By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing well over 300 pounds, he lifted weights in the back yard to develop biceps as thick as cinder blocks, read thousands of obscure books, and invited acquaintances over for lengthy rounds of intellectual combat. One such friend became a boarder at our house when I was 4. The man told my parents that his last ”girlfriend“ had been 12. He lodged in a room with a doorless archway to mine. As soon as the molestation began, I told my father, who responded, ”Don‘t let it happen again.“ The sexual abuse went on nightly for three years, when I had to confess that I’d been unable to stop the abuse, and Daddy finally threw his friend out. Later, my father denied that he‘d known about the abuse while it was happening, but I think of that period as incest by proxy.
While my father treated me with steady affection, reading me great literature and talking deeply with me about art, philosophy, and other adult topics, he likewise made sure I understood by the age of 4 that all people will die and there is no afterlife, by 10 that a nuclear Armageddon (replete with vividly gruesome details) was not an unlikely future to anticipate, and by 12 that my disturbance at hearing the sex he had with my mother was actually a Freudian response of desire on my part and my real yearning was to be his lover. His warmth, always tinged by an air of seductiveness befitting a lover, ensured that he had in me a loyal ally in what was for him at that time an otherwise emotionally alienated life.
In the early ’70s, my father flew the teenaged Susan (whom he hadn‘t seen since she was 3) to Los Angeles, drugged her with a potent pharmaceutical hallucinogen, and submitted her to sexual abuse a several times over the course of her three-week visit -- on at least one occasion with the participation of my mother, who had also supplied the drugs. Afterward, my father bragged to friends about his conquest. In March of this year, thanks to a 1993 law allowing victims of child sexual abuse to file charges years later -- and my sister’s determination to find healing through justice -- he was convicted and incarcerated for his crimes.
Several of my father‘s poet-colleagues and friends submitted letters of support to the court in hopes of protecting him. Universally, they praised his brilliance and generosity as a writer and teacher. Anyone who knew John Thomas would agree that he possessed unusual quantities of energy, intelligence and persuasive power. If he earned anything at all, though, it was the legacy of suffering he engendered in his children. ”Sexual abuse is not an art form,“ Susan told the court. ”There’s nothing poetic about the premeditated [statutory] rape of your own 15-year-old daughter.“
In deciding to become a Beat poet, my father picked the right movement to saddle up to. A culture that hinges on the breaking of taboos makes room for the precise sort of madness that destroys individual lives. Unarguably, the best of the Beats cracked open the second half of America‘s 20th century by subverting postwar social mores. Without ”Howl“ and On the Road, there would have been no Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, no electric Bob Dylan, nor any of the other ’60s artistic watersheds that followed. But in blasting apart the falseness they saw in the America they inherited, the Beats as a culture left behind little but the explosion (think Kerouac‘s unedited bursts -- first thoughtbest thought). And in their personal lives, many Beats left trails of refuse made up of the children they forgot.
In a 1995 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Kerouac-lover Joyce Johnson’s son, Daniel Pinchbeck, published a wrenching montage of photos and vignettes called ”Children of the Beats.“ In it the writer Caleb Carr, son of Lucien, argues that ”If any element got lost in the Beat equation, it was the idea of children.“ Kerouac‘s writer-daughter Jan, close to death from alcoholism, stares grimly at the reader. Other discarded Beat offspring eye the camera with haunting gazes. The article reads like a follow-up on abandoned Vietnamese GI babies: Many of the Beats’ children were forced to feed on scraps in the bombed-out hollows of the world their parents saw as phony.
While I lived with my father, he never pursued publication -- it was a point of honor for him. He responded to requests from editors, however, so his poems did make their way into the world. And his work was generally well respected. But as far as I can tell, his notoriety derives principally from two facts: He outlived many of his Beat cohorts, and he was friendly, for a time, with Charles Bukowski. Indeed, he capitalized on his colleague‘s global fame by selling transcripts of his taped conversations with Bukowski after the writer’s death in 1994.
Simply living long enough to be a rarity, though, should not give a person icon status. As for literary talent vs. humanity, Bukowski himself said it best: ”It‘s so easy to be a poetand so hard to bea man.“
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