on March 26, 2007
This is a wonderfully constructed story of a harrowing Southern childhood. Mr. Goolrick builds his story sentence by elegant sentence, and even in the face of the most horrible childhood events manages remarkable compassion toward his parents and the way they've ruined his life. The book is filled with warmth and humor as well, and many keen-eyed observations of a well-bred American family gone wildy wrong. Moving and inspiring, you'll think about this book after you turn the last page.
on April 25, 2007
I was drawn to this book because it seemed to be the most recent addition to the "dysfunctional family" genre which often captivates me. However, this memoir transcends this genre in that it is not written for shock value or the easy laugh, but appears to be a genuine attempt to evoke an era in the south, and to come to terms with a life that should have been glorious, but was horrific. Robert Goolrick's parents are perhaps the guiltiest, most wrong-headed, unforgiveable couple that have graced the pages of literature. Their actions and their decision about how to deal with their sensitive, gifted child wrought such power and devastation. Here, Robert Goolrick articulates in a way that is both gripping and poetic, how one human being has navigated a difficult and confusing life and continues to live it, I would say, heroically. It is fortunate for the reader that although his parents have shredded his psyche they were unable to obliterate his honesty or his talent.
This book reminds me of Susan Minot's wonderful fictional account of her childhood, Monkeys.
on March 27, 2007
I finished my father's copy of Mr. Goolrick's book with in a few hours of picking it up. It is, quite simply, engrossing. Mr. Goolrick's story is sometimes incredibly difficult to read due to it's emotional intensity and rawness. He does not censor, dilute, or gloss over any of the emotions or events of his life.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of this book is that most of it is set in my hometown. I recognized a few of the people on these pages (including Mrs. Lachman's crazy son who is still crazy and terrified me as a child. Still does, to be honest. A couple of months ago, he almost blew up his house.).
"The End of the World as We Know It" is a brutally honest, brave book. If you have ties to Lexington, have fun playing spot the town eccentrics. Lord knows, we have our fair share.
on April 5, 2007
There are all kinds of beatings. Among the "better" classes, belts and fists are unthinkable. The weapon of choice is generally words, but it can veer into sexual abuse. And the damage is generally to a child's self-esteem and sense of safety.
The worst thing about these assaults? The parents "know better." Indeed, if they heard about a neighbor's child being verbally or sexually abused, they'd be shocked. Who knows? They might even intervene.
So why are these parents blind to their own cruelty?
"My father died because he drank too much." That's the first sentence of Robert Goolrick's memoir. The second? "Six years before, my mother had died because she drank too much." The third? "I drank too much."
If you drink, if you are the child of a drunk or have drunks among your family and friends, this is not shocking news to you --- alcohol is a kind of misery that seems to love company.
But even if drunks are your lot, I doubt you know the kind of depravity that Goolrick describes here. "My mother and father presented a perfect picture to the world, a happy, witty, charming young couple who were madly in love, and did nothing but have fun," he writes. And so it was. His father was Virginia gentry, a college history professor. His mother was a beauty, well read, a lady; she wore gloves and powder. At the Goolricks' cocktail parties, they served cheese straws and cucumber sandwiches, and the guests laughed heartily at their stories.
And his father ended up with rats cavorting on the Persian carpets.
"Somebody once said to me that all families were either about the parents or about the children," Goolrick notes. "Ours was about their parents." And yet, through the first half of this memoir, the dominant note is forgiveness. Alone of the three Goolrick children, Robert got nothing from his parents. He won fellowships to pay his way through school, where he compiled a brilliant record; they didn't seem to notice. He paid for their house; they never thanked him.
Why does Goolrick forgive these wretched, thoughtless, insufferable people?
Because, when he was four years old, something happened.
I'm not going to say what it was --- Goolrick artfully structures this taut (213 pages), unsettlingly elegant book so you're well into the home stretch before he reveals the awful deed --- but its effect is devastating. That is, it's the defining event of Goolrick's life. It leads to drugs and cutting and suicide attempts and desperate sex --- all the stations of the self-loathing cross.
