What stories do we tell ourselves about ourselves?
My narrative is upbeat. From the moment of my birth I had a lot going for me. I was born white, male, middle class. Given the way society worked and still works, with those advantages it would have been hard for me to completely blow it.
It’s said of George W. Bush that he was born on third base, but convinced himself he’d hit a triple.
That probably understates the advantages of being born the son of a president. George W. was entitled to think he’d hit a home run.
I probably came into the world on first base, maybe second. My parents — a teacher and a nurse — were educated beyond high school. Their expectations practically guaranteed that I would be too.
During the mid-’60s, many of my peers who hadn’t stayed in school were in uniform, fighting a war.
Not me. Following my father’s sage advice, I was in college wearing an army ROTC uniform once a week. Better to be an officer than a rifleman, he had counseled.
His advice was brilliant. I spent my two years of active duty safe in the Bay Area and in Greece.
Following all that came marriage, kids, divorce, remarriage. All the while I got to practice journalism in Napa.
All things considered, how lucky can a guy be?
What I’ve described is basically the outline of my life — what a person might put on a resume or summarize upon meeting someone for the first time.
What goes mostly unrecognized, even by me, is a darker backstory. For a long time there was much that was not right with the Courtney family that split apart when I was 13.
As the oldest child who left home before the others, I escaped the dreary worst of it. But whenever I talk on the phone with my younger siblings, I hear tales of gut-wrenching pain.
My Indiana brother and I do deep dives into our childhoods. He has scarring, photographic memories that mostly I do not.
I remember good Dad, the father who was not an alcoholic. My brother remembers a more debauched figure — the dad who once arrived home so drunk he parked on the front lawn, the dad whose face plopped into a plate of pasta when he passed out at the dinner table.
I had a marathon phone call last month with my sister from my father’s second marriage who lives in Florida. She accuses our father, a bundle of emotional neediness, of molestation ... and her mother of indifference.
I basically believe everything that my brother and sister report, yet I can’t fully relate. The narrative of my childhood that I commonly tell people, and myself, is much cleaner, less fraught.
My dad was a sentimental Irishman, I say. He had the soul of a poet.
My mother, the woman he cheated on and divorced, loved her children profoundly. She worked hard to support us after dad left.
When I talk about her I do not dwell on the rages that could drive a boy into his bedroom.
Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I’ve always loved that quote. When I meet people who seem well adjusted and claim to have come from happy homes, I don’t know what to make of them. They seem of a different species.
But someone who has harrowing tales to tell, who could have been driven crazy by their childhoods, but survived?
I love talking to that person. We are kindred spirits. We were nurtured by families that were unhappy in their own exquisitely painful ways.