“I don’t understand why you want to go to a creative writing program,” my stepfather said gloomily. It was the late 1980s and I would have been twenty. We were standing together at the mantelpiece in the living room of the family home in County Wicklow, Ireland, a house that had its own name: Newcastle House. We had moved there five years before from a modest old red-brick house in the city of Dublin, a place that I now look back on as my only real home, also the first house I had ever lived in. Owning this big old white farmhouse on ten acres of land was my lawyer-stepfather’s dream, though. After my four years of college, he wanted to reward me somehow, but he also wanted to clarify that he was dubious about “sending” me, as he saw it, to San Francisco to do a master’s degree in writing at San Francisco State University.
When he said the next thing, I knew I could never explain it to him.
“I don’t see the point of trying to be a writer. If you can’t write as well as James Joyce, why do it?”
But I desperately wanted a change. I associated San Francisco with only good things—pretty houses, progressive people, a light, joyous feeling, freedom—and Ireland with bad ones: all the crushing years of tiptoeing around my mother and stepfather’s rocky marriage, the sense of having no control over my own life, his scary outbursts of temper, the jagged and harsh quality of our life together that I escaped by reading, my mother’s depression, my own pervasive sense of isolation.
I wanted to live in a place where I could pursue my own interests, explore my queer sexuality without feeling like I was being monitored, ridiculed, or judged, and perhaps start a new life. I didn’t know if it was possible, because my college years had been so grim. I’d retreated into my shell and refused to date or even make deep friendships. It wasn’t emotionally safe. Although I’d enjoyed my English and Italian classes at Trinity and actually managed to pull off a very good bachelor’s degree, I was too petrified by self-consciousness to go to my graduation.
I was being nudged out of a family I still loved. My younger half-siblings, aged twelve and seven, were sorry that I was going, but they had gotten used to my being gone much of the time during my years of college. It felt awful to be leaving them—the big sister deserting the flock—but I comforted myself by thinking they were very young. They would be resilient and wouldn’t miss me much, and I would come home and visit…
The truth was, I had no intention of ever coming back to Ireland to live. The unemployment rate then was 17 percent, which gave me a good excuse to leave, and many of my friends and acquaintances would end up leaving too, though usually for England or other parts of Europe.
In fact, I wanted to make California my home. I had been born in California, in the coastal town of Santa Barbara near LA, and had only come to Ireland in the late 1960s because my graduate-student father had been given a stipend by a history professor to do some research in Ireland for a book of his. My parents split up a few years into their Irish adventure, but while my father left the country, my mother had already fallen in love with another man, though he was five years younger than her and penniless, and decided to stay in Ireland. (At five, I wasn’t given a vote.) A few years later, they married, reluctantly on his part, and this is what brought us to the little house in Dublin and a few years of (always stressful) domesticity and stability.
Life had been like that. I’d been indulged and protected to some degree, but was never given any kind of say in major decisions.
My American mother was a conundrum to me. She was only forty-three when I left Ireland, younger than I am now, and she was just beginning to sift through and process some of her own life lessons. One thing that silently came between us was my father, now many years into his second marriage and living in the Bay Area near San Francisco. I had continued to see him for a few weeks of vacation every year, but we had not shared the same country since 1972, the year he left. Now I was going back into his zone of influence.
I had no real idea then how painful and complicated my parents’ marriage had been. Neither parent spoke about it honestly to me, and my father’s effusive charm allowed him to easily masquerade as the good guy. I thought my mother was judgmental of my dad, needlessly critical. I thought her choice of second husband had been lousy, and she certainly didn’t seem happy most of the time. Brainwashed by my father’s attentiveness from a distance, I never asked crucial questions about the past. I did notice he was unreliable—who could avoid hearing about the late child support payments that caused my mom such stress?—but his fulsomely telling me he loved me at frequent intervals made up for all the lack of affection from my mother and stepfather.
The years would prove my father’s words to be hollow.
But as I left Ireland that summer, I was mostly preoccupied by what I hadn’t received from my Irish family. I saw it as the sign of a deep lack of love that my mother arranged for the whole family to be away traveling on the weekend I left. She asked an American woman friend, an academic, to stay with me the night before my flight and drive me to the airport. It was July 4th of 1988. I left that morning in my friend’s car with the two large, dark-green durable nylon suitcases—“bullet-proof ballistic nylon,” I see the manufacturer now boasts on its website!—that my stepfather had given me for Christmas, and without anyone bidding me farewell. It was a ghostly leave-taking. The house, I really felt nothing for. It was the people in it that I cared about.
