Despite working in studios for many years, I find that my fear of making mistakes is always present. While I have had only two among many supervisors who could be said to be irrational or mean or both, I find myself worried that at any moment I will be chewed out for some innocent error.
For the last year, I have professionally taken on a new career as an art model for several nearby colleges and art workshops. Standing completely naked in front of art students is liberating and spiritually fulfilling. Despite the physical challenges of standing still for twenty-five minutes at a time, I always end up refreshed and stress-free at day’s end. I’ve never known a job like this. A day in a radio studio leaves me utterly exhausted. Now, why the difference?
Growing up in our house involved a Kafkaesque quality, at least for my mother and my two brothers and me. (My sister, who came along later, must have also gotten some of this.) My father did many admirable parenting things, such as teaching us to ride bicycles, instituting weekly family game nights, playing ping pong and table hockey games with us, printing up my newspapers, and being the sole provider of our family for a number of years.
But the goal of feeling totally loved and belonging in a well-functioning family unit was forever a distant goal, like Gregor Samsa trying to get out of bed, or K. getting into the Castle. We were forever “Before the Law.” Dad had an secret mental manual of “how to do things” that was so exhaustive that, to do anything under his supervision, in my memory, at least, guaranteed that the hapless doer would be belittled and then trained, under duress, by watching Dad do it. Perhaps my infatuation for Franz Kafka’s books and stories—to the point I irrationally felt certain that I somehow “was” Kafka—was centered in the impossible quest to try to feel normal under such circumstances.
Whether through some klutziness, insecurity, or unexamined inborn need, he engaged in a kind of jokey name-calling (“You slobberkite!” “Dumb bunny!” “Dumb Cluck!”) or outright shaming. “Shame on you!” He even had a little rhyme for oldest brother: “David, David, mis-be-haved, take your elbows off the table.”
When helping him on a project, I could be counted on to do it “the wrong way” (i.e., not his way) and my stomach would be in knots, just waiting for his high voiced “Hey, hey, not like that!” to be followed by him using his arm as a way to rapidly parry my hands off the project while he took over. (This, by the way, was also the method used by brother David when teaching me to play blues, boogie-woogie, and jazz piano. I have no doubt where David learned this.)
Then, I would just sit and watch silently, gloomy that I missed my chance to be working hands-on, as his ubiquitous pipe smoke filled the room. I found I gained very little by way of practical knowledge this way. I did gain a pretty good sense that I was not quite good enough at anything. I would never quite totally master my goals. I vaguely felt that my presence on the Earth was a mistake and had better get used to enjoying life on the margins of major accomplishment. (I did become praised by him, as did brother Eric, for fetching tools, even when he called them “the whatchamacallit.”)
Dad’s laugh was fun and infectious in normal circumstances, but he had a high mocking laugh reserved mostly for my mother; when her doing things “the Rockne way” (i.e., the “wrong way,” i.e., not his way) would elicit responses most often heard in junior high schools or in sibling rivalries. You can imagine how mirthless we children found that laughter.
So, now that I’m 61, I am trying to unravel some mysteries. First, why am I really just now pulling off the band-aid I put over this verbal abuse my whole life to the point I am writing about it and sharing it? (Or have I been sharing this repeatedly and forget the fact?) Second, was such verbal abuse common among the families in our neighborhood and towns? Is it something we only now recognize as abuse? We always chanted, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and we all believed it. Third, how could my father function as such a beloved college professor at work but engage in these shaming activities at home?
Doing preliminary research on the subject of verbal abuse, I find that such people are often very charming outwardly. That’s Dad. He was at home in a roomful of people, a classroom of students, or a congregation to whom he preached. I never once heard him say mean things to any of them. He saved it for his intimates.
I don’t believe he was the victim of verbal abuse. I am told that he was quite spoiled as a child. The golden boy, whose half-sister functioned as an extra mother, so he had two mothers, lots of siblings, and a father, and lived in relative wealth during the Great Depression. G.I. Bill after a cushy wartime post in Venice, Florida, paid for his education, and he waltzed into Seminary, parishes, grad school, and jobs in ways that are now only legendary to American struggling workers.
I do wonder if his family’s undertaking business took its toll on Dad. I think he was a very sensitive soul, and I don’t think he really cared for the accidents he witnessed as ambulance driver, or the many frozen bodies brought to the Stenshoel Funeral Home after the big blizzard of whenever it was. He learned to hold his feelings in check, but they needed an outlet. Was his overarching hierarchy of rules and proprietary ways to do every last thing, from cardboard recycling procedures to opening cereal boxes, his way of creating a certainty which kept terrifying, raw, emotions from haunting him? He endeavored to use control as a means of family administration. No one ever told him control never, ever, works.
