Darkness and Light: Andy Taylor, Dr. Jekyll & Lord Vader

14 Apr

William Norman Boggs Senior & William Norman Boggs Junior, 1957


“In the end, I do not know if the stories I tell about going there, being there, and living in its aftermath are tales of recovery or tales of symptoms.” Ron Pelias

I like the Andy Griffith Show. I’ve always liked it. I’m especially drawn to the poignant moments where kind, wise, and gentle Andy Taylor sits on the edge of young Opie’s bed, and, in a spurt of slow Southern direction, guides the young man through the major issues of life.

Andy-Opie 1

Is it the father-son interaction that grabs me? Maybe the Southern setting that reminds me of my early years in eastern Kentucky? No, more likely it’s the depiction of some father ideal, some model or example that I’ve always longed for. Something I missed, something that has left me incomplete, even defective.

There were no edge-of-my-bed wisdom dispersals from my father. Nothing resembling a kind, wise, and gentle man was ever of a part of my formative years. Quite the opposite. Compared to the fictional Andy Taylor, I lived with an increasingly hostile monster for the first six years of my life. Whether or not he ever intended or even considered it, in those brief years, William Norman Boggs Senior taught me lessons that were the opposite of those modeled on television.

My name is William Norman Boggs Junior. I’m a white middle-aged male, born in Ashland, Kentucky and said to be Scot-Irish in ethnicity. I’m also traditional, heterosexual, conservative, politically independent, and an evangelical Christian refugee. Most who observe my life might say I’ve done okay. I’m well-educated with a graduate degree and have a long-term job with a respectable salary. I’m creative with hobbies that include art, writing, music, and acting. I am the father of four great children and the grandfather of eight great children. Not bad for an adult child of an alcoholic, I’m told. Yet those who really know me are aware of a deep hole that even today can become a hazard for me. A hazard that sometimes has prompted in me a transformation not unlike the intelligent, respectable Dr. Jekyll becoming the dangerous brute Mr. Hyde.

My namesake, a word easier and more comfortable to use than “father,” since he was not really my father in any common sense of the word, had a deeply negative impact on me. He inflicted much damage. William Norman Boggs Senior taught me things, mostly things I didn’t want to know.

William Norman Boggs Senior was an alcoholic. This man was abusive, controlling, dangerous, and malignantly narcissistic. The day of the divorce was the last contact I had with my father. He completely disappeared. My dad.

After my six-year education in the William Norman Boggs Senior School, I learned to be effectively good and more effectively evil. Split right down the middle, I’m powerfully drawn to the uniqueness of good but also skilled at feeding my dark side. Just like in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” evil always seems to have an advantage, even today. Why is that? Some 50 years after my last encounter with my father, I still struggle with that.

In my father, it was easy for me to ascribe causality for his two-sided persona to his alcoholism. For Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the chemicals were not the cause of the transformation but instead a key of sorts that unlocked that already present inner evil. My father had a chemical key like Dr. Jekyll. My own key is much more subtle, more like the devil-angel voices from the cartoons, but just as powerful and harder to excuse.

I want to be a little careful here. I have no desire to blame my long-dead, pitiful father for every bad thing I have ever done or thought. I hate the overused reality-show victim mentality and don’t want to present myself as a victim or be defined as one. I have made choices in my life. Some good, some hurtful to others and myself. But they were my choices, my responsibility. Still, I believe the foundation laid by my father in my early years has indeed influenced those choices, well-paving some negative paths while placing hard-to-maneuver-around obstacles before some positive ones. Rather than prepare me for life, he dug a deep hole for me.

I said I like the Andy Griffith Show. I also like Star Wars. It has that underlying father-son reconciliation story that brings tears to my eyes. Unlike Luke and his father Lord Darth Vader, there was no positive outcome, no deathbed discovery of buried good in my father, no last-minute display of sacrificial fatherly love. Quite the opposite. But in the Star Wars story there are all those bad good guys and all those good bad guys, chock full of that inner duality to which I so completely relate.

As a father myself, for nearly 40 years now, with four adult children, I know well that my fatherly lectures have been far less heeded than my example for good and bad. Some educators I respect have even suggested that an example is as powerful in the learning process as actual experience. Wow.

While the example I’ve presented to my children is light years-through-hyperspace different than the example I had, it still has been thoroughly flawed. Someday one or maybe all four of my kids will sit down and write a narrative about how I put some whammy on them (I hope they do) and they’ll be right. Maybe every father would say that (I do hope it’s less of a whammy than was placed on me).

Still, the ubiquity of darkness, the shroud that covered my heart, created an environment where light was easy to recognize. I lived in the absence of light for much of my first six years, then often after that. I often found myself retreating into shadows, the shadows of self-absorption. Back in the hole. It was/is a painful, comfortable place.

