John Updike, His Stories, and Me

Photo credit: Aladdin Color Inc - Getty Images
Photo credit: Aladdin Color Inc - Getty Images

In December 1984, my father died at the Ghirardelli theater during a morning showing for backers and friends of the movie On the Edge, which stars creepy Bruce Dern as a long-distance runner. This was my father's fourth heart attack. His friends described him laughing near the film's end, and then hearing a sigh. When he was discovered unresponsive in his seat as the lights came up, that famous line was called out: “Is there a doctor in the house?!” There were four, but none of them could save him. He was 56.

At that point, my father, Irving, didn't have any money. He wasn't a backer, but he knew the director and was often on the fringes of various deals, cinematic and otherwise, “putting people together” and going out to lunch. Payment was largely theoretical.

For our family, losing this witty, charming, impossible man was like having the sun plucked out of a solar system. We, the remaining planets, careened randomly for a long time. I was 29 and going to business school, mostly because I hoped that it would help me understand him.

Almost exactly three years after my dad's death, a short story by Uncle John appeared in The New Yorker called “Brother Grasshopper.” Everyone who knew me and my family knew that my uncle was John Updike. He married my mother's older sister, Mary, when they were in college, and we Fisks spent every summer back East in Ipswich or Vermont or on Martha's Vineyard with the Updikes. Each couple produced four children at regular intervals, so we had nearly parallel cousins. If you've read Couples or The Maples Stories, you know the general scene: beaches, chaos, shucking corn, tennis and cocktails, adultery. There were the usual family spats now and then, but as a child, I always thought of the four adults as good friends.

I didn't find out about the story right away, because my friend Leah somehow broke into my apartment and took my copy. Soon, I was getting a lot of phone calls. There was no Internet in 1987; there were landlines attached to the wall and answering machines with little cassette tapes in them, which racked up message after message asking if I'd seen the story and if I was okay.

This eventually became alarming enough to send me to Out of Town News in Harvard Square to buy another copy of the magazine, which I read on the front steps of our triple-decker, pulling off a mitten so I could turn the pages. There were all our family stories: driving home from Crane Beach jammed into the Ford Falcon with dripping ice cream cones that Irving cheerfully told us to throw out the window, so we did. There was the one about Irving going missing just before my parents' wedding and John finding him taking a bath in the brook. There was even the terrible saga of my dad's climb on Mont Blanc when he was 20, where two of his friends died. John reset the event in New Hampshire's White Mountains and killed only one.

I was feeling sick to my stomach, but it was about to get worse. I read, “He's in with this guy who was supposed to make a low-budget blue movie with an adventure theme as well … so it wouldn't just play in Triple X theaters.” John had written an essentially nonfictional story about my dad, changing only his name (to Carlyle), and then made him a producer of pornography. I was mortified. Pre-Internet pornography was in no way socially acceptable or defiantly feminist the way it can be now. It conjured up images of greasy men in dreadful plaid jackets standing around the entrances to girlie parlors in North Beach.

“You jerk!” I shouted, as if John were standing in front of me in Madras shorts holding a gin and tonic.

Photo credit: Truman Moore - Getty Images
Photo credit: Truman Moore - Getty Images

The story's title, “Brother Grasshopper,” derives in part from Aesop's fable about the diligent ant preparing for winter and the grasshopper having fun all summer, and then being cold and hungry and asking the ant for help. John writes that his own character “was the patient ant, he felt, and Carlyle increasingly the foolish grasshopper.”

When I ranted about the story to friends, I focused on the porn thing, which was bad. But to me, what was worse was that Uncle John made it sound as though all the times he seemed to be enjoying Irving's company, he was just tolerating him. The whole piece reeked of resentment. I felt my childhood being shredded in front of me. The story was recognizable to everyone we knew. Since Irving was dead, there weren't going to be any more ways to remember him. He died in substantial debt, and we knew that he was no saint, but John had just made him seem cheap and ridiculous.

I'm Irving's oldest child. Since college, I'd been a sweater designer, a bookkeeper for restaurants, and, after my MBA, a Fortune 1000 lender, never quite settling down, always restless. In 1990, when I was 35, I moved back to California and the landscape unhinged me. I had forgotten so much: sour grass, pyracantha berries, that smell of salt and bay and eucalyptus braided together along the coast. The sensory overload cracked me open, and I began to come to terms with the fact that my dad had molested me when I was young. It never occurred to me to become a writer; Uncle John was the writer in the family. One day, someone handed me a book of contemporary poems, and reading it, I felt calm for the first time in months. Then, writing poems gave me a way to describe my experience that was real but didn't have to be linear. The gaps and spaces permitted in poems, the tangential approach, were a revelation. I felt as though I'd discovered my native language, and I hung onto it, took classes, wrote every day for years. It's how I survived.

A decade after John's story came out, I visited him in the big house in Beverly Farms with the cobalt-blue glass interior doorknobs and a wide view of the Atlantic. His new wife, Martha—not very new anymore—was away. It had been years since we'd seen each other, and I don't think he quite knew what to do with me. Many people in my family were angry with me. I'd been getting my poems published and revealing the details of how I'd been harmed and by whom: family secrets everyone said I'd imagined. Standing in John's huge front hall, I felt a lot of tension. John offered to make me a piece of toast. We ate at their little kitchen table: white Pepperidge Farm toast with butter and glasses of water.

I finally jumped into the silence, asking him why he wrote “Brother Grasshopper“ and made him so obviously Irving with the bell-bottoms and “angry cat-like eyes” and great throwing arm. “You took all the best, real anecdotes, and then made him a porn producer,” I said. “Why?”

