By Sarah Tomlinson | April 17, 2014 | The Los Angeles Review of Books
MY DAD DISAPPEARED when I was two years old. He and my mom were never married. But before he was removed from my life, we lived together as a family, first in the farmhouse in Freedom, Maine, where I was born; then, in a tent in the yard of their friends Dave and Cindy; then, in a one-bedroom apartment on Hinkley Street in Somerville, just across the Charles River from Boston.
When my mom found out she was pregnant with me, my dad asked her to marry him, and she said no. They had been dating for a couple of years and were on the verge of breaking up. I think the discord between them began with my dad’s insistence that they drive the back roads of rural New England, stopping in secondhand bookstores, looking for early editions of Jack Kerouac novels. They’d spend days searching through the stacks of moldering paperbacks in store after store. When my dad finally located one of the volumes he sought, he’d read it and then release it back to the universe. He didn’t believe it was his to possess. By the time my mom left him, it wasn’t just books he was giving away; he’d become a compulsive gambler, and he was scattering money and promises into the ether as fast as he could make them.
After his abrupt disappearance from the daily routines of my life, my father managed to keep about every fourth promise he made to come see me. Without any indication of why one trip out of three was possible, he showed up every 18 months or so — a total of about eight visits — throughout my childhood. The delirium of his presence was heightened by the fact that his arrival sprung me from what was a fairly staid life. It was a hippie upbringing, yes — in a house my mom and stepdad built with their own hands on 10 acres of land in rural Maine (part of the 100-acre parcel my mom had bought with a group of friends) — but we honored many of the conventions of a normal American childhood: Santa Claus; the tooth fairy; no dessert without dinner; story time before bed. We also had a few unique traditions that seem particularly sweet now — baking our own bread and cutting our own firewood; having dinner together every evening; trekking into the woods at the holidays to fell our own Christmas trees.
Suddenly, into this idyll would spring the mad hatter, my father, bringing with him the strangest and most wonderful invasion of electric-kool-aid-acid-test-reality, which made Santa Claus’s ability to transcend time and space for a single night a year seem banal. My dad was a Boston taxi driver, so he normally arrived in a yellow cab, a welcome ambassador from the urban jungle I craved even as a child. I loved nothing more than sitting in the back seat, pushing pennies through the money slot in the bulletproof glass. Cheerfully oblivious to the protection the divider was supposed to offer my father, I pretended I was one of his fares while breathing in the musky perfume of the incense he burned in the ashtray while he drove.
I was seven or eight, sitting in one of his taxis at the end of the turnaround near my mom’s garden, when my dad delivered some important information to me, as if I was the only person capable of getting the message.
“You know, John Lennon’s coming back,” he said.
I nodded sagely, as if I had been meaning to raise the subject myself.
“There’s this woman who’s been channeling him, and he’s gonna come back and give a television interview and tell us where he’s been and what we need to do.”
I nodded again, wondering if the miracle would be listed in TV Guide, which I could never convince my mom to buy. All we had was the Pulse, a free listing of public TV programs. But if Lennon came back, it did seem like the type of show PBS would air. I had no idea what it would look like for a female medium to channel John Lennon, but I was sure it would happen, and that I would know it when I saw it. I watched for that TV special for years. In my mind, it’s as if it actually happened.
When I was nine, my dad took me on our last dad-daughter trip. Not to Disneyland, obviously, or even Palace Playland, the white-trash amusement park in coastal Maine. He took me to Orgonon, the home and laboratory of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which happened to be located in Dodge Pond, Maine.
We drove for hours inland, my father talking the way he does, no doubt, about his latest wellness obsessions — back then macrobiotics and rebirthing and est (now, non-GMO foods and ionized water and the herbs he’s taking to cure his cancer) — and about reincarnation, and the end of the world, and how, when he and his two foster brothers arrived at their foster parents’ house, they were told that only the best little boy would be adopted, but then none of them actually were; and how he dealt acid while living in a hearse in Haight-Ashbury; and how I was the only person who really listened to him; and how nice it was to have one person who did.
