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Gonville: A Memoir
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Gonville: A Memoir

4.7 8
by Peter Birkenhead

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Gonville is the story of a son coming to terms with his alternately charismatic, mortifying, thoughtful, violent, generous, and cruel father.


Gonville is the story of a son coming to terms with his alternately charismatic, mortifying, thoughtful, violent, generous, and cruel father.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Fraught and funny. . . . Birkenhead’s memoir is intensely detailed, thus the feelings magnified, and full of the blistering ambivalence of a son who wondered whether it would have been easier to have a dad who was ‘all bad instead of almost good.’”
Publishers Weekly

“Charming and horrifying. . . . Birkenhead is a deft foreshadower, dropping dark little clouds over what seems to be a heartwarming scene and swinging back later to collect the thunderclaps. He is a master of the throwaway detail that later becomes the pivot into a horror movie.”

“The intelligent facility of Birkenhead’s writing shines. . . . Gonville is a captivating journey through the humor, pitfalls, delusions, and dangers of extreme family dysfunction and the boundless capacity of human love.”

“Birkenhead is a writer for Salon.com, and his descriptive abilities and memory for detail are razor-sharp. Though the adult Birkenhead seeks answers from both parents about the details of his chaotic childhood, unsurprisingly, in real life, there are no tidy resolutions.”
Library Journal

“Birkenhead’s navigation of his budding masculinity—even through ominous stretches where he adopts his father’s mood swings—is poignant and often tears-in-the-eyes hilarious.”

“An affecting . . . sometimes laugh-out-loud funny account of growing up with a crazy father.”
Kirkus Reviews

“By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Peter Birkenhead’s Gonville is a son’s-eye view of growing up with an emotional terrorist: his father. The memoir is a deft and cunning performance, told in jaunty prose which elegantly maps the geography of fear and of a child’s sad little wish to be loved.”
—John Lahr, senior drama critic, The New Yorker

“Few books I’ve ever read succeed like Gonville at capturing the crazed inventiveness of which the unhappy family is capable. Given the character of Peter Birkenhead’s father, it’s unsurprising that his son’s terrific memoir is full of sadness, humor, and high absurdity. More remarkable is the tolerance, sanity, and good humor that Birkenhead has won from experiences hardly conducive to those traits.”
—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision and co-editor of n + 1

“Peter Birkenhead’s candor, humor, and insight about his father and ultimately himself combine to make this a highly enjoyable page-turner. It’s Birkenhead’s gift as a writer that the book is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is kick-you-in-the-chest brutal, and you’ll be ready for the second volume as soon as you finish this one.”
—Elizabeth Crane, author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter

“In his debut memoir, Gonville, Peter Birkenhead breezily performs some of the most challenging creative magic. He mines insight from confusion, turns tragedy into comedy, and darkness into light. In the greatest trick of all, he turns the pain of his childhood into reading pleasure. It’s a major accomplishment.”
—Evan Handler, actor (Sex and the City; Californication) and author (Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors; It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive)

Publishers Weekly
A fraught and funny father-son memoir tells the terrible tale of growing up in the late 1960s and ’70s with a gun-packing Brooklyn leftie of violent temperament. Birkenhead, an actor and journalist, was the eldest of four kids born to a Brooklyn College economics professor and his pianist-composer wife. Birkenhead’s dad was a vociferous, Jewish political hothead who kept a collection of Martini-Henry guns and was prone to sudden fits of rage that were usually turned on his family in the form of punching and verbal abuse. While his mother and two younger brothers received the brunt of it, the author learned early on to deflect the anger by “conflict-defusing, Dad-distracting skills.” Acting in small parts in his father’s summer stock theater in Hyannis, Mass. (the book is named for the father’s favorite character, Gonville Bromhead, from the film Zulu, about a British lieutenant fighting in South Africa), allowed the author a happy release. Birkenhead’s memoir is intensely detailed, thus the feelings magnified, and full of the blistering ambivalence of a loving son who wondered whether it would have been easier to have a dad who was “all bad instead of almost good.” (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
Stage and TV actor Birkenhead, a Salon.com and Marie Claire contributor, revisits his highly unusual childhood. The eldest of four, the author grew up in suburban Long Island, where the center of his universe was his capricious, vitriolic father. The book's title is a nod to Gonville Bromhead, a real-life mid-19th-century British lieutenant portrayed by Michael Caine in Zulu (1964). Gonville was a favorite of Dad, who was known to dress up-in a helmet and red underwear-and impersonate Gonville. An anglophile, nudist and avid gun collector, Birkenhead's father married his mother when she was 19 and he was 24. From the outside he maintained the appearance of normalcy, working as an economics professor at Brooklyn College. The private dynamics, however, dictated by his erratic mood swings, led to his tormenting of the family, with violence and threats, and nine miserable months living in Sussex, England. Birkenhead's mother bore the worst of his abuse, including a broken nose and a brush with marital rape after their separation, but she pioneered a successful career writing musicals. The author chronicles his swirling confusion through adolescence as he came to grips with his father's madness, and darkest, most intriguing part of his memoir centers on his own inner demons. After punching a high-school girlfriend in the face and, years later, kicking in the door of another lover, he was forced to confront the behaviors and instincts inherited from his father. The book originated as a one-man show, and it still possesses a conversational quality, reading like a tempered monologue peppered with explosive crescendos. Birkenhead is less interested in language than pure storytelling, and he pullsno punches in depicting his once-idolized father as a deeply flawed wreck of a man. Affecting, heavy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny account of growing up with a crazy father.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.24(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Memoir
By Peter Birkenhead

