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In the 1970s, life along Massachusetts’ Merrimack River was harsh and unforgiving. Jobs were scarce, neighborhoods were rife with drugs and violence, and hopelessness and despair prevailed. To survive amid such hardship, “House of Sand and Fog” author Andre Dubus III, built himself up from a scared, scrawny victim to a muscled street fighter who could defend his family and channel his anger at his absent father. Later on, Dubus found redemption through writing. He healed old wounds and forged a new life as one of America’s bestselling authors.
- Andre Dubus III author of the memoir "Townie;" the novels "House of Sand and Fog" and "The Garden of Last Days;" and a collection of short stories.
Read an Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. As a child growing up in the working class mill town of Haverhill, Mass. Andre Dubus III struggled for survival on a daily basis. His famous writer father left the family when Dubus was 12 and his mother struggled to care for him and three siblings in a neighborhood teaming with drugs, violence and bullies. In a new memoir titled, "Townie," the author of the novels, "House of Sand and Fog" and, "The Garden of Last Days," writes about how he turned to physical violence to defend himself and how writing saved him from a violent end.
MS. DIANE REHMAndre Dubus III joins me in the studio. I look forward to hearing your comments, questions. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. Good morning to you, Andre.
MR. ANDRE DUBUS IIIGood morning, Diane.
REHMIt's so good to see you. This is a tough story to read.
IIIYeah, it was tough to write, but it was tougher to live, (laugh).
REHMYou thought about -- at first, you thought about doing this as fiction.
IIIYeah, yeah, I don't exaggerate when I say for about 25 years, I've been trying off and on to write about all this material as a novel. And by that material, I mean growing up in the '70s, in the shadow of Vietnam ending. You know, I'm 10 years younger than the Vietnam generation, 10 years older than Generation X and there are a bunch of us out there. And there was so much going on, living with a single mom in poverty, Nixon flying off in his helicopter, no dad in the house. We were all taking drugs or having sex way too early and I just tried for years, three different times, to write is as a novel and it just never came.
IIIAnd I finally came to the realization that I'm just not the kind of writer who can write fiction directly from my life. You know, Truman could poet, he could have a bad cocktail party in Manhattan, write a beautiful story about a bad cocktail party in Manhattan. If it happened to me, it would have to be from the point of view of the waiter who was thinking of leaving his wife because he's gay and -- (laugh) leave very quickly, the cocktail party.
REHMYou actually begin the book with a very painful run.
REHMThat you had with your dad. Talk about that.
IIIWell, I had -- you know, I go into this in the book, of course, but I had just -- I had begun to change my body from the small, soft boy I was to a weight trainer and eventually a boxer and I wasn't in running shape, but my dad was a runner. He took me running with him for the first time and I didn't have any running shoes, so I put on my sister's shoes that were a size and a half too small and they were already worn down anyway. And I didn't want to tell him I didn't have any shoes and we began to run what I thought was going to be a five and a half mile run and it turned into an 11-mile run and I'd run more than a mile in my life.
IIIBut I ran the whole 11 miles and all 10 toes were bleeding and the heal was bleeding and the sole was all scarred up of my feet, but it was a valuable learning lesson. I just was so intent on changing my body, I didn't care how much it hurt.
REHMDid your dad see your feet?
IIIHe did, yeah. And when I took the shoes off after the run, he saw them.
REHMWhat did he say?
IIII think he said, Jesus. And then he said, where are your shoes? And, you know, it was a tough issue because my dad made very little as a college professor and he would give a third of his income to my mother for us in child support, but it was never enough. It was never close to enough. It was $340 a month for the whole time and she was making 100 -- barely over $100 a week as a social worker. So I shrugged, I changed the subject. I didn't want to tell him I didn't have any sneakers. I just had one pair of shoes.
REHMWould you read for us the portion of the book that so touched my heart because I can see you four going after your dad.
IIISure. "It happened early on a Sunday in November. Pop was so much taller than the four of us and we were following him down the porch stairs and along the path, Suzanne behind him in her cotton nightgown, then me and Jeb in our pajamas, Nicole last, her thick red hair and small face. We were 11, 10, 9 and six. Ahead of us, there was the glint of frost on the gravel driveway and our car, the old Lancer, packed now with Pop's things, his clothes, his books, his shaving kit. The house was surrounded by tall pines and it was too cold to smell them, the air so clear and bright. Inside the house, Mom was crying as if her pain were physical, as if someone were holding her down and doing something bad to her.