Finally, we inched up a narrow driveway and arrived at a majestic fieldstone house with blue trim around the windows. It was desolate, even for rural Maine; easy to imagine it would have been horror-movie remote in 1950 when Reich first settled there. The house had a still quality that immediately made me feel watchful and sad.
But then, in a clearing in the woods, was the most wonderful sight: a strange metal contraption that looked like the armament from a tank, pointed at the sky.
“Reich’s cloud buster,” my dad said.
I was instantly transfixed. In school I’d been inundated with images from Africa, the sight of starving kids my own age. Now, here in the wilds of Maine, was the solution to famine: a machine that could reorganize energy to make clouds disappear during times of flood, and then form them again in drought. I climbed up onto the base, as if to aim the metal tubes deeper into the sky, eager to fix everything in my life and the world beyond. John Lennon would come back and tell us what to do. The cloud buster would give us rain. My father would be proven right about everything.
Awe-struck, I followed him on the museum’s house tour. We saw the lab where Reich had cut open mice. And the coffin-sized boxes used to collect what he referred to as orgone, a life force energy that could cause diseases, including cancer, when lacking or obstructed. These orgone accumulators, I learned years later, would become popular with J.D. Salinger, William Burroughs, and Kurt Cobain.
As we slipped into an empty theater and sat together on a bench in the dark, I thrilled at how close I was to my dad. We watched a documentary about how Reich, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, started out as Freud’s protégé, and a New School professor, and wound up a renegade pariah, the reason for his move to this remote location with a handful of students and his young son, Peter. We learned how government officials destroyed his books and accumulators — then arrested him and placed him in prison, where he died.
“Reich was poisoned in prison,” whispered my father. “The government does things like that, you know.”
Like John Lennon, dads who were different, died.
I hadn’t known such cosmic truths before that day. But now I did. And knowing them, I could never unknow them. For years, I tried to incorporate the unsettling knowledge I had gleaned during weekends with dad into my normal, everyday life. That fall, my mom and stepdad became enamored of Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love. I in turn fell under the spell of the song “Cloudbusting,” and its opening line: “I still dream of Orgonon.” It really did exist: Orgonon, the wonderful, brief interludes with my father that split open the rest of my childhood like an atom of nuclear energy in Reich’s lab.
In seventh grade, I announced that I’d be doing my science fair project on Wilhelm Reich. My mom paused for a long moment, as was her habit before discussing anything related to my dad.
“Well, Sarah,” she said. “Wilhelm Reich did a lot of work with orgasmic energy, so I don’t know if that would really be the best subject for you.”
I did my report on puffins and their natural habitat instead.
When I was a teenager, I came across a photo of Kurt Cobain in the orgone accumulator William Burroughs kept in the yard of his Kansas home. I adored Cobain for the way his music expressed his uneasy mix of anger, melancholy, and intelligence. I sought out articles about him. I found a way to acquire his every composition, including the picture disc of the song “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” a collaboration between Kurt and Burroughs, which I received as a birthday gift in college from my best friend. Particularly moving, though, were the photos of Kurt goofing with his infant daughter, Frances Bean.
Frances was born in 1992, when I was 16, a year after my dad and I suffered a massive rift outside a rock club in Boston. He and I had a disagreement about skinhead culture, which neither of us cared anything about; sometimes it’s only possible to fight about the things that don’t matter, not the things that are slowly and silently tearing you apart. After this, in spite of several promised visits, he didn’t see me again for a decade.
At the time, I wouldn’t have thought to contrast photos of Kurt and Frances with the dearth of photos of my father and me. Or even have admitted I was susceptible to images of a relationship I felt the lack of so deeply. At that age, I thought more about the music itself and how it amplified the feelings already inside of me in the most perfect, dramatic way. Still, I looked at the photos of Kurt with his wife, Courtney, and his baby, Frances, more than any others in my collection.
