Transcript

121:

Twentieth Century Man
Transcript

Originally aired 01.29.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/121

Act One.

Ira Glass

This story is always different, but it's also always the same. The blue-blooded Yankee graduates from Yale, moves to Texas, starts talking like a good ol' boy, turns himself into an oil man, and after that, into President of the United States. The Czechoslovakian pencil-necked geek from Pittsburgh named Andy Warhol moves to New York, dresses in black, becomes a darling of the rich and glamorous. The nice Jewish boy from Minnesota affects an oaky twang, picks up a guitar, renames himself for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and-- you know this story.

One thing that makes our country different from all of the other ones is this idea that it's our birthright that we can recreate ourselves as someone who we prefer to be, sell everything off, move somewhere else, start a new life. This tendency is so deep in American culture that we have an entire industry, a self-help industry, telling us how to transform ourselves into someone new. And usually, we see this as a positive thing. But what happens if you're too good at it, at throwing everything off, starting over from scratch?

Over the course of his life, Keith Aldrich was a child of the Depression in Oklahoma, then a preacher-in-training in booming California, an aspiring Hollywood actor. In the '50s, he remade himself as a self-styled Beat writer, then as a man in a gray flannel suit. In the '60s, he became part of the New York literati, then went through a hippie phase, moved to the suburbs for '70s-era partying, Ice Storm, John Updike novel kind of life.

When the Moral Majority helped put Ronald Reagan into office in the '80s, he changed again, became a born-again Christian. Not only is his life a history of most of the major cultural shifts of the second half of the 20th century in this country, it's a case study in the question, what happens if you're too good at transforming yourself, at this part of our national character.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And today, we are devoting our entire program to the story of this man's life, as told by one of his nine children, Gillian Aldrich. Keith Aldrich married five times. He left one set of wife and kids after another at most of the major turning points in his life. When he died in 1993, for the first time ever, eight of the nine kids got together in the same place, at his funeral, and talked about what sort of man he was. And it was then that they realized that they all knew different versions of their father.

And so a couple years after that, Gillian Aldrich, his sixth child, set out to reconcile all these different accounts. She left her home in New York City to go out and interview all of her half siblings about her father's life. Here's her story.

Act Two.

Gillian Aldrich

When I started this trip, I saw my dad as the quintessential restless American, constantly on the move in his quest for his dreams. I knew there was a dark side to all this, people left behind, marriages busted. But still there was some part of his quest that seemed heroic. I'm sure he saw it that way too.

Keith Aldrich

I was a very good boy when I was a kid, a very good boy.

Gillian Aldrich

This is how my father told his own story. It's a church testimony recorded 14 years before he died.

Keith Aldrich

And my great ambition was to be a preacher, like me Uncle Floyd. And I [? blessed ?] that to my Lord. On the other hand, not so easily seen, there was this rebellious kid inside.

Gillian Aldrich

1929 to 1953, age of innocence. My dad grew up in the Church of Christ during the Depression in Oklahoma. His family moved to California after Pearl Harbor, so that his father could get work welding on the ships to help the war effort. My father got a scholarship to a Christian school, Pepperdine College. He was married in the same year to his high school sweetheart.

Shelly

I'm Shelly. I was from the first marriage. I was born in Whittier, California. Dad was young.

Gillian Aldrich

I started my trip at Shelly's house in Eugene, Oregon, where I see my half sisters from my dad's first marriage. There's Shelly and there's Becky, who's up from San Francisco for the weekend with her daughter. I'm surprised to be included in their family weekend. We barely know each other, and don't have much in common outside of our father. Yet we spend three days going whitewater rafting and sitting down to big family meals.

Becky's 50 and Shelly's 48. They're both adamantly devoted to their families. And Shelly's a fundamentalist Christian who's home-schooled all her kids in the belief that parents can and should do better than any school. Still, we're amazingly comfortable with each other. We sit in Shelly's living room and talk into the night about who our father was.

Shelly

He was going to be a preacher. He was going to be a Church of Christ preacher. So he had it all planned out. In the Church of Christ community, that was kind of the highest social status was to be a preacher in the church.

I know my mom said, she told me that even though he was 18 when they got married, she said he wasn't like he was 18. He kind of ran the youth group at church. He was the most influential. His father was influential. And he was always very sure of himself, very confident about who he was, where he was going. He was highly respected, even at 18.

Becky

He was 18 when they got married. And she was 20 years old. And they were just starting out, of course. And they had a little apartment over somebody's garage.

Gillian Aldrich

This is Becky.

Becky

Unfortunately before their plans, they had me.

I think that had a major effect on his relationship with my mother and their relationship with each other, and how he saw his life unfolding. I'm sure it really bothered him that he saw his possibilities limited by the fact that he had these three children, and he was only 23 years old.

Gillian Aldrich

And so Dad made a choice, the same choice he would repeat over and over for the rest of his life. He simply changed his mind about who he was going to be. He began studying drama, throwing himself into school plays with the same fervor he'd had for being a preacher.