III'Daddy,' Nicole ran past us over the gravel and she leapt and Pop turned, his eyes welling up, and he caught her, her arms around his neck, her face buried under his chin. I tried to ignore our mother's cries coming from the house. When my father looked down at me over Nicole's small shoulder, I stood as straight as I could and I hoped I looked strong. Pop kissed Nicole's red hair, he lowered her to the gravel. His beard was thick and dark, his cheeks and throat shaved clean. He was wearing a sweatshirt and corduroy pants and he glanced up at our house. There was only the sound of our mother's cries, so maybe he would change his mind, maybe he would stay.
IIIHe looked down at us. 'I'll see you soon. We'll go out to eat.' He hugged Suzanne, squeezed my shoulder. He tussled Jeb's hair, then he was in his car driving down the hill through the pines, blue exhaust coughing out its pipe. Jeb scooped up a handful of gravel and ran down the hill after him. 'You bum, you bum, you bum.' He threw it all at once, the small rocks scattering across the road and into the woods like shrapnel. Pop drove across the short bridge, then up arise through more trees. Mom would need to be comforted now, Nicole, too. There was food to think about, how to get it with no car. I tried to keep standing as straight as I could."
REHMAndre Dubus III reading from his memoir titled, "Townie." Do join us, 800-433-8850. What a painful memory to begin this book with.
IIIYeah, and, you know, millions and millions of people have similar memories, don't they? How many divorces are there in our country, 56, 57 percent? It's one of the things I was aware of, I wasn't trying to say anything with this book and I actually never try to say anything with a book. I've learned over the years if I just write as particularly and honestly as I can, themes will emerge. But one of the things that occurred to me while writing this is, you know, we through this phrase broken family around like we're describing ice cream flavors. It's, you know, oh, yeah, she's from a broken family. We don't even let it sink in anymore.
IIIA broken family is a really horribly painful and destructive thing. I know that some divorces have to happen, but I do think we minimize it far too much, especially for the kids.
REHMYou describe your mother in one sentence, a honey-haired beauty who was smart and polite and had so much presence that when she smiled at you, it felt as if no one had ever smiled at you before.
IIIYeah. Yeah, boy, just hearing you read that, Diane, just gave me goose bumps about my mom. She's still that way, she's still that way. She's a beauty and she stayed and raised us. And look, I have to be clear. My father was not a deadbeat dad. He didn't just drive off and abandon us, but it was one of those particularly 1970s divorce where there was no split custody, we never stayed at his house overnight. You know, he would pick us up on a Sunday and take us out and drop us off two hours later, so it was really more like having a distant uncle or a maybe kind of a fun uncle, but not a father.
IIIAnd honestly, I wasn't really aware of that until I became a dad years later.
REHMAt first, he was taking all of you out together, then your mother insisted that he take you out one by one.
IIIYeah, she did.
REHMWhat kind of difference did that make?
IIIOh, I went -- it became horrifying (laugh). Well, it was good, but I remember being...
REHMWhat to say?
IIII mean, I had never been alone with him ever. Even when he lived with us, he was, you know, always doing something, always busy. So I remember being just mortified. Every other -- every fourth Wednesday, he would take one of the four of us to his apartment for dinner and I was -- they were horribly uncomfortable times for me and I think they were for him, too, but there might've been more for him, Diane, 'cause he was actually pretty emotionally shy. He was a gregarious, charismatic man, but he was quite shy one on one and yeah, all I remember is discomfort (laugh) from those Wednesdays.
REHMDid you ever talk to him about how you were being bullied?
IIINo, I didn't ever. I was always ashamed. You know, like most victims of any sort of aggression, you immediately think it's deserved and it's all your fault. I was a...
REHMI mean, kids in the neighborhood.
IIIWell, you know, there's no one crueler on the planet than kids. I mean, I really believe that. I think they're the cruelest people on earth and then the most loveable people and they need to be taught and they're not taught enough. No, didn't tell him, my mother told him after I was beaten up really badly once and he came and talked to the kid's father and that scene's in the book. And it was then that I began to realize my father lived in a different world than we did.
IIIHe was dressed in corduroys and a sweater and loafers, his beard was trimmed, he was talking to a dad across the street who, you know, had missing teeth and he had whiskers. And I realized my dad was trying to reason with this family and I knew these were unreasonable people. I knew that there was some people you just could never reason with and you have to learn to defend yourself from them and I was still a few years away from teaching myself how to do that.
REHMA few years away from it and enduring, I mean, just walking out of the house...