Just the fact that Kurt was a father was a strange, slightly retro life choice for a punk musician to make at that moment in our culture. Even though he was eight years older than I, he didn’t seem like a Grown-up, with a capital G, as I didn’t think of my father as a Grown-up, and so it stirred something in me that Kurt seemed to be so naturally devoted to his daughter, who traveled with him on his tour bus. Not because of some Father Knows Best piety about the need to do the right thing, either. Here was the coolest guy in popular culture, a poet like my dad had always longed to be, getting to travel the world and hang out with rebels like Burroughs; and even with all of that chaos and glamour and sparkle, he wanted his daughter with him, made room in his busy life and his broken heart for her. I guess I vaguely knew he was probably using drugs in her general vicinity, but drugs didn’t scare me — nothing a loved one could do in my presence scared me more than his absence following his disappearance from my life.
My dad’s occasional letters during this time were filled with his money problems, his gambling, his bad back, which had been exacerbated by a car accident, and the insurance settlement it had led him to see as the answer to his every need, which I learned years later he finally did receive, only to gamble it away and become suicidal. The implication was that he and his life were a mess; that he couldn’t have any contact with me until he straightened himself out. He was working on it, always working on it, but he didn’t know when the moment of his personal transformation would make our father-daughter reunion possible.
If he had been the kind of normal nine-to-five dad who had doled out my allowance and told me I was wearing too much makeup, I probably would have rebelled and distanced myself. As it was, I craved his presence as if it were the windfall that would answer all of my own need. It seemed so stupid to me, when I felt like I was finally old enough to make my own decisions about what was and wasn’t good for me, that he had decided he shouldn’t be around me.
I was in my dorm room when I learned Kurt Cobain had killed himself. I cried and cried, bereft, convinced he had been crushed by the same ignorance that had taken Wilhelm Reich and John Lennon; other dads whose beliefs made them vulnerable, and who paid with their lives. I thought of poor, sweet Frances, now without a father as well. That was the fallout from the fever dream of the counterculture revolution, the cost when a man was so much the embodiment of a different way of thinking and living that he became a kind of symbol, and eventually, a victim to assassins from without or within.
Peter Reich, Sean Lennon, Frances Bean: all three of these fatherless children would surely have traded the sum of their fathers’ cultural contributions for one more bedtime story. Or would they? By that time I’d decided I wanted to be a writer myself, and I was proud my dad wasn’t like other dads. Maybe they, too, were glad for examples of a braver way to live; or maybe that’s just the story kids like us tell ourselves in our fathers’ absence, pretending we don’t want what we don’t have. In any case, I never again dared to love a dreamer with quite the same abandon; ones with real genius and vision couldn’t be trusted to survive. The recklessness with which I loved my dad also shrank in those years. There was less opportunity to deify him as I got caught up in the day-to-day struggle of making my own way.
At age 27, I was a music journalist based in Boston when I visited a musician I’d become involved with at his house in LA. From my seat on his couch, I saw a copy of Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams. I felt an intense, nostalgic happiness and exclaimed how surprised I was — the book, the inspiration for “Cloudbusting,” had been long out of print. My musician reminded me that he’d covered the song; he’d felt he had to understand it before he could sing it.
I held the book close, pleased to find myself once again in the secret world I had first been introduced to by my dad, who, at that point, had been back in my life for only three years. During our estrangement I had never lost sight of him, but other men had also found their way into my center. I was actively trying to figure out how to be a writer, and it was as if this musician had turned on an illuminated arrow: This is how you make art. You find artifacts that move you, read books, talk to people who know more than you do, shape your memories to create your own artifacts that will maybe move others. In that moment of radiance I saw that I already possessed many of the experiences that would become my art: along with the vistas my father had opened up for me, there was the painful experience of loving him and the sense of lack his absence had created within me.
And yet I felt a sense of possibility, a hunger for all that was unfolding around me, much the same as the feeling I had in those long-ago days when his yellow taxi flashed through the foliage lining the dirt road up to my mother’s house, coming to whisk me away on an adventure, reminding me that though he wasn’t always with me, he would never completely disappear.