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Interview with Gonville Author and Actor Peter Birkenhead

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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.”

Birkenhead, instead, set out to create a book that immersed the reader in the completeness of his experience. One of the first things to stand out from a reading of Gonville is the narrative voice. The scenes of Birkenhead’s childhood read not as a man remembering his childhood, but as though narrated by the child. I asked if this was conscious. “Extremely conscious. I set out to do that. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it. I wanted the reader to have a sense of that experience; to put them there in as immediate a way as possible. If I put them there with an adult voice, there’s too much buffering them. I didn’t want a sense of knowingness to intrude. I wanted to recreate what was happening without an adult awareness.”

I commented that he had succeeded to the point that Gonville reads almost more like a novel than a memoir. “I’ve read a bunch of memoirs…the ones that I like the most were novelistic. I thought why can’t we do that? Why can’t we use the techniques of fiction?”

When reviewing Gonville I had realized that it was the third memoir I had read recently in which the authors’ lives were influenced by the presence of a volatile father. (Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography and Diana Joseph’s I'm Sorry You Feel That Way were the other two.) In Gonville, Birkenhead discusses learning as a child, the “malleability of truth.” Sampsell talks similarly about finding his own definition of normal, and when I interviewed Joseph, we discussed her attention to the mundane details missed by most people. She had contended that growing up with a volatile father had probably made her more vigilant, and she thought that a lot of people with that sort of background seem to become creative types.

I asked Birkenhead for his thoughts, and got an immediate response. “Yes, definitely. Especially that vigilance; there’s a kind of hyper-vigilance that you have to develop growing up with a volatile dad. It’s interesting that she talks about spotting mundane details…I feel that way, too. There’s a kind of solace in having something small, to spend time with mundane details. If you’re in your room without much going on, if you can write a narrative about the ceiling fan, you can get through the night. I have a distinct memory of being on the other side of the wall from my parents’ room…of living in my imagination as a way to block out the noise.”

In fact, Birkenhead jumped to the small details at the beginning of our conversation. I asked about his young daughter and his favorite aspect of family life from this new angle. “Oh, God…I look forward to smelling her neck when I’m not with her. My favorite part is when all three of us are in bed at night and are settling in.” However, Peter Birkenhead, the father, is decades removed from Peter Birkenhead, the son. “Honestly [the past] doesn’t come up too often. This feels very natural and easy. If I’d had my first child years ago, it might have been very different. I’m not I touch with my dad. Most of the wrestling with this happened years ago. There’s not an immediate connection for me.”

His vigilance has informed Birkenhead’s professional life as well. “You become hyper-aware of detail, of the subtext people give off. As an actor, I always want to do more than one thing at once. You watch people do one thing with their mouths, and another with their hands, and another with their eyes.” I asked how his writing and acting informed each other. “In the simplest terms, both are about imagining yourself into the skin of another person, even if that person is yourself…It’s keeping your eye on the ball – motivation…that people reveal themselves through small bits of behavior.” There’s that small stuff again. “I like acting that’s clean, elegant, and economical, not a lot of wasted motion.”

However, Birkenhead, like the rest of us, is not above enjoying an accolade or two. “It’d be nice if every time you wrote a page, someone would stand up and applaud.”

I asked what medium appealed most to Birkenhead as an actor. The answer was immediate, and tied back to writing. “Theater. When you’re an actor in the theater, you’re shaping the thing; you’re the editor, and in some sense the director. You jump on a moving train and go there. The only way to do that is to be open to it being different every night…You have to trust that it’s all in place…that’s a kind of thrilling thing to do.

Creativity seems not only to have thrived in Birkenhead’s childhood, but to have, in essence saved the family. One of the most compelling figures in Gonville is Birkenhead’s mother. I wanted to know more. 

"From reading Gonville it seemed as though your mother’s creativity, her writing and involvement with the theater saved her," I noted. "I think the process of her growth was one of the most fascinating developments. It seemed as though she found this outlet, and discovered something that allowed her to step out of the shadows. Is that a correct assessment as far as you know?

“Absolutely," he responded. "I was almost tempted to just write a book about her. Looking back on it, I can see it was sort of representative of a lot of women at that time. …But, I can condense that into a little movie in my head. She married my dad when she was 19…As soon as she started writing, she started changing as a person, and as she changed, she became even more devoted to her work. I find it interesting that she started with children’s musicals, and as that cycle of change took place, her work became more adult. As she came into herself, she had the strength to leave the marriage. It was all through her creativity. That was one of the lessons that I learned: creativity, because it requires emotional honesty, can do some of that work for you.”

