A Woman's Father is Key To Her Power

What Pythia Peay learned from her dying father & America's greatest therapists

Posted May 09, 2015

Pythia Peay is an author and depth journalist on psychology, spirituality and the American psyche. Her essays and interviews have appeared in a wide range of publications including The Washington Post, Utne MagazineThe Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Huffington Post. This month, her two long-awaited books will be published, American Icarus: A Daughter’s Memoir of Father and Country and America On the Couch, Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. The memoir is a profoundly moving, beautifully written testimony to a daughter’s love for her Greatest Generation father with all his wounds and troubles. As a longtime fan of Peay’s work, I wanted to speak to her about this obsession with the American ethos and her transformative journey she had with her father. 

Mark Matousek: In American Icarus, you write that, “A woman’s father is the key to her power.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?

Pythia Peay: Until recently, men have been the ones who have been in positions of power, culturally and traditionally. So how a father sees a daughter is very key to how she develops that power in her own life. My father was a very traditional Fifties Generation father, for instance, he didn’t think I should work. He thought I should get married and have children.  So it was more of a struggle for me to actually believe in my own voice and make my way in the world, and to come into my own power, because of that.  But, paradoxically, through telling his story, I reclaimed some of the power that I’d sought from him, by remembering the lessons he taught me.

MM:  What were some of those lessons?

PP: Well, my dad loved an argument and could be very provocative.  He loved to sit down at the dinner table and start an argument. Those memories are charged, of course, because he was also drunk half the time.  But you had to answer back. You had to engage him in a dialogue.  I also gained power and found my voice in confronting him about his alcoholism. This could be scary, as he would often fly into a rage. In another example, we raised and trained horses on our farm. Each one of us – there were four of us kids – had to learn how to catch and saddle a horse – a frightening experience because they’d gallop and kick their heels and whinny -- and get back on if the horse bucked and try not to fall off.  Those were some of the lessons he taught me. But those things we suffer through in our lives tend to also give us our gifts.

MM:  His alcoholism was a major teacher.

PP:  When you grow up with a parent who’s drunk all the time, they’re not in an ordinary consciousness. Consequently, everything is chaotic, uncertain, and unstable.  You never know what’s going to come out of their mouth from one minute to the next.  It’s also scary because it can be life threatening.  Once, my father took us on a car ride at night in the middle of a big storm when he was very drunk, driving 100 mph down the road. Because alcoholism creates a constant sense of danger and imminent threat, it complicates the relationship to the parent whom you both love and fear, and want to save at the same time.

MM:  So, you escaped.

PP:  Absolutely. I ran as far and as fast as I could to California when I was seventeen and really never went back. It was like leaving a sinking ship. I felt badly, being the oldest of four children and leaving them behind.  But I had to take the lifeline that had been thrown to me and live. I very rarely saw my father throughout my adulthood because of his alcoholism. My siblings eventually all left as well. It was very hard to be around him.

MM:  But in analysis you were finally able to look at your shadow and face the harder, darker emotions.  How did that change your relationship with your father if at all?

PP:  At first, it made it harder because I began to face all of his raw, dark, wounded, suffering, angry, mean sides of him.  And so I distanced myself from him. It wasn’t until my father started to die that I actually began to heal our relationship.  And that was because he himself began to transform and open up.  It was a kind of a deathbed miracle.

MM:  He began to soften up? Did he become more open?

PP:  The story of his dying really structures my whole memoir. It begins when he was diagnosed with cancer, and he refused to go into the hospital because they wouldn’t let him smoke and drink! So his doctor sent two wonderful women from Hospice to care for him. When they first sat down with my father they said, “Joe, we’re here to help you die. And there’s work for you to do before you die. And part of that work is reconciling with your family.” We also had a wonderful priest who came into the picture, Father Fred, who was very compassionate and creative and brave, and -- surprisingly -- my dad loved him.

In a kind of miracle, my father began to transform. He reached out to his kids that he had seen only rarely over the years, and wanted us to come and see him. I say it was a miracle because it felt like a miracle to me that someone like my father who had been so alcoholic and so damaged and wounded, that generation of man, would begin to open up and want to be with his family. It was amazing. The hospice nurses also asked him to tell them the story of his life, so he began sharing memories from his childhood and youth.  When I went to visit him, he wanted to tell me those stories, so I heard things about his life that I’d never known growing up.

He also opened up to his inner world. One of the most poignant moments for me was when he was really beginning to die -- it could have been any hour or day.  We were sitting vigil, my siblings had come, and we were taking turns sitting with him through the night.  One night, he was very restless.  I had been reading aloud to him from books on angels and near death experiences and he said, “I wish I had learned more about the things that you studied over your life. I wish I knew more about spirituality and God.”  When he said that, he was so vulnerable. His soul really came through and I could see how afraid he was of dying -- that whole side of life had just remained off limits to him. That generation, again, inner exploration just wasn’t a manly thing to do. It showed the same courage that he had brought to being an aviator. When we had that moment, it kind of broke my heart.  He asked me what I thought happened after death and … It was a very profound moment between us. His whole dying was like a death and a resurrection at the same time.

MM: You write beautifully about the iconic American, mythic dimension, of your father’s story.

PP:  Yes.  We have these iconic American myths of independence and individuality, living for the future.  The motto of TWA, the airline that he flew for, was UP, UP AND AWAY, and I think that’s the motto for America. Up, up, and away.  We’re not really a culture that likes to look back at the past. We don’t like to go deep. We’re the country that left the other shore.  Those myths shaped my father’ life in very clear-cut ways.  He left behind his own family when he was very young and really never went back. I had uncles and aunts that I had never met; he was a haul yourself up by your bootstraps kind of a man who had been born during the Depression and had to work hard to make it and he did it on his own. He was very much a loner, independent and individualistic to a fault. He had no friends and was kind of a recluse who grew increasingly more so over the course of his life.  Dependency was something that he scorned and shunned; the idea of being dependent on someone other than his wife was a shameful thing. And a shameful thing for his children as well if that should befall them.

MM: The provenance of your two books is fascinating. It took you 20 years to write and publish American Icarus and America on the Couch, which were originally one enormous manuscript, I believe.

PP:  This first began as a project to analyze the psyche of America.  At some point, these two became two separate books but there was always that theme running through both of them.  With America on the Couch, I took all the interviews that I had conducted over the years with psychologists and psycho-historians and Jungian analysts like James Hillman, one of my favorites, who had such an innate, intuitive sense of the American myth of the Promised Land.  He talked about how America holds that ideal out to the rest of the world -- that’s who we are in the eyes of the world. In another example, Jungian analyst Marion Woodman talked about how America has become stuck in the rebel phase: Revolutionaries breaking away from Mother England.

MM:  So you’ve come at the American dream from two vantage points: your father’s personal story and the view from the analyst’s couch of our larger cultural imprints and peculiarities.

PP:  Yes.  Exactly. Like my father the lone pilot, and like Icarus flying to the sun, America is all about reaching for the bright dream shimmering on the far horizon of the future, or the big success just around the next corner. What we are not so good at is the other side of that myth, or how to handle the pull of the past and the fall – life’s inevitable losses, sadnesses, and failures -- and how to weave a community to catch us when we do fall. As James Hillman said to me, these myths are a reality and they're never going to change. So what really matters is that we become conscious of the deep undercurrents of the American psyche, and how these heroic myths of freedom, individuality, and independence shape us, for better -- and for worse. Know thy father, in other words, know thyself; know thy country, know thyself.