My default to darkness made the light all the brighter. And all the more painful. The eyes of my heart hurt when I would stumble into the light of healthy relationships. Then, rather than stay long enough to allow myself to adjust to the brightness, most of the time I would look for ways to return to the blackness. That comfortable, familiar, deadly darkness. Thanks, Dad.

The William Norman Boggs Senior world was dark, full of blacks and grays. No light, no color, no hope. Just hurt and death. I lived in that for my first six years. Later, even when I moved toward some outside light and experienced life in color, I brought my shades-of-gray self with me into that environment. It’s still all too easy to do that.

In this way, my father taught me something unique and something that has haunted me for most of my 50+ years. He taught me how light and darkness can stand side by side, how it can be simultaneously present in my own heart. So instead of seeking to replace the darkness with light, I learned to cultivate them both, side by side. I’m not talking about the psychological phenomenon of split-personality disorder (I know, they have medicine for that; how I wish dealing with this inner duality was that easy).

Maybe it’s true that all human beings struggle with that inner battle between good and evil. Apostle Paul of the Bible certainly thought so. “So I find this law at work, when I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21, New International Version). I like Paul.

As I observed it, my father made increasingly fewer attempts to build up the good, just like Dr. Jekyll, choosing instead to embrace the evil, to wallow in it. For the fictional doctor, the draw of the unbridled evil was intoxicating and eventually addicting. Why choose good with all of its restrictions, when I can unleash myself to do whatever I please, to leave no want ungratified? That is the question to which my father answered, “I choose evil.”

Yet from early in my life I felt pulled to whatever I perceived as light. I just brought my friend evil along, and made sure he didn’t get too uncomfortable. That kind of life has left me unsettled and conflicted. Pulled in two directions. Never comfortable, never satisfied. Convinced intellectually of the value of the light, the rightness of the light, I’ve built up my conscience, giving it a seemingly heightened sense of awareness of darkness. And producing mounds of guilt. I am always guilty. Always guilty. Always guilty because of my effort to remain close to light. The closer I am to the light, the more evident the darkness remaining. I try to keep this darkness caged, but the dark William Norman Boggs Junior is easy to feed, easy to empower with enough strength to do more damage. With a steady food source, he remains strong and is able to break free from the flimsy cage I’ve built in my soul. When he breaks free, he’s in charge at least for awhile.

When he’s in charge, hurt occurs. I always hurt myself by giving in to the pattern of gratifying whatever desire whatever the cost. All my adult life I’ve been in combat with dark companions. Friends for the few minutes of indulgence I give them, they do their damage and then go, leaving me to deal with the consequences. When that evil is in charge, I also often hurt others, mostly the ones I love. Thanks, Dad.

Over the last 52 years I’ve made a step away from the dark world my father introduced, but only a step. One foot is in the light. The other is in the darkness. Still. My head and heart bob back and forth between them. I’m always guilty. Never really free.

Andy Taylor, Dr. Jekyll, and Lord Vader are an unlikely triad. They have served to help me understand and illustrate the things I learned from my father. Mostly things I did not want to know and I few I did. We will look at that together. I learned by his powerful negative example, and they were lessons I still battle now more than 50 years later. I learned also by his absence, his disappearance from all contact with me after my parents’ divorce when I was six years old. That vacuum sucked me down paths I never wanted to travel, dropped me in places no one should have to visit. It froze me emotionally in time, stuck in many ways at age six.

Yet today, I am at peace. I’m comfortable with where I am and more in touch with how I got here. My hope is that these stories of my life will help others with similar backgrounds know they’re not alone.

Funny. Once the Andy Griffith show began broadcasting in color, I lost interest.

new age 8 photo2



Of seahorses and elephants. An introduction.

13 Oct


It was early evening, November 24, 1980. My wife, Amelia, now eight months pregnant, and I had just returned home to our married-student-housing apartment on the Indiana University Bloomington campus. We checked on our almost three-year-old daughter, Valerie and I got ready to drive the babysitter home. I asked my brother-in-law, also a resident of that apartment complex, to come with me.

Alejo and I dropped off the babysitter and headed straight to Spaceport, a new video game parlor right next to campus. Pure research, you understand. We played Space Invaders, Defender, and Joust for more than just a few minutes. In these ancient days before cell phones, I had no idea Amelia had just gone into labor.

I got home to discover Alejo’s wife had rushed my wife to Bloomington Hospital. I raced over there and arrived just in time for the birth. Doing my best impersonation of Bill Cosby/Lamaze breathing techniques, I tried to help my suffering wife get through this process. I didn’t contribute very much, but at least I was there.

