Cordelia remained her father’s steadfast advocate until the end.

I’m touched by this episode from Carroll’s memoir because it’s another version of the father, son and war connundrum which my husband Fran and his father also played out. But their relationship was perhaps the reverse, the more common “father-impressed child.” Fran refused to register for the Vietnam draft partly because his own father had served time in prison during World War II as a pacifist. My sense of their differences is that Fran suffered greater psychological trauma in prison than did his Protestant-minister father. He became anorectic toward the end of his sentence. He did not have much in common with most other draft resisters, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Instead he made friends with bank robbers and car thieves. He emerged to craft a relatively happy and productive adulthood, but he repudiated his father’s religion. In fact, it’s hard now to get him inside a church at all.

When daughters and mothers face each other across the generational divide, power and ideology are less likely to shape their similarities and differences than questions of love and acceptance. As I think about my own upbringing, my ideological fights with my father about race have many of the same elements as James Carroll’s differences with his father over religion and war. But my difficulties and eventual communion with my mother were based on my wanting approval from her and freedom to make my own choices without her meddling. Every happy family is alike; it’s the unhappy ones that display the garish irregularities that make for great literature. Because women have historically had far less power and status than men, their bequests to their daughters come through emotional intimacy and the working out of complicated accords with the larger world. I hope to be the kind of mother who learns from her daughter, if only in reassessing our shared history.

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