The title of this book is ironic. In the song, the lyrics go: "It's the end of the world as we know it/And I feel fine." But at no point in these pages --- not even at the end --- does Robert Goolrick feel fine. For whatever reason, he is unable to get past the damage his parents inflicted --- and then ignored. Given that, the writing of this book is a Herculean achievement.
So why push this sad, ugly story on you?
Because you are a drunk, and maybe my words will get you to read this book, and this book will stop you cold and make you realize not only what you are doing to yourself but the spectacular damage you are committing on your loved ones --- especially your kids.
Because you have a drunk in your family or social circle, and you've been pretending it's not really so great a problem, because God forbid you should do something uncomfortable and intervene --- well, maybe this book will be your wake-up call.
Or because you are the child of a drunk and you have been victimized in ways you can barely admit to yourself, much less share with others. Because you need help and won't get it because, in the twisted logic of these things, you're convinced that what happened to you is your fault, and deserved. Because, in the end, you feel so alone it's a victory every time you get through the day.
Robert Goolrick's among the walking wounded. But against all odds, he's walking. In his garbage dump of a life, that's a flower. And for others who see only "a veil of human misery over everything," that should be inspiring.
on February 11, 2010
A review in the form of a mini-memoir: Killing time in an airport newsstand recently, I saw a novel "by Robert Goolrick." Not a common name; I looked for a picture and said, "Yes, that's Robbie Goolrick all right." When I got home, I looked on Amazon and read about this book. I bought it the next day, but it was six weeks before I could bring myself to open it.
As a college senior in Lexington I had more to do than most with the "townies," because theater was what I did, and my all-male school relied on locals to play the women's parts. Thus I got to know the three brilliant Goolrick kids: Chester B. Jr., always called just "B"; Robbie who wrote this book; and their preternaturally-mature-for-her-age little sister Lindlay. I don't think I was in their home, and met their parents, more than once; but for a middle-class California kid bowled over by the quirky sophistication of the Southern gentry, once was enough.
And then, 40 years later, to read this book and find out what was behind this glittering surface . . . I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not being shaken to the core, but I can't find the words for its impact on me.
I downloaded this to Kindle based on the recommendation of a friend without even knowing what it was about. I found a remarkably precise portrait of a long-gone Southern middle class that I recognized, from the endless cocktail parties and endless cigarettes to the fiercely protected privacy of the Southern family. The images and scents and feelings the author conjures up seem so real and so close (Chanel Number 5 and dress shops and highballs, for starters) that I can't help but wonder what terrible thing I might have missed that was happening in neighboring homes. As one of his friends said: "We knew something had happened. We just didn't know what." While some other reviewers found it meandering, the sometimes stream-of-consciousness reflections are, in my view, a realistic mirror of how memory works. I appreciate that it is as much an accurate account of time and culture as a harrowing remembrance of the fallout from a terrible, inexcusable crime. Kudos to Goolrick for the bravery it took to publish this; if it saves one child from the "soul murder" that is sexual abuse -- or encourages one to speak out -- he will have done a great service.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Robert Goolrick's memoir is a stunning acknowledgement of Tolstoy's view.
I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately, mostly by people in the "baby boomer" age. Most have been very good. And, all have concentrated on the parent-child connection, or, in some cases, the lack of connection. After finishing each book, I'm reminded of the scene in the movie "In and Out", where Emily, the character played by Joan Cusack, screams out, "Is EVERYBODY [..]?!". I want to yell, "Did EVERYBODY have rotten childhoods!?"
But of all the "rotten childhoods" depicted in the latest rash of memoirs, no one had it rougher than young Robert Goolrick. Sexually assaulted at the age of four by his drunken father, the attack was hushed by his mother and grandmother. Goolrick hints at more attacks by his father.
Robert grows up bi-sexual, unable to sustain a relationship with either sex. His parents, by their cruel,on-going, thoughless, drunken actions, had ruined their child's life.
Not everyone should be a parent; clearly the Goolrick couple shouldn't have had pets, let alone human children.
The book is beautifully written.
on May 17, 2007
I found it hard to put down this book. I laughed and cried while reading it, and some parts made me gasp with their emotion. Other reviewers have already commented on the author's terrible experiences with his parents, but one part that struck me was when he says, early on in the book, that he wishes that everyone could be a part of his family. He is at a funeral when he has this thought, and he is recalling the good memories of his extended family, much of whom he adored (aunts, a grandmother). The author experienced wonderful childhood moments and had good people with him at times.