Free Press

Copyright © 2010 Peter Birkenhead
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416598831


Okay, I?m flying. I?m three years old and I can fly. Who knew?

But I?m always full of surprises and today?s is that I?m flying. Not in an airplane, but like Superman, with my arms stretched out in front of me and the wind in my face. There?s a lot of turbulence, but I?m not flying through the sky. I?m setting what must be the indoor air-speed record, flying down a long stairwell without touching the stairs. The turns are very tight, really scary, and as I approach each one, I sense that I?m flying too fast, and that I?m going to crash into the wall. I don?t know how I?m doing it?what?s propelling me, or holding me up, but my thoughts seem to play a role. Just as I think, ?I need to slow down if I?m going to make this turn,? I do, and I keep going.

Years later, when I was eight, and sensing that this was not just a dream but a memory, I would spend hours trying to reconnect with my super powers, which by that time had apparently gone into remission. I was especially interested in that thought-controlled steering system; it implied that I could make things happen just by thinking about them and that was particularly appealing to me.

So I made up concentration exercises that I would do in bed at night, hoping that the next day I?d be able to steer baseballs to my bat and turn Rebecca Lowenstern?s face my way. I would stare and stare at the illuminated face of my Sony clock radio and try to stop the second hand from moving, or at least slow it down a little bit.

I really hated that clock. A clock radio had been the must-have gift for the pre-teen set at Glen Cove Middle School the previous year, but my parents were always way behind the curve with these things. We didn?t have a color TV until long after NBC had stopped doing that peacock-spreading-its-wings business. One day I begged my friend Ben to come over after school because I knew Dad was finally going to bring home a toy I?d been asking for for weeks?a Billy Blastoff like Ben and all the other kids had. Ben?s family had lived next door to us in Brooklyn, and they had moved to Glen Cove the same week we did, but the similarities pretty much ended there. I always felt like Ben was a hundred degrees cooler than me, which was borne out when we got to my house that day and what was waiting for me wasn?t a Billy Blastoff, but a halfhearted knockoff called Tommy Takeoff. That was the moment when Ben dubbed my father The Man Who Won?t. I said what do you mean? And he said whatever most people do, he won?t; whatever they?re for, he?s against; and even as I was telling Benny to go to hell I knew he was right.

The only thing I was sure of when it came to my dad was that he was the center of my universe. After that it was all questions. I was eight years old, the eldest child in our family, and I wanted to get a bead on Dad so that maybe I could get a bead on me, but whenever I tried I just felt confused. Is he a proud member of the National Rifle Association or a guy who leads anti-war marches? Absolutely. Is he a guy from Brooklyn who wears a torn old T-shirt to Thanksgiving dinner or a professor of economics who decorates his house with little blue Wedgwood plates commemorating the birthday of Queen Elizabeth? You betcha.

I caught my father in glimpses, heard him in fragments. He was a collection of fleeting pieces and parts, and sometimes it seemed like each part was opposed to the next. He loved being The Man Who Won?t?the looks from other peaceniks when they saw his gun collection, or the cringing faces of the neighbors as they walked by our proudly unmowed, Addams Family crabgrass lawn.

So I was relentless with my demands for a clock radio, hoping that it might help elevate me to at least non-weirdo status with the other kids, or maybe even make me the kind of kid that nobody noticed, which I knew was probably too much to hope for, but I thought, why not dream big? And when I saw the word ?SONY? on the top of the box through the Christmas wrapping that year, I felt like I had made it, like my dream of uneventful anonymity might be within reach. And then I opened the box, and I pulled out something that was, yes, technically a clock radio, but that lacked the one and only reason everyone wanted a clock radio in the first place, which was, of course, the digital clock. I didn?t even know they made clock radios with old-fashioned clock faces on them. You?d have to go pretty far out of your way to find one, I thought, and I have to admit being very impressed with my father?s resourcefulness. My mind-over-matter experiments began that night, and while I never succeeded in actually stopping time, I did learn that I could slow my heart rate pretty much at will. As I stared at that pitiful clock I would fall into a kind of trance, and eventually into fitful sleep, during which I would dream about running down flights of stairs.

