I grew up in a lower middle class Republican family. We had Protestant relatives, lapsed Catholic relatives, rich relatives, even (shame of shame) a divorced relative, but never a Democrat that I knew of during my formative years.
At home I heard many jealous snipings about my mother’s talented brother, a high-level executive and moderate Republican who probably voted for a fiscally smart Democrat more than once in his life. But I never heard one word about the existence of this modest uncle’s Harvard MBA: it came out years later when my son-in-law, during dinner with my aunt and uncle, innocently inquired about my uncle’s path to prosperity.
Similarly it would have been news to me, growing up, that my father’s two “old maid” aunts were college graduates, let alone pre-1920’s alumnae of UC Berkeley, one with a double major in art and economics, the other in music. Dad in his brilliance, as he liked to tell it, had refused to attend college “because the only reason anybody ever gave me was making more money.” He puffed himself like this while unable to provide piano lessons or prom clothes or even twice-a-week baths, due to earning considerably less than his brothers with their college educations. Conspirators bent on world tyranny had “all the idiot intellectuals” in their pocket, but they couldn’t fool unbrainwashed, freedom-loving geniuses like Dad.
My passive mother, sharing my father’s primitive defenses against fear and shame, chose to live her life as his slavish follower and increasingly as his fiercest defender. He would perseverate about “so-called experts,” and Mom would echo him about other people being sheep while we think for ourselves. So basically I was raised in a wingnut bubble, but without a dominant female like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann driving the delusional paranoia. (More below.)
As you might have guessed, there was a public side to Dad’s desperate need for a fanciful reality. He became a regional officer in the John Birch Society. He agitated against the Rumford Fair Housing Act, denying any racial animus on his part. He campaigned for Barry Goldwater. As an opponent of Sex Ed and Evolution and Atheism, he got himself elected to the local School Board, where his one-man advocacy for censorship of classroom materials proved so extreme, he was trounced in his first bid for re-election. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for Congress – first as a third-party candidate allied with segregationist Governor George Wallace, second as the loony Republican throwaway against an unbeatable Democrat. (He deluded himself into expecting to win, but lost with 24% of the vote, rationalizing it as “name recognition” for his rightful career in national politics. Unlike my cheering siblings at the time, I was separated enough to feel mortified by his campaign.) As a sitting School Board member, he handed my quaking sister her high school diploma, then reportedly exploited her on stage with an ostentatious hug - the first time he touched her without hitting or kicking her in at least eight years. (She strongly resembled his mother, who was quite a piece of work.)
Publicly my father managed, on most occasions, to control his hot-tempered verbal and physical abuse of his children and his otherwise constant verbal abuse of his wife. (Their brief separation the one time she left him, when I was four years old, ended with an agreement that their marriage was over if he ever struck her again. Evidently this pact didn’t pertain to the children.) My grandparents and uncles and aunts had no idea of the extent of Dad’s mistreatment of us, or of Mom’s tendency to protect herself at the expense of her kids. His political supporters, Mom included, viewed him as a smart, principled, rightly angry yet charming family man who cared about America and wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
The one place I saw my father truly relax, to the point that I could understand what my mother saw in him, was the one place where he was genuinely an expert and he wasn’t worried about receipts: the outdoors. Ferns. Trees. Trails. Wildflowers. Rock formations. Bullfrogs hiding beneath creek banks. The best method of catching tadpoles or crawfish. He knew it all, from boyhood. His confidence and joy were palpable, his rage unthreatening if not absent. How Mom must have adored him during their honeymoon in Sequoia National Park.
Most of my siblings are still in denial, I think, about the depth of Dad’s cruelty and craziness, but at some level they know, because even those who side with his politics (ie those who consider themselves independent thinkers, impervious to the “herd mentality”) keep their distance from him. Also at some level, I suspect, his defenders reject both his treatment of Mom and her pathologic acceptance of it, because when my least separated, most Palinoid sister planned a surprise party for my parents’ Golden Anniversary at a campground in the Sierras, not a word was mentioned about their romance: we hailed their fifty years of marriage by singing “America the Beautiful” to the happy couple in front of the flag. According to this sister, “that’s what they care about.”
So how has the paranoid Republican craziness played out privately for my parents, aside from my severing relations over ten years ago, by demanding an apology for insane abuse I won’t go into here? Well, they’ve survived all their siblings, though probably not because Mom has long refused medical attention despite high blood pressure, osteoporosis (her mother’s cause of death), and swollen feet, nor because Dad considers himself smarter than any doctor, myself emphatically included. They own their home and live on Social Security (Romney’s 47%). With interest rates so low now, they file no federal tax return despite considerable savings.
Ours is a long-lived family with dementia on both sides. My mother’s dementia began to manifest during her early seventies. Before she turned 80 my father acknowledged that she needed constant supervision (which wasn’t much of an escalation from his constant control). Unlike their reality-based elder siblings, who downsized and entered assisted living before emergently needing it, Mom and Dad continued to delude themselves that they would need no help. Despite not knowing where she was or reliably what decade it was, my mother at 85 passed California’s driving test and succeeded in renewing her license. When Dad recently broke his hip at 92, slipping on wet pavement while taking out the garbage, he reportedly told hospital staff he was capable of walking fifteen miles before the accident. But according to my closest sister, he hadn’t actually walked more than half a block in over two years, due to painful arthritis and osteoporosis.
So no wonder Dad’s rehab after his hip replacement isn’t succeeding as he expected. He blames incompetent doctors, incompetent physical therapists, improperly cooked food, a malicious conspiracy to film him for advertising purposes. Unable to rise from a chair without assistance, he has regressed from demanding to go home to insisting he’s been discharged, and lately to believing it’s actually the 1950’s when he had a key to his boyhood cabin in Sonoma County.
Meanwhile Mom refuses even to visit the adult daycare facility my sister lovingly selected; she panics when Dad doesn’t answer the phone where he used to work twenty years ago. She and Dad remain rigidly convinced that they don’t need assisted living. Of course all their children believe otherwise, supporting his caregivers; for some of my siblings this is the first time they’ve been forced, as adults, to cross our parents. (My mother slapped my most right-wing sister across the face in front of Dad’s doctor.) Adult Protective Services may become involved, with authority to remove my parents permanently from their home.
Such are the wages, I guess, of eight decades of delusional paranoia. When the closest you can come to admitting your failings and fears is to project them onto everyone else while insisting upon your unassailable superiority, apparently you set the stage for realizing your greatest fear: being taken over by the government.