Andy Taylor, Dr. Jekyll, and Lord Vader.
“In the end, I do not know if the stories I tell about going there, being there, and living in its aftermath are tales of recovery or tales of symptoms.” Ron Pelias
I like the Andy Griffith Show. I’ve always liked it. I’m especially drawn to the poignant moments where kind, wise, and gentle Andy Taylor sits on the edge of young Opie’s bed, and, in a spurt of slow Southern direction, guides his young son through the major issues of life.
Is it the father-son interaction that grabs me? Maybe the Southern setting that reminds me of my early years in eastern Kentucky? No, more likely it’s the depiction of some father ideal, some model or example I’ve always longed for. Something I missed, something that has left me incomplete, even defective.
There were no edge-of-my-bed wisdom dispersals from my father. Nothing resembling a kind, wise, and gentle man was ever of a part of my formative years. Quite the opposite. Compared to the fictional Andy Taylor, I lived with an increasingly hostile monster for the first six years of my life. Whether or not he ever intended or even considered it, in those brief years, William Norman Boggs Senior taught me lessons that were the opposite of those modeled on television, indeed, the opposite of those modeled nearly anywhere else.
My name is William Norman Boggs Junior. I’m a white, at-the-far-edge-of-middle-aged male, born in Ashland, Kentucky and Scot-Irish in ethnicity. I’m also traditional, heterosexual, conservative, politically independent, divorced, remarried to an amazing woman who loves me, and an evangelical Christian ex-patriot.
I’m smart (with a Mensa card to prove it), a veteran of the United States Marine Corps after a short but very successful tour of duty, well-educated (a bachelor’s and master’s degree, each from Big Ten universities), and have a long-term job with a respectable salary. I’m creative with hobbies that include art, writing, music, and acting. And I am the ultra-proud father of four great, well-adjusted children and the grandfather of ten incredible grandchildren (no, wait…mine really are incredible!).
Most who observe my life might say I’ve done okay. Not a bad bit of escaping for an abandoned adult child of an alcoholic, I’m told. And the academic research I scoured confirms very few who have experienced the aggravated alcoholism and total abandonment by a parent grow up to a solid life. Yet those who really know me are aware of a deep hole that even today can become a hazard for me. A hazard that sometimes has prompted in me a transformation not unlike the intelligent, respectable Dr. Jekyll becoming the dangerous brute Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
My namesake (a word easier and more comfortable to use than “father,” since he was not my father in any common sense of the word), had a deeply negative impact on me. He inflicted much damage. William Norman Boggs Senior taught me things, mostly things I didn’t want to know.
William Norman Boggs Senior was an alcoholic. This man was abusive, controlling, dangerous, and malignantly narcissistic. The day of the divorce was the last contact I had with my father until the day I stood as a young Marine at his casket, there purely out of curiosity. He had completely disappeared. My dad.
After my six-year education in the William Norman Boggs Senior School of Malformed Manhood, I learned to be effectively good and more effectively evil. Split right down the middle, I’m powerfully drawn to the uniqueness of good but also skilled at feeding my dark side. Just like in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” evil always seems to have an advantage, even today. Why is that? Some 56 years after my last encounter with my father, I still struggle.
In my father, it was easy for me to ascribe causality for his two-sided persona to his alcoholism. For Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the chemicals were not the cause of the transformation but instead a key of sorts that unlocked that already present inner evil. My father had a chemical key like Dr. Jekyll. My own key is much more subtle, more like the devil-angel voices on each shoulder from the cartoons, but just as powerful and harder to excuse.
Indeed, just recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a first cousin of my father, a dear lady now in Tennessee. She’s the only person I’ve ever met as an adult who knew my father as a boy, a young man. Her memories of him revealed just a normal young guy. I smiled at her stories as I added a few positive images to the apparition who is William Norman Boggs Senior in my mind.
He was spoiled, yes, as the youngest child of five; youngest by a significant number of years. And he was a clear favorite of his mother. As a result, he had few rules. My grandmother Dorothy Louise Kelley Boggs later began giving me special treatment, too, often almost ignoring my slightly younger brother, Jim. That trouble I witnessed, though I didn’t understand much. The woman was apparently gifted at fertilizing, planting, watering, and tending budding narcissists in her garden of 2921 Central, Ashland, Kentucky. Some of my relatives were moonshiners and bootleggers, and at least one, a farmer who grew narcissists. I seemed to have gotten plucked and replanted before it became fatal.
I was thrilled, though, to speak with my second cousin, in an attempt to bring some balance to the fiercely riveted negative image I have of my father. Some steps were taken. I’ll share the stories later.
I want to be a little careful here. I have no desire to blame my long-dead, pitiful father for every bad thing I have ever done or thought. I hate the overused reality-show victim mentality and don’t want to present myself as a victim or be defined as one. I have made choices in my life. Some good, some hurtful to others and myself. But they were my choices, my responsibility. Still, I believe the foundation laid by my father in my early years has indeed influenced those choices, well-paving some negative paths while placing hard-to-maneuver-around obstacles before some positive ones. Rather than prepare me for life, he dug a deep hole for me and shoved me in it.
I said I like the Andy Griffith Show. I also like Star Wars. I even belong to the worldwide Star Wars costuming organization, the “Rebel Legion”, as unfailing good guy, Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi in a movie-accurate getup (there’s a path into my mental obstacle course there we will look at later). The Star Wars saga has that underlying father-son reconciliation story that still brings tears to my eyes. Unlike Luke and his father Anakin Skywalker/Lord Darth Vader, there was no positive outcome, no deathbed discovery of buried good in my father, no last-minute display of sacrificial fatherly love. Quite the opposite. But in the Star Wars story there are all those bad good guys and all those good bad guys, chock full of that inner duality to which I so completely relate.
