OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them, sometimes they forgive them"
From "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde (1891).
There is both danger and reward in dragging about in the psychology of one's past. For me that journey began a number of years ago when my son, Patrick, had some problems as a young teenager and we had to seek family counselling. Doreen, Patrick and I attended weekly sessions of one hour in length for about six months. For me, the most painful part was the recollection of my childhood and my relationships with my mother and father. Despite the pain I believe I came to a new realization of myself and, through that, a new knowledge of my relationship with my son. I think Patrick also benefitted and thereafter we moved toward a better relationship.
When I reflect on my childhood, my thoughts often seem excessively critical of my parents. Judged by any standards we were remarkably privileged and so it seems very unfair to look back and criticize. But it is still necessary. Perhaps, despite the unfairness, it is simply the way it has to be. Perhaps every generation needs to be supercritical of its parents, for only in this way can we come to an understanding of our own shortcomings and our own emotional heritage.
My father left the world in a way he would have least liked, debilitated in stages by a series of strokes, almost a vegetable at the end. With marvellous resolve and great emotional strength (perhaps endowed by the necessity of surving in order to care for Paula) my mother looked after him throughout these terrible years and, in the end, said goodbye with a dignity very few could have mustered. Half a world away, I could provide little help. It was usually my brother Michael who would be delegated to call me when another medical emergency arose; his medical training provided me with a source of reliable information.
My father's medical decline took several years and I visited home on a number of occasions during that time. Consequently there were several opportunities to communicate with him those thoughts and feelings that, from time to time, I would resolve should be communicated. Apart from a few words, those communications never took place and yet there were many moments in private when I would craft in my own mind the words I would like to use. One of the hardest things I ever did was to leave him lying in the Mid-Ulster hospital to begin my journey back to California after one of those visits to the village of my youth. The last thing I ever told him was that I loved him and it was desperately hard for me to articulate those words. Not because I did not love him but, I think, because he had implicitly taught me never to reveal such emotions. And to this day, the fact that he never told me that he loved me, causes me considerable pain.
It is more difficult to speak about my mother not only because she lived to a ripe old age and to a time when I had resolved some of these issues. But also because she, herself, had been the victim of emotional deprivation having lost both her mother and her father while she was still a teenager. Perhaps for this reason she was not comfortable with any showing or expressions of love or emotion though, in her case, I always knew how she felt.
Those years of my father's decline became for me a period of introspection and self-analysis, an odyessey that it has taken me 20 years to bring into perspective. Was this emotional journey self-indulgent? It probably was but it did have two important, unexpected but beneficial consequences that I will get to in due course. I should begin at the beginning.
When I was young I revered my father. It was not until the beginning of his decline that I even began to think about my feelings toward him. Before that he was an almost surreal, superhuman figure to me. I took enormous pride in his success and in the family's standing in the community in which I was raised. Looking back I must admit that I probably thought that we were genuinely superior people. Even when more mature consideration during my teenage years revealed the error in that way of thinking, there remained the remnant thought that we were expected to achieve greater things than our classmates. Much of what I did was motivated, in part, by a desire to gain my parent's approval. But as a child and young adult I saw very little of my father. He was a very busy man and even when not doctoring in the hospital, he was almost always involved in some volunteer organization or personal hobby. This left precious little time for his family. Though, in his defense, that was the rule rather than the exception in the rural culture into which I was born. The mother ran the household and looked after the children and the father returned home for his meals and his sleep. However in making the transition from a farming culture, the society had mostly lost the traditional father/son relationship formed when they worked together in the fields. It was only beginning to recognize the emotional scars brought about by the lack of paternal attention and guidance. But all of that is theory in retrospect. The fact is that my father was so busy with other things that he rarely ever came to any of my rugby games and only occasionally would he come to my theatrical productions. My mother didn't come very often either, but then she had to manage a large household. However, she did at least come consistently to watch the big games and to see me in various theatrical productions.
Wilfred Brennen as a young man Wilfred Brennen giving a speech
Though I constantly pushed the observation into the back of my mind, it seemed to me that no matter what I did it never resulted in any expression of affection from my father. To this day, when I reflect on a lifelong desire for affection I trace its origins to these roots. There was a time not many years ago when I harboured considerable resentment and even anger toward him. This anger often focussed on ideosyncratic recollections. I remember resenting how little time he spent with us, my brothers and I. He seemed to be too busy working on his own reputation and on seeking approval for himself from a wide range of contacts in many spheres ranging from the Boy Scouts to Marriage Guidance to the Board of Governors to whomever would listen to his boastful stories. I would also remember with resentment his refusal to play games with us; somehow that epitomized for me his refusal to exist on the same level as us. But, then, I began to see the same faults in many of my interactions with my own children and began to remember him less judgementally.