Shelly

It was costly to him, I think, to be involved in drama. He was good at it, but I think it got out of hand for him. As you study the history of drama, it gets out of hand for a lot of people. So that changed his focus and certainly changed my parents relationship.

Gillian Aldrich

So how did it break up, the marriage with your mom. What happened? It seems like it could be something that you do and you stay happily married.

Shelly

Oh, sure. But Dad was having affairs with women. That doesn't go over well.

Gillian Aldrich

They soon divorced. The three kids, Becky, Shelly, and Alan, didn't really see their father much for the next 15 years. And when I try to get Becky and Shelly to tell me more about the person our father was when they were children, they can't. He left too early for them to remember.

Shelly

This is nice. There's a little hill there. We could sit on the mound.

Gillian Aldrich

Oh yeah.

On my last day in Eugene, Becky, Shelly, and I go on a walk together in the park next to Shelly's house. Shelly tells me that Dad's abandonment is one of the reasons she's devoted herself so fully to her kids.

Shelly

He rejected me. As a child, he left me. He didn't care for me. He didn't send money to my mother to support me. I guess it was when I started having my own children that I started thinking, how could you? How could you have done this to me? I'm committed to my children. Why weren't you committed to me?

Gillian Aldrich

Their feeling about that is so different from mine.

Shelly

I remember enough to know that as Dad did, he would be involved in our lives as it fit his--

Becky

As it fit his schedule.

Shelly

Yeah, as it was convenient for him. The man that we've been describing, does he sound familiar to you? And if so, in what way?

Gillian Aldrich

Yeah. You know what, I feel like I'm trying to sort of mythologize Dad as an artist, or the creative part of Dad.

I talked about Dad following his dreams, how that gave me the courage to try new things. But it wasn't the kind of argument where anyone convinces anyone else. I ask Shelly if she can see what I saw in him, outside of her experience as an abandoned daughter.

Shelly

No, I don't. If you're saying at the cost of your family, I think that's inexcusable. I think that's hideous. I think if you make a commitment to someone, you should keep it.

No, I think that to try to say that because Dad was talented, that that gave him some kind of license to marry women and abandon them is ludicrous, of course not. Each of us has a responsibility to live a life accountable to some kind of righteousness or value, even if you don't believe in God. And certainly, that doesn't include hurting people. No, I see nothing noble in his pursuit of his dreams, if that's what you want to call it. I spit upon it.

Gillian Aldrich

1953 to 1963, Beat in a gray flannel suit.

Keith Aldrich

I got married again almost immediately, after a wild and passionate romance based on the life of D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Rita. Our gods were the same as theirs, the animal life force and art. We worshiped theater, she as an actress, me as a writer. This marriage produced another divine child and still more guilt, for she was married when I met her and left her husband for me, just like Rita did for D. H. And it produced a great deal of jealousy and turbulence.

Gillian Aldrich

My dad met his second wife, Maggie, an actress from Germany, in a drama group. He was in the theater program at UCLA and later bragged that he was buddies with Carol Burnett and James Garner, and that Sydney Poitier babysat in exchange for Dad helping him get rid of his bohemian accent. No one in the family believes any of this. The facts are Maggie got pregnant, they got married.

Josie

I'm Josie, and I'm from Keith's second marriage. And I was born in 1955.

Gillian Aldrich

I drove 25 hours from Shelly's house in Eugene to see my half sister, Josie, in Boulder, Colorado, Josie's 45 years old and lives with her son. On our first night together, we're in a condo, looking at a photo album Dad made for her.

Josie

We lived on Holly Drive in Hollywood Hills, in a little red house. There's this shot that I always remember about the three of us, my mother, the glam actress, with her hair in a bun and very red lipstick, and almost Joan Crawford eyebrows that aren't so great, and my father, who is like the all-American guy. Then I'm in this nice little dress.

He writes underneath it, the family of the '50s, which that is really what this photo is. It's the family of the '50s. However, we weren't the family of the '50s.

Gillian Aldrich

My Dad took a lot of pictures. And a lot of them have this quality. They're almost iconic, as if "family of the '50s" was this role he was trying to get the family to play.

After being scouted in a theater production at UCLA, Dad was cast in a bit part in a Grace Kelly movie, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and thought he was on his way to a career as a movie actor.

Josie

Apparently, he had the chance to work at Paramount. And those were still the days when actors were hired to be contract actors for different studios. And what my mother told me was that-- his ears stick out a little bit, which we all know that they did-- and my mother told me that if he had had his ears pinned back, that they would've accepted him into the studio as one of the contract actors. And my mother just really couldn't understand why he didn't do that. It would've been so easy.

And that's kind of like Dad was, you know. He could have been onto something really good, but no, he had this dream. And he had to be a playwright. And that really never went anywhere as well.

Gillian Aldrich

So he didn't really believe in the Hollywood system. He really wanted to do theater.