Dr. Ritchie came in and said he was looking for his catcher’s mitt. I appreciated his humor; it was somehow lost on Amelia. Not more than an hour later, Amelia gave birth to what looked like a lizard. But he was my lizard. We named him “Ben.” I guess I think all babies look rather lizard-like in their world debut. And if not bearing resemblance directly to some reptile, they at least fit the “yucky” description. But I was awestruck at what I had seen. The incredibly difficult process now seemed miraculous…I witnessed the birth of our second child…a new little entity…my son…nothing short of amazing (I did not get to witness the birth of our first child, Valerie, because we had a very old-fashioned doctor who forbade fathers from being in the delivery room).

seahorseOf course I know that with the exception of male seahorses, we men do not get to experience the miracle of pregnancy and birth. Still, at the risk of offending any female readers, I believe to some extent I became a seahorse in the gestation and delivery of this work fatherlyFIRE.  And true to form, I gave birth to what first looked to me like a lizard, or at least something yucky. Yet today, some ten years later, I see my baby a little more clearly. Like most parents, I am very proud of my offspring.

fatherlyFIRE is my life story. No little eight-month gestation for this baby! They say the African elephant has the longest gestation period of any mammal…660 to 760 days. I beat that with fatherlyFIRE. It was “in the oven” for more than three years as a concept, with elements of it under construction for much longer. I guess for almost 50 years. They also say the elephant’s long pregnancy is “due to its enormous size and slow development.” I can certainly relate to that as fatherlyFIRE’s pregnant poppa. It was not just something I wanted to do, it became something I had to do.

My creation is easily the single biggest project I’ve ever tackled. What is fatherlyFIRE? It is “the true story of one son of an alcoholic’s search for stolen manhood.”  It’s a “series of dramatic remembrances” that represent my quest to answer a long left-dangling question for me, “What is a man?”  It’s a summary of what my father taught me, mostly things I did not want to know.

“Friendly fire” is a common military euphemism used to describe the horrible tragedy that occurs when through the chaos of war a soldier kills his or her own fellow soldiers by mistake, in the “fog of war.” When we hear about that, we’re sad, but we understand on some level that that can happen in the craziness of a war zone.

elephant“fatherlyFIRE” is my own euphemism for an even greater tragedy, one that occurs not in a violence-expected war zone but in what is supposed to be the safest of places, a child’s home. In this scenario, a father inflicts crippling emotional, physical, and spiritual damage on his children as sure as if he were dropping smart bombs on their spirits, hopes and dreams. He may inflict this fire by accident or it may well be intentional. I experienced fatherly fire.

Today, I think of it in terms of Ron Pelias’ words, “what we decide to remember says who we are now” and “what we commemorate each day by the telling of our tales is our necessary history and our moral mandate.” These ideas are highly motivational and point directly to the heart of what I hope to accomplish by writing fatherlyFIRE.

fatherlyFIRE is or tries to be all that. In the end, though, it is intensely personal, an autoethnography, my “primary narrative” as Dr. Theresa Carilli might say, a series of stories of my experience identifying and dealing with the dominating impact of my alcoholic, abusive, and absent father throughout my life. A mission, perhaps. A mission that has not ended for me, a mission that continues today and will continue until I am gone. fatherlyFIRE is about my own personal legacy…what I will leave to my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It is the story of how I have fought falling into the same patterns of my father and how sometimes I succeeded.

Yes, I bear permanent scars caused by the alcoholism of and subsequent abandonment by my father, and my own bad choices, but today see those scars as proof I’m a survivor. I can touch those scars and nod with recognition; I remember their source, but the pain is gone. I’ve made peace with my past but I have more work to do, though, more stories to tell, more information to uncover, process and present.

So today, as I think back over this my “pregnancy,” I have good thoughts. Oh, I do remember some times of pain in the labor process, as any pregnant male seahorse or long-gestating African elephant might. But I am very proud of what I’ve recorded here. Perfect? No, of course not.  Actually, rather lizard-like. But that’s exactly the beauty of the story I tried to tell. It is about imperfection and pressing on anyway.

My hope is the openness I offer here will prompt openness from others in response. Especially those who know similar pain and feel the same sense of being alone.

According to Sparkes, “On the whole, autoethnographers don’t want you to sit back as spectators; they want readers to feel, care, and desire…autoethnographies can encourage acts of witnessing, empathy, and connection that extend beyond the self of the author and thereby contribute to sociological understanding in ways that, among others, are self-knowing, self-respectful, self-sacrificing, and self-luminous.” As you read my words, I don’t want you to be a spectator on the sidelines watching some sad tale. No. As you encounter these words, I want you to “feel, care, and desire.”

William Norman Boggs, Jr.