Self Abuse: Love, Loss and Fatherhood


From the age of three Jonathan Self had only one ambition: not to be like his father. Despite his determination to be a better man -- and a better parent than his own had been -- Jonathan was a twice-divorced father of three and, at age thirty-five, spiraling. Self Abuse is the story of Jonathan's efforts to break free from the cycle of despair and dysfunction that characterized his youth. A brilliantly rendered, unapologetic memoir about the pain and joy of parenthood, Jonathan's story is as heartbreaking, ...
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Self Abuse: Love, Loss and Fatherhood

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From the age of three Jonathan Self had only one ambition: not to be like his father. Despite his determination to be a better man -- and a better parent than his own had been -- Jonathan was a twice-divorced father of three and, at age thirty-five, spiraling. Self Abuse is the story of Jonathan's efforts to break free from the cycle of despair and dysfunction that characterized his youth. A brilliantly rendered, unapologetic memoir about the pain and joy of parenthood, Jonathan's story is as heartbreaking, redemptive, and unforgettable as it is true.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This life is funny, appalling, and dark."
— Stephen Blanchard, Time Out (London)

"An honest heartbreaker of a book that should be compulsory reading for anyone who brings a child into the world."
— Tony Parsons

"Jonathan Self's compulsive, beautifully written memoir [is] all the more powerful for its sparse, bleak honesty...once you start reading you cannot stop."
The London Times

"...violently funny. A treat for those who think their folks were a handful."
— Bruce Jay Friedman, author of Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos

"A harrowing, hilarious, headlong book. Mr. Self writes at all times as if he were launching himself off a cliff. By ruthlessly exposing his own failings he paints a wrenching and unforgettable picture of the terrible predicaments all modern fathers face."
— Tony Hendra, author of Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul

Publishers Weekly
At the start of his first book, Self describes how his British father met his American mother on a stateside trip. Though both were married, they started an affair, and she sailed to England in fall 1958, pregnant with Jonathan. Another son followed, but the parents, by then married to each other, fought, sometimes violently, and the children were often victims of various forms of emotional, physical and psychological abuse. The marriage ended, but even apart, Self's parents managed to abuse each other and their sons. At school, Self was subjected to sexual abuse by his male teachers, yet he completed his education and launched himself into adult life, where he perpetuated the dysfunction he'd known since boyhood with his own failed marriages and drug use. Yet once he became a father himself, he decided to examine his life. His life was unquestionably a chain of broken links, and there's a welcome absence of any easy, American, trying-to-fit-the-pieces-together sentiment that distinguishes Self's memoir from others of its kind. However, Self is so relentlessly thorough in telling readers everything that all the details, episodes and comments become overwhelming. Line for line, the writing is unimpeachable, with a sly, remote narrative tone. It feels as if the author got his entire "self" onto the page, which, in the end, may be just too much. Agent, Georgina Capel of Capel & Land. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743476195
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 2/22/2005
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 0.58 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 8.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Self acts as a Special Adviser to the World Land Trust, an environmental charity. He divides his time between Australia and the United States. This is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Have you managed any better with your own children?

From the age of three I had only one ambition: not to be like my father. I hated everything about him: his smell; the dried, white gunge that gathered in the corners of his mouth; the wax gently oozing from his ears; the strands of graying hair combed across his balding head; his string vests and his woolen long johns; the way he kissed me, with his cold lips pressed against mine, his scratchy beard sandpapering my face, his arms gripping me like a vice, escape impossible; and his loud, baying, penetrating upper-class Englishman's voice. I loathed his meanness with money, his indifference toward my mother, his insensitivity, his slowness, his cowardice, his unwillingness to undertake domestic tasks, his lack of dexterity, his vagueness, his pomposity, his arrogance and the fact that he had little or no sense of humor. Above all else I was appalled by his gaucheness, his lack of style, his social ineptitude.

These negative feelings toward my father were actively encouraged and almost certainly originally engendered by my mother, who managed with considerable emotional agility to revile and adore him simultaneously. One moment she would be instructing my younger brother Will and me to give him a slow hand-clap when he arrived home from work: "Here's the old goat, now, show him what you think of him, children." The next she would be cuddling and hugging him and telling us that "He is the greatest man alive. Try to grow up to be as wonderful. God, I love your father."

Love, however, was not a word that ever escaped from my father's lips.