Of course, what his parents did is unforgiveable and ultimately leaves him wounded and messed up for life. I just wanted to add that I think that the sweet childhood memories are just as beautifully written and poignant as the sad and terrible ones. Nostalgia is sad.
on December 6, 2007
As a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and dissociation, I have read numerous memoirs, but Mr. Goolrick's writing stands above the rest both in the beauty of his language and his authenticity. Stark, poetic and deceptively spare, this memoir deftly moves from the chaos of the external story to the deeply shattered inner world of a survivor of child abuse, neglect and incest. The final chapter is absolutely brilliant - the most profoundly moving description I have ever read of the lived legacy of child abuse for an adult survivor. I wept at the conclusion. Immediately upon finishing, I phoned several colleagues and friends and read the last chapter aloud to them. Mr. Goolrick provides an extraordinarily insightful glimpse into the heart and soul of a survivor (articulating what many of my patients have spent years trying to express) and he does so with sensitivity, insight, intelligence, and yes, even hope - which is referred to as "the persistence of song." Bravo!!! I will continue to share and recommend this book to colleagues and patients alike...
on June 21, 2012
Robert Goolrick's memoir is heart rending, but more importantly it is so blatantly honest that it simply cannot be dismissed. After all, what makes a memoir succeed is total honesty. If the author is lucky, the unburdening of his soul will engender the passion and even the literary skills necessary to convey the truth with artistry and power. In my opinion, Goolrick wrestled hard to grasp the elusive realities of his life; once realized, those truths demanded expression. He must have known when he sat down at his computer to write a memoir, that the terror of his past would reveal itself to him incrementally. The ensuing process would explain why seemingly good people -- the people we love and need -- do bad things. In the end, he came to realize, not only how comprehensive was the damage done to him, but also how hard it is for one to acknowledge man's inhumanity, when the human psyche itself is naturally so conflicted.
More than anything man wants to love and be loved, and he depends upon his parents for the satisfaction of that need. Yet man is also driven by a desire to understand the world he lives in or "truth," as most of us would label that need. An intelligent, compassionate, caring young person, Robert earnestly tried to understand what could possibly drive a human being to perversity and cruelty, but at the same time he also wanted to be loved by the perpetrators of the despicable acts he didn't understand. For most of his life, he attempted to balance his need for love from his parents with his corresponding desire for truth. Finally, for the purpose of healing or cleansing or freedom, or whatever one wants to call it, he needed to grapple with the past, for his own understanding more than anything. In the process he had to face the devastating effect of "soul murder" on the human psyche in general and on himself. This is a complex story of one man's journey to individuation and his unabashed admission that given his fate, wholeness like the entire truth, is in the final analysis elusive. All man can hope for is that the truths he uncovers in his own journey will help others and thus spare victims the anguish he was unable to overcome.
Due to the complexity of his life led in a household where the truths of family life were concealed by elaborate facades so that the entire community fell prey to the fabrications of his parents for whom image was more important than understanding, young Robert was confused as to who his parents really were or what he was about. Goolrick attributes their lives of alcoholism and theatrical displays to their insecurities and personal failures. His mother was not employed, as was the pattern for young southern women of her time; the father was a mediocre professor of third rate courses. After failing at writing novels or poetry, both parents, although intelligent, possessed little in the way of inner resources to buttress the anxiety and disillusionment of their provincial lives. They simply didn't measure up to the goals they both had set and thus retreated into alcoholism and despair.
Robert notes that his parents were much admired for their sophistication, beauty and intelligence. Early on, his siblings and he regarded them as admirable. However there are clues to domestic turmoil when his brother is expelled from Williams College, has a nervous breakdown at 35, and when Robert, too, has a psychotic break at 35 and attempts suicide. Goolrick describes a southern culture of the fifties and sixties that emulated the frenetic lives of Zelda and F.Scott Fizgerald. People fall down drunk; people throw up on each other and on each other's floors, people drink fashionable drinks, and good hosts know how to mix them. People dress for the cocktail hour in satin and silk, gloves and dark suits. People are elegant, turned out like debutantes for others to admire and listen to their entertaining anecdotes. This was social success, this achievement of desultory sophistication. People liked that; they sought that.
