I’m in the midst of editing my new novel, OUR DAILY BREAD, which will be released in the US in September. It’s the story of what happens in a small town when, for generations, certain folks have been ostracized, pushed away and left to fend for themselves. Considered Those People—beyond the pale, beyond redemption—they become resentful, insular, self-hating, inbred, almost feral. Think a rural LORD OF THE FLIES with grown-ups.
One of the characters, twenty-two year old Albert Erskine, struggles not to become like the people who raised him (and I use that term loosely). One of the questions I’m asking, in the book is, “What sort of moral breakdown occurs, on both sides, when we view our neighbors as The Others? But I’m also asking, “Is it possible to overcome, and liberate ourselves, from tragic childhoods or are we doomed to be forever constrained by the hurts of the past?”
I have personally worked hard, with the help of a number of people and by Grace, to release myself from the prison of my own past, and I think, for the most part, I’ve succeeded, so certainly I believe it’s possible. But sadly, some people seem forever locked in a struggle with the ghosts of their childhood. One such example is J. Paul Getty II, grandson of the oil baron once believed to be the richest man in the world and who achieved tragic notoriety in 1973 when he was kidnapped by Italian gangsters, who cut off his right ear. Mr. Getty died this past Saturday at the age of 54. He had been wheelchair-bound since 1981, when a massive stroke caused by a drug overdose left him severely paralyzed, unable to speak and partly blind.
According to the obituary in the New York Times, his mother, when she heard of the abduction and the ransom demands, told the kidnappers to, ““Get it from London,” a reference either to her former father-in-law, J. Paul Getty, the billionaire founder of the Getty Oil Company, or her former husband, who lived in England.
The obituary goes on to say:
The amount demanded was about $17 million, but the police were initially skeptical of the kidnapping claim, even after Ms. Harris received a plaintive letter from her son, and a phone call in which a man saying he was a kidnapper offered to send her a severed finger as proof he was still alive. Investigators suspected a possible hoax or an attempt by the young Mr. Getty to squeeze some money from his notoriously penurious relatives.
“Dear Mummy,” his note began, “Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed.”
The eldest Mr. Getty refused to pay the kidnappers anything, declaring that he had 14 grandchildren and “If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” His son said he could not afford to pay.
Three months after the abduction, the kidnappers, who turned out to be Calabrian bandits with a possible connection to organized crime, cut off Mr. Getty’s ear and mailed it, along with a lock of his hair, to a Roman newspaper. Photographs of the maimed Mr. Getty, along with a letter in which he pleaded with his family to pay his captors, subsequently appeared in another newspaper. Eventually the kidnappers reduced their demands to around $3 million. According to the 1995 book, “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” by John Pearson, the eldest Mr. Getty paid $2.2 million, the maximum that his accountants said would be tax deductible. The boy’s father paid the rest, though he had borrow it from his father — at 4 percent interest.
The teenager, malnourished, bruised and missing an ear, was released on Dec. 15; he was found at an abandoned service station, shivering in a driving rainstorm.
Later, when Getty’s mother told the young man to call his grandfather and thank him, he did, but apparently Gramps declined to come to the phone.
Hard to get over something like that, and alas, Mr. Getty didn’t manage it. His life continued on a tragic trajectory.
I have worked, over the years, with a number of women struggling to stay sober, and I’m always amazed at how locked up in the past they are, although it shouldn’t surprise me, since I was certainly that way myself for the first few years of my sobriety. But I’m lucky, I’m a writer, and so I have a way of working through my feelings, of safely exploring my relationships, and the part I played, and play, in them.
When I wrote my first novel, THE STUBBORN SEASON, I explored a highly fictionalized version of a particularly difficult relationship. By doing so, and because I wanted the characters to be fully human, and therefore complicated, layered with both good and bad qualities, I was forced to put myself in someone else’s mind, in their heart. I was forced to consider the world from someone else’s point of view. It led me to understanding, and forgiveness. It freed me.
One of the great reasons to forgive someone, of course, no matter what hideous thing they’ve done to you, is that by doing so you stop thinking about them all the time. You stop resenting them. You stop hating them. You stop imagining scenarios in which old wrongs will be righted and justice will be done. By forgiving someone you simply cut the ties that have bound you to the abuser. You just let it go, drop the rock, move on. Easier said than done, of course, but the paradox of so many things like this is that once you stop wanting things to be other than how they are, it’s surprisingly simple. Sometimes you just have to accept that, sad as it is, you’ll never have the parents you want. Your parents might not even love you. They may never admit what they did to you. It happens.
But surely, as adults, don’t we want to stop thinking about our childhoods so much? Don’t we want to stop being ambushed by them? Don’t we want to be grown-ups? Free. Assured. Confident.
Forgiveness may take time. (And certainly it’s not the same as reconciliation, which takes two willing participants and may be neither appropriate or possible.) Forgiveness may take the help of therapists or spiritual advisers. It may take concerted and consistent focus. But, one day you realize the chains are lying at your feet and the path ahead is clear. What a relief.
Alas, not everyone gets there. Some people stay trapped in past traumas, reliving them, rolling them around like a pebble they refuse to take out of their shoe. They stay trapped as insatiably needy victims, always wanting something from someone else; something that in truth they can only give themselves.
I was deeply saddened reading about Getty’s miserable life, but then I’m saddened by men and women I see who struggle with the same issues, albeit to varying degrees. As Philip Larkin famously said, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Then again, I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much.”