We began the conversation with the usual domestic disclaimers, with me apologizing preemptively for any interruptions, “It’s spring break; I’ve issued threats, but the five-year old doesn’t care.” He laughed, “I have a five-month old, and she doesn’t care either. We’re attempting sleep scheduling.” At first glance, this shared parenting empathy might seem like an incongruous beginning to an interview with the author of Gonville, a memoir that is, on the surface, about a life growing up with a volatile father. However, looking more closely at the nuances, this was the perfect start. And Peter Birkenhead is all about nuance.
Birkenhead, an actor with numerous theater and television credits, has written essays for Huffington Post, Salon.com, and Marie Claire. His recent memoir, Gonville, looks at family life with an erratic, temperamental, and sometimes violent father. However, Birkenhead stresses the complexities of his childhood, the many layers. “I do like to talk about the other side of things. In the midst of all this, that there was a family that managed to love each other the way that we did – to go to dances, and to play baseball.”
It seems deeply important to Birkenhead that not only is the pain of this upbringing understood, but that readers will also grasp the layers of a family as people rather than statistics or case studies. “In Gonville, I refer to the moment when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and there’s a statement by Bobby Kennedy about water shaping stone. It’s a quote from Aeschylus. Pain shapes us, but that can be to a certain extent a good thing. Nobody’s going to live a life free of pain. We had our own ways of having a good life growing up.” Through the writing process, Birkenhead says that he “learned to keep an eye on everyone’s whole humanity – on my father as a whole person, myself as a whole person – not reducing people to easy, flat images.”
Birkenhead appears to dislike the easy and flat, the facile labels tossed around so freely. I asked if his father, whose behavior is depicted as erratic to extremes, had ever been diagnosed with or treated for any specific mental illness. “No, he hasn’t. At least not up until about five years ago, when we last spoke. As far as I know he hasn’t allowed himself to be in that situation….He’s very anti-psychiatry; he always was. He’s never been in therapy to my knowledge.” But, Birkenhead added, “I very consciously wanted to stay away from clinical language in the book. Abuse. Alcoholism. Those words obscure rather than illuminate. I’m pretty tired of them, myself.”