'My dad was diabolical': Erica Heller reveals the shocking truth about life with a literary giant
Sunday 02 October 2011
"What in the name of God," I ask Erica Heller, "can you possibly have done to deserve what he did to you? What was he thinking of?"
"It was very simple," the writer replies, quietly. "I grew up. And he couldn't deal with that."
There's no need, when you put that question to the daughter of Joseph Heller, to specify exactly what you're referring to. Thirteen years after his classic first novel, Catch-22, appeared in 1961, the Brooklyn-born author published his second, Something Happened. Catch-22 (in which his experience as a bombardier with the US Army Air Corps inspired the tribulations of the main character, Yossarian) remains the greatest satire on the surreal insanity of modern warfare. In Something Happened, the focus of his coruscating prose was his own family.
"An angry tale," as Erica Heller puts it, "of one man's scorching disgust with each member of his family, none of whom was named in the book."
Her younger brother Ted, now a distinguished novelist in his own right, also has an uncomfortable time of it in Something Happened, but the most self-lacerating and merciless of all the chapters in that book has the title "My Daughter's Unhappy". In this almost unbearably abrasive section of what Joseph Heller claimed as his greatest work, the character of "my daughter" is assassinated with adjectives including clever, malicious, morose, rude, mean, smug and perverse.
"She is nervous," Joseph Heller writes, as the main character Bob Slocum, "spiteful, embittered and vindictive" behind her "thin-lipped smile of calculating villainy... she must continue to agitate, like some dark and moody burrowing creature with a drive to undermine and destroy". Nothing is spared: her hair, her skin, her weight, her breasts, her "obdurate refusal" to have fun. "She would break my heart," he writes, "if she were somebody else's."
When he began the book, Joseph Heller told me, not long before his death in 1999, "My son and daughter were four and nine. By the time I finished it they were 16 and 21. So they grew up through the period I was writing about."
We're sitting in Erica Heller's flat at the Apthorp Building, now a prestigious landmark on the Upper West Side of New York, where she lives with her wire fox terrier Lola. It was here, in a larger apartment, that her father wrote Something Happened. I can see no trace, in this highly articulate and engaging 59-year-old, recently described by The New York Times as resembling a figure from the world of Woody Allen, of the monster he depicted in that novel, beyond a degree of diffidence.
"She has," Slocum complains, "what I believe is called a poor self-image." And, you have to ask yourself, given years growing up with a man who, towards the end of his life, would concede his parenting to have been "oppressive" and said he didn't "do" children, who could blame her?
"How did you react to those pages," I ask, "when you first saw them?"
"I just couldn't believe that he'd done it. The book felt as if it was on fire in my hands. I couldn't believe that any father could think like that or write like that – let alone publish it. It was horrifying." She was, she says, "Demolished."
"So as far as you're concerned, that long chapter is fundamentally drawn from life?"
"It included long, verbatim conversations. I felt he must have taken notes, for years. The whole dynamic between father and daughter was exact. There was no effort to disguise or soften anything."
The one positive attribute that Heller never sought to deny in Something Happened was his daughter's high intelligence. "She is too smart," he wrote, "to be dumb." His rage seems to have been partly fuelled by frustration that she was not achieving artistically, in the way he might have hoped.
But now, at last, she has. Erica Heller's memoir, Yossarian Slept Here, published in Britain this week, is a finely crafted, wonderfully observed reminiscence on an extraordinary, often traumatic life. Behind the ranting of Something Happened you sense the fear of a man who, in his daughter, detects a potential rival: somebody of great imagination and eloquence, in whom he has privately identified a writer with great promise. That last quality, in Yossarian Slept Here, radiates off the page. This book delivers, in spades, the promise she showed in her novel Splinters, published in 1990. Describing the complaisant nature of her maternal grandfather, she writes: "I could have shown up wearing [aviator] Charles Lindbergh's [kidnapped and murdered] baby on my head and Grandpa would have said: 'Nice hat.'"
"As soon as I read the opening," says the British commentator Christopher Hitchens, "I was determined and eager to consume everything that followed."