Josie

Yeah, he wanted to do theater. And I don't think he believed in any system. No rules. Don't fence me in. I don't know.

Well, we moved to New York when I was about three. He went before us. He went to join a group of men who were playwrights. And he was encouraged by a friend of his. Oh, let's go to New York, and we can become famous playwrights.

And Dad was a bit impulsive. And he didn't like the acting scene in Hollywood. So he decided, yeah, let's do it. He goes with his friend. And then about six months later, my mother and I came after him.

Gillian Aldrich

In the classic American biographies, there are always these heroic moments, the rebel leaving behind the old life, taking risks, following his or her dream and ending up famous. But of course, most people who tear up their lives and follow their dreams never make it. My dad moved to New York, wrote nothing of value, and had to get a real job in publishing.

The marriage didn't survive the move either. By the time Josie was five, Keith and Maggie were divorced. But he didn't abandon Josie, as he'd left behind the kids from his first marriage. Maybe he was more mature. Maybe he needed family more. But even after the divorce, he was often a very good dad.

When he chose to be, he was really fun. He played with you. He laughed a lot. He talked to you and made you feel important. He was intense and larger than life, like he was playing the perfect dad.

Josie

And with me, he would sometimes sit down. And I would dictate poems to him that I had made up. And he'd type them for me. And so that was a nice little thing that we did as father and daughter.

But he was kind of giddy. He was funny. I thought he looked like Dick Van Dyke and acted like Dick Van Dyke, and wished he had been a Dick Van Dyke, this movie star. I think I always wanted him to be a movie star. But yeah, it was like his life was a movie. And at this stage, when I was seven or eight or nine, it was kind of like we were in a musical, singing in the rain and jumping around the streets of New York and making up songs.

Gillian Aldrich

When did you feel a change come in your family that was pulling him away? Do you remember the time?

Josie

Oh, yeah. Well, when he married your mother. And then he started to have a new family with her. And yeah, that was hard for me.

Gillian Aldrich

1963 to 1969, literati. My mother, Sally, was Dad's assistant at McGraw-Hill Publishers. She was completely taken with his charm. She told me she came home her first day from work and told her parents that she was going to marry her boss. And within a year, they were married.

Keith Aldrich

The next few years were the happiest I had known since I was a kid. I suppressed my deep yearning to be an artist. And my wife and I devoted ourselves more or less to the good life. We had clothes and money and went out a lot. We had no spiritual life at all, but we didn't miss it. We were sophisticates.

Gillian Aldrich

According to my mother, Dad used to say that he married her for two reasons, her ass and her family. Dad seemed to think he was moving up in the world, marrying the daughter of a well-known New York editor, Cecil Scott, whose authors include James Michener and Barbara Tuchman. Josie felt like she was losing Dad to another world.

Josie

And I saw something change in him where I thought he was extremely phony when he'd have talks and smoke cigarettes and drink his scotch with Cecil. Cecil was an editor at McMillan. And his authors, the people he was involved with were bestselling authors. And in the literary world, they were the top people. And so, I think Dad was just so impressed with that and wanted to impress Cecil and let him know-- let Cecil know-- that hey, your daughter isn't marrying a hick from Illinois or Oklahoma. I've got some worth.

And I think that's really what he was trying to do was prove something about himself, or reinvent himself. He was always reinventing himself. So here he was going through a stage now where he could come up to Chappaqua and know how to dress and do what the Methodists were doing. And when we'd go up for the weekends, I thought, my god, what is-- this is so not me. This is so not my dad, this whole suburban trip. It was just so strange. I saw Dad playing a role.

Gillian Aldrich

For the record, my mom didn't have any of these pretensions. She was used to this world. She was a painter, an artist in her own right. For the first five years of their marriage, Mom and Dad lived happily in the upper west side of New York City. That's where my older brother, Scott, was born.

1969 to 1972, the ice storm. Right before I was born, my parents decided it was time to move to the suburbs, so they could raise their kids in the stable environment of a nice small town. As it turned out, this was the place our lives fell apart, in a big old house in Katonah, an hour's commute from New York. To find out more about this period, I visited Alan, the youngest child from my father's first marriage. He lived with us in Katonah for over a year.

Now he's in the woods of New Hampshire. He lives like the ex-hippie he is. He enjoys sing-alongs with his guitar, talks freely about sex, makes a living as a computer programmer. Alan was 17 during the year he lived with us. He'd moved out from San Diego to finish high school with his father.

Alan

It was just great. I thought it was just the most wonderful place to live in the world, because I could smoke and drink and be adult and sophisticated and all these things. They had some really neat friends. They would have these parties. And people would sit around and talk about all kinds of [BLEEP], you know.

Gillian Aldrich

For a couple of years in Katonah, all of my dad's kids intersected at various times. Besides Alan, Becky and Shelly, also from the first marriage, lived there briefly after high school. And Josie, from the second marriage, came up from the city to visit on weekends.

But shortly after moving to Katonah, Dad went through his next transformation, a radical left turn away from the suburban stodginess he had chosen. The year was 1969. Here's how my dad described it.

