Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family. is available from all good bookshops, and from the MidnightSun Publishing website.
In the drafting stage, my soon-to-be released novel, We. Are. Family. (MidnightSun Publishing), included a postscript. Whereas the rest of the book is fiction, the postscript was non-fiction, and recounted the moment when my dad tried to tell me something important.
It was my 21st birthday party in Geelong. Dad was required to make a speech and present me with a wooden key that friends and family had signed. I was wearing a tight charcoal t-shirt, 501s and holding a VB stubby. I thought I was sexy. And fairly significant. I had a girlfriend whose parents were rich. I was the eldest in my family and, although it’s hard to know where to draw these lines, I was considered the first person in my extended family to go to university. The lounge room was full of the friends I’d made at said institution in Melbourne, along with those from high school days and family. I was the centre of attention, which I loved, and I wasn’t too drunk yet.
Before his speech, Dad pulled me aside. He wanted to tell me a story, he said. With five books behind me and numerous essays, I’m not sure he’d say something like that these days. But this was long before I was a storyteller of any kind, although I’d written poetry since my teens and had begun a BA in Journalism.
Dad told me that one day his late father Jack had pulled him aside in his tiny hometown’s RSL Club. At least that’s where I think Dad said they were. It might have been at his own 21st, but I don’t feel comfortable to ask him. Because over time I have, it seems, worn down my father with pieces of writing about our family, in the same way the family has sometimes worn out my capacity for compassion.
So I’m hoping Dad never reads this piece. Even though I’d really love him to read it.
After Jack pulled my dad aside he said, ‘Son, you and I have an understanding.’ Apparently Jack’s eyes were soft and gleaming. Jack wasn’t a big drinker, but I picture him with a glass of beer, smoking his pipe and doffing his bowler hat. He never said much. And the only things he ever said were kind. My dad took Jack’s statement, the only one of its ilk he ever made, to mean that his father loved him. And it was important for my dad to have this ‘understanding’. Because he told me that his late mother Jean, already mother to three children at the time, hadn’t wanted him, and that Flo who lived over the back fence had basically raised him.
‘So what I want to say today, son,’ my dad said, ‘is you and I have an understanding.’
I’m not sure he pulled me aside. I have a feeling his words may actually have formed the body of his speech. Or part of it. I can’t remember. And there’s not much point in asking because it doesn’t really matter if his words were public or private; I needed more than a jokey aside. I needed, some time in my life, to hear from my dad that he loved me. In as many words. Who knows, it might have stopped some of my destructive behaviour. A little less than a year previously, Dad had told me that I had ‘lost him’ because I’d used drugs and experienced a psychotic episode. I was already feeling lost enough. And lost before that.
It’s surely not a huge stretch to say a father’s love can help a young man find himself.
Still, this is not a violin and tissues story. I’m okay. And lots of men I know who have had similar experiences in their childhoods are okay too. But they have, like me, struggled significantly to become the men they want to be, doing it often despite various or multiple addictions, along with problems with anger and authority figures. And, to a man, the men I’ve viewed as psychologically integrated have said that when they were young they were assured of their fathers’ love.
The Australian poet Andrew Lansdown wrote a poem in which he described ruffling his son’s hair and telling him that he loved him. Again. His words didn’t raise a response from his son. And Lansdown wrote of how glad he was that his son took his love for granted.
We know it’s one thing to say we love someone, another thing to enact it. In fathering my three children – what I believe is the most important role in my life – I have a sense I could have written Lansdown’s poem many times over. But, when it comes to my own experience of being fathered – and those of so many men I know – well, I’ve written a novel.
Paul Mitchell’s wry and moving considerations of society’s undercurrents chronicle an unsettlingly recognisable Australia. His three poetry collections have received national prizes and wide acclaim, and his short story collection Dodging the Bull was included in the 2008 The Age Summer Read program. He is also a playwright, screenwriter and essayist. Mitchell’s varied oeuvre explores the beauty in the seemingly mundane, the troubled history of Australian masculinity, and finds spirituality in the murky depths of life. He has continued this exploration with his sensitive and rugged first novel, We.Are.Family.