“We went down to see Dr. Rovner and today + he also stated that I should pull myself together + not destroy Joy + the kids because of my mental insecurity.”
Bill’s “mental insecurity” took such bizarre forms as running around the neighborhood in his underwear, asking the same question over and over, seizures, even a suicide attempt--putting such a burden on his wife, Joy, and “the kids” that his daughter Jody, an award-winning professor of theater and Eurasian and Slavic studies, was finally driven to write a book about it--a book of memories, mysteries, and goodbyes.
--From the diary of Bill McAuliffe.
Through many excerpts like the one above, we learn that Bill was aware of the horrors of his illness, in patches, and possessed by its demons, in patches. He seemed to be able to work (he was a case worker for the Department of Labor who went the extra mile to rehabilitate his poor, disadvantaged and often addicted clients). But on weekends he became a lost soul who asked questions, usually beginning with “What day is it today?” and, immediately forgetting the answer, asked again more desperately and stridently. It was no way for a teenage girl to have to interact with her father. It was no way for a wife to have to interact with her husband. Jody’s mother once compared it obliquely to having someone come
out of the closet with an axe. For Jody, Bill’s illness created “a sadness, a black abyss inside me that I am afraid to enter”--partly because she never grieved for Bill. The distance between them is expressed, in fact, in her calling him “Bill”--not Daddy, not Father.
Yet between them, too, there was respect. Even in Bill’s madness, possibly the result of a rare disease called spasmodic torticollis that causes twisting of the neck and can affect the brain, he had lucid moments and revealed his intelligence and his self-hatred, a man trapped by mental illness and trying, within his limitations, to get better. We feel the author’s frustration, too, as she seeks answers and finds only clues, no solution, to the mystery of Bill, who tried to commit suicide three days after she was born in 1954 and died of unknown causes at the VA hospital in 1975.
In the course of the book, Jody sifts through all the possibilities for her father’s condition.
Was it caused by something he ate while he was on Guam during World War II? Was it some form of PTSD? Did the torticollis, which was treated but never cured, begin when he had his tonsils removed as a boy? Was it, as he often said, the result of being shot in the back of the neck? Maybe, she decides, it was a condition called Lewy body dementia; at any rate, she concludes, “I know it wasn’t his fault.”
If McAuliffe were a lesser writer, this book could come off as negative, even nihilistic. Because she has such a talent for phrasing, such a love of language, and such a zeal to uncover the mystery of her father’s suffering, her story is a quest.
We walk with her as she hacks through the jungle of scientific information and emotional misinformation and distorted memories and helpful recollections from friends and family, looking for the pathway out, the glint of light. She recalls that Bill “repeatedly asked us for just a little reassurance. The problem was that no amount of reassurance would suffice.” But this is the same man who wrote to her, about two years before his death, when she was eighteen and experiencing insecurities that doubtless he grappled with every minute: “On looking at yourself with complete honesty, Jo, you know that you have rare talents, physical and mental, going for you. Make the best of these…” And that is a rare gift of reassurance from father to daughter, one that she can keep, along with his watch, the one that no longer ticks.