My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoirMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

The memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is an engaging book. While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his story than that unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing up years was so compelling that I almost forgot that it was the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s title references Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she thought they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas makes it clear that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. His grandfather taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and how to rise above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it a bit odd that Clarence Thomas was painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite the fact that I was a faithful, idealistic, 20-year-old card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even then because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a  man born and raised in 1950’s Georgia be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

Of course, I learned later and his memoir confirmed that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind  follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal, state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That isn’t a popular position to take, and it’s even less tolerable coming from a black person as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he began to notice the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and acquiesce in response to every demand made by black “leaders” even if the demands were illogical and damaging to black people over the long-term. What’s more, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was ever called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community actually choke the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated with me.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was simply disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought that gained its foothold during his coming of age years. The fact that he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that the task of raising their son and ushering him to manhood would be best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understands the challenge facing young black men and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike may of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. Of course, his version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, except when he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal began to wear on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. As I watched them I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  Or so I thought, as this was before I started thinking through these issues. Even then I remember having a difficult time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and nothing else.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a senator particularly hostile to him. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” There was no judicial paper trail so the senators tried to gauge his position through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response and one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

the-glass-castle The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.

One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.

If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.

This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.

As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.

Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?

They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.

My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.

The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.

Worth a read.

Grade:B-

Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Interlude:Father’s Day Break Edition

I wrote the date down today. Is it June already? Father’s Day is in two weeks and for the first year -ever- ours is going to be markedly different. June 1st marked 4 months to the day that my family of origin’s ship lost its rudder.

Husband and I don’t do things for one other on Mother’s or Father’s Day for several years now. We -well he– figured that if we’re going to do the thing at all it should be done right. Let the children honor their parents. I agreed and still do, but this day wasn’t in my head at the time.

In contemplation of my new Father’s Day normal, I went looking for songs honoring fathers. The selection and quality were -as you might have guessed- pretty terrible. But I found Nancy Sinatra’s song, It’s for My Dad, poignant and sweet:

 

I have a lot of good books on tap so in a couple weeks I hope to put up a review.

Until some time after Father’s Day then!

Edited to add: Got sick and had too much time on my hands. So I’m back a little bit before Father’s Day.

Fatherhood Memoirs

It was suggested that I might want to consider writing a memoir of
my father. The thought has remained with me. I could do it; for my own peace and the edification of my family even if, as is likely the case, it were never published.

As I contemplated the idea I started looking for fatherhood memoirs; books written as tributes to fathers from their children and very soon now I should be receiving at least a couple at my front door. But while I wait, I decided to dig a little more, and research reviews or obscure books that may not have been as well known which fit the genre.That’s when I ran across this Guardian article from 2013.

As I dug into the article and the synopses of the fatherhood memoirs which the author labeled among the “10 best”, I found that I was frozen with the idea of writing such a book. The glimpses of the books presented seemed to indicate that the children of the men explored felt compelled to tell all sides of the story, no matter how unpleasant their memories of their fathers seemed to be. I wondered where the admonition to honor your father fit into all of that. The author put it thus:

The concept of father memoirs is a fascinating one. Confronting fathers directly and publicly is not, and never has been, easy: the patriarch should judge and not be judged. To write about the father is to sit in judgment upon him, and for most cultures this was a taboo too strong to be overcome. The Greeks, despite their searingly perceptive stories about father-child interactions, did not attempt to do so – nor did the Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, the Elizabethans or even the Romantics. Paradoxically – but not surprisingly, given the rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures – personal father writing, like radical feminism, is a product of the Victorian era.

In 1907, six years after the death of Queen Victoria, Edmund Gosse published Father and Son. Once the taboo was broken, writers were quick to take advantage of the new possibilities. The 20th century saw a steady increase in the number of father memoirs and, now that the boomers are ageing and seeking to immortalise themselves, such memoirs are becoming as ubiquitous as tattoos. As with tattoos, some are visceral works of art.

I look forward to reading and reviewing at least two of the fatherhood memoirs listed as the summer months unfold, as well as this one which I find particularly intriguing.

The twists and turns of life have opened me up to a genre of writing I never would have considered 3 months ago.

That is the power of the written word.