Citadel on the Mountain: A Memoir of Father and Son

by Richard Wertime

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

262 pages, 2000


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Chronicle of Pain

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

In the past few years the memoir has become a hot commodity in popular literature, perhaps because it combines nostalgic reminiscence (whether good or ill) with the highly personal viewpoint of an author who is not even trying to be unbiased. Richard Wertime's story of an agonizing childhood and young manhood spent with an abusive, unbalanced father is typical of the genre in the fact that it is mostly a chronicle of pain. Few memoirs emphasize happy occasions, or even neutral ones; traumas like bereavement, mental illness and life-threatening disease are far more common. The more painful the subject matter, it seems, the more pressing the psychological need for the author to get it down on paper.

Citadel on the Mountain may have helped purge some of Richard Wertime's personal demons, but it comes to no hard-edged, pat conclusions. This is at the same time its strongest and most problematic feature. Wertime cannot and does not even try to resolve the mass of ambiguity he still feels around his father, who has now been dead for nearly 20 years. All he seems to be asking for here is a chance to tell his story.

And what a difficult, even bizarre story it is. For one thing, young Richard, second-oldest of four sons, is not even sure what his father does for a living. Ted Wertime commutes from Arlington, Virginia into Washington every day, but it is understood that no one is allowed to ask any questions about his work. Richard is vaguely aware that his father worked in intelligence during World War II, so assumes that what he does is top-secret ("I live around people who know too much," he observes). The uneasy political climate of the 1950s is a factor in this atmosphere of extreme secrecy: "The Cold War colored the world I grew up in as surely as the Depression did the world of my parents."

But it is not just their father's highly sensitive work that creates an unbearable pressure-cooker atmosphere in the household. Ted Wertime is a brilliant but deeply disturbed man who evinces a cruel kind of power that virtually mesmerizes everyone within its range.

Richard describes his father as "a cross between a thoroughly spoiled child and a ferocious drill sergeant": a rigid disciplinarian who sometimes deals with his sons' disobedience with ferocious beatings. But the physical abuse is the least of it. Psychological damage seems to spread out from this man like cracks from a shot windshield.

Much of this destruction does not fully manifest itself until years later, as Ted Wertime's four sons struggle towards manhood. Details from Richard's early childhood are rather sketchy and impressionistic, not following any particular chronological order. Here he seems less interested in recounting a clear-cut flow of events than with recalling the feelings of suppressed terror that plagued him throughout his boyhood and adolescence.

Thus it is no surprise that Richard's early manhood, the main focus of the book, is chaotic and miserable. A forced marriage at 19 and the birth of two unplanned children nearly derails his plans to earn a Ph.D. in English literature and establish a career. His youngest brother Charlie is even more broken, so psychologically crippled that he is barely able to function without constant support.

In severely disturbed families, the members often have to guess at what "normal" is. After his retirement from government work, Ted has no qualms about moving in his latest mistress, an anorexic alcoholic, to live under the same roof as his uncomplaining wife. In a bizarre scene of sexual manipulation he practically orders Richard to have relations with a close friend of the family ("Dick!" he exclaims. Then his voice drops to something between a hiss and a murmur. "Listen. I've felt the goodies!.... I can absolutely predict that it's a sure thing with Jen!"). One day, in a fit of pique about an overturned garbage can, he shoots the family dog.

But his twisted behavior seems to tip into outright mental illness when he builds a fortress-like retirement home on a mountaintop in Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s. His new work as a historian of ancient technology wins him much public respect, and his scholarly and political articles frequently appear in the Washington Post. But privately, his ideas are becoming more and more bizarre. He often confides in Richard (strangely, as if he is seeking his approval), and one day he attempts to explain his thoughts:

"I'm preparing for the advent of a new revolution. Yes!" he says. His eyes widen. "It may startle you to hear it. But it's a stark fact: it'll happen. It grieves me, in fact. But we'll have to be ready for it. It was one of the reasons that I built that house of mine on the top of the mountain. And we're stockpiling goods against the time when we'll need them.... Our survival will depend on our pulling together as a family."

Richard comes to realize that his father's obsession with the energy crisis of the 1970s has fused with his latent paranoia, creating a scenario of impending social and political disaster: "There's a revolution needed to set this country to rights that may involve the tragic smashing of all the old vessels," he claims. "I'm not looking for the leadership role in whatever unfolds now, but if fate thrusts the role upon me, by God, I'll take it!"

By this time Richard is battling to reconstruct his own life, with his new wife Marcia, a career as a professor and a baby on the way. Ted's ruthless manipulation and cutting criticisms of Marcia prove to be one twist too many, driving Richard to a complete emotional breakdown: "Sorrow pours over me, a hurricane smashing everything." To save his own life, he seeks professional help and does not see his father again for two years.

When Ted Wertime is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, it brings about a sort of halting, imperfect, agonizingly ambiguous reconciliation between father and son. This is perhaps the most difficult, draining passage in the whole painful story, as Richard comes to realize that his feelings towards his father can never be fully resolved. But he does attain a degree of insight, even compassion: "I'm suddenly enlightened to the fact -- no, to the cruel irony of it -- that my father has never really grasped his power over others; that he truly cannot fathom his own talent for destruction."

The most chilling passage of all comes after Ted Wertime's death, when Richard cannot censor a stunning realization: "Safe now, the thought says. He's dead at last. It's safe. He's gone.... You're finally safe."

Citadel on the Mountain can be a frustrating read, sometimes fragmentary, jumping around in time and place. Ambivalence rules and the author can't seem to make up his mind whether his father was admirable or repulsive. In the end, incredibly, a kind of tough, durable love remains, a bond that no amount of abuse could destroy. Wertime does not attempt to analyze this too deeply, perhaps sensing that it is one of the inexplicable mysteries of family. He simply bears witness, and presents us with his story: messy, painful, at times strangely eloquent, full of all the loose ends and unresolved emotional dilemmas of real life. | November 2000

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.