"I am fond of your mother."

"I am fond of you boys."

"I am very fond of Brownie." Brownie was the family dog.

Fond. Was he saying that he didn't actually love me? It was impossible to tell. In my father's world it was not done to discuss or display any real feelings.

"Your mother," he once commented as she silently and systematically applied herself to the task of smashing all the best crystal glasses, "is slightly upset."

"Sadly your grandfather has died," he announced after breakfast one morning.

"It's a dreadful shame," when informed that his youngest son was addicted to heroin.

Much as it is human nature to stare at a road accident even though we know it is going to upset us, the temptation to ask my father what he meant by the word "fond" became irresistable.

"It means...well, it means that I am fond of you," he stated.

I pressed him to be more specific. As I spoke tears began to well up in my eyes. "But, do you love me, Dad?"

He stared at me, as at a stranger. "I suppose," he answered eventually and as if it were a matter of only transitory interest, "I must."

My father was not a man who hurried. His speech, even when agitated, was always measured. He took longer to eat a meal than anyone else I've ever met (though not as long, he proudly insisted, as his grandfather, who "masticated" a staggering forty times before swallowing each bite). Movement from one place to another, whether a visit to the local shops or a journey overseas, could only be embarked upon after ponderous consideration and detailed planning. At some level I think he believed it to be bad form to rush. Consequently the trip from London (where I spent most of my childhood) to Brighton (where we had an apartment in my grandparents' house), despite being no more than seventy miles, was, so far as my father was concerned, a six- or seven-hour drive allowing for one meal stop (usually Cowfold for lunch or tea and a stroll around the churchyard in order to inspect the family graves) and one walk (invariably a climb to the top of Box Hill or the Devil's Dyke). Such fathering as I received, and there wasn't much of it, occurred for the greater part while we were in transit. Once my father had me trapped in the car, or unwillingly coerced into joining him on his daily walk, he lost no opportunity to proffer what I suppose he imagined to be invaluable paternal advice. This advice came in several distinct forms. There were oft-repeated generalities: "Don't over do it, darling"; "You would be happier if you played a sport. Why don't you take up golf?"

There were warnings: "Be careful in business: there are a lot of sharks in business"; "You'll make yourself ill if you work too hard."

There were insights: "Women are complex"; "Money isn't everything."

And there were health tips: "Come for a swim in the sea, it will do you good"; "Why don't you go and stay with Francesca in Walberswick? It would perk you up."

Staying with people was something at which my father excelled. Knowing no shame, needing no encouragement, oblivious to doubts expressed by even the most unwilling of hosts, he boldly notified the chosen ones by telephone: "Ah, Bartle, it's Peter...I was thinking how nice it would be to see you...we can make it for two nights on the twenty-third."

Bartle, he assures my mother, will be delighted to have us, just as, on a different occasion, he assures her that Christopher will be delighted to have us. Christopher and my father shared a study at boarding school. They haven't stayed in touch but my father knows roughly where he lives.

The family car (a converted Post Office van, painted gray, with extra seats in the back) is parked outside a public call box on a deserted stretch of road somewhere in the Welsh border country. My father is inside the kiosk with a pile of big old copper pennies trying to track down Christopher. My mother has rolled the car windows up because she doesn't want to hear my father talking on the telephone but we can anyway, his voice booming at the operator.

"No, no, no. Try spelling it with an M."

It is six or seven in the evening. We've had no supper. Will has fallen asleep. My parents have been bickering all afternoon as we follow my father around various historic monuments. He is persistently refusing to pay for us to stay in a bed and breakfast.

"In 1642 — " he begins, pointing to some distant hills.

"This was intended to be a holiday," my mother cuts in. "What sort of holiday do you call this?"

"You are right, darling. We should have bought a larger tent."

"You should have bought a larger tent. I told you this one didn't have enough room in it."

Indeed, the new tent had proved so small that on the previous night my father had announced he would have to stay in a hotel in order to make more room for the rest of us. He made it sound as if it were a matter of deep, personal regret that he wouldn't be sleeping in the bosom of his family: that it was a painful sacrifice. While my mother was wrestling with guy ropes he simply strolled away. When she looked up from where she was kneeling, mallet in hand, and he was gone, she began to cry. Will and I tried to comfort her but she kept shrugging us off. Later we fell asleep to the sound of her sobbing.