I seemed to improve my skills with each dream, getting to the point where I could take two stairs at a time, and then three, and eventually I would basically be in a long, controlled free fall, keeping my hand on the banister and whipping myself around the turns without my feet touching a single step. I always managed to get away?whatever was chasing me never caught me?but it did literally scare the piss out of me. Any delusions I had about being a superhero were very well humbled when I woke up wet, to a sound like one of those self-destruct alarms in the movies. A pad of tinfoil under me was attached by wires to a big green box next to my bed that would howl with derision as soon as the first drop of pee hit the sheets. I guess the idea was to humiliate me into continence, but of course it just made things a whole lot worse.

I can?t imagine who came up with the idea that kids who wet their beds are just not nervous enough, yet someone had, and I fantasized about smacking him to death with a rolled-up newspaper. But until that day came, I would have to deal with the mess I was in. I?d fallen asleep practicing to be a hero, and I woke up wondering what kind of explanation I could give to my mom that would make her believe that I wasn?t an eight-year-old, bed-wetting baby. In fact, I was getting very good at the art of the explanation, spinning stories about mischievous gerbils and glasses of Tang, and I was starting to think that maybe I had found my ticket to the big time. I mean, even though the only super power I seemed to be developing was the ability to bend truth in my bare hands, I thought it might be enough to build a decent superhero career on.

My newfound power was awe-inspiring. Lying was almost as thrilling as I imagined flying would be, and it felt very heroic. It didn?t seem like ?lying? to me so much as creating a new and improved truth, and I could do it whenever I wanted. It was like having a genie in a bottle?my wish was my command. I pretty much could make anything happen just by thinking it: ?I think these kids might accept me a little bit more if I were royalty.? Shazzam! ?My great-grandfather was an English duke who was famous for giving away his fortune to the people of his, whaddayacallit, dukedom.? And my powers only increased when I became an alleged adult. ?I think this girl will be more likely to sleep with me if the scar on my leg was caused by a knife-wielding mugger instead of a beach umbrella.? Shazzam! ?I was stabbed! I am a brave and dangerous character! Thank you, me. Thank you very much.?

The best thing about my power, though, was that I could lie to myself and make myself believe it. This came in handy at night, when there was no one else around to fool. During the day, I could fake my way through anything. I just kept moving so I wouldn?t have to be alone with myself. Like the Sundance Kid. When Robert Redford said, ?I?m better when I move,? and then rolled on the ground and fired off six perfect shots, I knew exactly what he meant. As long as I was in motion I was okay, sometimes even impressive. But when I was stationary I was in trouble, and it was very hard to stay in bed all night. My parents had vicious fights on the other side of my bedroom wall, and sometimes I?d press my ear to it and try to figure out what the fights were about, or I?d bury my head in a pillow to drown them out. It wasn?t until I discovered the malleability of truth that I learned to live with them. The noise on the other side of the wall became a prison riot, or miners trapped in a cave, or the Bolivian army waiting for Butch and Sundance.

One night, as I was lying in a state of suspended animation necessitated by the fact that I was Charlton Heston in a spaceship heading for, little did I know it, the Planet of the Apes, I detected a strange noise outside my frozen astronaut sleeping pod, and believing that something might be wrong with the ship, I allowed my ears to open a little bit more than they had been. I was right, something was wrong. The other astronauts had somehow broken out of their sleeping pods and had burst right into the middle of?holy shit?my room.

There they were, right next to my bed, screaming like hell at each other. My mother must have been pointing at me. She was saying, ?Look what you?ve done, he?s trembling!? I don?t know if my father looked at me, because I couldn?t see him. My eyes wouldn?t open because I was in suspended animation.

There was nothing I could do about that. Everyone would have to wait for the duration of the journey, however long it took until we reached the planet that was actually Earth, even though we wouldn?t recognize it. They would have to wait until we got there for me to open my eyes, and stop shaking.

