Remembering my Father


Famously, my father was a conscientious objector. He wrote all about it in his book, Not By Might. He grew up in a home where his mother had divested herself of the religion she was born with by becoming a member of the Church of the New Jerusalem, a follower of the writings of mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg.

My father needed to work to contribute to his college education and so matriculated at 5 year Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, just south of Cleveland where he grew up. It was a “Society of Friends” school, so this was his introduction to Quakerism, and it came just in the nick of time, 1937; the run-up to World War II. He always talked reverently about the classes of Professor Mukherjee, who proved to his complete satisfaction that there could not possibly be a God. This freed my father from the oppressively militaristic and jingoistic attitudes of his origin family. He was incredulous that I, forty years later, wanted to attend a Catholic college and study mysticism. He liked that Quakerism didn’t insist followers agree on a creed; what dogma they had he applauded. To him it seemed stupid to solve diplomatic problems with threats of violence and soldiers. He completely embraced Gandhi’s theory of “ahimsa” – greeting abuse with reasoning and peaceful resistance. In fact he, my mother and a few college friends moved into a broken-down family farm, renamed it Ahimsa Farm, and made a good-faith attempt at communal farming.

When it became time for him to register for the war he announced he was a conscientious objector. The draft board, accusing him of cowardice for not wanting to go to Europe and be killed, sent him to Federal prison at Ashland, Kentucky. He was very afraid his first night there, but he soon made friends with the wide array of conscientious objectors of all faiths. Both my mother and father’s families were appalled and used every manipulation from shaming to shunning to talk him out of it. Unsuccessfully. He was finally sent to work in a Friends’ ambulance unit in China, and that experience gave him troves of stories we listened to wide-eyed as children.

We were very proud of our father but what he couldn’t seem to understand was that by giving me a model of conscientious objection he was also giving me a template to resist him. I’m afraid I drove him crazy! My first objection was to the Quaker boarding school they sent me to (and refused to allow me to leave) which I saw as a nest of the exact same hidebound theocratic hypocrites he had fled from. My second objection was to all the peace demonstrations he (and our Quaker school) wanted me to march in. I didn’t reject social justice per se, but I was annoyed by “group think” and enraged and insulted by the Quaker attitude to art as “self-indulgent”, “hedonistic”, “morbid” and “depraved.”

Needless to say, my work has been one shock after another as far as they were concerned. They were convinced I was doing it just to upset them, whereas I was trying to understand my own life and “Life” in general in the fine, independent tradition he had laid down for me! When I locked him out of my room he broke down the door: I threw my typewriter at him! Mom read my diary and listened in on my calls – behavior they usually condemned but felt forced to resort to by my unruly adolescence.

I did manage to graduate from Plumly (I couldn’t WAIT to get out of there) but I certainly didn’t want to go to college which I feared would be more of the same compulsion and obligation. Mom and Dad didn’t help their case by endlessly razzing my older sister Merrill about any interest she had in boys and the interest they inevitably showed in her. Ugh! I decided to go to acting school instead and be discovered. At Circle in the Square in New York City I found out pretty fast that I didn’t want to be an actor. I hated mouthing other people’s lines and was too full of my own ideas. But I did meet an actor there who needed to go back to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin to avoid the draft and so I went with him.

There I discovered I was an intellectual! This was a fact Plumly had completely concealed from me through its endless harangues against art and sexuality. I discovered the letters of Elizabeth Gaskell, the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth, and the wonderful controversies of Shelley scholarship. I studied Russian magical realism and Tillich theology and wanted more.

Unfortunately, one thing Plumly and my upbringing did give me was a smug sense of political and cultural superiority. My boyfriend’s father was the editor of the Scientific American and his grandmother lived in a 13 room apartment on Park Avenue in New York City but I treated him (and probably his entire family) as pathetically benighted. Every objection either of us had to Lawrence University and Appleton Wisconsin could be solved, I insisted, by transferring to Antioch College! Finally, I was throwing my poor parents a bone. My father as very gratified. We transferred to Antioch’s Columbia, MD campus where everything was “experimental”. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turned out there were no grades and we had to teach the classes ourselves, a fact which outraged my father. (He was paying for this!) I taught a class on women writers and my boyfriend had to travel long distances to secure an acting coach. We split up; I found a new boyfriend who wasn’t averse to marriage (he had been married before.) I saw this as another bone for Mom and Dad, although they acted less than thrilled, even after I told them this guy had been hauled out of Vietnam in military handcuffs. (He was given a dishonorable discharge which I considered a badge of honor.) Still, grumbling, they went ahead with a Quaker wedding. This “solved” nothing; me and my new husband soon had problems up to our eyeballs. After two years after moving, house buying and selling, we were on the rocks and I was working in Baltimore for a group of architects to pay the bills.

My parents and I had many more clashes over the years; mostly on taste issues since we agreed politically, but there were sadly few opportunities for Principled Conscientious Objection. (Sigh.) I must say I miss them!

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