This is Erica Heller on her father's notorious philandering: "To be fair, my Dad was an equal opportunity flirt: old women, young women, the homely and the beautiful, it didn't matter." For him, she says, the process was "like putting the key into a car to check whether the motor starts. My assumption had been that a man who flirted so openly with women in front of his wife and children had no need for actual affairs." This last belief proved, she continues, to be ill-founded.
Waspish at times, the book is not, as you might have expected, an exercise in revenge, but a balanced attempt to understand a complex man who emerges from his last anodyne memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), as somebody who didn't fully comprehend, much less acknowledge, his own darker motivations.
I first interviewed Joseph Heller in the early 1990s; by then he was living in East Hampton, a wealthy scenic enclave two hours' drive from New York City. We met several times and remained in touch through an occasional correspondence which began with him asking me to send him recordings of Radio Four's Steve Coogan-helmed chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, which he loved. He was never less than generous and encouraging to younger writers – a rarity in his generation or any other – though occasionally you would see a glint of the kind of withering sarcasm you wouldn't necessarily want to be on the end of.
"I can only imagine," I suggest to Erica Heller, "that his intense disparagement of you must have had its origins in adoration. Nobody gets that angry with somebody they regard with indifference."
("There was a cheerful baby girl in a high chair in my house once," he writes in Something Happened, "who ate and drank with a hearty appetite and laughed with spontaneous zest: she isn't here now; and there is no trace of her anywhere.")
"I think it was nice for him to have small children around," she says. "It wasn't so nice for him to have people."
For a superficially equable man, I suggest, "he did have considerable anger in him; but if that fury had its origins in depression, it's hard to see what he had to be depressed about."
"That is one thing that is hard to identify. Most people would point out the fact that his father died [following a botched operation] when he was five. But the way he wrote about it, his father's funeral was a fun day; people gave him money, and candy. Can that be true?"
"And yet he had the ability to convince himself of impossible things, just as he could other people: he was a great storyteller. I'm not sure he ever wrote about the pain of not having a father."
("I remember telling myself, and telling others, that I never really missed him," Joseph Heller once told me. "I know that is not true. I blocked it all out. It left me with a tremendous sense of fright.")
"When you say he might have been attached to me," Erica continues, "that's something that has never occurred to me, ever. After he died I called George Mandel, his childhood friend from Coney Island. I said, 'Do you think dad loved us?' He said, 'Honestly, I don't know.'"
It sounds almost as if you can only have so many people under one roof who are simultaneously demanding unconditional love.
"That makes sense. My brother Ted was more accommodating with our father. I challenged my Dad because I wanted to get attention from him. But the attention would not be nice attention. His response would be: 'I am trying to work. Leave me alone.'"
Was she a total pain in the neck as a teenager?
"I was impossible. I was depressed. I was complaining all the time. Looking back now, I can have a discussion about the possible motivation for the way he wrote. At the time, I didn't care why he'd done it. But I'm sure it hastened the end of his marriage." (Heller's first, to Erica's mother Shirley.)
"To say the least."
"What did your mother say when she read it?"
"'How could you do this to your children?' There was no further discussion. There was nothing to discuss."
"With all that in mind, I was impressed by the fact that Yossarian Slept Here isn't a malicious book."
"Which may have been a mistake. Payback sells. But at this point I'm really not angry. My theory is that all people are nuts and we all do the best we can. And I think that he, with us, did the best he could. But he was nuts."
With its intimate observations of life with the author's father, Yossarian Slept Here is an especially valuable book in that there exists no incontrovertibly authoritative biography of Joseph Heller. The only substantial work is Just One Catch, published earlier this year by Tracy Daugherty, Professor of English at Oregon State University. Though not short on detail – as you might expect of a volume 550 pages long – in other respects it is a dog of a book: there are the scenarios imagined from within the head of "Joe" or "Joey" (a man Daugherty never met) and an unfortunate tendency to accept Heller's own published accounts of events without question. (If ever there was a man whose own memoirs shouldn't be taken at face value, it was Joseph Heller, grandmaster of self-exoneration, crown prince of the cheerful façade.) Chapter One of Daugherty's verbose tome begins: "San Angelo, Texas, in April 1945 was home to over five million sheep." We may not have counted them personally, but we'll all sleep better tonight for knowing that.