Twenty-three years later I started dreaming about the stairs again for the first time since I was a kid. I asked Mom about the dream one day, over lunch in her apartment. I had recognized the stairway as the one in the building we lived in when I was three, so I wasn?t surprised to learn that my dream was in fact a memory, and that my mother had been the motor of my flight down the steps, that she was the one thinking about speed and controlling it. I was surprised to learn that Mom was carrying my younger brother David under her other arm, which must have made her flight that much more difficult. I imagined what it must have felt like for her not to have a hand free to grab the banister, to have to slow down more than she wanted to in order to make the turns. I wondered if she considered dropping one of us to give the other one a better chance of making it. But I didn?t ask her about any of those things. For some reason I was fixated on what kind of gun was involved. I realized as she began the story that one had been, and I wanted to know if it was a rifle or a handgun. Mom said, ?He pointed a gun at me, then you, and I just snatched you and David up and started running.? ?Right. Right. Mom, what kind of gun was it, do you remember? I mean, was it?? ?Oh it was one of those, those old ones. Those big, horrible old ones.? ?Not a pistol?? I said. ?Oh no, no,? she said, ?no. Not a pistol.?

My mom has played the piano all her life, and now she let her hands fall onto the table as if she were resolving a chord. She looked at me steadily, and I felt like saying, ?Wow, it?s great to meet you.? I placed my hands on hers. I felt her fingers twitch, and I took a slow breath. Eleven years before this conversation, in 1980, my mother?s friend Barbara had driven her to the emergency room, my mother?s hands still being bruised from injuries my father had done to them during a long and horrible evening. Mom had escaped to Barbara?s house, where Barbara put her in the car and called the police, and that?s all I knew about that day. As I felt the pulse in my mother?s hands, I felt my own heart racing, and new questions catching in my throat.

? 2010 Peter Birkenhead


Excerpted from Gonville by Peter Birkenhead Copyright © 2010 by Peter Birkenhead. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Birkenhead is a regular contributor to Salon.com, where he writes personal essays and cultural criticism. An essay about Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret was the most-read piece on the site in 2007. He’s also a regular contributor to Marie Claire Magazine, and has written for GQ, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and other publications. As an actor he has extensive stage and television credits. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Gonville 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I want this book but its 200 and somethin pages lonq and for 16.99 ? Woah so i quess ill buy it on Ebay for $3.00 jejeje
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FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
Peter Birkenhead has a memory of flying, flying down the stairs of his childhood home when he was very young. Was he Superman's son? Or was the memory simply something his mind had invented? It wasn't until many years later that he revealed his recurring dream to his mother. She, in turn, confirmed that the event was indeed real, but he wasn't really flying. Instead, she explained, he was being carried by his mother as she fled her husband, and the gun he had pointed at them. Author Birkenhead grew up in a home with an abusive father and, as he later learned, his way of coping was to forget many of his father's violent outbursts. Perhaps writing Gonville was another way of coming to terms with his home environment. As the oldest of four children, Birkenhead somehow managed to escape the physical abuse his father raveged on the family. The youngest child, Alison, the only girl, also escaped the sharp hand of Mr. Birkenhead. But all family members endured the frequent emotional outbursts of their father, as the author recounts his father's rantings and abuse with painful detail. The reader is taken on a tumultous journey, from his memory of flying at the tender age of three, to adulthood when he escapes his father's home but not the emotional scars left behind. The author details a dysfuntional, yet complicated, family life. His father couldn't simply be defined as an incessantly hateful man. "...I hardly ever let myself think of Dad as a bad guy, because when I did I imagined living without him, and when I imagined living without him I imagined not living at all." (pg. 102) Instead, Birkenhead details, "Dad's serious flare-ups..." (pg. 61) while also recounting the sometimes gentle and thoughtful nature of his father as when bragging about Peter's acting talent, "I think he might have a real chance. He's pretty damn talented." (pg. 65) Along with the violence were some truly bizzare behaviors such as the time Peter had friends over to watch TV. While sitting on the couch, his friends' attention was drawn to the kitchen where Mr. Birkenhead has walking, naked, to the refrigerator. To Peter's horror, his father got a drink, burped, farted, closed the refrigerator, turned and left. It's no wonder the author wound up in therapy years later. Gonville is not an easy book to read. While there is some humor injected into various parts, it is a harsh, no holes barred, look at the lives of a family subjected to the violence of one man. Reading about a man hitting his children is not easy; yet, I found myself wanting to learn more about the family. How the kids learned to change their words and actions whenever they felt their father might get violent, was a learning experience. The kids were silent about the abuse. In fact, it was years later, as adults, that they all finally came together to share their hurt. While an interesting memoir, it took me a while to get into Gonville. The first several chapters dealt with Birkenhead's early life, introducing family, neighbors, his love of theater, etc. It tended to wander a bit but eventually settled down and gave an eye-opening look into the world of an abuser. It was heartbreaking to see the abuse cycle continue into the next generation as Peter Birkenhead painfully recounted his striking a girlfriend. Fortunately, he eventually sought out therapy and broke the cycle. Quill says: A stark, honest look at growing up with an abusive father.
so-nyc More than 1 year ago
i can't put this book down! gonville is both hysterical and heartbreaking, peter birkenhead is a genius! what a beautifully written book!