Birkenhead’s mother was fortunate to find within herself, the help that was not forthcoming from the outside world. I was surprised to realize that I could not recall a scene from Gonville in which the police had intervened as Peter’s mother or brother were hit by his father. I asked if the police were ever called. “No. Uh, I don’t know that for a fact, but I certainly have no memory of the police ever coming…The instances of actual physical violence were usually very quiet. I remember the things that he said; only one was loud. When he was hitting my brother David and yelling ‘You’re not my son!’ …So, maybe the neighbors never heard anything. There is a lot of violence in the book, but when you live the whole life, there wasn’t so much. At least not compared to the popular cliché…On TV or in movies, when I see abusive husbands, they’re always the mustache-twirling villains, who do it over and over, night after night. It wasn’t like that. There were long stretches of normal life…still unsettling because there was stuff bubbling under the surface.”

Birkenhead recounted speaking with his mother recently about her one encounter with law enforcement; when she fled from his father on their last day together. “She still thinks that their advice to take the kids and get going and not worry about filing formal charges may have been good advice…my father was a stalker. But, back then, with domestic cases, the law enforcement attitude was about sweeping it under the rug…” Birkenhead feels that today’s stalking laws are a step toward a better safety net. “There has to be some mechanism in order to arrest these people before they do real harm…to say that you can’t arrest someone until a physical crime is committed is crazy. We have to make those threat behaviors criminal. It’s always too late when the crime is committed.”

Despite the turmoil of the events it depicts, Gonville flows far more evenly than one would expect from such a memoir. This seemed to present two possibilities, denial, or (what seemed far more likely) an extensive process of analysis. According to Birkenhead, the process was “pretty long and thorough. I’ve been in therapy for 20 years. I think everyone should be in therapy. I know people expect from a memoir, and I’ve heard interviews with other authors who talk about the book as therapy, and I do write in order to know what I’m thinking. But, if I’d written this 10-15 years ago, it would have been more like what you’re talking about. It would have been terrible – a boring rant, or denial. Now, I’m able to make sense of it; the book is a product of that.” The writing process has been nearly as extensive as the processing of his past. “I’ve been writing the book in my head for a long time. I honed and honed the writing. I worked on it for a long time. I wanted it to have that kind of flow and immersive feeling.”

Gonville has been so carefully rendered as to give a thoughtful and judicious picture of the whole. The anger that many of us would direct at this set of circumstances has been processed and integrated in advance. However, flashes of anger do appear in several of Birkenhead’s essays. I asked if writing gave him an outlet for temper. “Mmmhmmm…there’s a couple of things. Yeah, it does. In a couple of essays, I thought it was the right thing. I wanted to be provocative. In public life…I don’t want to say that we’re too civil, because I think we need to be more civil, but there’s a kind of false politeness. Equal weight is given to “both sides” of an issue when as far as I’m concerned for some issues, like evolution, there aren’t two sides. So, I tried to do it in a couple of pieces.” However, Birkenhead has occasionally experienced second thoughts about contentious writing. “I have also done it and regretted it…There was a piece on the theater that I wrote a couple of years ago. I really regret the tone that I struck. That is something that I always struggle with and have to keep an eye on.”

One essay in which Birkenhead appeared to have a particular wrath for his subject addressed Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret and the power wielded by Oprah herself. I had to wonder if his childhood had sensitized Birkenhead to the ideas put forth by The Secret, particularly the notion that the world returns to us what we put into it. It seemed to me that would be a particularly offensive idea to someone who had experienced life with an abusive parent. “That’s exactly right. I know that I have a kind of hypersensitivity about that whole area…I do think there’s a real connection to my childhood. Life is hard and unfair and also wonderful and surprising. The idea that we can conjure our own destiny…I said this in the essay – in an era where there are still survivors of Auschwitz alive, it’s incredible that anyone can believe that.” However, Birkenhead wanted to make it clear that while he was offended by the idea that people can change the things that happen simply by thinking, he doesn’t decry the merits of a positive outlook. “I do believe in being positive. I believe that optimism can make it better.”

In fact, when asked what question he would be liked to be asked, other than “would you please play center-field for the New York Mets,” Birkenhead discussed the process of writing his book, and concluded with one concern: “I’m a little nervous about people reading it as only the story of a terrible childhood. It was sometimes terrible, but it’s a story of real, multi-faceted, dimensional people who were also often happy.”

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