Of course, there are flawed books about the lives of many recently deceased American novelists, from Norman Mailer to Hunter S Thompson, but their characters have been assessed by numerous authors, and are somewhat easier to decipher than that of Heller, whose mixture of geniality and bile, and egotism and philanthropy, seem at times to have been a mystery even to himself.
Yossarian Slept Here, while it is very much Erica Heller's story rather than an orthodox biography of her father, is everything that Just One Catch isn't: concise, sharp, unpretentious and written from painful experience. She is, after all, her father's daughter.
Erica Heller was born in Manhattan on 1 February 1952. That same year, her family moved here to the Apthorp Building, a historic condominium built in 1908 for William Waldorf Astor, former owner of The Observer. With its uniformed lift attendants and central courtyard with manicured lawns, fountains and limestone statues, the Apthorp these days resembles a European luxury hotel. As a long-standing resident, Heller benefits from a fixed, affordable rent. Large apartments here change hands for millions of dollars. Former tenants include Cyndi Lauper, Rosie O'Donnell and Al Pacino.
"You must have had a privileged childhood."
"I didn't. Certainly not before Catch-22, which came out when I was nine. Looking round this building now, it's hard to imagine, but back then nobody wanted to live in this neighbourhood. I went to public school two blocks away. I got beaten up all the time." The locals, she says, "were mainly pimps, hookers and mental cases. There were drugs on the street. It was dangerous."
Her grades were so poor that she was sent to a special junior high school in Harlem.
"I think I had some... learning disability. But that notion didn't exist in those days. Back then, you were either clever or stupid."
"You don't strike me as stupid."
"I think what happened was that I got something wrong in school, the teacher criticised me and then I became afraid to go to school and panicked in class. Panic is the main feeling I remember. I fell further and further behind. I had no clear idea of what work I wanted to do. Except that I was interested in becoming a psychologist."
"Did you mention that ambition to your father?"
"Yes. He said, 'You are not interested in psychology. You are only interested in yourself.' And that was the end of that."
Heller was not a writer who sought to show off his keen wit in public: he had, as Erica says, real disdain for the sort of self-consciously amusing "talking heads" who have become increasingly numerous on television. This is not to say he lacked a sense of playfulness: his daughter recalls a conversation related by her neighbour Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The New York Times, in which he described a meeting between himself, Heller, and a man confessing to inappropriate childhood liaisons with barnyard animals.
"My father said, 'Tell me: just how much foreplay is involved with a chicken?'"
In life, as on the page, there could be a slightly cruel and detached quality to his humour, from which children – his own, or others – were not spared.
Shortly after I first interviewed him, in Oxford in 1993, Erica's father put me in touch with his elder sister Sylvia, now dead. "Joe doesn't show emotion," she told me. "But it's there. I have only seen it twice, and both times were in response to the death of someone close to him. He had some terrible experiences in the war. Shortly after he came home, I asked him what had happened; he said he didn't want to talk about it. He had a diary which I wasn't allowed to look at. I read it one day. I read those things in there. I never told him [about them] and I'm not going to tell you."
His behaviour, as it emerges from Yossarian Slept Here, seems somewhat tricky to excuse: he had repeated affairs, then, when confronted by Erica, falsely claimed that his wife, Shirley, was hallucinating, deluded, and needed psychiatric help.
Certain passages of her memoir are difficult to read, even for someone like me who knew Joseph Heller only slightly, I tell her, "because he never struck me as a bastard".
"That," she says, "is where things get tricky. Because that [marital behaviour] was diabolical. When you say that he wasn't a bastard... he wasn't a bastard to you. But how about the way he treated my mother?"
The Hellers' divorce hearing began in late 1981. Erica, who was called as a witness, recalls her father passing notes to his attorney prompting him to ask her questions which were "neither relevant nor appropriate".
"What does that mean?"
Things about her own time in therapy, she says, and other details of her personal life.