Keith Aldrich

By this time, I was 40 pounds overweight, had regular three-martini lunches, and truth to tell, I was officious. There were riots in the streets. The kids had long hair and wore overalls. And they looked at me as if I was the enemy.

Alan

When I got there, he made it very clear to me that he was not going to be my father. He was going to be my buddy. He never asked me, where are you going, or how long are you going to be, or where have you been and what were you doing and that sort of thing. If he asked me anything, and I told him, and it was anything the least bit racy or off-beat or anything like that, he would just think that was really great. And the more I did, the more great he thought it was.

Josie

That was a very tumultuous time, not because Alan was there, really, but because of all the changes Dad was going through. And he was beginning to get into drugs.

Gillian Aldrich

This is Josie.

Josie

Meaning he was smoking marijuana. And I think they were both taking LSD and also mescaline. So all of this was going on where Alan was kind of involved.

And I was even involved. I'd go up there on every other week and sometimes smoke with them at a very young age. And it's absolutely incredible to me now that I did this. And all these people coming in and out of that house.

Gillian Aldrich

In an era where adults were trying to be teenagers, Dad quit his job and considered himself the guru to the resident teenagers, Alan and his girlfriend, Stephanie. Here's Alan again.

Alan

I was still smoking and doing acid and whatnot, and so was he. And he was finding that he was really enjoying this kind of really liberated lifestyle. I think he felt that I was outdoing him somehow in terms of my liberatedness, and he was in competition with me to see who could be the wildest, or something. In fact, he kind of came down to my level a lot.

I don't know if I ever told you this, but he came on to Stephanie one time. He offered to take her home when I was too stoned or drunk or something like that, and she needed to get home. And he drove her home. And he attacked her on the way home. He pulled over, started sticking his tongue down her throat and everything.

[LAUGHTER]

My girlfriend, you know? A 17, 18-year-old girl. And that really pissed me off. It certainly pissed her off. And she didn't want anything to do with our family after that. And I was really love with her. I was so angry at him about that.

Gillian Aldrich

Did you confront him?

Alan

No.

Gillian Aldrich

You didn't?

Alan

No. I couldn't. I was so frightened of him. I had seen his anger against Sally. By that time, he was starting, I think, to feel like Sally was dragging him down, or something, or kind of a millstone around his neck in terms of his liberatedness, or something like that. And he would just blow off at a drop of a hat at that point.

I remember distinctly sitting down in that little dining room in Katonah there one morning. And for some reason, he didn't like the way she cooked the eggs or something. And something she said set him off.

And he just threw his plate against the wall. And then he threw the table against the other wall and just started ripping up the dining room, taking pictures off the walls and smashing them over chairs, and smashing chairs into splinters. And Sally was just screaming and cowering in the corner of the room.

And I've never been so petrified in all my life as I was during that scene. And then an hour later, it was over. It was like we were all supposed to pretend like nothing had happened.

Josie

Oh, I don't remember. Just whenever I was rebellious, or maybe I mouthed off to him, he'd slap me around and really throw me across the room.

Gillian Aldrich

Here's Josie again.

Josie

And really, that was quite a distance. I was a pretty skinny kid. But he would just unleash his wrath on me.

But I do remember one time that I did prevent him from really-- I knew that I was going to be harmed terribly because I stood up for myself. And what I did was I screamed "help" for the police. And the police came. A next-door neighbor came.

And then it continued. And it just continued. It didn't stop.

Gillian Aldrich

This is my brother, Scott. He was probably four years old at this time.

Scott

One of my earliest memories in Katonah is waking up and hearing screaming downstairs, and seeing Dad being manhandled by police downstairs, as I'm sitting on the staircase with Mom, and she's holding me. And he apparently had just thrown Josie against a window. And some neighbor saw it and came over and beat the [BLEEP] out of Dad. And he was bleeding, and the police were there trying to calm him down. And it seemed to me like they were nearly locking him up.

Josie

During that time of this fight with the neighbor, the blood was rushing down and was staining his white suit. And that was just such an image, to see Dad. Dad was getting hit. The police were coming. And maybe I did feel a little empowered. Who knew that word and that term?

And then when I walked into the bathroom, seeing him wash his white clothing to get the stain out. And he looked up at me, and he said, "I don't want to know you. And I don't want to have anything to do with you. And you're on the next train." And that was that.

Scott

I think that he would get overwhelmed by his emotions, that somehow he felt that he was his emotions. And when he had an emotion, he had to feel it fully, even if it meant smashing his foot through a door or beating up someone, like his wife. And he almost felt that to censor that was to censor his own creativity.

And I think that he was of a generation that might have glamorized that, to a certain extent. I think that the artists of his generation that he admired, like Henry Miller or Jackson Pollock, people that, in many ways, Dad emulated these types. And I think that these are tremendously successful individuals, but they also lived life on the edge. And I think there was sort of a cult of that, of an appeal to that, that I think Dad was susceptible to.

