Violent mathematician

My father has never had any friends that I know of. He has a PhD in math from a prestigious university. He tried a career in academia but left after he got into a fight with the chairman of the department over some small point about grading. Of course, the way my father describes it, the fate of the universe depended on his sticking to his point of view no matter what. But it always seemed to me kind of silly. Anyway, he then had a succession of different jobs, each one ending in a lawsuit when he got into fights with his bosses. My parents have always been self-righteous about these cases, but to the extent that I was able to understand what was going on, my father always seemed to be ethically in the wrong. For example, he left one job after being given a large sum of money and signing a “non-compete” agreement. He then immediately went to work for a competing company and sued his original employer, claiming he was forced to sign an unfair agreement!

He is clearly OCD and perseverent. As I child I used to watch in puzzlement as my father would come in and out of the kitchen four or five times an evening and run his hands over each of the stove dials, checking to make sure they were turned off. Ditto with the lock on the back door. He was incredibly rigid about certain things- for example, we had to line up our shoes exactly in an order specified by him in the cupboard

Some memorable topics of perseverence include: “Why Actors Are Not Artists,” “The Early Days of Computer Operating Systems,” and “The Fundamental Theorem Of Algebra.” Even though he could talk in great length about such things, in actual fact he made little sense. The meanings escaped him, even in technical subjects. He was just stringing together concepts by association, not by meaning. For many years I was so hungry for his attention that I would listen to him and try to bring something meaningful into the conversation. But his reaction to anything different from what he was saying was just to repeat himself in a louder tone of voice. He could get quite angry and even fly into a fit of rage over such things. If I didn’t want to listen to him he would become like a sulking child. Yet he never changed his behavior in the least.

He would lecture us constantly on such topics as Responsibility or The Way Things Are or How To Behave. It only took the slightest “infraction” to get him going. Again, he made no sense. He would rant and rave, literally foaming at the mouth. In this condition, a wrong word or look could result in him suddenly hitting a child. He had no clue how to relate to children (or to adults for that matter). Any show of normal human emotion or desire would often send him into a rage. He became desperate to stamp out the offender and the offense. He used to demand we give him reasons for what we wanted or were doing, but any appeal to our feelings would be answered with, “Feelings aren’t reasons. You could say you feel anything. How do I know if its real or not? You have to give me logical reasons for what you want.” Failure to comply would result in him getting louder and more aggressive and saying the same things over again. Of course we tried to comply and it has taken me 45 years to get to the point of unraveling that mental knot.

My father was also extremely paranoid, always thinking that people were out to screw him in one way or another. He did not know how to manage conflict, even minor ones, like a misunderstanding over a hotel reservation or a mistake in a restaurant bill (which he always obsessively checked). He would either become incredibly aggressive and threatening, or else if he could not intimidate the other person, he would withdraw and later obsess and perseverate endlessly over how wrongly he had been treated.

As a child, his touch was a source of major freak-out to me. It his hard to describe but it gave me the creeps whenever he touched me. In my mother’s case, her touch was often very mechanical, like I was a piece of luggage, not a child. I didn’t like her touch but it didn’t make me feel yucky. But my father’s touch had the effect of making me cringe. There was some kind of weird energy in it. I really don’t know how to describe it. I would go out of my way to avoid being touched by him and when I couldn’t avoid it, the feeling I had was as though I had just walked into a damp, cold morgue with dead bodies lying around. Honestly!