"He had decided not just to divorce my mother," she says, "but to annihilate her."
By this time Erica's maternal grandmother Dottie, who had approached Heller in 1945 suggesting he date her daughter ("Have I got a girl for you!"), had revised her judgement of her son-in-law. "I should have killed him," she told Erica, "when I had the chance. He was right there. I could have smashed his brains to smithereens with a frying pan."
Erica Heller isn't exactly pawing the ground when you ask her to talk about her own intimate life. She says she has lived predominantly alone, "though there was always someone".
"Have you had relationships where you were living with the person?"
"Yes. One of them had 10 children. He was an alcoholic and a gambler. Bookies would be calling in the middle of the night, threatening to break his legs. My Dad loved him. He told the guy: 'You're a saint to put up with her. I don't know how you do it.'"
Her father, she says, "never imagined me getting married. When my parents had gotten divorced, he called me up to have lunch. The purpose was to convince me that I should not get a dog. It was like, 'Who do you think you are to be taking this on?' Even though I was supporting myself at that time, as an advertising copywriter. Even k a dog was too much responsibility for me. I never was encouraged to think that I would ever have children."
Yossarian Slept Here oscillates between the trials of Erica's own life – which include treatment for cancer in 1990 – and her observations of her father's difficulties, such as his divorce from Shirley (ratified in 1984) and his contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system which induces temporary but complete paralysis, in the early 1980s. The common factor in the two narratives is turbulence, which intensifies markedly when the stories overlap.
Recovering from his illness, Joseph Heller fell for his nurse, Valerie Humphries, and married her in 1987. It's only when Erica writes about her stepmother, who still lives in East Hampton, that her father's gift for withering disdain surfaces in her book. "She was younger than Dad," she writes, "favoured gold chains, lime-green sweaters and cerulean eye-shadow, and was fond of such non-Hellerian activities as line dancing and playing bridge."
The New York Times recently quoted the author's friend Hope Proper as remembering that, "Erica used to say: 'If only there would be still water, peace of mind, a day when nothing happens, nobody loses a job or gets sick.'"
No stage of her life, it seems reasonable to say, has been cursed by tranquillity. In 1994, also here at the Apthorp, she became a carer for her mother, who died of lung cancer the following year. In 1999, she married Ronald van den Boogaard, a Dutch artist who had previously been an advertising executive, toilet cleaner and skydiver.
"He wrote to me about old girlfriends," she told an American journalist. "I remember thinking: this guy screams trouble." The couple are separated. Erica Heller's relationship with Valerie was such that, when Joseph Heller died suddenly, in December 1999, of heart failure, she was not the first to hear. Valerie phoned a family friend, Fred Karl, at 5am. Hearing the news, Karl too died of a heart attack.
When Erica received her call, she remembers, "Valerie said: 'I'm with your dad at the hospital; we went out to dinner... he didn't feel well, we came home... and he didn't make it.' I said, 'He didn't make what?'"
The cruellest section of Something Happened is a passage in which Slocum ponders his daughter's probable future: one of drug abuse, lesbianism and swingers' parties. "She will emerge," he predicts, "from this period of profligacy feeling worthless, spent and remorseful, with no ego at all, and pine for just one good, stable, interesting man to marry." At this point Heller, with a mean flourish of self-deprecating irony, adds the words "like myself". She will, he continues, "wish she had children".
"Did you want kids?"
"No. As I said, I was never encouraged to believe I could have them."
The following observation might deserve a kick in the teeth, I tell her, but she does seem to betray a tendency to be deterred from pursuing her goals just because others – notably her father – told her they would never work out.
"That's very hard for me to admit," she says. "But I think it's true. My brother and I were told at a very early age not to expect to be happy; not to expect not be disappointed by everything."
"By your father, explicitly, in those words?"
"Well you've both proved him wrong."
"That's a matter of debate. One of the things he'd say was, never expect to enjoy what you do as a job. Because most people don't."
"But you should be enjoying this success, now."
"I should be doing a lot of things that I'm not."