Gillian Aldrich

In a sense, who else would embody so many different cultural trends over the course of 40 years, other than someone who gives in to all his emotions? That same quality that made him so charismatic and engaging, that made him such a great dad sometimes, also made him a terror.

I was alive during the mayhem in Katonah, but it all happened before I was three years old. So I don't remember any of it. But to Josie, I was very much a part of the drama.

Josie

Oh, I felt ashamed because there were some bad things going on. For instance, if your parents had come home from a party or something, or they were just smoking marijuana and listening to music and involved in their own lives, or whatever, their discussions. And I'd be going upstairs and I'd be checking on you. Or I'd hear you crying, and I'd hear you crying and crying and crying, and no would come to see you. And there you'd be in the crib.

I guess I was ashamed because I felt like I turned my back on you guys, on you little kids. And I came less and less to Katonah. And when I had a big blow-up with Dad, I felt like I never saw you again. And I felt like I didn't want to see you again. Because it conjured up so many horrible images.

Gillian Aldrich

This was completely new to me. When I sat down to interview Josie, we barely knew each other. I'd always heard the stories about this crazy period when my dad actually lived in the house I grew up in. But I never thought of myself as a part of it. And when Josie first mentioned it, I brushed it off.

Then one afternoon, after we went for a hike in the mountains, she came into my room, visibly upset. She started to cry for me and Scott. She felt so guilty that we were so neglected, and for abandoning us.

Now I heard her, but I felt like she was talking to the wrong person. I wasn't hurt by that stuff, I said. That wasn't me. It was just a baby I don't relate with. And I pointed out that she was just a kid herself. She had nothing to be guilty about.

But it shook me. I guess I'd always thought that while my dad was running around being crazy, my mom was crouched in the corner with me safely tucked under her arm. It didn't occur to me that I was caught up in all of the chaos.

I was starting to realize that the story I was trying to tell couldn't be the same one I had started out to do. I was feeling differently about Dad. I was beginning to have a hard time seeing anything noble about his pursuit of his dreams.

1972 to 1978, the time of Bacchus and Batman.

Keith Aldrich

The odd thing is, I believed at the time I was acting in the highest morality. It was basically the morality declared by Abbie Hoffman, the yippie leader, in his book, Steal This Book. The idea was, the system is corrupt beyond salvaging.

Tear everything down. Rip everything off. You are a law unto yourself. To thine own self be true.

Gillian Aldrich

After my parents' divorce, Dad was still doing a lot of drugs, incapable of holding onto a job or a girlfriend. He was working as a professional actor, which meant he was mostly broke. He was on The Guiding Light for a couple of years, playing an evil Texas lawyer named Raymond Schafer. When we were out with him, women would stop him on the street and ask him for his autograph. We thought that was pretty cool.

Man

Batman.

Keith Aldrich

Dick, what's wrong?

Man

Not Dick, not now. Time for Robin and Batman.

Keith Aldrich

No?

Gillian Aldrich

Dad wrote and acted the part of Batman on a series of records about the Caped Crusader. This one's called If Music Be the Food of Death. To me and my brother, he was a superhero. I was seven years old.

Keith Aldrich

We have to pull the lever with a letter that answers the riddle. Hmm. A letter like an escape.

Gillian Aldrich

When we saw him on the weekends, he was at his best, attentive and fun.

Keith Aldrich

Good, Robin, good. What's the other one?

Man

Why is a speeding train like a citizen of Moscow?

Keith Aldrich

Hmm, of course, of course.

Man

What is it?

Keith Aldrich

They're both rushin'.

Gillian Aldrich

True to form, Dad's life was just about to turn upside down once again.

Ira Glass

Coming up, one child found, one child lost. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. In a sense, there are lots of families like the Aldriches. A parent leaves, remarries, makes a new life. And the kids in the first marriage are left to make sense of it somehow.

The Aldriches are just an extreme case. Dad left five different families. Nine kids were left struggling what to make of it, and what to make of each other. Gillian's story continues.

Gillian Aldrich

Harry was the one sibling who didn't come to Dad's funeral. Shelly was the only one of us who had ever met him. No one had any idea where he was.

I finally found him on the internet. It turns out that he lives in New York, where I live. I didn't know if he'd want anything to do with the family, because my dad practically disowned him. But he was as excited to meet as I was.

Gillian Aldrich

Harry?

Harry

Yes.

Gillian Aldrich

Hi.

Harry

Hi. What's up?

Gillian Aldrich

I'm sorry to do this.

Harry

That's OK.

Gillian Aldrich

How are you?

Harry

Good.

Gillian Aldrich

Good to meet you.

We were both pretty nervous.

Gillian Aldrich

So you're my brother. So what do you think? Do we look alike?

Harry

I think it'll grow on me. But yeah.

Gillian Aldrich

You do? Do you see anything?

As far as I'm concerned, there's a huge family resemblance. He has exactly the same low hairline and stick-out ears my dad had. He looks a lot like my dad, actually.

