The Tenuous Bond of Fathers and Sons

When he was twenty-eight years old, Bernard Cooper received a bill in the mail for two million dollars. It was an itemized invoice from his dad charging him for every expense he'd ever generated as a child. It's easy to see why Cooper chose this incident to title his fantastic new memoir, The Bill from My Father, a recounting of his many baffling, funny and laborious interactions with the peculiar man who raised him. Cooper is the author of two other memoirs and a novel, and a recipient of the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. He spoke to us from his home in Los Angeles about reparative sexual therapy, truth in memoirs and the unsteady armistice between fathers and sons.

Will Doig: In many of your arguments with your father, you both seem to be at a remove.

Bernard Cooper: I describe a lot of the arguments my father and I had as being like two men chasing each other on stationary bicycles. There was this sense that we were unable to really understand what the other was after.

WD: Was this combativeness just a natural product of his aging, or do you think the two generations are increasingly alienated from each other?

BC: My father was not a person who believed in talking about his problems or his feelings. He grew up in a generation that was very skeptical about psychotherapy. All that group therapy and primal screaming in the '60s, he saw it as a bunch of nonsense. He did not live his life with the idea that one makes concerted efforts to thoroughly divulge their inner worlds to other people.

When I was much younger, especially in the '60s and '70s -- the post-hippie generation -- I really wanted to believe one could have faith in people, that the world was actually welcoming and not competitive, that people mean well in general. My father was much more skeptical about human behavior. I think I've actually come to see that, to a certain degree, he knew more about human nature than I was willing to believe.

WD: Many of us have parents who are just now reaching old age. Some of us find ourselves increasingly parenting our parents. Does this reversal of roles bring us closer, or just foster resentment on both sides?

BC: I think both. As I grew older, I realized what it would be like to have physical limitations, to lose one's financial security, to move from a huge suburban house in Hollywood to a run-down trailer park in Oxnard, and how much that must have shamed my father.

WD: Toward the end, when your father was becoming very difficult to manage, were there ever moments when you wished he would die?

BC: He had a long and thorough history of alienating every single person he was close to. It was almost methodical. He had always been peculiar, and his eccentricities climaxed in the last month of his life. There was not much left for him. So I didn't ever think, it'll be easier for him that he should pass away. When he did pass away, however, I did think it would have been difficult [if he'd stayed alive].

WD: I think men in the 1950s were taught that they shouldn't be truly open and knowable, and as a result, we now have a generation of sons and daughters who know their fathers as Father Figures, but not really as people. Did writing the book help you to understand him better?

BC: I understand him better and identify with him more, but he simultaneously remains a mystery to me. And I'm not entirely unsatisfied with that. I feel that in some way, people have to recognize the fact that you can never thoroughly know another person.

WD: For such a cantankerous old man, he seemed to take your sexuality in stride.

BC: Oh, yeah. [My partner] Brian has an extremely strong work ethic. He's really organized, has a good income. I think my father had this sense of, "Hey boy, you've snagged yourself a good money-earner, there!"

WD: In an earlier memoir, Truth Serum, you wrote about going into therapy to "cure" your homosexuality. What was that experience like?

BC: At that point I lived with a woman who I loved very much and even had a good sexual relationship with. My therapist believed something could be uncovered to release me from those [homosexual] longings and make this heterosexual relationship possible. His particular method, which I haven't heard of before or since, was to take me next door, where an MD would inject me with a combination of sodium pentathol and Ritalin. The idea was that the sodium pentathol would make me pass out, and the Ritalin would make me wake up a few minutes later, and it would loosen the tongue so I might discover all these hidden things.

Let me just say that it was worth every penny. For the two minutes after that doctor injected me, I was in heaven. There was a neon light over the padded examination table I would lay on. He would inject me, dim the lights, leave the room and I'd stare up at the neon tubes. I would hear what I thought was the typist outside just typing away like crazy. It sounded like some inspired writer. And then I'd start to think, No, it's not typing. It's the sound of light from overhead! And I would feel inexpressible joy about this every time, just like clockwork. Of course, nothing I didn't know was uncovered from the therapy, but it was a great high, so I kept going back for a while.

WD: I have to ask you about James Frey. A 1996 article about Truth Serum in the Boston Phoenix was headlined, "Total Recall: Bernard Cooper blends fact with fiction in his new memoir."

You were quoted in the article as saying, "Toni Morrison once wrote that there is a difference between 'truth' and 'fact,' and I'm always aware of shaping the material I work with. I have no qualms about making embellishments to create a more beautiful piece of writing. The impulse to fictionalize or modify the truth is inherent in all acts of memory. Believing that lets me follow my instincts while I am working; not everything I say has to hold up in a court of law."

So, what's your take on the whole James Frey circus?

BC: I find it really fascinating. I think one thing that allows me to confront those issues without any sense of guilt or embarrassment, is that it's almost as if I'm working in another genre entirely than what he's working in. There's a certain transparency and rawness in his prose that makes it read almost like a journal entry. It's raw and immediate, and that's what people responded to. My response was, I don't really want to read this book because it's not processed or filtered. It doesn't take some kind of risk with language. There's not very much exciting to me about the prose. I think one of the real problems was that his embellishments seemed to be largely in service to a kind of posturing from the very beginning. "I'm tough and I like pit bulls and I drink beer." That also made me not very interested.

In the kind of memoirs I like to read, even if there are fictive elements in them, I feel assured that the writer is at least doing their best to get at the truth. In my book, there are long passages of dialogue. I have always mimicked my father. That I don't mean this in a hocus pocus sort of way, but I almost do feel like I can channel him. And I felt like, who better to invent dialogue than me? It's certainly based on things that happened and things he said, but it's a kind of invention. I really try to explain in this book, that what you're getting are my memories, and I do feel tremendous responsibility to tell the truth, but I also am not interested in telling the truth without my imagination.

This book, it was so much about memory -- my father losing his memory, me remembering things correctly and incorrectly. For a long time, Brian and I thought his headstone said one thing when it actually said another. Instead of digressing into the fallibility of memory, I try to make it part of the text in the way everybody experiences discrepancies. I'm fascinated by that, and I welcome that.

WD: Do you worry Frey could have a chilling effect on memoir writing?

BC: Maybe I'm living in a fool's paradise. It crossed my mind. A couple of things: I think readers of anything should be skeptical. I am, and I feel like I have to be won over by a book and feel a certain degree of trust. But that's me. I wouldn't hold the author responsible if I found out there was, like in most memoirs, some sort of minor discrepancy. It wouldn't surprise me. Making up entire jail sentences out of the blue is pretty weird, and it's troublesome. But I did see the last half-hour of Oprah's public chastisement. It was excruciating. It was like seeing someone put in stocks in the colonies.

Here's what really flipped me out about that show. Oprah had someone in the audience from something called the Poynter Institute of Ethics. Among other things, he said that memoirs should be rated according to how much is true and how much is fictionalized. Suddenly I thought, I don't want to live in a world where people lie, but nor do I want to live in a world where everyone thinks what's true and what's false is a quantifiable, inarguable thing. What you get is fundamentalism when that happens. And that scares me way more than anything James Frey has done.

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