In the morning my father reappeared while my mother was cooking sausages over a portable gas stove. My brother and I watched him ambling down the lane toward us. (We were camped on the verge: "Why waste money on an official site? It is just a swindle.") He was swinging his walking stick, sniffing the air, smoking a cigarette.

"Ah, there you are, Bunchy," he greeted my mother. Bunchy was what he always called her. I can't remember him ever addressing her by her real name, which was Elaine.

"Don't you fucking there-you-are-Bunchy me," she began, but he ignored her.

"Had your breakfast yet?"

She retorted through gritted teeth: "What does it look as if I'm doing?"

But he affected not to notice. Perhaps he genuinely did not. "No? Well, I'll go back to the hotel and have another cup of coffee and you can pick me up when you're packed."

He turned on his heel and as he walked away she began to hurl objects into the van: half-cooked sausages, clothes, the hot stove, the greasy frying pan, the tent — everything mixed in together. My brother and I tried to help her; however, this only seemed to anger her more. In the end Will climbed into the back seat clutching his teddy and sat there with his eyes shut, whimpering. I stood awkwardly to the side wishing I were dead.

Once we were on our way my father could no longer avoid her wrath. Yet for each criticism she raised, he came back at her with an objection.

"How can you say I am insensitive?"

"I would remind you that I am the man who — "

"I'm sorry, darling, but you're wrong."

"If you had told me how you'd felt at the time, of course, I wouldn't have — "

"Don't talk bally rot."

Will and I didn't really understand what they were fighting about, but one thing was certain, my father wasn't going to pay for a bed and breakfast.

"There is plenty of time to sort out our accommodation after we have had a pleasant day sightseeing," he insisted whenever my mother raised the topic.

Perhaps he planned to introduce the idea of staying with the unknown Christopher all the time. Maybe it had only struck him as nightfall approached. Either way he is in the telephone box and we're waiting. Finally he emerges: "It's OK," he says, tapping on the window with his knuckle to indicate he wants the door opened for him, "Christopher will be delighted to have us."

It takes an age to find Christopher's place and before we arrive I, too, have fallen asleep. Vaguely I recall being lifted out of the car and placed in a strange bed still warm from someone else's body.

When I awake I lie rigid for what seems like hours, my eyes squeezed shut, hoping that my mother will come and rescue me. The sheets are softer than the ones we have at home and smell distinctly of another child. I can hear breakfast being eaten in some distant part of the house, my father's voice rising and falling above the clinking of cutlery and crockery. My mother doesn't come and doesn't come and eventually, desperate for a pee, I slide out of bed and explore. The room I've been sleeping in is tiny — a labyrinth of bunk beds, chests and wardrobes which tower threateningly above me. The hallway also overflows with furniture — mostly bookshelves — and the lavatory door is jammed open with cardboard boxes filled with clothes. I can't get the door closed and so I go quickly, fearing that someone will appear unexpectedly and see me.

Shyly I descend to the kitchen and stand out of view listening. My father's voice is distinct now. He is lecturing whoever is in there on politics.

"I disagree, Buffy, I disagree completely. If you don't mind me saying so you made a similar error of judgment about Chamberlain when we were at Lancing. Harold Wilson is the best chance — "

I have not hidden myself sufficiently well and my father breaks off mid-speech because he has caught sight of me.

"Ah, here's Johnny. He has a better grip on politics than you do, Buffy. Come in, darling, and have some kedgeree."

There is no escape. Conscious that everyone is watching me — and that everyone consists of a great number of unknown adults and children — I creep to a corner of the huge table and perch half on, half off a rough wooden bench. My mother is at the other end of the table concentrating on feeding Will. She doesn't even glance in my direction. A bowl of kedgeree is placed in front of me. I've never had kedgeree before and the smell of the fish makes me feel nauseous. Only my father speaks.

"Mmm, this kedgeree is delicious," he declares, smacking his lips in an exaggerated manner, "you eat it up, Johnny, it will be good for you."

Later, when we are on our way, he says in a triumphant voice: "There, I told you that Christopher would be delighted to have us."

"Couldn't you see," I long to scream at him, "couldn't you see that the opposite was true? That he obviously doesn't like you? That he and his wife and his children didn't say a word to any of us while we were in their house? That he has an enormous family and a minute home and that we were imposing on them, stretching a highly tenuous friendship to breaking point? Can't you understand that your wife, your sons, every single person with whom you come into contact finds you repugnant?" But, of course, I cannot voice these thoughts coherently and instead sit miserably in the back seat leaving my mother once again to take up the cudgel.