Harry's 22 years old. He's smart and funny. We were instantly comfortable with each other.

Harry was born during the mid '70s, in the midst of Dad's unstable life in New York. Dad dated Harry's mom for a few months. She got pregnant. Dad rejected her.

She moved to a commune in Tennessee called The Farm, where Harry grew up. Dad only saw Harry a handful of times. And Harry's few memories of Dad take place mostly 10 or 15 years after he was born.

Harry

I guess I have three or four memories, I think it might have been over the course of two trips. This was when he lived in a condo in southern California. I don't think he was attached at the time. He was living such a early '90s microwave life is the only way to put it.

It was one of the pop-up condominium strips in southern California, which are just like wildfire across southern California. I would go there, and we'd go to the grocery store and buy three frozen pizzas and come back and microwave them. He lived this total microwave existence. And everything about his life seemed like just pop in, pop out kind of thing.

So we're at this apartment. And I guess I was vacuuming with a little hand-vac. And he was still sort of in the process of moving into his place. And I bumped a box that a lamp was on, and the lamp fell. And it didn't work.

And so I just got paranoid. I was like, oh my gosh, I think I broke this lamp. And so I didn't want to not tell him. The smart thing to do maybe would have been to not tell him. But my conscience forced me to go in there.

And I said, I think I broke the lamp. It's not working. And he went in there. And he tried to turn it on, and it didn't work.

And he just exploded. He just freaked out. He just started tearing apart his office. He dropped the lamp on the ground, and he was just storming and standing there, screaming at me and throwing things on the ground, spilling his papers all over the place, sweeping things, just like a maniac.

And he finally just calmed down. And then he took the lamp. And he went, and he checked the bulb. And the bulb had broken. And he changed the bulb, and the lamp worked.

And so then we just cleaned up the room. And he was apologetic. And he's like, man, why did I do this. And I'm thinking, even if this lamp had been broken, you caused 10 times more trouble flipping out about it. Obviously, I guess he was just struggling with a lot of things. I don't think it had to do with the lamp at all.

Gillian Aldrich

On another trip, Harry says Dad was reading the newspaper about the Pan Am flight that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. Never one to hold anything back, Dad started crying about the victims.

Harry

And I remember thinking, what a tender thing. This guy is really real. He's compassionate. He's crying for all these people. And I remember almost feeling bad, like gee, why am I not more broken up about this, and wanting to feel more upset about it.

But then he went right out of being upset about that to just laying straight into me about me, about existing period. He was like, I don't want you up here. Your mom is just sticking you in my life. I didn't ask for you to come visit.

And then he starts going into all these things about I've never even wanted you. You were just a manipulation that your mom used to try and get to me. And he was just railing at me. And I remember feeling so, so worthless and so insecure and so unhappy, and just scared and depressed.

I remember it was around that time when I was like-- it may have been around that time. But it was experiences like that that made me think, I don't know what it would have been like to have actually ever spent any period of my life being raised by this person. I could not imagine what it would be like to have to go home from school and know that he was going to be there. And I thought, I could not have handled it. I would have broken. I would have absolutely broken.

And I remember feeling so grateful, so grateful, that I had not been raised by him at all. Because I never felt let down that Keith had not raised me at all, that he had not been there for me. The honest truth of the way I felt was why is he even coming along now and making it harder.

Gillian Aldrich

Growing up the furthest from Dad, having the least contact with him of any of us, Harry's also the least conflicted of all the siblings. Me, I'm not nearly so settled.

1979 to 1988, reborn again. Around the time that Ronald Reagan took office, and the Moral Majority began to hold sway around the country, my father became a Christian.

Keith Aldrich

It was beginning to appear that my life was going to amount to nothing, a big fat zero. By now, I had trampled roughshod over the feelings and hearts of scores of people who loved me-- family, friends, children, lovers, associates-- all on the altar of my artistry. My self-contempt made me meaner than ever, and I was usually stoned or a little smashed.

Gillian Aldrich

In the late '70s, shortly after Harry was born, one of my dad's girlfriends began dragging him to meetings at an evangelical church.

Keith Aldrich

My mind, which had been closed for so many years, was beginning to open. The hardness of my heart began to melt. I teetered on the brink of believing. I longed so to believe.

Gillian Aldrich

My father was saved, born again. He moved to California and briefly lived his lifelong dream of doing his own theater. He traveled around southern California, performing his Christian plays.

At the end of each performance, Dad would stand up and preach, calling people up front to be saved, laying his hands on the repentant. Scott started thinking Dad was a weirdo and a fake. He could see that Dad was as aggressive and self-obsessed as he'd ever been, but now it was all in the service of Jesus.

Scott

We were driving out to the desert, and Dad was speaking in tongues. And I was in the front seat. You were in the back. We were on our way to Palm Springs. And Dad was speaking in tongues. And it sounded like, "Oh shalakh halem alakh hulum alakh haleng." Those were the kind of sounds it sounded like. And you and I used to look at each other like, "what the hell is he doing?"