IIIYeah, I had a particularly loathsome bully, it was, you know, a fake name in the book, Clay Wallen in the book. He was a much bigger kid than I was. He beat me up daily. I mean, it just -- he was a sadist and I think he's dead now and I -- you know, his brother went on to rape his 27-month-old niece. It was a tough, ugly family and it was a tough, ugly street in a tough, ugly town and I was an easy target.
REHMAndre Dubus III, his new memoir is titled, "Townie." Do join us, 800-433-8850. We'll look forward to your calls.
REHMWelcome back. Andre Dubus III is with me. Years ago, as you now know, Andre, I interviewed your father after the accident he had which put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Andre's new book is titled, "Townie: A Memoir." Growing up in rough neighborhoods in Massachusetts, being exposed to really the worst of the worst and when I say that, you realize that your siblings had all gotten into drugs or sex or -- and you, same thing.
IIIYeah. You know, one of the things that hit me writing this book and it's -- again, the thing I love most about writing is what it can teach the writer, is I became really aware of just how little support my single mother had, mainly because all of her family was from southern Louisiana. So there were no aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, there was nobody to help out with even an afternoon driving the kids somewhere.
REHMWhat about on your dad's side?
IIIWell, they were all from Louisiana, too. They were both from Louisiana, so we had no one. And -- and I go into this in the book -- sadly, you know, when a divorce happens, it seems as if the friends, at least back then, would side with one of the spouses and go off with that one. Well, my mother got dumped, which is -- you know, if you ever met her you would wonder how could anyone ever dump this beautiful smart lady, so she didn't even have any friends nor family for years. And she really was stuck with four teenagers in poverty alone and I'll tell you, I've told my wife this, if I were ever a very wealthy man, I would just give money to poor single mothers, that's it. That would be my cause the rest of my life.
REHMTell me about Bruce.
IIIBruce was my mother's eventual boyfriend for the rest of her life. She had quite a few boyfriends because, again, she was very attractive. And a lot of them, I felt, were kinda ne'er-do-well outlaw, hippie, drug dealers, frankly. He was a family man. He had seven kids of his own. He had inherited some money from his dad and they began to date just about when I was in the toughest neighborhood when I was about 11.
IIIAnd he began to sleep over and live with us and he was a sweet man. He would help out financially when he could, although he really didn't have much money left with the seven kids. But he was an alcoholic and so -- and he was a quiet kind of a meek man, very charming, but very, well, just passive. And so he really was just sort of this quiet drunk man in the corner, but very warm, very sweet. He'd smile at you when you walked by, but it was not having a man in the house. It was not.
REHMI was struck by the kinds of food your mom put on the table. For example, Frito pie.
IIIFrito pie, yeah.
REHMDescribe Frito pie.
IIIWell, you know, she used to be -- she is a wonderful cook and she used to cook real meals when we were -- when they were together, my parents, but she had to work, so she would come home and open two cans of Hormel Chili, dump it into a casserole dish, chop up an onion, spread that on top, sprinkle Fritos on top of that and then cheese and then bake it for 30 minutes.
REHMPut it in the oven.
IIIAnd it tasted like enchiladas, it tasted like a home cooked meal. We had that a lot and -- but it was the kind of meal that was cheap, she could make it fast after a 12-hour workday and we'd be eating in front of the TV at about 8:30. And it was better than nothing, it was better than nothing, but it changed things.
REHMDid she, too, begin to drink?
IIINo, she never did. She really -- and again, I'm -- I find this so remarkable. She didn't take up any bad habits at all. She just, I think, got depressed. I mean...
REHMShe ignored the kids.
IIIWell, she -- yeah, here's what would happen. She would leave the house at 6:00 in the morning to get to her job, which was ironically working with poor families in the slums of Boston. She'd come -- which didn't, ironically, pay her enough to take care of us the way she would've liked. She'd come home 14 hours later, quick supper and then she'd be out. She'd be asleep on the floor. And she has told me since reading the book that she really believes that she was just as lost and abandoned and sort of crippled by it all as we were.
IIIAnd when I look back -- and I've talked to my siblings, it does feel as if we had five kids living in a house. And she was. You know, she was -- look, she was 27 years old when my father left. She had four kids, she was maybe 26, 27, 28 years old, so it wasn't easy for her.
REHMOne of your sisters actually put a padlock on her bedroom door.
