Thoroughbreds & Thorough Breeding

However tumultuous, my upbringing was an intellectual one. I was born in Boston and raised in Sidney, Australia until the age of eight, where my father served as a legal advisor to the American government, working closely with the minister for foreign affairs. How he bore the inanity of the Aussies and their surfboards baffles me to this day – if it weren’t for my mother’s intolerance of sunshine, surely we would never have returned to the Land of the Free. It was only following a severe case of heatstroke and my mother’s threatening divorce, that my father duly withdrew from politics and booked our flights to Washington. I can remember the plane lifting from the tarmac, the painkillers, the gum, and mother’s face mask descending as we climbed higher and higher into the blue – further and further away from the beach, both kinds of barbies, and the vegemite.

It is worth mentioning at this point that my father was involved with the American military for a number of years – an involvement which undoubtedly inspired his disciplinarian attitude towards childrearing. Sunday dinners, in particular, spring to mind: as always, mother would have on her best dress, father his suit and tie, and my brother and I, our private school uniforms – along with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and an article from either The Economist or The Times (newspapers were like horses, father said, and there was no question of his supporting anything that wasn’t thoroughbred). Each week, one of us would carve the roast beef, while the other would read aloud from one of the great tomes father kept upon his desk: the dictionary, Aristotle’s Ethics, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s WakeAtlas Shrugged, Faulkner, Pynchon, et cetera. Father believed eating and reading to be inextricable activities, taking the metaphor of ‘devouring a book’ to a whole new level. Once the roast had been carved, the vegetables spooned, and the lesson digested, my brother and I were invited to stand and report upon our findings. Father always took pleasure in a fight (stemming again, I think, from his days with the military), thus shepherding my brother and I to opposing sides, thereby provoking a long, intellectual dispute which ended, typically, with my brother winning and my mother nodding approvingly. Once we had finished our little repartee, mother would clear the table and fetch the brandy, while father would retire to the library to smoke his pipe. I had always wondered why mother was so reticent during mealtimes, until she confided in me one Sunday afternoon while she was dressing the roast, that men didn’t like smart women and that, besides, she didn’t read the newspapers anyways.

Arguments notwithstanding, I have always harboured within my bosom profound respect and admiration for my father – though commingled with fear and dread. Father, after all, had always been the guiding light of my intellectual endeavours and achievements, and once my elder brother, James, was admitted to Harvard, father insisted I attend the rivalling University of Yale in order to (as he put it) ‘kindle a healthy sense of competition.’ And so, because one does not question the wishes of one’s parents in the hopes of being sponsored, I moved to Connecticut and completed a bachelor’s in Classics and poetics, both of which my father termed ‘soft subjects,’ preferring instead the more masculine disciplines of politics and history. When I told my father that I wished to continue my study of poetry following my political science MA at Berkeley, he was very much dismayed and (oh fateful day) accused me of setting myself up for a belittling career as a typist or speech writer. I assured him I wasn’t, but have never felt so shameful as when I passed him the potatoes and gravy and told him that I was not continuing, like James, to Harvard Law School.

Sarah HertzComment