No one could look as awkward as Uncle John; the gangly teenager not fitting in and wanting to be loved came right to the foreground. His famous nose got even redder. “This is what writers do, Molly,” he said.

I didn't feel I needed to be told what writers do. Writers do a lot of things, and ought to be given room to do them, I understand that. And maybe my vantage point of writing poems about child abuse and telling the precise truth as I recalled it, down to the blue Chinese dragons on our living room rug to which my dad had pinned my elbows, made me too wedded to the idea of accuracy.

I asked again, just in different words, why he would draw Irving so clearly in real life, and then slap us with that bizarre invention. “Did you think about how many people would believe you, and how we, his children, or his mother might feel?” Perhaps it was a dumb question to ask of someone who hadn't spared the feelings of his own family or his social circle, who'd written so many intimate details about his wife when he was still married to her. He just spread his hands out and shrugged.

The only reason I started thinking about this again was because everyone was talking about “Cat Person,” a New Yorker story that went viral a few years ago. It's fiction, but the author of a recent Slate piece says that her true experience was described, and then an unpleasant and false element added. There was much Internet debate about this. What were writers allowed to get away with? This brought up my feelings about Uncle John's story all over again.

When I heard the hubbub about “Cat Person,” I went back to read “Brother Grasshopper” in The New Yorker archives. The Uncle John character is presented not as an authority the way I'd remembered him, but as a nerdy loser—a “pipsqueak,” he calls himself. The porn producer element still put my back up, but I realized that the bigger reason I felt betrayed by the story was that John had loved Irving, and nowhere in those paragraphs did he admit it.

On a much later visit to Beverly Farms, a few years before he died, I gave John my first book, Listening to Winter, and received this letter in return.

Dear Molly,

Martha and I very much enjoyed your gracious visit, and I read your book of poems through the same evening. It holds many lovely poems, and some that pack a terrific punch. The sexual-abuse parts are very vivid and painful, the more so for me because I imagined I knew some of the settings. The staircase, for example, on Divisadero Street whose top bannister overlooked the Christmas tree with the star your mother made.... You have gone on to have a life.... The one time I witnessed a glimpse of the unthinkable truth was on the Vineyard, when Irving got furious with you, a young teenager then, and used oddly sexual language. But of the poems: ...there is something lofty about them, and under control while so painfully full of sorrow. Congratulations.

Love, and Merry Xmas!

Uncle John

For the record, that scene where Irving used “oddly sexual language” also included him kicking me down a staircase and around and around in the backyard, picking me up and kicking me down again, while the other three adults stood immobilized on the landing. None of the family disputes this part. When I asked my mother why she hadn't intervened, she said, “You know what he was like! He would have broken my arm. No one could stop him.”

I wasn't brave enough to ask John if he'd known my dad was molesting me. I don't know whether he'd have told me, even if he did know. But I do wonder if he was trying to say something about Irving in “Brother Grasshopper” that he knew and we didn't. Was he signaling Irving's capacity for sexual aberration in addition to violence by making him a pornographer? After he acknowledges that “glimpse” in the letter, it sounds like it to me, but maybe he did it unconsciously. At one point, John uses the name of the real, non-pornographic movie my dad worked on and died while watching, On the Edge, four times in one paragraph. It's a common phrase, but it was clearly not an accident. It seemed like a message. What did he think my dad was on the edge of? Writers do reveal things they don't realize they're showing us, or even know they know, in their writing.

As angry as I was reading that story when I was 32, at 66, I don’t feel mad anymore. It’s not just that time has passed, that I've gone through all the complications of discovering someone I loved so much molested me. It's not that I don't still think Uncle John was in many ways a selfish bastard.

But now I've been a writer for 30 years, I can understand the impulses that I and he and probably every other writer have: to go after a subject we're compelled by. I can get incredibly righteous about how my topic of child abuse is more important than someone who resented his brother-in-law. But I know I'm on shaky ground. My life depended on me writing out my experiences. I don't know if anyone came up to John to thank him because they, too, had a ne'er-do-well relative. I don't think John's life depended on him writing about Irving, necessarily, but I think his life did depend on him writing about whatever his mind needed to follow. Writers write what they have to, reap the consequences, and they alone know what they can bear. And then readers get to choose what they read.

I thought Uncle John's rewriting of Irving was going to taint all our memories of him, but it turned out that my own writing, once I began, was another way to remember my father, both the lovely and the horrendous aspects of his personality. Other family members may be just as angry with my portrayal as I was with John's. I can justify my own words by saying that this is the exact truth as I remember it—nothing made up and nothing left out—while John's was skewed. But John was writing fiction, after all, something I keep forgetting, because there were so many true stories included. It is easy, as a reader with inside knowledge, to mix up the writer and the character, which isn't fair. I can wish John's character had admitted his love for Carlyle, but that's not the story John was writing.

A couple years ago, my sister and I spoke to Terry Gross after a lecture where Terry had praised Uncle John quite a bit. We knew she really liked him: Her voice always got fangirlish and excited in their Fresh Air interviews. We weaseled our way backstage to meet her.

“It must have been amazing to grow up with him. Do you remember any of the things he said?” she asked. My sister threw me a panicked look. Then I recalled the line John's Irving had loved the most, and I offer it to you here. My parents and John and Mary divorced the same year, 1976. At some point, the two families were together in Ipswich again—I'm not sure why—and Irving said, “John, this is very strange. After all these years, I don't think we're related anymore.” As well as awkwardness to spare, Uncle John had a beautiful smile.

“Irving,” he said, “we are now connected by something so tenuous, nothing can break it.”

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