IIIWell, we were these latchkey kids. There was no -- actually, there wasn't any locks on the doors at all. The local drug dealing element took over the house during the week. I mean, they just came over. Suzanne, my sister, was into that, as I began to be a little bit. The house -- you know, I'd come home, there'd be a couple of Harleys in front, there'd be grown men sitting around smoking pot in the living room, there'd be card games going on. It was a completely unsafe place to live. And, yeah, she was 12 years old and she put a padlock on her door and that's where she spent her childhood, really.
IIIYou know, she's told me she's not going to read this book and that's fine with me. She likes to read my fiction, she said, but she said, I just can't go back to that time and I'm not going to do it.
IIII do, too.
REHMWhat was the turning point for you?
IIIThe turning point for me was traumatic. It was my brother being beaten up by a grown man. He was on leave from the army. He'd come home expressly to beat my 13-year-old brother up for really playing kissy face with his little sister, is what it was about. And he beat him up -- this young man beat up my brother in front of me. He called my mother a name I probably can't say on the radio and I did nothing but pleaded. I pleaded with him. I was 14 years old and I said, you know, please don't and he threatened me, so I stood there and did nothing.
IIIAnd I remember -- and I'll never forget this and, of course, it's in the book, but I walked into the house and I looked at my 14-year-old face in the mirror and I told my 14-year-old face, you're never going to not fight back again. I don't care if you get shot or stabbed or killed, you're never going to not fight again. And that very day, I started to do pushups and sit-ups. And within about a year and a half, I transformed myself and then I was on this path for years with body building and boxing. But that put me on the path of fighting and it's something that I began to do quite a bit of.
REHMWhen you say you began to do fighting, you're not talking about in the ring.
IIINo. That came later. No. I would go to a bar or someplace where I was assured I would find bad behavior. It's a strange way to put it, but it's -- you could've put a mask and cape on me. I would just go looking for mean people doing mean things and it was not hard to find. I was always hoping I would find somebody hitting a woman and that wasn't hard to find, either. And then I would try to put them in the hospital. And I won far more fights than I lost and I'm not a tough guy. I don't want to suggest for a second, but I had so much rage and I learned how to tap into it and that's what I mean by fighting.
REHMWhat about the police? Were they called in?
IIIOh, well, the police in my town (laugh), God bless them, they liked what I was doing and they liked when -- there's one scene I know, you know, in the Sambo's Restaurant where, you know, I took on three guys and we really did a number on them. One of them had pulled a knife on my best friend and we enacted our revenge and the police couldn't have been happier. And matter of fact, just a few months ago, I met one of those men again that I was in that fight with, not the one I fought, but the one I fought alongside and he said that those cops are all retired now, but they still talk glowingly about that night. They said, for the first time, they felt as if there was justice being done. The kids who deserved a beating got a beating.
IIIYou know, I was arrested a few times for disorderly conduct, but it was so common and, you know, if it didn't involve a knife or a gun, it was just -- it wasn't even taken seriously at all.
REHMHow were you doing in school during all this time?
IIIWell, I was missing 60 to 80 days a year of school.
IIIIt was a really tough school. It had the seventh worst drug problem in the country for a high school of its size. We had, you know, nark agents, which was really kind of funny, because they were pretending to be high school kids, but they looked like grown men and it scared me, the high school scared me and I stayed out of there as often as I could. I mean, I don't think any teacher knew my name. Maybe by junior year a few teachers began to know my name once I began to change myself, but it was a big scary institution. I stayed away from more times than I went.
REHMSo you were in hiding.
IIII was in hiding, yeah. And at that point, I spent a lot of time in my basement just lifting weights. And at one point, I did 1,000 sit-ups without stopping. It took three hours until my lower back was bleeding from being chafed. You know, I don't think my story is unique in that sense. I think there are a lot of young guys out there and women, too, who will do anything to change their lives. And there were some positives to it, but there was a lot of negative, too.
REHMHow about your brother and sisters. How did they cope? One of them clearly got very much into the drug culture.
IIIYeah, my sister got out of that eventually. She went to college and never looked back and she's, you know, I'm proud to say, a leader in national domestic violence prevention right now. My brother became suicidal. His...
IIISeveral times, several times. His -- and again, this is one of the insights I got writing this book, is all that darkness that was in me I pushed outward in rage. And I realized that I became homicidal. He took all that darkness and turned it inward and he became suicidal. And we've talked about that quite a bit as adult men over the years. My other sister became sort of the invisible one, the one behind the padlocked door. And she went off and really just has pretty much kept to herself in a lot of ways in that regard.
REHMDo you see her now?
