Illustration by Sibel Ergener

My Father the Wild Man, Larger Than Life

Growing up a ‘careless man’s careful daughter’ taught me how little we can really know our parents

“After a few more years, and the third time I almost died, I went into therapy and slowly began to build a different life for myself.”

This is my dad writing about using nitrous oxide, which he did so regularly in his 20s and 30s that he earned a nickname for it: On the scene in Hollywood in those years, he was known as Captain Gas. One of his friends even made him a business card, which depicts him as a superhero borne aloft on a cloud, the chemical shorthand for nitrous, N20, emblazoned across his chest. We had these cards around the house when I was a kid; I don’t know how many years it took before it clicked for me that Captain Gas was not, as I had always assumed, a fart joke.

My parents were honest with me when I was growing up; there was no sense that my dad’s past, which involves everything from stealing motorcycles and running away from home as a teenager to adult stints in various kinds of lockup, as well as work in strip clubs and on the sets of pornos, along with all of those drugs, was anything hidden, shameful or mysterious.

Instead I learned it as a litany, like jokes I could tell at his expense: My dad got kicked out of five high schools (one because he drove a motorcycle through the halls); my dad moved to Los Angeles and got involved in the movie business, working with Herschell Gordon Lewis, “the godfather of gore,” who invented the splatter genre of horror films; my dad worked on other pictures, “nudies” with titles like Bell, Bare and Beautiful; my dad drove a bus for a commune called the Hog Farm; my dad’s friends ran the sound and free kitchens at Woodstock, but he missed it, didn’t go for one silly reason or another.

My dad worked on the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense; he was shooting from under a balcony that almost collapsed under the weight of people dancing overhead. My dad worked for Spielberg on 1941, but never got hired by him again after Spielberg found out about all the drugs he was doing. The Spielberg story is the one with the epilogue I quoted above: It’s one of those tales about a place that looks, from this vantage point, like it should have been a rock bottom. My father, in those days, experienced it as just another bump in the road.

I’ve been telling these stories all my life, but for a long time I didn’t really understand them, certainly not the way I do now. At first it was just grown-up stuff, whatever; then, when I was a teenager, they were funny and scandalous, things I could say instead of talking about my own adventures in staying carefully on the straight-and-narrow, earning straight As and getting elected president of my temple’s youth group.

They are still scandalous, those stories, and often funny, and they’re still better than most of mine: tales of partying with Severn Darden, who helped create modern improv, and Ken Kesey and his merry band of Pranksters, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Lately, though, he’s been writing some of them down on Medium, my own father become a blogger, and the process of reading them has asked me to reckon again with my relationship to them, and him, the way I feel about his wild past and the ways it has informed my own decidedly sober present. My dad’s life before I entered it is littered with cameos by men who became icons — in part, of course, because they lived big, and then they died young.

My father and I are temperamentally akin — volatile, driven, exacting; generous with people we love and difficult with people we don’t — but our biographies could hardly be more different. He was, for most of his life, the breathing incarnation of a bad boy; I have never been anything less than the perfect example of a very good girl. When he and my mother came to move me into my dorm room at the start of my freshman year at Yale, he told me the story of the last time he’d been in New Haven: At some point in the late 60s, doing a light show at the law school with the Hog Farm. Someone called the cops on the afterparty. He ended up spending the night in jail.

I love to tell his stories, but there is always the uncomfortable awareness that, when I do, I am laughing about and lionizing years in which he did not care if he lived or died. I love his stories because they’re rich and funny and foreign to me, because they humanize a set of people living at a time that has largely been romanticized into toothless flower-power nostalgia, or a glorious, consequence-free drugged-out haze — but I am also aware, every time he tells them and every time I tell them, that we are marveling at adventures that nearly killed him, over and over and over again. My father’s stories are legendary, but they are not the whole of his life. And in fact, my life with him is only possible because he lived past those legendary days, and into these long, boring, beautiful ones.

There’s a Taylor Swift lyric, naturally, that seems to sum this up for me. In Swift’s 2010 song “Mine,” the narrator describes herself as a careless man’s careful daughter. “Careless” is not exactly how I would describe my father, not then and certainly not now — but “careful” is a pretty good summation of my approach to being alive, a certain in-built caution that has always felt to me like my own personal inheritance from his old, wild days — as if, somehow, it’s my care now that reaches back to save him, then.

I know it sounds crazy to talk this way. My father’s past is, after all, in the past, fixed and unchangeable, and my rational mind knows that. But that’s never how it is with family, not really; that’s not how love or legacies work. My father is haunted by his own ghosts, but I grew up among them — and since I never knew them living, that’s all they’ve ever been to me: ghosts. He could grapple with them and himself when they were alive, but to me they’re spirits and phantoms, facts I can know but not change, people I can mourn but not meet.

This is the thing about having parents: They are the people who, in some ways, know us better than anyone, and we know them in a way that no one else does. Still, though, they had lives before us; there are versions of them that are necessarily lost to us. There are version of them that, if they met us would not recognize us — might not even like us. The person my dad was when he was 16 and 18, 20, 30, 35. They didn’t die, exactly, but I can only contact them through a medium: my father as he is today.

And so I read his stories and recognize a man I almost know, and then not quite; I worry about him and miss him and mourn him, the version of him I can only see through the lens of the stories he tells. I’m grateful that he’s around to tell them, of course, but it doesn’t stop them from continually unsettling me: the reminders of how close and how far you can be from someone, how you can be made of their body and raised in their home, and yet, still, they do not belong to you. They never, ever did.