And I remember I said, "So Dad, what is that chanting you're doing?" And I said, "Is that some ancient Hebrew? Are you praying?" And he said, "Well, it's interesting you ask that, because I don't know what it is. It could be some ancient, dead tongue. But," he said, "I received the Holy Spirit. And when you receive the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit speaks through you."

And I said, "Wow, that's very interesting." And he asked if I would like to speak in tongues. And I said, "Uh, well, all right, I guess," totally worried.

And then he put his hands in my head, and he started speaking in tongues. And he said, "Heavenly father, let the Holy Spirit come through Scott," and everything, and did this whole prayer. And then he said, OK. This was while he was driving too. We were on the interstate in the desert.

And then he said, "OK, Scott. I want you to speak in tongues." And I was totally self-conscious. And I looked at you. You were just absolutely cracking up silently. And I kept hemming and hawing. He said, "Go ahead. Don't be afraid."

And then I started to speak this language that you and I had made up when we were little kids, like "Obaca lucca shula lucca la." I just made up this language. And you were practically dying in the backseat. And he was just supporting me, like "Oh, that's good, yeah. Keep going. Keep going."

And then we went to visit Grandpa Aldrich. And then he started doing it again with Grandpa Aldrich. And it wasn't any funny anymore.

And then Grandpa Aldrich, after he was so afraid, he went to the bathroom in his pants. And we had to deal with it. And Dad just got furious. And I remember just thinking, oh, this poor old man.

Gillian Aldrich

At some point, most of my brothers and sisters went through a phase of being Dad's favorite. And then they'd see through him, or he'd turn on them. There was always a confrontation. And it ended. My father's two youngest children, Sarah and Grace, never confronted him like this when he was alive. They were too little. So they're stuck trying to figure out what to make of him now, five years after his death.

Sarah

I just saw him as two different people. There was the guy who beat my mom, but then there's the guy who spreads the word. I don't know. It seems so typical. It just seems so-- that's all I know. That's all I've ever known, and that's all I know as a father kind of thing.

Gillian Aldrich

Sarah's Dad's second-youngest. She just turned 18. They're from his marriage to Mary in the 1980s. They grew up mostly in Colorado. Sarah was just a baby when I lived with Dad. And just like Josie felt guilty for abandoning me as a baby, I've always had a nagging guilt for leaving Sarah and Grace behind.

Sarah

I remember loving Daddy a lot. And that's because I never really saw the side that everyone seems to hate about him. He always loved me a lot. And he always told me he did. I was Daddy's girl.

Gillian Aldrich

It made so much sense for Sarah to be conflicted about that. I saw so much of me in her. I had also been Daddy's girl. And I remember the weekend I felt it transferred to her, one weekend after I'd refused to see my father for a long time, and had clearly asserted my independence from him. In that weekend Dad put all of his emotional, I'd say manipulative, energy into her.

Gillian Aldrich

I remember being in Virginia with you and Dad. Scott and I came down to visit for a weekend and you were up visiting also. Do you remember that?

Sarah

Yeah, I do remember that.

Gillian Aldrich

I remember that you were the most beautiful little girl. And you were just starting to gain a little bit of weight, not a lot, but a little. And we were going out to eat. And Dad kept giving you all this really bad food.

And I remember you saying to him, "Daddy, I'm not supposed to eat that. I'm supposed to be on a diet." And he said to you, "Sarah, I love you. And anyone who tells you that you can't eat whatever you want doesn't love you. I think you should eat absolutely anything you want. In fact, tell me what you want, and I'll let you have it." Do you remember that?

Sarah

I don't remember that. I do remember my mom telling me I looked really heavy when I came back, though.

Gillian Aldrich

I got the distinct feeling that he wanted you to eat as much as you could eat.

Sarah

Why? Just so I would love him more or respect him more? I don't know. It took me forever to lose that weight.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah

I was a fat kid. God, middle school was a pain in the ass.

Gillian Aldrich

I think, and I'm just conjecturing here, and I could be wrong. But I think that he also said to me on that trip, "Sarah's going to be the kid that stays with me. Everyone else has left me. But Sarah's still loyal. She's going to stay with me." And that, combined with his comment about you eating as much as you want, really made me think he was trying to get you to stay with him.

Sarah

[SIGH]

Gillian Aldrich

While my older brothers and sisters have gone farther in working out their feelings about my father, and in the process have distanced themselves or partially rejected him, Sarah simply can't, not yet anyway.

Sarah

And one thing I remember about my dad is he was taking pictures of me one day. And I still have the pictures. And I look at them now. I had a bad perm, my bad glasses. And it was a time I was getting really hefty. And I was wearing sweats.

But I remember specifically when he was taking these pictures. And he was like, "You're an extremely beautiful girl, Sarah." He's like, "You could grow up and take pictures like this for a living," and stuff like that. And no one else said that about me at that time. No one else said that to me.

