In the future everyone will write a memoir for 15
minutes. And many of them will get published,
Little remarked in the current memoir craze is the fact that an entire generation of writers is wasting the material that authors have traditionally mined for their first novels, their own life experiences. Instead of taking advantage of the personally and stylistically liberating form and techniques which fiction offers, they are inundating us with half-baked recollections of the very specific circumstances of their own lives. Half-baked because real life does not provide the kind of closure and narrative structure that fiction does, nor does non-fiction allow the authors to really plumb the psychological depths of those who people their stories. Instead, they give us stories where they share all too much about themselves, but the folks they interact with, most often parents, are little more than cardboard cutouts. This is a limitation imposed by the form they have chosen. After all, at the point where they start speculating about the motivations, feelings and thoughts of others they are no longer writing non-fiction but have instead veered into the field of supposition, of fiction. this presents a series of problems : first, that what is presented as factual often smacks of the fictional; second, that characters other than the author tend to appear so opaque as to defy our understanding; and, finally, that the authors miss out on a real opportunity to try to understand the people who influenced their lives. Where fiction would force them to see the story through the eyes of the other characters, memoir restricts them to their personal, and obviously incomplete, perspective. The books that memoirists produce, with rare exceptions, serve neither the author nor the reader well.
All of these weaknesses are on display in Richard Wertime's memoir, Citadel on the Mountain. The central figure in the book is his father Ted Wertime, a domineering, violent, atavistic man who held his family in some kind of mysterious thrall. A former member of the OSS during WWII, the father may or may not have subsequently been a CIA operative, but at any rate he did serve in posts in Iran, the Far East and elsewhere which seem to suggest that he remained in the clandestine intelligence field. Whatever his secret duties entailed, he did become an expert on early technologies, specifically on ancient metallurgy, and eventually went to work at the Smithsonian and published several long essays in the Washington Post in the mid-70's.
The book offers little information about how the entire process occurred, perhaps because the author does not know himself, but Ted Wertime gradually became a kind of monstrous combination of John Brown and the Unabomber. He physically controlled and psychologically manipulated his family, to the point of choosing sexual partners for his sons and forcing his wife to accept his mistress as a part of the household. He retreated to a fortress-like home on a mountaintop in Pennsylvania, to which he browbeat his sons into returning again and again. There he awaited his own weird version of the apocalypse, an end of days which he envisioned being brought on by man's overreliance on technology and by the resulting environmental degradation.
You can see from that bare outline that there's the basis for an interesting story here. Ted Wertime was the kind of dangerous fanatic with whom we've become all too familiar, a David Koresh of the radical environmental set. The reader would like to know how he got that way, what made him tick, and, most importantly, why his family allowed him to get away with his repellent social behavior. Unfortunately, that's not what the book gives us. There is never a moment where you can comprehend why Richard Wertime loved his father, let alone tolerated the way he treated his mother. In the final pages he makes a seeming attempt to justify his father; and what does he offer : "How hard he'd worked to become a scholar!;" his love of music, sports and the outdoors; and his talent for reading aloud to his sons and neighborhood kids. That's an awfully meager set of positives to try to balance out the genuinely disturbing set of character traits he's depicted previously. As he concludes the book, it is clear that he loved, still loves, his father, but I have no idea why. At a minimum, the book should have explained that one basic thing.
If Richard Wertime ever takes this raw material and turn it into a novel, I'll be interested to see what he comes up with. As for this memoir, it fails to pass Lisa Schwarzbaum's test, and mine
See also:Author Submissions : Not Recommended
-BOOK SITE : Citadel on the Mountain : A Memoir of Father and Son (FSB Associates)
-REVIEW : of Citadel on the Mountain (Richard Rhodes, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Citadel on the Mountain (Margaret Gunning, January Magazine)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd