Wednesday, November 2, 2011

James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood: Vividly Evoking a Complex Past

Non-fiction books really come in two basic flavours. There are the ones written because the author finds the subject or person of interest (Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which is about the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and America’s first serial killer) and hopes to convey that to the readership at large. And then there are the others written for very personal reasons, with the likely hope that readers will relate to the book or at least gain an understanding of a world they may know little about (Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother, convicted killer Gary Gilmore). James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood (Random House, 2010) actually fits into both categories. It’s a powerful look back at his life and background, but it is also a vivid depiction of an era, a city and a culture, one with a family at its centre that aptly fulfills Tolstoy’s dictum, “that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way … ”

It’s also an extraordinarily detailed, raw and painful book, with FitzGerald, whose memory is remarkable, recreating a childhood filled with angst and avoidance, plus a family dynamic for which dysfunctional barely begins to scratch the surface. (Full disclosure: I know James socially, and back in 1989/90 I wrote a few freelance pieces for Strategy, a now-defunct business publication that he edited.) What Disturbs Our Blood is on one level the story of Gerry FitzGerald, a Canadian medical pioneer (who worked with Nobel Prize Winners Banting and Best), and his son, Jack, James’ father, who followed him into medicine, with a different specialty – allergies – and in many ways also replicated the tragic arc of Gerald’s life. James, for his part, became a journalist, but always felt weighed down by his family dynamic of secrecy, which never discussed and barely acknowledged the suicide of his grandfather, and of withholding, with parents – particularly a father – who had no clue how to relate to his three children or even how to show them physical affection. The result, in James’ case, not surprisingly, was a young man, growing up feeling like an outsider in his own skin and in the world at large, feelings exacerbated by his father’s nervous breakdown and physical and emotional decline. Only when James began delving into psychotherapy in his early 30s – and commensurately started a quest to unearth his rich family roots stretching all the way back to Ireland in the 12th century – did he come to some a sort of understanding of the emotional demons afflicting him and his family. This is a memoir you won't soon forget. Critics at Large interviewed him about the book, the reaction of its readers and his thoughts on the difficulties of non-fiction (especially when it’s as complex as What Disturbs Our Blood) succeeding in Canada.

Author James FitzGerald
ss: What strikes me most about What Disturbs Our Blood is the courage you show in writing it and baring your soul to an audience, largely composed of strangers. Were you aware of this when you began it and, was there ever the temptation to self-censor, particularly because some family members are still living?

jf: I knew that if I didn't attack this book, it would attack me. It grew directly out of emotional necessity, incubating from childhood. It was all about not censoring, all about confronting the secrets and repressions and censorings that dominated my family history. I always felt that ultimately the truth, painful as it was, would set us free, and in many ways, it has. I was partly inspired by the words of the novelist John Fowles who said that if you want to be a writer, "you must kill your parents." You can't worry about upsetting people; if it happens, so be it. We have to weather the storms of truth-telling – in the long run, it's much healthier.

ss: Did you always plan to tell such personal stories, a commonality in all your books?

jf: What Disturbs Our Blood is a natural extension of my first book, Old Boys (1994), an oral history on Upper Canada College. They share similar themes of fathers and sons, expectations, high achievement, etc. and the dark side of those themes – addiction, suicide, sexual abuse, etc. What is unusual about my books, I suppose, is that I explore these themes within the Canadian upper classes – supposedly less free of these afflictions than the rest of the world. I am now working on my next book, Dreaming Sally, a true story of love, death and synchronicity set in the summer of 1968. [Sally was a young love of James’ who died tragically in an accident at age 18 in Europe.] I have always been attracted to the uncanny, the coincidental, the precognitive – I have experienced a lot of it in my life, and it's great fodder for a writer. I see Dreaming Sally, my third book, as the completion of a trilogy. All of my books have dealt in different ways with the theme of tragedy and madness within the "privileged" classes.

ss: But you also began writing books later in life than many writers. [FitzGerald is now 61 years of age, but his first book didn’t come out until he was 44.] Why is that?

jf: Hack journalism aside, I have come late to writing for many reasons. Old Boys was an oral history, influenced by Studs Terkel (Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times, American Dreams: Lost and Found.) You could say I had not yet found my own voice, so I let others talk, particularly the so-called "alpha males" that run our world. The vulnerabilities that I probed in the male microcosm of UCC (often hidden under masks of arrogance and pain) I subsequently probed in my grandfather, father and myself in What Disturbs Our Blood. The personal is indeed political, as the feminists say. So being a late bloomer as a writer has been not so much "deliberate" as a matter of emotional necessity. I had to deepen and mature as a man before I could attack these enormous, weighty subjects. I knew that I didn't attack them they'd attack me and I'd re-enact the middle-aged self-destruction that has afflicted so many of the gifted yet troubled men in my books.

ss: When did you find out about your grandfather's suicide and when did it occur to you to write a book on the subject?

jf: The cover of the book shows a three year old boy, who happens to be myself, standing on the front lawn of my grandfather's gothic house in the 1950s. The curious yet fraught expression on his face speaks volumes. I describe myself "an archaeologist of silence" at an early age. I'm not saying that I was a psychic child rather that all children are intuitive and tune into what the adults are avoiding or not talking about. So, in that sense, I knew something was terribly wrong in the family pretty much from the beginning.

ss: Your memory for details in your youth and teenage years is striking. How do you account for that? Admittedly, yours was an uneasy, memorable childhood, but to remember so many specifics is quite remarkable.

jf: I believe I carefully cultivated my memory from early childhood, partly as a psychological defense against the extreme emotional neglect and isolation that I was experiencing. I was made into an introvert, driven inside myself by a cold, unresponsive environment; my highly developed memory served as a way of keeping me attached to concrete reality. In the absence of warm human contact – our parents rarely touched us – I used my mind and imagination to” hold on" to myself, to my sanity, to the world. If I hadn't, I think I might have gone crazy, or even died. I recognized myself in R.D. Laing's brilliant book, The Politics of Experience. Laing said that when parents or caregivers continually override a child's personal experience, when they tell you something is white when in fact it's black, they are planting the seeds of dissociation and possibly even madness. The true self is lost; in many ways my book is my search for my lost true self.

Gerry FitzGerald with wife Edna and chidlren Jack and Molly circa 1922

ss: Did the book function as some sort of psychotherapy for you? You write about the process of going through it in What Disturbs Our Blood, but did writing the book itself change you at all?

jf: The long process of researching and writing the book – 15 years in all – was integral to my own (ongoing) healing. It had to take a long time, by necessity. It would have been emotionally impossible to retreat to an attic and write the book alone; I would have imploded or become blocked. I relied on all kinds of people to see me through, year in, year out, to help me grapple with my despair that I would never finish it. My dream work with a gifted lay therapist was an indispensable part of the journey. In the book, I show how my dreams and images from my inner life led me step by step out of the wilderness. They acted as a kind of bio-feedback loop; the more I uncovered in the city archives, the more I uncovered in my unconscious life.

ss: You've spoken to me about the difficulties of writing the 'right' non-fiction book, one that gets proper media and reviewers' attention. (It did win the 2010 Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize and has been nominated for three others, including the prestigious Trillium Book Award.) This is a multi-layered book, a portrait of one family, one era and one city rolled into one. Is this another reason for the difficulty in summarizing it in one sound bite?

jf: I suspect multiple reasons; I can only speculate. The book is indeed disturbing; the complexity of the book is impossible to reduce to a sound bite. It's non-fiction, but it reads like a novel; it's an intimate three-generation family memoir, but also a sweeping piece of medical history; on top of all that, it's a page-turning detective story. But if I had to reduce it to a single sound bite, I'd call it "a self-murder mystery.”

ss: Did the nominations and Writer’s Trust Prize make any difference to the book’s success?

jf: My Writers' Trust win was obviously the most important, simply because I won; that aside, prizes don't generally influence sales (except for the Giller (fiction) prize). I have a feeling that What Disturbs Our Blood is a "slow burn." It's gradually creeping, virus-like, into the collective consciousness. Old Boys was like that too – not huge sales, but it had a powerfully subversive impact over time.

ss: What has been the reaction from readers who have contacted you about the book?

jf: I have been blown away by the intense emotional responses to, and personal identifications with, my book. So far I have received about 40 emails from complete strangers and all are unqualified raves. You can read them on my website ( under "Reader Responses." I wouldn't blame you if you suspected I had written them myself! At the same time, the sales of the book have been generally Toronto-centric, which is disappointing. I think the book is perceived as a Toronto story, when in fact it's Canadian and ultimately global.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

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