IIIOh, yeah. We live -- the irony is, Diane, we all live within nine miles of each other. We all -- we go on summer vacations together.
REHMAll of you.
IIIAll of us. My house is full of nieces and nephews and it's interesting. We have the lives now that we didn't even begin to have then. I mean, my kids and my siblings' kids know all their -- you know, their living grandmother. They -- we are all so close, aunts and uncles and cousins. We get together all the time.
REHMI'm so glad.
IIIMe, too. It's actually a happy ending. I'm shocked, (laugh) I'm shocked.
REHMWell, and I think a lot of people listening would be shocked, considering the beginnings.
REHMThe physical rebuilding began a process of emotional and scholastic rebuilding for you.
IIIThat's right. You know, as soon as I began -- and very quickly, you know, once my body began to change and once I began to engage in life and not run from it, everything began to become more positive. Teachers seemed to see me, they seemed to call on me. I began to do homework instead of get high. And I began to sense that maybe I wasn't a worthless piece of garbage, which is ultimately what I think I thought of myself.
IIIAnd it got me on a road, it got me on a road, but here's where it got scary because I got to be very good at perpetrating violence against bad guys. And I literally was on a road that could only go two places. And it sounds like a cliché, but I was either gonna get severely beaten by a much tougher man one day or killed or I was going to kill someone else. So I was really either heading towards the grave or the prison cell and that's where so many of the people in the book ended up. And it was when I discovered creative writing when I was about 21 and a half years old that got me on a track that changed everything.
REHMThe book we're talking about, a memoir is titled, "Townie." Andre Dubus III is the author and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of calls, 800-433-8850. First to Mike in Newton, N.H. Good morning, Mike.
MIKEYes, hi. How are you?
REHMI'm fine, thanks.
MIKEAndre, I live next to the house that you grew up in on the pond.
IIIGet out of here. No way.
MIKENo kidding. And Clark -- I don't want to say any last names.
IIIOh, no way. You mean...
MIKE(unintelligible) and I know the road with the gravel and throwing and the little bridge.
IIIOh, my God. Is that -- so that house is still there on country pond?
MIKEIt's still there. It hasn't been torn down...
MIKE...and he's still there. He lives in it.
IIIOh, that's incredible (laugh).
MIKEBut I was wondering, is it your -- I believe it's your dad who wrote, "Bedroom?"
IIIYeah, he wrote the story -- short story, "Killings," which was made into the wonderful film, "In the Bedroom," yes.
MIKEAnd I -- was he using the -- shall we say compound and transposing it to the island? Because it all works. You go across the bridge and all that. Do you have any idea?
IIIOh, are you talking about the film?
IIINo, no. Todd Field did all that, the writer/director. That was really his doing. My father's story was quite different. It was actually based in Bradford right across the Merrimack River from Haverhill, where I grew up. That's -- the story was much more of a working class tale, but Todd Field, the director, made it more of an upper middleclass tale and my old man actually read that script before he died and he loved it and I think he would've loved the film.
REHMMike, I'm glad you called. Thank you.
IIIThank you, Mike.
REHMTo Greensboro, North Carolina. Good morning, Vanessa.
VANESSAGood morning. How are you?
VANESSAAndre, my question to you is in today's world for the teenagers and middle schoolers, I'm saying, what would be your advice to them since standing up for yourself means snitches get stitches?
IIIYeah, well, I -- it's a complicated one, Vanessa. Here's my two cents. Children have to learn to defend themselves and I'm not advocating violence because I really believe that violence does create more violence. But I don't think it has to always be come tell the teacher. Well, now I do -- I do, doesn't it? I mean, we have to get into a place where it's not a secret or shameful thing. I think the biggest thing that happens is the bully kid feels he deserves it and he is a worthless piece of garbage, or she is, and that's why we're getting bullied. If it's talked about openly, regularly, daily, I think the climate can change.
IIIYou know, my kids go to a school, a Montessori school, where bullying was never tolerated. My kids are teenagers. Not one of them has experienced any cruelty. And it's not because we live in this sheltered little environment, it's the way cruelty is not tolerated even for a half second by anyone. And everybody turns in everybody when anyone's being cruel to the other. And I think that's how it should be. The whole culture has to change, Vanessa, I think, the whole culture and I'm really grateful that there's a national conversation about this stuff.
REHMAnd the parents need to know...
REHM...what their children are doing or are experiencing being bullied?
IIIRight. And especially with cyberspace now and Facebook and how the bullying can go on even when you -- you know, at least in the '70s, when I closed my door and locked it, I was in a room and I didn't get on a gadget that showed I was still being brutalized or victimized. But Vanessa, what do you think? What are your two cents on that?
