Most of us weren't blessed with a perfect childhood. Some of us developed self-defense gallows humor as defense, and Luke Sullivan is one of them. He explains:
I often describe the books story as “The Shining, but … funnier.” It's the story of growing up with my five brothers in a big house in Minnesota back in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy. Yet even with winters raging outside and our father raging within, our mother's protection allowed us to have a wildly fun, thoroughly dysfunctional time growing up.
The story is told in the first person through excerpts from the many diaries and letters of my family, as well as from psychiatric reports, police reports, and ultimately my father’s final medical records. In fact, the letters between my mother and grandfather are such a good picture of the times, the entire collection was accepted and catalogued by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1990.
I do not know if all children are born atheists, but we six were. Watching my mother try to get us to Sunday school an observer might have
thought we were vampires being dragged out into the noonday sun to fry. We made the process of getting dressed and off to Sunday services such a whiny mess that, except for our father’s funeral, few of us have any memories of sitting in a church at all. Photographic evidence, however, establishes our parents succeeded at least once. And we have Grandma Rock to thank for that.
There is a family film taken in the summer of 1959 during one of the Rock’s visits that shows the six boys wearing what appear to be Sunday School clothes. Grandma Rock was in town and Dad was putting on a show. (He never went to church, objecting even to the few times Mom took us to Sunday School. But if the Rock’s broomstick was leaning against the Millstone, you can be sure come Sunday we were all in church.)
The scene in this 8mm film begins with the entire family standing quietly at attention. We’re in front of the Millstone, behind one of the two stone benches at the entryway – we’re all silently staring at the camera. There is no laughter in the moment, no joy; it’s a police line-up in Sunday School clothes. In the back row, with pursed lips, stands the Rock. (“It’s the ROCK!”)
In the next scene everybody’s gone and it’s just 12-year-old Kip standing there, wearing his suit and an impassive face. He holds his pose dutifully for five seconds; allowing, one guesses, for the camera to drink in the full splendor of his church raiment. He then takes a smart quarter-turn left, walks around the bench, towards the camera and off screen.
Cut to the second-born – Jeff, standing alone. It’s the same routine: the expressionless face, the sartorial photo-op, the quarter turn snap-to, the walk past the camera. And so it goes down the line even to little Collin, then barely two years old.
With the sound of the old projector keeping me company, I try to imagine what my father was hoping to capture in his camera that day; clearly, it wasn’t joy. Then I wonder if I’m so cynical I can’t accept this may simply be footage shot by a proud father of his children in a rare scrubbed-clean moment.
Maybe. But there’s a sense to the scene that Dad had barked at us just before film began to roll. (Stand still!) And there’s something about how he ordered us all to take those glum little marches. Hut, two, three, four.
I begin to wonder if, as a child, Dad had been ordered to make this same religious perp-walk in front of Grandma Rock’s camera. Remembering those lifeless photos of Roger as a child leads me to the bookshelf again.
The photographs in my father’s childhood album show events commonly associated with happiness – picnics, camping trips, outdoor gatherings – and yet not one person in any of the pictures is happy. The props are there: the canoe, the picnic basket, the lakeside cabin; all situations one might reasonably assume would yield at least one candid image of actual joy. But there sit Irene (“It’s the ROCK!”), the Minister, and Roger – all without expression. Perhaps this is simply the way people used to pose for photographs. But not one smile? Even on the outings? To make sure I’m not seeing things, I go through the album again and count the number of photos of Irene Sullivan. There are 41. She has an expression in four of them (the expression technically a smile but bears more similarity to a paper cut). In all the rest she is a totem-pole; a snow-covered gargoyle high on a church looking down on her little hell-bound congregation.