While her life seems fated to be perpetually agitated, there are signs that Erica Heller may, at last, be entering calmer waters. Yossarian Slept Here has been excellently received in the United States, even though its author's dislike for public speaking has led her to decline all invitations to literary festivals and other such events.
Creatively, though, I think even the author suspects that she may be gaining the confidence to explore new and exciting opportunities. At one point, during the couple of days we spent together, sitting in a coffee shop, she idly recounted, off the record, the circumstances that precipitated the break-up of one of her teenage relationships: a combination of events so bizarre and amusing that it would require only a matter of hours to convert it into a marketable film treatment.
"You should write more," I tell her. "You should write that."
"Because you're a writer."
She thinks this over for a moment. "I'm not sure," she says. "I don't think of myself as a writer."
("There's some quirk in me," her father remarked, after Catch-22, which has sold 10 million copies in America, "which still has me feeling I'm not a writer.")
"What is it," Erica asks, "that makes you a writer? Is it that you have to write? How do you judge a writer? The fact that you make money from it?"
For a second opinion, I went to the legendary comedian and actor Richard Lewis. Lewis, probably best known in Britain for his outstanding performances in Curb Your Enthusiasm, is one of Erica Heller's keenest admirers.
"One of the reasons I never had kids," he said, "was that my childhood was so confused and twisted emotionally, I wanted to spare the possibility that I would accidentally ruin my own children. The astonishing revelations in Erica Heller's epic book make it clear to me that she is a lot stronger than she realises. I always knew Erica as an amazing humorist and writer, but I'm even happier now to see this book fully realised. I only hope," he added, "that it can cut down on future expenses with her therapist."
Yossarian Slept Here includes her mother's secret for making pot roast: a dish her father so loved, she says, that he offered her $10,000 to divulge the recipe. (She refused.) It's printed in full on the final page, and this mischievous gesture alone, one American reviewer argued, is worth the cover price of the book. The recipe is one of the priceless peripheral details of this memoir. Another is the inclusion of well-chosen if uncomfortably apposite quotations from other writers: among them Cyril Connolly ("The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet") and Lillian Hellman ("People change and forget to tell each other"). There's one more famous quotation, I tell her, that I was waiting for, on every page of Yossarian Slept Here, but which never arrived. The reason for that, Erica Heller says, is that she'd never came across it. It's by the Polish poet Czselaw Milosz, and it could have been written for the Hellers.
"When a writer is born into a family," Milosz wrote, "that family is doomed."
Dinner with dad: Erica Heller's hell
An extract from 'Yossarian Slept Here' (Vintage, £8.99)
The first thing Dad said to me that night, even before we'd looked at menus, was that I had to prepare myself for the inevitable, sooner rather than later. Mom would die soon, I'd be evicted from the Apthorp, have no place to live, have no job, and would someday die both broke and alone. From there he segued to a list of all the jobs he'd tried to interest me in for decades, jobs with pensions, with security; jobs with the post office, the city, the MTA. I was exhausted and hungry and felt utterly vulnerable. By then, my life for a full year had been helping to care of Mom, which meant watching her break down and disappear before my eyes. I had left her for the evening to come out to this? I hadn't necessarily expected comfort – that would have been delusional. Perhaps, though, I had imagined something like kindness from the sorrowful soul who called to enquire about Mom night after night.
Dad's mouth was drawn and his eyes were chilly as he kept swigging that water, detailing the "open coffin or grave" that was my "future". Piece by miserable piece he was laying out my future, and it was dank and cheerless and lonesome and more horrible than even my present, and suddenly listening to him was unbearable. I stood up and ran out crying into the frigid, snowy street with no coat. I crossed the street and walked around the block several times like a zombie, not knowing where I was going or what I was doing. I had no wallet and certainly wouldn't get far. In a little while I made my way back to the restaurant and sat down. With my wet hair plastered around my face, I somehow managed to eat a little bit and even to talk. Dad changed the subject and was on to a book he was reading, a trip he was thinking of taking. He didn't ask where I'd been or why I'd run out into the street like a madwoman; he just ate his dinner and kept drinking that water, thirstier than anyone I had ever seen.
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