VANESSAWell, I was kind of appalled when I heard that snitches get stitches because, you know, what options do you have if you're afraid to stand up for yourself?
IIII agree and I think that philosophy has to be reversed. It goes back to prison culture and it's completely wrong. It must be reversed.
REHMThe book is titled, "Townie: A Memoir," by Andre Dubus III. We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Andre Dubus III is with me. He is, of course, the author of that brilliant novel which became a movie, "House of Sand and Fog." But now he's written a memoir about growing up in very harsh circumstances in Haverhill, Mass. The book is titled, "Townie." Let's go to Mary who's in Vienna, Va. Good morning.
MARYDiane, Mr. Dubus, I can't tell you, the title is just perfect...
MARY...of your memoir and I grew up in a depressed factory town in Western Mass., actually, right around the same time you did I, believe (unintelligible)...
MARYEast Hampton and our main dish was a tuna casserole with mushroom soup and potato chips. That was our Frito pie.
IIII've had those (laugh). I've had so many of those at friend's houses. It's actually pretty tasty.
MARYI have a question -- well, actually two questions. The first being, I grew up in very difficult circumstances as well. I think it's very generous of you to say that you aren't the only that grew up that way...
MARY...many of us out here today are -- grew up the same way, but my parents stayed together for the sake of the children, so to speak, and were just unhappy people and consequently, the family life was not easy. Did you ever wonder what may have happened if your father had decided to stay, if your parents had stayed together?
IIIOh, I think it would've worse than it was. I'm not suggesting my dad should've stayed. I think what -- because it was a horrible marriage and I think they should've split up.
REHMWhy was it so horrible? They had five children -- four children in five years.
IIIWell, I have a theory. You know, they married at 18 and 19 or 20 years old. They were kids. They fled Louisiana, which they didn't -- where they didn't want to be. The '60s comes and they're thrown into that maelstrom and I think, you know, all the social mores were up for grabs, as you know. They began to experiment with, shall we say, martial play with others and, I believe -- and which a lot of people were doing. I don't -- I think if they'd been married a little bit older or had somehow dodged the '60s, their marriage might've made it 'cause they were actually a very warm divorced couple their whole lives. It was very sweet to watch. But to answer your question, is it Mary?
IIIMary, I'm not suggesting he should've stayed, what I'm suggesting is that, you know, it's a clique now, but it really does take a village to raise a child. I realize that there was really no one, no adult and particularly for me as a young boy, male, in my life. No uncles, no grandparents, father wasn't there, boyfriend was alcoholic, no teachers, no one's fault. I didn't go, so how would they know who I was. No coaches because I didn't have the courage to try for a sport. No fathers, no fathers of friends because they weren't around, either, and it strikes me so strongly now as a father myself just how important it is to have a man around. It doesn't have to be the father, but I do think my father could've done a better job than he did.
IIIAnd I don't go after him in the book. I have this philosophy, by the way, that I think most of us get out of bed every day determined to the best we know how to do. It's not usually the best we can do and that goes for me, too, of course, by the way. No. I think they should've split up, but there could -- yeah.
REHMParenthood is the hardest thing in the world.
IIIAmen. And joyous, joyous.
REHMAnd marriage. And marriage. Thanks for your call. Here is an e-mail from Denise who says, "I've not read your latest book, but intend to. I'm in awe of your resilience and determination, given the life you originally led. My heart goes for the children you and your siblings were back in those days. I think you're an inspiration to so very many people for hanging in there and not succumbing to the terrible factors that could have crushed you."
REHMAnd that's where I think a lot of people would listen to this story and say, how can that man have done it? What was it that helped him get through that murderous rage and pour it instead into creativity?
REHMWell, I had a wonderful thing happen to me. I was actually training for the Golden Gloves competition down in lower Massachusetts and, you know, I was dressed to go work out that night and instead -- and I still don't understand what happened. I brewed myself a cup of tea and I got a pencil and paper and I started to write a scene. I think that was always in me. You know, I come from a writer's family. My father was a writer and there are a bunch of us in the clan, about six of us.
IIIAnd not long after that experience with that first writing session, I finished writing my first story, never wanted anything to do with writing. I didn't want to be a writer at all. But when I finished it, I felt more like myself than I ever had. I felt like Andre for the first time and more importantly, I found that I was drawn to imagining the lives of other people and I love what Hemingway said. He said, you know, the job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek to understand. And, you know, very quickly, I found myself daily trying to imagine what it's like to be someone else and that sustained act of compassion, which is character driven fiction writing. I couldn't then that night punch someone in the face. I was still under the grips of trying to imagine what it's like to be someone else.