As a father myself, for 40 years now, with four adult children, I know well that my fatherly lectures have been far less heeded than my actual example for good and bad. Some educators I respect have even suggested that an example is as powerful in the learning process as actual experience. Wow.
While the example I’ve presented to my children is light years-through-hyperspace different than the one I had, it still has been thoroughly flawed. Someday one or maybe all four of my kids will sit down and write a narrative about how I put some whammy on them (I hope they do) and they’ll be right. Maybe every father would say that (I do hope it’s less of a whammy than was placed on me). I carry some deep regrets for words spoken in anger, actions that were hurtful, and too often just not allowing my kids to be kids. I’ve never hesitated to admit my wrongs, and they have graciously forgiven me. Even so, I have regrets.
Still, the ubiquity of darkness, the shroud that covered my heart, created an environment where light was easy to recognize. I lived in the absence of light for much of my first six years, then often after that. I found myself regularly retreating into shadows, the shadows of self-absorption. Back in the hole. It was/is a painful, comfortable place.
My default to darkness made the light all the brighter. And all the more painful. The eyes of my heart hurt when I would stumble into the light of healthy relationships. Then, rather than stay long enough to allow myself to adjust to the brightness, most of the time I would look for ways to return to the blackness. That comfortable, familiar, deadly darkness. Thanks, Dad.
The William Norman Boggs Senior world was dark, full of blacks and grays. No light, no color, no hope. Just hurt and death. I lived in that for my first six years. Later, even when I moved toward some outside light and experienced life in color, I brought my shades-of-gray self with me into that environment. It’s still all too easy to do that.
In this way, my father taught me something unique and something that has haunted me for most of my 60+ years. He taught me how light and darkness can stand side by side, how it can be simultaneously present in my own heart. So instead of seeking to replace the darkness with light, I learned to cultivate them both, side by side. I’m not talking about the psychological phenomenon of split-personality disorder (I know, they have medicine for that; how I wish dealing with this inner duality was that easy).
Maybe it’s true all human beings struggle with that inner battle between good and evil. Apostle Paul of the Bible certainly thought so. “So I find this law at work, when I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21, New International Version). I like Paul.
As I observed it, my father made increasingly fewer attempts to build up the good, just like Dr. Jekyll, choosing instead to embrace the evil, to wallow in it. For the fictional doctor, the draw of the unbridled evil was intoxicating and eventually addicting. Why choose good with all its restrictions, when I can unleash myself to do whatever I please, to leave no want ungratified? That is the question to which my father answered with complete selfishness. He chose himself.
Yet from early in my life I felt pulled to whatever I perceived as light. I just brought my friend evil along, and made sure he didn’t get too uncomfortable. That kind of life has left me unsettled and conflicted. Pulled in two directions. Never comfortable, never satisfied. Convinced intellectually of the value of the light, the rightness of the light, I’ve built up my conscience, giving it a seemingly heightened sense of awareness of darkness. And producing mounds of guilt. I am always guilty. Always guilty. Always guilty because of my effort to remain close to light. The closer I am to the light, the more evident the darkness remaining. I try to keep this darkness caged, but the dark William Norman Boggs Junior is easy to feed, easy to empower with enough strength to do more damage. With a steady food source, he remains strong, able to break free from the flimsy cage I’ve built in my soul. When he breaks free, he’s in charge at least for a little while.
When he’s loose, hurt occurs. I always hurt myself by giving in to the pattern of gratifying whatever desire whatever the cost. All my adult life I’ve been in combat with dark companions. Friends for the few minutes of indulgence I give them, they do their damage and then go, leaving me to deal with the consequences. When that evil is in charge, I also often hurt others, mostly the ones I love. Thanks, Dad.
Over the last 62 years I’ve made a step away from the dark world my father introduced, but only a step. My life was rebooted. One foot is in the light. The other is in the darkness. Still. My head and heart bob back and forth between them. I’m always guilty. Never really free.
Andy Taylor, Dr. Jekyll, and Lord Vader are an unlikely triad. They have served to help me understand and illustrate the things I learned from my father. Mostly things I did not want to know and even a few I did. We will look at that together. I learned by his powerful negative example, and they were lessons I still battle now more than 50 years later. I learned also by his absence, his disappearance from all contact with me after my parents’ divorce when I was six years old.
While getting my master’s degree in Communication, I had the privilege of being on an academic panel called, “The Presence of Absence,” led by Dr. Theresa Carilli and featuring several panelists who had experienced this phenomenon. I love Dr. Carilli’s title and the richness of meaning it contains for me. That “presence of absence” was a vacuum that sucked me down paths I never wanted to travel, dropped me in places no one should have to visit. It froze me emotionally in time, stuck in many ways at age six (not an altogether bad place to be on some days at least).
Yet today, there are many days I am at peace. I’m more comfortable with where I am and more in touch with how I got here. But sugar coating be damned. I’m no glazed doughnut. There are also plenty of days I still struggle, suffering from long-diagnosed PTSD and depression. I am strongly aware of the pain I have caused to others and I’m hobbled with the resulting guilt. Sometimes that is one heavy load I’m almost unable to carry. Still, in the not so immortal words of noted philosopher Rocky Balboa, “It ain’t how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Like Rocky in the ring, sometimes I crazily lead with my face. Yet I keep moving forward. I hit the canvas and by the grace of God, I get back up. My hope is that these stories of my life will help others with similar backgrounds know they’re not alone.
With my father, I guess it ended and began that night at June Bug’s house.
Funny. Once the Andy Griffith show began broadcasting in color, I lost interest.