Dylan was my mother's ruin
She was known as the drunken wife of Dylan Thomas. Now Caitlin's son aims to rescue his mother's reputation.
Wednesday 02 December 1998
"My mother Caitlin had a lot in common with Sylvia Plath. They both made suicide attempts. They both married men who were the most famous poets of their day. They both lived in their shadow and gave up their own work to sustain their men's art. These women suffered so much and have so much to tell. But their husbands were so egotistical that they didn't let the women tell their story.
Biographers portray Caitlin as a drunken man-eater and a whore. A woman who was an irresponsible and unloving mother. But people underestimate the devastating effects of alcohol. I admire Dylan the poet, but I am angry that he made my mother abandon her career to become an alcoholic, like him.
As the children of alcoholic parents, both Dylan and Caitlin were vulnerable to alcoholism but Caitlin's childhood was much worse than Dylan's - her father abandoned her mother when she was six. She was lacking in confidence and Dylan never made her feel like a woman. He put his beautiful romance on to paper, telling my mother she was his inspiration and muse. Yet in reality he was always in the pub and sleeping with other women. Caitlin became lonely and depressed and she turned to drink to anaesthetise the pain. Alcohol loosens the libido and she only went with other men when she was drunk. She felt so unloved that she didn't even know how to hug her own children. I was the first child she embraced. Now I understand that it's difficult to be a good mother when you're such an alcoholic.
My earliest memories are of volcanic rows interspersed with moments of peace. Growing up, I was afraid of the night because that's when the rows started. I'd cry in bed and I'd run out to be like a cushion between them. They'd stop because they saw how much I was suffering.
My mother's luck was that she met a very strong man, my father, Giuseppe who would not put up with the drinking and the violence. Caitlin used to attack Dylan physically and when she first met my father she punched him on the nose. My father saved her life many times when she tried to commit suicide. Not long after they met, she threw herself from a balcony at a party in Rome. He saved her by grabbing her by the ankles while she dangled in mid air. In 1972, when I was nine, my father said she must go to Alcoholics Anonymous or he would leave. To help he also joined. And so it was in Italy where where she began to learn how to love. My father would tell her how beautiful she was and buy clothes for her. When they were in Venice, he bought her 27 pairs of shoes. Dylan never bought her a dress and because they spent all their money on alcohol she always wore sack-like things with him.
She remained a tempestuous character. Every day we'd walk about six miles along the banks of the Tiber in Rome. Once, I was sketching on a bridge. I thought my mother was behind me but when I turned round she had gone. I panicked and ran along the river, and there she was naked, in the river, her blonde hair bobbing past me. Crazy! Afterwards she walked towards me, saying: `What a refreshing dip!' I wanted to kill her.
Helping an alcoholic is a lifetime's commitment, 24 hours a day. Our relationship as mother and son was so good that in my twenties my father said: `You are a better medicine than I am.' It was then that we went through her memoirs together. That first time was terribly painful. Reading it felt as if she were telling her inner problems to a psychoanalyst. It could be so self-flagellating I'd say `Are you sure you did this?' When she wasn't crying I was. The worst parts aren't her sexual encounters but when she was crazed with grief at Dylan's death, and she had to be restrained with a straitjacket.
I said to her `Let's try to explain what really happened. You've been like two different people and now you've transformed yourself. People should see the other side. I'll help you.' So we sat down, and worked on it together. After my mother died, I gave up being an assistant architect to work on this book.
Until now Caitlin has been seen as a dismal satellite orbiting around Dylan Thomas, the perpetual poet's wife. I want to prove that my mother wasn't a hard woman who couldn't love but that her heart was soaked in alcohol. Part of my heart and my life is in this book. Never for a moment do I regret having Caitlin for my mother. Like Sylvia Plath, I hope she will emerge as an artist in her own right."
"Double Drink Story" written by Caitlin Thomas and edited by Francesco Fazio, is published tomorrow by Virago, priced pounds 12.99
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