I'll say this for my father: he was rarely perturbed or upset by personal attacks. If he had read this, for instance, he would have been more concerned with identifying errors of fact: "It wasn't the Welsh borders, darling"; "For accuracy's sake, I must point out that your mother was responsible for choosing the tent we purchased."

In preparing what he would view as a logical defense: "Remember, I never wanted to marry your mother. She knew I was in love with someone else"; "Don't forget, your mother was an extremely neurotic and volatile woman."

And in launching a counterattack: "Have you managed any better with your own children?" "I think you are being very ungrateful. I took you boys to some marvelous places. We weren't rich, you know. I only had a professor's salary and a small private income."

My father seemed positively to relish even the most savage criticism. I attribute this to the fact that he was the emotional equivalent to being deaf: if what you said wasn't extreme he couldn't hear you. In order to satisfy an instinctive need to feel some emotion — any emotion — I even suspect that he may subconsciously have encouraged attack. Nor should it be forgotten that he was brought up in the public school and Oxford tradition of debating — where winning an argument is more important than which side you're on.

My father loved winning and was a bad loser. If anyone beat him at a game, for instance, he would invariably challenge their victory, refusing to concede no matter how compelling or conclusive the evidence against him. Should he be forced to acknowledge defeat, he would analyze and dissect every stage of the contest, explaining to whoever would listen where he went wrong and in what ways he was poorly treated. In this respect he had an insatiable capacity for self-pity.

For my father, every conversation, no matter how trivial the topic, held out the glorious possibility of a disagreement. In the opening stages of any dialogue he was, therefore, normally careful to remain noncommittal in order to ascertain precisely what line the other party intended to take. Once a definitive statement or decision had been elicited, he was then free to take the opposing view.

"What would you like to do this evening, Dad?"

"Oh, I'm adaptable." Adaptable was a favorite expression.

"Well, would you enjoy eating out?"

"I'm terribly easy. Whatever you want."

"Anywhere you prefer?"

"As I say, I am completely adaptable. You decide."

"I'll book Browns."

"Browns? What? That place? Don't be an ass. It is a frightful clip joint. If that's your idea of an evening's entertainment I'd rather stay in."

"Fine, I'll cook."

At this point it was his ardent hope that the discussion would become more heated. If it didn't he would attempt a little light goading.

"I am surprised you're wedded to the idea of Browns. If you don't mind me saying so, you are extremely inflexible in your habits. Not just over restaurants."

Should this fail to hit the mark he would make a wild and controversial statement, throwing it out casually, yet fully aware of its potency.

"If this is what Jo and Perrie had to suffer, no wonder they both left you."

In anyone else, switching the subject away from a domestic arrangement to the total breakdown of two marriages in such a short period of time could only be construed as malicious. Not in my father's case, though. What he did was beyond his control; deeply embedded in his psyche. He had absolutely no insight into the way in which he behaved. Were he to have comprehended the profoundly disturbing effect he had on me, I'm sure he would have been appalled.

I used to have a speech on the subject ready and rehearsed:

"Dad, I don't want to offend you, but there is something I need to explain to you. Whatever I say, you seem to contradict me for the sheer pleasure of it. You argue over matters which are unimportant to either of us. You seek out controversy whenever and wherever possible. Furthermore, you speak with devastating conviction regardless of your true beliefs. You are never conciliatory. Nor do you hesitate to deliver emotional body blows or to launch unprovoked attacks. However I respond to you, I feel I lose out. If I ignore your attempts to start a debate, I suffer — holding back my anger as you try different and increasingly hurtful ways to draw me into an argument. If I engage, it soon descends into a bitter row. Worst of all, I have developed a similarly argumentative and dismissive conversational approach myself. My family, friends and work colleagues endure from me precisely what I have been forced to endure from you. I bear the guilt of perpetuating something which I myself abhor. What guilt do you bear?"

It's OK, Dad, I can answer for you.

"I am sorry to hear this, Johnny, very sorry. I had no idea you felt so strongly, dear boy. But, with respect, I cannot completely believe you. Nor can I totally agree with your assessment of — "

The thing about my father was he had to be right.

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Self

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