IIIAnd so I began this wonderful practice called fiction writing that, I'm not saying I'm better than anybody because I write, but I'm saying I found a way to open my eyes to other people's suffering that got me somehow to actually transcend my own suffering.
REHMYou actually went to college, the college, where your father was teaching?
IIIWell, it was the only way we could. He was a professor there and we were, you know, really broke still, so the only for us to have a shot at college was the tuition remission deal he got as, that his kids could go tuition free. We had to pay for books, but still, that meant we could go. So that's how we all began college. You know, I transferred eventually to another one, but that's when I first -- that's when I discovered this huge division between us that I only intuited before that and that is that my father lived across the Merrimack River in the more middle -- upper middle class neighborhood of Bradford. We lived in the working class blue-collar area of Haverhill.
IIIAll my people were the blue-collar working class people. He lived on a green campus, on campus housing, in this walled community with, you know, rich kids from around the country. Lovely people, but I remember the first time I went there, I felt so foreign. I felt like one of the international students (laugh), like I'm not from this culture at all and it was really uncomfortable for quite awhile.
REHMAnd then what turned it?
IIIWell, I left, I quit and I got a job pumping gas and I proceeded my fighting life, which was, you know, going to bars and here's what happened. Going back to that 14-year-old boy, you know, I stared down in the mirror. You know, on one level, you could say, what a good guy. He's going out there and trying to protect people from cruel people.
IIIWell, it was all about me. You know, I was still looking for an opportunity to exercise that demon inside me, that little boy who thought I was a coward and I was looking for any opportunity to do that and so let's be clear about that. After about a year of that, or maybe less than that, I knew I was, I had to change my life. So I went back to the college and then, what got me into it was I fell in love with an Iranian girl and (laugh) that kept me in school a little while longer 'cause that's where she was.
REHMWhen your father came here, I told you he was in a wheelchair. He had had an accident. Tell us about that accident and what you did as a result.
IIIMy father was doing research on a screenplay he was writing and he was interviewing prostitutes in the combat zone of Boston. He was driving home on a late summer night around midnight, saw somebody had been in an accident. He stopped to help them and he got run over and...
REHMHe was standing on the outside?
IIIHe was standing on the outside and he actually pulled a woman out of the way and saved her life 'cause the boy he was standing next to was killed. My father was thrown on the back hood of the car that ran him over at 58 miles an hour at impact.
REHMThe driver must have been distracted.
IIIOh, I think she was reaching for a cassette tape or something. You know, yeah it's still a mystery as to why she ran -- it was a well-lit stretch of highway with streetlights on a dry night, starlit night. My father had a quarter in his pocket that I had for years and I just so wish I hadn't lost it, but it's a quarter bent in half -- a quarter bent in a 90-degree angle. He had 34 broken bones, but he survived and his mother who had been dead a few years showed up on the side of the highway and stroked his hair back from his face and she told him, you know, honey, you're going to go through a tough time, but you're not going to die right now.
REHMHe remembered that.
IIIYeah, oh, he talked about it in great detail that she was there. Anyway, he spent the next 12 and a half years of his life crippled in a wheelchair. He died 12 years ago. What we did, my brother and I built him a wheelchair ramp. We remodeled his house. Were carpenters and had been all our lives and we all got closer. My father, you know -- and he'll be the first to tell you this and he even wrote about in some beautiful essays, but being crippled did something to him. It brought him to some other place that was more evolved than where he'd been before and I don't want to romanticize injury or pain by any stretch, 'cause he suffered quite a bit, but he became an even better man.
REHMWhat about his own other marriage?
IIIWell, his third marriage...
IIIYeah, second one was a two-year marriage. His third one lasted 10 years to a woman my sister's age. She was 23 years younger than he and they had two girls, my lovely half-sisters, who live in New York now and they're beautiful, smart woman in their 20s and that failed right about in those months after his recuperation began for the crippling and that was a very dark time for him. So his third marriage was gone and his second batch of kids were now divorced kids and he was crippled. It was a tough time for him.
REHMHe seemed angry when he was here.
IIIWell, yeah, I mean, you know, we all have that. I think -- what was -- do you remember what he was angry about?
REHMNo. It was just a feeling I had from him.