It apparently meant a lot to me, because that's one of the things I remember now. It's like Daddy knew. Daddy knew I was going to be OK. And I guess things like that have always been slightly comforting to me now.

Gillian Aldrich

If you have a parent like my father, someone who can be so seductive when he wants to be, and so irrational and violent at other times, you spend a long time after they're gone trying to make sense of it all.

Sarah

Only recently has those kinds of things changed, just because I've given a lot of thought to it. And I don't even know what to tell people if they ask me about my father. I wouldn't even know where to start or what I would say. Grace, right now, she has a pretty good idea the way she feels. And she looks almost as if she's angry to a certain extent, and sad to another.

I'm just so indifferent. And indifferent is the worst feeling in the world. It's almost a sin in my eyes to just not care.

I mean I do care. But it's just so-- I don't. I was lucky enough that it happened early enough in my life that it's not going to make an impact. I don't have a dad. I never really did. Right now, that's the way I've conditioned myself to thinking.

Gillian Aldrich

By the time I left Sarah, I no longer saw my dad as someone who became a different person with each new wife, in each new decade. What Sarah said was all too familiar. I'd heard and felt all of this before. Looking through the eyes of all my siblings, I saw my father as a person who put on different costumes as the cultural tide changed, who was essentially the same underneath.

I think my father created a mythology rather than a real life for himself, a series of mythologies, American mythologies. The tortured artist, the rising Hollywood star, the Beat playwright, the Manhattan literary type, the acid-dropping hippie, the '70s hedonist, the conservative born-again, the wandering missionary. Every phase was a new way of mythologizing himself.

For all my talk about my dad following his dreams, I think his dreams weren't even his own, but second-hand dreams borrowed from American popular culture. As it changed, so did he. It seemed that he couldn't separate the fantasy of these public myths from real life. In his most personal interactions, he would become D. H. Lawrence, Henry Fonda, Henry Miller, instead of Keith Aldrich.

In most standard biographies, people change and grow. They face challenges and go through heroic changes. But what happens to the people who get stuck making the same mistakes over and over? For all the surface changes in his life, my father simply put himself in the same situation again and again.

Scott

Here he is writing March 26, 1993. And it's just before your graduation from Boulder. And he says, "Dear Scott. I'm finally brought to a dead stop. Car broken down for the second time in a two-week trip we took to pick up my stuff in California."

Gillian Aldrich

Scott read me a letter Dad wrote him during this last period in his life, just a few months before he died, right after he married his fifth wife, Shirley.

Scott

"And of course, I would like for you to know Shirley. The main problem I have had with others is that invariably, after a beginning which implies they are sympathetic with my artistic goals, they expect me to give up those goals and devote myself to building some kind of material estate. But they have actively sought to sidetrack me." Can you believe this?

Gillian Aldrich

No.

Scott

"I'm aware it will seem odd to you and others who have suffered from some degree of non-support from me. But to me, the 'story of my life'," in quotes, "is one of repeatedly setting aside my work to meet the needs of wives and children." Interesting.

It's amazing to me that he finds all of these ways to justify himself continually. His whole interpretation of the problems in his life is being somehow him compromising himself with his wives and children. He essentially is blaming them for his inability to be a great artist, which I think is just a bunch of crap.

Gillian Aldrich

My father died in July of 1993. He had just started yet another theater company and married his fifth wife. His relationships with all of his children were strained and distant.

Keith Aldrich

I'm Keith Aldrich, the man's second child, first son. Thank you for coming. Dad and I had in common an urge to strike out and wander and do things differently, and sometimes in an unapproved way.

Gillian Aldrich

This is my father, speaking at his father's memorial service. The way my father talks about his father I think is pretty much the way he'd want to be remembered, the way he'd want me to eulogize him, here on the radio.

Keith Aldrich

He was a heartbroken man. He was a loving man. In his pain, he often struck out at people around him, or was irritated. But it was only out of his pain. He was so close to the Lord, and he was so contrite over the error of his ways.

And he endured so much scorn and contempt, and disapproval from people whom he loved so much. And I could share that with him. I knew what that felt like. And he endured it with love in his heart, returned love. And I'm here to honor him, commend his soul to the Lord.

Gillian Aldrich

In the last few months, meeting with all of my father's children, I've come to know two things for sure. One is that in his own way, he did love each of us. The other is that for all that, none of his children could eulogize him the way he would want. None of us see him the way he saw himself.

Ira Glass

Gillian Aldrich lives in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors for this show, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from [? Amy Takahara, ?] Jorge Just, Sylvia Lemus, Seth Lind, and Bruce Wallace. The instrumental music in our program today was composed for us by [? Willie Schwartz ?] and performed by Willie on keyboards, Larry Gray on bass, John Rice on guitar, and Douglas Brush on drums.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcast or listen to our old shows for absolutely free, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who I would describe this way.

Gillian Aldrich

He enjoys sing-alongs with his guitar, talks freely about sex, makes a living as a computer programmer.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.