Tom Couser's 'Letter to My Father' is a healing memoir
Waterford — It doesn't take long for Tom Couser to admit his initial reluctance at publishing a memoir that exposes the inner workings of his childhood family as it slowly disintegrates because of his father's drinking.
But Couser, a professor emeritus at Hofstra University who also once taught at Connecticut College, last month did release his memoir, "Letter to My Father," and said in an interview at his Waterford home that he has been gratified by the response, though he had yet to hear the reaction of a family member other than his sister Jane, who aided in the research.
Couser, an expert in the memoir field who specializes in books revolving around disability and chronic illness, said this was his first and last stab at writing in the genre for which he has become well known in academic circles.
"I don't think my own life has been that interesting," he mused.
Local poet and memoirist Margaret Gibson, in a blurb for the book, noted that the memoir was "fueled by regret" based on a hurtful letter Couser sent to his father at age 23, a well-intentioned note that was meant to open up lines of communication about alcohol abuse but instead sat between them as a wall not to be scaled.
"Most of us live with both unanswered and unasked questions about our fathers and mothers, aware that our parents are compounds of our limited personal memory and overwhelming blank space," she writes.
Remarkably, Couser had the resources to fill in some of those blank spaces in the form of letters from and to his father, the intelligent but distant W. Griffith Couser, that he finally sat down to read and arrange decades after he found them in a box in an attic at his boyhood home in Melrose, Mass.
And what he found after the death of his father was a man he never knew: someone who once fell in love with a married woman, had a dream of joining the intelligence services, taught for several years in Syria and, perhaps most jarringly, enjoyed the company of gay men in an era when such associations presumably would have been frowned upon.
"I needed to understand his past," Couser said. "It's brought me to terms with him. ... Thirty years later, I began to know him as a young man. ... It went a long way to resolving some residual guilt."
On the exterior, there wasn't much to know. Couser's parents married just before the American entrance in World War II and, like so many others, settled down after the end of hostilities when "Griff" returned home. They led a relatively uneventful life while raising children in the suburbs, living an American dream that turned to nightmare only during his dad's waning years.
But Couser's sleuthing paid dividends when he found an indication that his father might have entertained a much different life, a life light years away from his eventual job as a high school English teacher. Turns out his dad had applied to be a spy for the CIA, or an investigator for Naval Intelligence or the FBI, though apparently he never went in that direction, a decision that Couser believes might have been a lifelong regret.
"I suspect that life in Melrose left some deep needs unmet," Couser writes.
Couser also uncovered his father's three-year stint teaching English in Aleppo, Syria, as well as a flattering portrayal of him in a book published years later by a woman who had been a schoolgirl at the time. And he recounts his own trip to Aleppo in which he spoke to a former student in the school who pointed out the very building where his father helped Syrian children with their English.
The letters Couser found also allowed him to uncover his father's first two major infatuations, with high school sweetheart Rody and the married Lena, but it was his "manly love" with gay men that intrigued him just as much. He spends three chapters exploring the possibility his dad was secretly bisexual, or at least bi-curious, tracking down the kind of "bromances" that had once been acceptable in American life but became regarded as increasingly deviant by the time his father was a young man in the 1920s and 1930s.
"I have no reason to think that Dad indulged in same-sex acts," Couser writes. "But it wouldn't embarrass me to know that he did."
Indeed, Couser in his memoir plunges forward with steadfast honesty even as he explores his father's descent into alcoholism, a downward spiral that apparently started in his 60s, eventually costing him his teaching job. It likely would have landed him a divorce as well, had not his wife suddenly become ill and died.
"When dad drank, he drank to the point of oblivion," Couser writes. "... intoxication served some deep need — physiological, emotional, or both."
Couser didn't see the drinking as a death wish at the time, but after reading some of the notes his father left foreseeing his death, he now sees himself as a suicide survivor.
"Ultimately, the book does honor my father and recognize him for who he was, which is more than the man I knew," Couser said.
In the book, Couser assiduously avoids any assumptions about what went on in his parents' life to cause his father's alcoholic decline. But in an interview, he takes one stab at a possibility, pointing out that when his father was a young child, his only two siblings tragically died only four weeks apart.
"I think there was a wound there that was reactivated when Jane and I left home," he said.
Couser said his early drafts were chronological and more biographical. But he decided against writing in a strict time line for fear of ending on the down note of his father's death, and he eschewed a biographical approach to avoid having to fill in the blanks of memory with suppositions and "creative license."
Couser said the trend of memoirists who try to re-create scenes and dialogue from memory may be more appealing to read, but is also more likely to raise credibility issues.
"I may enjoy spending the night with them, but I may not respect them in the morning," Couser smiled. "This memoir is going somewhat against the grain."
But it's also accessible in a way that other memoirs may not be, since the main arc of the story comes from letters found in an attic — a trove that many families in the region likely already have found or will discover in the future.
"A lot of people have these sorts of family letters," Couser said. "They just don't know what to do with them."
"Letter to My Father: A Memoir"
Author: G. Thomas Couser
Publisher: Hamilton Books
No. pages: 205
Available: Waterford Public Library, Bank Square Books, Savoy Bookshop, Kindle, Amazon
Cost: $29.99 (paperback)
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