IIIWell, I have to say, you may have been seeing -- I'm guessing now, but he hated traveling as a crippled man in a wheelchair. And he -- you know, he may have gone through many permutations to get to the studio...
REHMJust to get here.
III...and I -- he would get really tired and cranky and (laugh) I'm laughing now because not long after he lost his leg -- one was amputated, the other was crushed and not usable anymore, he was still in the hospital and I had just run up the stairs to his room and we were talking. He was really depressed, I said, Pop, you know, quit calling yourself a crippled man. I mean, people call themselves physically challenged. That's a more positive. He said, I thought you were a writer, boy. We don't use euphuisms. I'm crippled, your physically challenged 'cause you just ran up the stairs, damn it (laugh).
REHMAndre Dubus III, his new memoir is titled, "Townie." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Lisa.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
IIIGood morning, Lisa.
LISAAre you there?
LISAI just wanted to tell you, my husband died in my arms when I was 33 and I lost my father when I was five years, shot to death. So I raised two kids by myself and they're great kids. I just -- I am so proud of them. They're smart, they're intuitive, they're bright and I must've done something right.
IIIAbsolutely, you did something right. And, you know, I think about my mom -- you know, I have to tell you, the most painful, the most difficult part of writing this memoir was I was prepared to write honestly or hopefully as honestly as I could, (word?) about myself, but it was another thing to write about the people in my life, especially my parents and my siblings. And I was worried that if I painted just how overwhelmed and how depressed she got, that she wouldn't get the credit she rightly deserves. But the truth is, all four of us are doing really well as adults in our 50s -- 40s and 50s.
IIIOh, she's doing better than any of us. She's a national leader in domestic violence prevention, Joe Biden just gave her an award. She was at a -- she talks to Obama's people on a regular basis. I'm so proud of my family, but I'm sorry for your loss and your pain and I take my hat off to you that you were able to do that, such a -- the most important job on Earth, which is to raise loving human beings.
REHMAnd finally to Freehold, N.J. Good morning, Jean.
JEANGood morning. Mr. Dubus, I just -- a lot of correlations, here. I think we could possibly be about the same age. I grew up in Bradford, although we did not have a lot of money (laugh).
IIIYes, it wasn't all -- it wasn't all rich.
JEANTrust me, it wasn't 'cause we sure weren't, but my dad was actually a librarian at the Haverhill Public Library between the years of probably 1969, 1974...
JEANYeah. And my folks, although they stayed together and they still have a very loving relationship, I myself am divorced. Single mom, two kids and I'm constantly battling between trying to be just this wonderful mom and always be there for my kids and not feed them too much tuna casserole (laugh).
IIIA little bit's okay.
JEANBut, you know, it's really good nutrition, it packs a nice punch, but -- and also, I have to earn my own living as a stay-at-mom for eight years, my ex-husband earned a lot of money, but, you know, the support payments have dried up and I'm constantly in a state of panic. I'm not working enough, I'm not being a good enough mom, I'm not working enough, I'm not being a good enough mom.
JEANAnd I find myself telling people, even though I have sort of launched a little bit of an online discussion forum for divorcing, that there can be some good things about divorce. You know, if you feel like you've been married to the wrong person, you feel like yourself again, you feel like you got your life back, but on the same token, there definitely are some bad things about divorce. Obviously, you lived them and, you know, even though I have a relatively amicable relationship with my ex, it's not the same as having that father in your home that you come home to every night...
JEAN...so I find myself almost backpedaling and saying, if you can possibly keep your marriage together and keep your sanity while you're at it, do it at all costs for the kids.
IIIYeah, boy, I'll tell you right, it's tough and every family has to make their own decisions.
IIII so take my hat to you because look, you've got to be the mom and the dad and that's what my mom had to be and guess what, mothers can't be fathers. And that hole is just going to be there. However, it can be filled uncles, male teachers, male friends, the father when he is there. You know, what I found really helpful that my mother did was she didn't hide the fact that it was tough and wasn't so good. I think it's important to speak the truth. Say, you know...
REHMTo the kids.
IIITo the kids. Say, kids, say, I know this isn't so hot and I know it'd be better if your father were here, but, you know, he's not, so how can I do it? Women who are raising kids alone have it really, really hard and I think other people have to jump in and help and it -- one more thing, they can. You have one male friend who spends one hour with one of your kids, that's going to do a lot.
REHMAndre Dubus II, his new memoir is titled, "Townie." Congratulations.
IIIThank you, Diane. Thanks for having me.
REHMGood to have you here. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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