Pythia Peay

America On The Couch

Which of Us Has Looked Into His Father's Heart?

How History Helped Heal My Relationship With My Greatest Generation Father

Posted Jun 19, 2015

Pythia Peay
Source: Pythia Peay

“Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” asked Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again. It has been thirty years or more since I read that great American classic. At the time, Wolfe’s novel stirred in me nostalgia for the American small town where I’d been raised, as well as a desire to know my parents—not as “mother” or “father,” but as individuals, with histories of their own. Yet as Wolfe suggests, and as I was to discover, the quest to know one’s father often proves the more difficult undertaking.

Making a physical pilgrimage is one way to “go home again.” Another route back to the past is through psychotherapy, the process whereby we recollect our childhood in order to chart the formations of our subterranean emotional selves. And while in my own analysis my mother proved a significant shaping force, it was always my father that my analyst would circle around to in our sessions. “Your father cast a long shadow over your life,” she said once, cryptically. As her words sank in over time, her meaning grew clearer: how all encompassing my father had been to those around him; how his silent but dominating personality had obscured his children and wife; how he had been the kind of man who was absent while present, and present while absent.

Charismatic, complicated, troubled, a restless man in search of adventure who’d suffered poverty and tragedy in his youth, Joe Carroll had for most of my childhood been steeped in the vapors of alcoholism, away on one of his trips soaring through the sky as an airman, or hard at work tilling the land on the two hundred-acre Missouri farm where my three siblings and I were raised. As my younger brother used to say, Joe was the kind of man who lived like someone in a witness protection program, a man who’d severed his ties with his birthplace, and who had left his mother, sisters, brothers, cousins, and foster parents behind, in Wordsworth’s words in “Tintern Abbey,” “more like a man/Flying from something he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved.”

Joe’s eccentric life as both a flier and a farmer may have set him apart from other fathers of that time. But in all the ways he was unknowable and unreachable, his character was cast in the same mold as the greatest generation—that clan of stubborn men to whom the inner world of emotions was illegible, and who lacked access to the psychological translators that their children later benefited from. This silent, inaccessible father of the fifties and sixties, brimming with unspoken words and feelings, remains the iconic paternal image of that era. To a greater or lesser degree, I’ve come to think, these fathers form one of the weakest links in the continuity of American family life.

Indeed my father, explains Italian analyst Luigi Zoja, was not alone, but “belongs to a lost generation of men who weren’t able to transform themselves into fathers. And because of that, they were depressed.” Sadly today, he continues, the absent father is itself an image of a contemporary paternal archetype. This, he says, is the all-too-familiar weak father who, although unafraid to go to work or war, refuses to engage in his relationships. The silence of these fathers, he writes in The Father, “deafens the analyst’s studio. Every day, patients reprove their father for not having expressed themselves; for not having explained and defended their own points of view; for having been present but silent, for having offered no response to children or mothers.” (1)

Yet however little we have to go on, or however present or absent he was, each “father story” carries a piece of our personal as well as cultural identity. The years I spent in analysis yielded precious insight into my paternal legacy as the daughter of an alcoholic. But it wasn’t until after Joe had died, and I began to research the times he grew up in, and to imagine for myself the larger events that had shaped him as a youth, that I began to glimpse the greater mosaic into which the small stone of his life had been set.

Chipping away at the buried psyche of this parent of mine, I visited the place where Joe and his eight siblings had been raised, but to which he’d never taken me: Altoona, Pennsylvania, home of the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad and employer of his father and grandfathers, and the industrial town where the Carrolls had gathered coal from the railroad tracks during the Depression. Interviewing historians and retrieving military records, I pieced together my father’s experience as a young man flying for the Air Transport Command during World War II—in planes with no radar, over Brazil’s dense rainforests, the South Atlantic ocean roiling with sharks and German subs, and through steep Andes peaks. In conversations with my mother, I hear for the first time about her romantic encounter with my father in postwar Buenos Aires, their years in newly independent Israel, followed next by their move to a farm outside of Kansas City, where in the fifties they started a family, and raised crops and horses and cows while my father flew for TWA. I puzzle over Joe and my mother’s sudden re-location in the seventies to Mexico and wonder why, in the nineties, my father moves yet again, this time to Corpus Christi, Texas. This city by the Gulf of Mexico would be Joe’s last station, the place where I would tend him on his deathbed, and where his life of smoking, drinking, and incessant motion would come to its final resting place. 

As I transcribed the timeline of my father’s life, immersing myself in each period—from the depths of the Depression to the horrific but world-opening years of World War II; to the cultural shocks of the sixties and the experimental decades of the seventies and eighties—I began to notice a shift in our relationship. Though Joe had been long gone, the work I’d done charting the geographical and historical underpinnings of the distant man who had been my father had given us a firmer foundation. His life, and why he was the way he was, began to make sense.

The man who was the ground I’d come from, I realized, was so much more than my father. A man of his time, Joe Carroll had been shaped by previous eras as much as his era had shaped my own. Like one of those Chinese nesting boxes, his psyche had been formed by the psyches of each of his own parents, who had in turn been shaped by events of their time—and so on back through generations. In other words, volumes of human experience were at work behind the disappointment and hurt I’d suffered as my eccentric, reclusive father’s daughter. Whether or not we like it or have even noticed it, as Jungian analyst Marie-Louise Van Franz puts it in Archetypal Dimensions of the Human Psyche, we are up to our ears “not only in our biographical past but also our collective historical past.” (2) It seemed that I was as much a daughter of my father’s and ancestor’s eras as I was of Joe Carroll.

In his description of how depth-oriented psychotherapy, in which a partially built, shaky inner psychic structure is explored and gradually strengthened, psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described a successful analysis as one in which the data which have been collected become ordered and fitted together into a deeper knowledge of the patient’s mind and of the continuity that exists between the present and the past. At the end of a good analysis, he writes in , “the analyst’s knowledge and the patient’s understanding of himself have taken on the quality of wisdom.” (3)

Carl Jung, too, understood the weighty effects of history and ancestry on the human psyche. As the scholar Sonu Shamdasani describes in Lament of the Dead, Jung believed that “you can’t move forward without going back,” not purely “in a personal sense, which has been the main preoccupation of psychology, but with history as such, and in particular with taking up unfinished business, taking up unanswered questions.” (4)

By letting history be my guide in excavating the layers of my greatest-generation father’s all-too human heart, I broke through to a love more grounded in compassion for the difficult, troubled man who had raised me. Arriving at that place where I first started, as the saying goes, I could begin to say, finally, that I know my father, as I know better my own heart—and even perhaps something of the human condition, as it is constantly tossed between triumphs of love and trials of suffering. 

Portions of this article have been excerpted from my new book, American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books).

1) Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche, by Marie-Louise Von Franz

2) The Father: Historical, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives, by Luigi Zoja

3). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, by Heinz Kohut.

3). Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, by James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani.