My father, ”Venice West“ poet John Thomas, died of congestive heart failure on March 29 at the age of 71. His April 7 Los Angeles Times obituary describes him as ”the sage of Venice“ (Beyond Baroque executive director Fred Dewey), ”mentor“ (Wanda Coleman), even ”the best unread poet in America“ (Charles Bukowski). Another journalistic elegy, appearing in Los Angeles Magazine, depicted my father as a man with a ”piercing wit [and] generous spirit,“ for whom ”poverty and love were equal teachers in a life of wisdom.“ His obituary was carried by wire across the nation, even making news at the Washington Post. Soon after he died, a public memorial was held in his honor and a ”John Thomas Memorial Fund“ was set up at Beyond Baroque.
No publication mentioned that my father was, at the time of his death, serving a sentence in Los Angeles County Jail for sexually molesting his daughter — my half sister Susan.
Posthumous descriptions of his life left out other significant information: that he was a fraud, a thief and an endangerer of children, and that, while he often bragged that he‘d ”retired at 28,“ he’d made an impressive career of consumption. As his last child, I spent a good deal of intimate time with him. He lived with my mother, Rose, and me in Echo Park and then northeast L.A. during my first 13 years. Let me introduce you to the John Thomas I knew.
In the nearly two decades my father spent with my mother, he didn‘t work, and he wrote virtually nothing except for ”From Patagonia,“ a prose poem about what he described as his inner landscape of desolation. Real-world decimation, however, was his true accomplishment. As he told it, he left his first wife when his daughter from that marriage was still an infant, then abandoned his second wife, along with my young half brother and half sister, to become a Beat poet out West. He dropped his last name, Idlet, to avoid paying child support. A favorite story of his when I was little had to do with how he’d so effectively evaded authorities that his second wife had him declared legally deceased so she could collect a small sum from a dead relative to help raise the children he‘d left behind.
His name changed frequently, in fact. A late-’60s issue of the men‘s magazine Oui published a feature on my father, celebrating him as the country’s leading perpetrator of mail-order fraud. He cooked in stolen pans, ate off swindled dishes with thieved cutlery, sat in chairs that were delivered to a phantom purchaser at an untraceable address, and wrote with thousands of ripped-off pencils that he‘d had inscribed with the name of bank robbermurderer Harry Pierpont.
Growing up, I watched him feast on raw hamburger, grabbing it straight from the Styrofoam package. Puffing through packs of unfiltered Picayunes, he created what he called ”a conversation piece“ beside his chair: a trash bin he used to stub out his smokes until they grew into a thigh-high volcanic heap. In order to avoid taking out the garbage, he found two industrial-size trash cans for the kitchen and let scraps collect for months at a stretch. I knew it was summertime when I stepped barefoot onto a sea of maggots that dropped from the trash, wriggling toward the dog-hair-dense carpet. During one particularly rough lunch, Daddy sprayed the kitchen floor with insecticide but left the dying maggots, then served white rice and refused to allow me to leave the table until I’d finished.
Drugs were a constant. Once, before I‘d entered kindergarten, my father nodded off while painting. I crept into the space beneath his knees and fell asleep. When my mother came home from work, she found my father out cold, and me coated like an ice cream bar in shiny brown paint. Left on my own while he slept off Benzedrine highs, I made a sport of surprising the mouse colonies that lived in our kitchen cabinets with a flashlight. I built amber pyramids from the scores of amphetamine bottles my parents emptied (stolen by my mother, a pharmacy clerk), and got stoned for the first time at 7 by eating the wrong brownies.
Late in his time with us, my father made a pot roast so heavy it collapsed the oven rack, then left the roast inside the stove to rot. More than once, when I was preparing cocoa, boiled roaches poured out of our teakettle. Dishes were left undone for a year; we turned to paper plates while the sink-load grew strands of mold that dangled from bowl to plate like lacy rain-forest mosses. The house was filled with the stench of rotting food, cigarette smoke and Raid.
Equally noxious and permeating was my father’s sexuality. While he made a game of insulting my mother and describing himself to me as her ”gigolo,“ he encouraged me to read his journals — beautifully calligraphed legal pads filled with detailed sex fantasies. At his bedside, paperback porn invited attention — one flashy spine read Father-Daughter Lust. Our walls were covered with photos of Hitler, outlaws, corpses and orgies; he kept his knife collection between hardbound volumes by Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade. ”Tickle Time,“ a game that invariably ended with his giant hands making their way beneath the waistline of my underwear until I writhed in laughing confusion, punctuated our days at home alone.
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.“