As intangible as the entire truth of his personal history was to Goolrick, he strived throughout his life to understand, not only what the essence of his parents' personalities were, but also what his own deeper substance was. He fastens on a key incident in his parents' past where the mother returns home under ambiguous circumstances to change a party dress that has been destroyed by cigarette ashes. Although the boy does not understand the significance of the burned spot on his mother's dress, he intuitively knows that the truth behind the incident is dark, another clue to the depravity behind his parents' masks of dignity and grace. Thus, in writing his memoir, he recalls their emotional and verbal abuse, their cruelties of omission and commission. He recounts how he purchased the ancestral home for his parents but never received so much as an acknowledgement of his gift. He recognizes that eventually "we become the burden of ourselves." Eventually man must accept what he is, without excuses and without euphemisms. Just as his mother was never satisfied with her lot, he has his own despair to contend with on a daily basis, and there is no respite from it. After being in the "bin" (mental hospital), he recognizes, "you feel the need to justify yourself," something he has spent his life doing to no avail, but which perhaps his memoir will achieve, when he and others examine his life on a deeper level. His grasp that "life goes in bad directions when your heart is asleep" acknowledges how important love is and why betrayal by those you love renders one incapable of love. When Robert Goolrick accepts that he is so damaged he cannot love others or, more poignantly, himself, he no longer "shops to buy things that will complete him." He reveals that he has never found happiness, nor does he expect to. His life has been miserable and without fulfillment. He has figuratively "measured out his life with coffee spoons." He realizes that when he set his grandmother's curtains on fire or when he sought pleasure in one night stands or drugging or drinking, that he was just trying to divert himself from the pain of his own failure to live life with any hope of happiness.
He ponders why he drinks so much, does drugs, has promiscuous sex with both genders, removes himself from opportunities at self-disclosure or intimacy or vulnerability. He undergoes therapy, he asks others about their impressions of him, he endures the advanced psychoanalysis of a mental hospital, all in an effort to understand what happened to him to make him unable to experience pleasure, to regard his body with disgust and shame, to remove himself from others and enjoy the isolation of being in a foreign place without anyone knowing where he is, and of defiling his body with a razor for the purpose of an emotional high he doesn't even understand. A pariah, he seeks to know why and how he has become the kind of man who would do the things he does. Although Goolrick knows the explicit cause of his isolation, despair and shame, he carefully maneuvers the story line by alternating past and present chronology until it is the appropriate time to reveal the cause of his alienation. This he does masterfully.
The central question of the book is how does one go on and try to live when the horror of a pivotal experience derails him. How does one continue the banal steps of an ordinary life that require will and energy in the face of terrible confusion and despair? He marvels that people manage to make their lives work for them. As for him, he has no illusions. He suffers every day and goes to great efforts to calm his body into submission with a gargantuan medical cocktail to treat his various neuroses. In beautifully worded, moving passages of stream-of-consciousness, poetic, rhetorical questions, he asks what it takes to live, to go on, to survive unspeakable emotional betrayal.
Goolrick claims that people are sensual, sexual; they desire pleasure. He is unable to experience those pleasures. For this deprivation, he is still angry and rightfully so. Because he can remember when he, too, had those normal yearnings and the hope that he would be able to express them, he asserts the truth of his past in the hopes that no young man of promise will ever experience the same, so that no young father will violate those for whom he is responsible. In this respect, Goolrick achieves a triumph over darkness in addressing a problem too often shrouded in secrecy. He is an advocate, and his words ring true, even if sometimes the truth is almost impossible to accept because it is so terrible.
The language in this book is raw but powerful. Sometimes it is poetic. Sometimes the syntax is off a bit, almost amateurish, but not very often. Most of the time the books is original in scope, fiery in passion, solid in its observations about life, and compassionate in its descriptions of those doomed or hurt by the selfishness or depravity of others.
Author of "Hungry Heart"