He praised me when, getting hurt as a young boy, I refrained from crying. If I expressed emotional hurt, he would say, “You’re too sensitive,” or, “Peter, you’re paranoid.” I believed him. I have since discovered that “You’re too sensitive” is the way verbal abusers acquire permission to continue the abuse. It makes the victim feel it is their own fault, for being too, too, well, too sensitive.
When family get-togethers happen, even now that Dad has passed on, the dynamic is not necessarily much healthier, because something causes us to revert to the strange Kafkaesque environment. I remain “too sensitive.” There is a certain shaming intonation that consists of a descending pitch accompanying ones name. As in, “Oh, Peeeeterrrrrr,” starting in normal range but then sliding bassward to make emphasis on the strength of whatever wrong opinion I have just voiced. Or, “Peter, Peter, Peter,” that repetition indicating I must be too dense to notice just one iteration of my name. I admit to sometimes jumping in with absurd statements and sticking to them as if we are in a Beckett play. This, of course, is a really good way to bring on the “Oh, Peeeeterrrrrr,” variety of response.
I find myself feeling just as attacked in the rare instance a non-family member tries this. I really hope to have stopped this taking of names in vain. It does no good to a child or an adult. I admit to catching myself using this tactic on my recalcitrant cat, Sparky. Need I add that it only succeeds in Sparky nipping at my heel?
I must say I have lived an enjoyable and memorable life. But the things that I tended to get involved with were things not in competition with my family. Yes, David and I both played jazz and rock, but on different instruments. I didn’t go for academic achievements like Eric. Religion and theology were of interest to me but Uncle Jens had that all sewn shut. So I became enamored of underground sub-movements like flying saucers, ham radio, avant-garde jazz, (I considered John Coltrane a secret father-figure) poetry, radio engineering, sound collage, comedy improv radio satire on a space theme, where I could play cranky or off-kilter characters, like Paul Bunny (“Dumb bunny?”), Halvor Johansson, (a preternaturally calm and reasonable Norwegian-American), Jack Swekkmakk, (loveably bumbling, sort of like my inner image of myself), or “Your Host With No Face,” (self-explanatory). Spiritually I found a lot of comfort from various movements not particularly in mainstream America: Taoism, Zen, Seth, “Holy Order of M.A.N.S., magic, astrology, witchcraft, mysticism, Lazaris, Vedanta, the Beats, Advaita, Sacred Harp, and Gnosticism.
The first time I recall being told, along with my brothers and my cousin Kari, that we were “creative,” was after we four had assembled a soundtrack, using cello, recorders, guitar, and vocals, for the colorful reject reel of our home movie out-takes. The compliment came from Uncle Jens, who does not say such things without meaning them. I was so thankful and surprised in my heart in that moment. I had never known I was creative. My parents, in their acceptance and continuation of stoic Scandinavian-American Immigrant cultural traditions, did not want their kids to grow up “big-headed,” I imagine. I needed never worry about phony self-esteem. I got my self-esteem from my home-made comic books and from playing the “funnyman” to reduce bickering around the dinner table. I became the over-performing people pleaser, because, I was convinced, without doing these things, I was not adding value to our family. The notion I was valuable just for being human was indeed a foreign one, and never occurred to me.
I now know that I was very mistaken regarding my self-worth (though, a Norwegian accented voice in the back of my head is right now shouting “Who do you think you are to use a high-fallutin’ phrase like ‘self-worth?!’”) And it was not my fault that my father forever clouded up my relationship with bosses, friends, or my drive to succeed with his verbal abuse. I guess I can say, “He didn’t beat us,” and for that I’m grateful. In fact, it’s not like he had a “short fuse” or classic anger management issues. He wasn’t really an angry person. It’s more like he never developed a way to speak to his family with equanimity. He could revert to a younger version of himself around us; one that did not necessarily take our feelings into consideration. Perhaps he faced an over-abundance of those he nurtured as teacher and pastor, and ran out from time to time.
Would I have become a very different person without his verbal abuse? It’s likely. But I am not sure I’d have been a better person. I think the patience I developed assists my many careers. My new profession, that of art model, is the best fit for me. To stand naked, with all my body’s less-than-ideal features, before intent and grateful students and truly good art professors, proves to me, finally, in my sixth decade on Earth, that I can be admired and appreciated for who I am, with nothing to hide.
Finally, the ability to work with so many disparate people, and the understanding that compassion is integral to our mutual survival, is something I can lay at the feet of my experience growing up in such a home dynamic–Kafkaesque or otherwise.