I was 14, it was early summer, so it must have been November/December 1960. I was intellectually precocious, reading everything available, and debating literature and politics with my father as often as I could. While my English and history teachers seemed to be impressed with my articulate take on weighty matters, such as what sort of president JFK would be, most of my friends made it clear I should concentrate on sport, shooting rabbits, cars and the remote possibility of sex. If there were other restless minds in my classes at a country high school, I never found them, so home and school were separate countries for me.
I had a well-established competitive relationship with my father. Since I was little I had vied for his attention by being clever. At 14, I was I commenting airily on whether Lolita was Nabokov’s best book, or if Rupert Max Stuart, an aboriginal man sentenced to death for murder of a girl, was actually guilty. And every time, I tried not to be crushed by his responses; patronising me when he was sober, and loudly cutting me down if he was drunk.
Like most kids addicted to a parent’s approval, I couldn’t opt out; I just kept trying and kept getting hurt. If I knew something he didn’t, he said it was trivia. If I beat him at billiards occasionally, it was because he was drunk, and/or my winning shots were complete flukes. If I got a good grade in school, it was because the standards were so much lower than when he studied. It makes little sense now, but I kept dreaming of showing him I was just as smart as him; a bad lesson for life, and one that took me decades to un-learn. One of his friends took me aside one day, and warned me I would never beat Dad in an argument, drunk or sober. He said I should ‘be my own man’, but I didn’t listen.
Looking back, I can see now that I was important to him. While he always made sure that he came out on top, I think he enjoyed time with me; was proud of me but had no way to show that. When my mother was close to death, she told me he had loved sparring with me about all sorts of ideas. We shared the joy of looking at all sides of an issue, sometimes having a great laugh together about some silly pronouncement in the newspapers. No topics were out of bounds—religion, politics, economics, sex–I was making sage remarks about topics on which I didn’t really have a clue, and I felt like a real grown-up. Those joyous moments were the classic intermittent reinforcement that kept Pavlov’s dogs coming back for more, sometimes long after any chance of getting food or praise.
Alcohol was a constant in our household. I guess there were some days when Dad managed to have a good time without it, but I can’t recall them now. It was a tiresome business at best, and deeply unpleasant and lonely at worst. He was never physically abusive, but every other drunken behaviour made our house a place to avoid after he had a few drinks. With Mum often in tears and my brothers keeping well out of the way, it was often me, the faithful puppy looking for love, who became his company when a drinking mate wasn’t available. My role as the family social worker was emerging, and I didn’t shrink from that. Any time spent close to Dad was better than the alternatives, even if many episodes left me feeling flat and defeated. Or much worse.
One afternoon I was talking to Mum in the kitchen when Dad burst in through the back door. He was staggering drunk, red-faced, and yelling at the dogs to get out of his way. I remember wondering how he had driven home on busy roads. Mum started crying—I’m not sure why now—and he said something like ‘For God’s sake don’t start, you have no idea, no idea at all.’ Yes it was roughly those words—I can hear his Scottish accent now, so lovely, but for me so tinged with these memories. He banged some beer bottles down on the table, and stormed out of the room. Mum hid her head in her hands and cried harder.
I stood in the doorway, not sure how to help Mum, and worried about Dad’s look of desperation. The thought that he might try to harm himself hit me, and I stepped into the hall to follow him. At that moment, a loud bang stopped my heart. I must have been wide-eyed with fear, and I couldn’t breathe. For a couple of seconds I couldn’t even move. Then I hurried to his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. The door to my older brother’s room, where we kept two guns, was closed. Again, for a few seconds I was frozen, couldn’t go in. Then I heard him crying and swearing and thought things were OK, so I opened the door he had just terrified me by slamming.
Dad was sitting on the bed, with the shotgun open, trying to put a shell in one of the barrels. Because he was drunk and upset, he couldn’t get it done. I moved over quickly, and pulled the gun out of his hands. He fell back crying, telling me life hurt too much, that I couldn’t possibly know how badly, and that I should leave him alone. I took the shotgun, the shells, and the 22 rifle out of the room, took them apart and hid the pieces in the linen cupboard. When I came back he was still sobbing on the bed, and I suggested he come to his own room and have a rest. He came meekly, me leading him by the hand, and fell on to his bed. I stayed for a couple of minutes, until he seemed to be going to sleep.
And that was it. I was late for swimming training, so I told Mum Dad was asleep now, and I had to go. She thanked me, and said she would be OK. Tea would be on the table at 6 o’clock. I ran all the way to the swimming pool, and I am quite sure I didn’t think about what had just happened. Weird, but true. I swam as the coach ordered, chatted with friends, carried on as usual. Then I ran home across the paddocks to get my tea. My brothers and Mum were just sitting down. Mum said ‘Dad’s still sleeping, so let’s go ahead.’ I didn’t mention anything about the shotgun, and nobody seemed to know. Actually I’m not sure Mum ever knew; certainly I never told her.
The next afternoon, Mum had gone somewhere with friends, and all three of us boys wanted to go out, leaving Dad at home. I got him alone, and he said quietly ‘Don’t worry, I won’t shoot myself.’ We glanced at each other, and looked away. I think that was the only conversation I ever had about this with any member of my family.
So, what the hell was my psyche doing with this? I’d been beyond terror, I had coped well in extremis, and then said and done nothing. I think this event, and the many difficult times of minding my Dad when he was drunk, did mark me in major ways, not all bad. I became a useful leader in a crisis, someone who appeared almost unnaturally calm, whatever might be happening with my pounding heart, trembling legs or tight chest. This could be valuable at difficult moments, even though it could make me unable to be loving to people around me when that was most needed. That coldness was, I think, part of my misplaced conviction that I was on my own in the world. In stressful situations in later years I believed I could not depend on support—if it happened great, but best to assume nothing.
The incident with the shotgun can trigger reactions in me these many decades later. Something will remind me, and my emotions well up before I can clamp on a bland mask. I may feel drained and quiet for a couple days, as if it had really happened again. This sort of stuff just sits there, shaping us in subtle ways, and if we are lucky we get some understanding and acceptance that we are OK.
Last year, with some strong encouragement, I had a discussion with my 14-year-old self about that day. It went like this:
‘OK, you’re a very frightened 14 year old boy. But your Dad is safe—he didn’t kill himself. And your bravery is the main reason for that, so I am very proud of you. You deserve a medal, and if I could I would hug you big time. You are just as brave as any soldier. Your dad will live for another 30 years, and became a loving Grandpa, and it’s because of you. So you can go on growing up without being scared that stuff will happen again.’
It helped a lot.