“His father committed suicide six months before he was born…”

All I have to offer today is a little problem of pronoun reference.

I knew what my student meant, and so did my student; but the pronoun ambiguity made the sentence memorable nevertheless.

Someone who commits suicide six months before he is born must be a self-aborting fetus, an embryo with a death wish, an humunculus who knows it’s a jungle out there and wants no part of it. That this same someone can already be a father is quite a feat; maybe he feels there’s nothing more to do with his life?

The sentence is a bit longer, and a bit funnier:

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born, which had a large influence on his writing.”

So, this paternal zygote is already a writer? Or perhaps he would have been a writer had he actually been born and then, um, learned to write. Death would put quite a crimp in an authorial career, to be sure: all his future writing would be, of necessity, non-writing.

Of course this cold-hearted and irreverent fantasy is all in the mind of the reader. My student was writing about the poet Stanley Kunitz, whose life was haunted by the suicide, in a public park, of his father some six months before Stanley’s birth and his mother’s subsequent implacable grief. His life, some months more than a century long, wasn’t easy, but he rose to importance and fame, and made a significant impact on American poetry both with his writing and with his nurturing attention to other writers. His poem “The Portrait” speaks of the suicide:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek 
still burning.

This kind of quiet pain is what my student was trying to talk about. A case of poor pronoun reference was the instrument of her undoing.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““His father committed suicide six months before he was born…”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    I read Caitlin Thomas’ book “Leftover Life to Kill,” written about her life after Dylan Thomas’ death, many years ago. What has stayed with me is not only her regret for the ways she might have been kinder to him, more tolerant, more happy with him –and was she kidding herself? Apparently, he was not very easy to live with– but, even more, her fierce anger that he had died. That he was, quite simply, no longer in this world. Now I know that survivors classically blame the dead for “leaving” them but this was, somehow, different. What she was saying, it seemed to me, was that if he had truly loved her, he would have wanted to live, he wouldn’t have lived the WAY he had, that he would have taken greater care of himself. And so, she blamed him for voting for death.

    • RAB

      It’s a very angry book, as you say. She wrote two others: one about drinking and their relationship, and one a memoir (after she had found the love of her life, a much younger man, and moved to Italy) in which she belittles Dylan’s sexual capabilities and maturity but does soften her general outlook on their lives together. She was a dancer when Dylan met her, and a frequenter of artistic circles–and Augustus John’s lover–she never planned for her main identity to be wife-of-poet, let alone mother-of-his-children. It was a largely frustrated life for her. But that increased his own frustrations and fears, of course, since she was, for better or worse, faithful or unfaithful, the love of his life. Among writers DT is the love of MY life, so admittedly I may be somewhat unfair to Caitlin.
      In “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” the poet pleads with his father to be angry about death, and says “fierce tears” would “curse, bless” the POET. The statement, or the tacit message, that death has become preferable to life is a terribly negative message to those who aren’t dying, even though the dying so often express this idea. Suicide is so much worse, as it implies that trying to go on in a hard existence is folly, and also that the people closest to the individual aren’t adequate to tip the balance in favor of sticking it out. Leaving life BY CHOICE…! Devastating. Anger is just as understandable a reaction to that as grief, or rather a legitimate part of the grief.

  • shovonc

    His mother must have been very upset.

  • yearstricken

    I started out in laughter from your student’s sentence and your exegesis, then ended in sorrow with that poem.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    A very wise college professor of mine, and my college director ( we were pretty close) told me that he’d observed alcoholics leave very angry people behind when they die. So much unresolved.

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