That phase of anger was, of course, heightened during his terminal illness by the burden it placed on my mother. In the immediate aftermath of his death when the anger should have begun to wither, it came to an ironic climax. In the days after he died I took responsibility for sorting through his papers and made two discoveries, the first of which uncovered some understanding of emotional legacies and the second of which enlarged the anger. First, I came across a collection of his poems. One, in particular, is relevant here for it was written shortly after his mother, my grandmother died. I remember her as a tough old Ulster Scot, quite religious and austere; she would have been constitutionally opposed to any gesture of affection. The poem reveals the depth of my father's anger at her:
Aroma around you, eyelids thick with wax
But could the cursed crew with their cursed art
wipe out the mouth
The tired, tired mouth
With a quiet smile of knowing
Christ! Can't you tell me, tell me
What it is you know
I want to know
I feel a rending
My bowels are torn in shreds
There's something I must know
Must say to save mankind
Tell me, with your blasted knowing smile
Or I'll bash your silly smiling motherly mouth in
Oh! but it wouldn't bleed
Your jaw would just drop
In soundless maniacal maddening mocking yell.
And I'd go mad, tear my throat out by the roots
With my digging fingers
Curse Hell and Heaven
And not know - not know
Oh tell me, tell me what you know to say
For Christ's sake, can't you tell me, tell me.
Calmed again by your same quiet smile
as when you sat watching your groping son
At work when you still lived
In this hellishly-mawkish nickel-fitted coffin
After these years
I bow my head
I'll live, I'll work, I'll be a man,
And all the other senseless idiosities
I'll duty do, kidding myself I know
Stifling my soul - since you
I think that the legacy of this upbringing was that he feared real emotional interaction with those close to him and preferred the more tenuous interactions that he could take or leave as he pleased. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of his own emotional deprivation at the hands of his mother. But it also meant that he deprived us of an important part of our own development. We needed to know that he had real feelings of joy, pain, pride and sorrow. The fact that he appeared impervious to such human feelings, created a dangerous illusion and model for us.
Wilfred Brennen about 1945 Wilfred Brennen about 1950
The second discovery occurred in the immediate aftermath of my father's death. During earlier efforts to try to bring some order to his affairs, I had been primarily focussed on his business papers. I had encountered packages of personal letters in their original envelopes and tossed all of these in a box for later disposal. I barely glanced at the envelopes. There were many in hands that I did not recognize but I did notice several in one barely legible script. Though I opened one of these it was difficult to read and so I quickly gave up and moved on to other papers.
However much I might have anticipated the event, my father's death on Feb.26, 1987, was still a major shock to all of the family. Though I was on the flight from Los Angeles to London when it happened, I arrived at the great house several days before the funeral. With time to pass, I busied myself completing the job of sorting his papers. Late one night with my father lying in his coffin in the room below me, I finally opened the letters in the barely legible hand and began to read. During the subsequent midnight hours in the lonely study in the great dark house on a cold and wintery February night, I pieced together the story of an affair he had shortly after my birth. It was wartime and the affair with a woman named Billi was carried on in London during visits made on St.John's Ambulance Brigade business. Though episodic in nature it lasted about four years, until the end of the Second World War. In other writings I documented this affair through quotations from Billi's voluminous and slightly crazy letters as well as some other meagre evidence I came across. Consequently, I will not dwell here on the details. But his obviously casual treatment of the whole matter troubled me greatly and shed a whole new light on the frequent visits to London throughout his working career.
After his funeral I decided to take possession of the letters and other connected evidence for I did not feel it would be constructive to allow them to fall into other hands. In the fifteen years that followed I did not disclose or discuss the matter with anyone other than Doreen - with two minor caveats. During a time when my brother Colin was going through some considerable emotional difficulties caused, in part, by his troubled relationship with our father and by his related feelings of worthlessness, I had a dialogue with him in which I talked quite frankly about my difficulties with our father. In order to illustrate my conviction that Colin had been a much better father to his sons, I alluded in general terms to our father's affairs. And my continuing curiosity about this other aspect of my father's life led me on one occasion to question my aunt Irene about affairs my father might have had - she showed no knowledge and so the matter was dropped. But my secrecy has also troubled me. I have lived my life largely with an abiding belief in the value of the whole truth, and I have continued to wonder whether other offspring might have benefitted from the whole truth.
Thus it was that I was raised by my mother whose influence on my life and feelings was so all-encompassing that it is difficult for me to bring into perspective. I loved my mother very dearly. She gave me whatever upbringing I had. She took unquestioning pride in my accomplishments and gave me constant encouragement. But having lost both her mother and her father while she was still a teenager, she was not comfortable with any expressions of affection.
I went on to college and to an academic career, too busy to give much thought to the deeper levels of my relationships with my parents. What I did learn from my father and mother was the value of success and the value of seeking approval from a wide range of people within the community. What I failed to learn was the value of the love of those close to me and the need to express that love and its emotions. The consequences are that I have always craved the affection I was denied. More importantly, it also means that I had little education in how to interact with those I love on an emotional level. Thus I grew up with a set of values that were distorted in that they attached excessive importance to career success and social standing and too little importance to the emotional lives of myself and those around me. Then came my own children and the perspective they brought to emotional relationships within a family. Slowly but slowly, I have come to some understanding of the emotional legacies, abilities and disabilities we all carry. Some of those insights came to late to help my own children though I would like to believe I passed on an improved version of the emotional genes. But some of it will go to my grave and some will go beyond. For I see in my own children some faint remnants of the same malaise. But I also see new horizons in the eyes of my four grandchildren. I feel confident that I can end my days on a positive note by imparting a healthier emotional legacy of love and caring to those four lovely young people who will carry my genes into future generations.
Last updated 3/2/02.
Christopher E. Brennen