Later, over a transatlantic phone call, my mother characteristically took me to task for not doing the dinner dishes before I left. They had been lying stinkily on the counter when the family returned from their trip, she raged. How could I be so careless? I shrugged my shoulders, feeling empty. Bereft.
So now almost thirty years have passed. The decision I set in motion then has become permanent. The big white house is still there, but my stepfather lives there with another woman, a fellow lawyer. My mother isn’t in it, or anywhere: she died of cancer in 2002, eight years after my stepfather demanded a separation and kicked her out. She ended her life in a smallish house in a coastal town called Greystones. She was near the sea and could walk there with her dogs, her three Jack Russell terriers.
We had come to a greater understanding when she died, some mutual acceptance at least. But it was only after reading her journals a few years ago that I learned how she had rushed into her first marriage at nineteen, pregnant with a baby that she soon miscarried. My parents had had an open marriage, I discovered to my shock, filled with infidelity and game-playing on both sides. My mom had frequent bouts of depression and thoughts of death. They barely scraped by in Santa Barbara. She worked as a photo retoucher for her mother-in-law, who was somewhat of a slave driver. If she hadn’t worked, they would not have been able to support themselves. Continually distracted by her highly focused task-work and her own black moods of feeling unloved, she was never able to attend to her goals.
My father, I now fear, had a secret life behind the scenes. He had started early on a lifelong pattern of being financially taken care of by the woman he was with, who would “manage” him and overlook his infidelities. But worst of all, an old friend of theirs suggested to me, not long ago, that he suspected my father of being an informer for the FBI during the mid- to late 1960s, at UCSB, as he was on the outskirts of the student radical scene there. My mother never breathed a word of this, but there was so much she didn’t tell me, and she may have had her suspicions.
My two years at SF State were positive, in the main. I did find a group of like-minded people and was asked to join a dynamic writing group that provided some community and lasted into the next century. I started a novel set in Ireland (about an unhappy, unconventional girl leaving Ireland!) that I eventually finished for my master’s thesis. I worked with a witty short-story writer called Molly Giles who paid special attention to me and made me feel good about my writing, at least. My anxiety, my depression, and my social isolation were still constant companions, though. I liked hanging out with older people, who seemed more tolerant of me, more understanding. I was pretty much the youngest person there, in my early twenties, but I didn’t feel young.
But my biggest influence was still my father. My decision to go to work for him as an editorial assistant in the year after I graduated was probably the biggest blunder of my life, yet seemed inevitable. I gravitated toward people who weren’t healthy, especially if they were connected to the past in some way, and became heavily dependent on them.
For instance, I ended up renting a series of small apartments for almost twenty years from a woman my father had known as a student in Dublin back in the early 1970s, who managed to scrape up enough money to buy a house in San Francisco in 1991. She had been a well-known journalist for the Irish Times newspaper and even presented herself as a feminist, but I gradually came to see that she was as desperate as I was, her funny stories a cover for years of heavy drinking and toxic anger, which eventually became directed at me. She had taken to calling her tenants “inmates,” which we tolerated. At one point in the late 1990s she turned to a roomful of people in her kitchen and announced scornfully, “And Gaby is the oldest inmate!”
These were the patterns I made as I lingered on in San Francisco. My stepfather’s financial help was cut off at my request early on, since I was working for my father, and he expressed extraordinary bitterness at my perceived ingratitude for all his support. His marriage to my mother soon ended since he had begun an affair with a subordinate about two years after I left. I went to therapy in 1994, citing “stress” as the reason. Working at a university now as an underpaid admin, I had joined another dysfunctional family. But what was I going to do with the rest of my life? I had no clue. I muddled along from day to day, distracted and demoralized by a hopeless but initially romantic affair I was having with a bi girl who was in a relationship with a man, and unwilling to end things with him. When good friends of mine asked why I was with her, I remember saying flippantly, “We both have boring jobs,” an example of the way my mind worked at the time. But of course, I was completely obsessed. My poor mother even counseled me over the phone and told me my lover was testing her relationship with her boyfriend, a thought that disheartened me further, but did have the ring of truth.
Every now and then I’d see my father, now living on the East Coast where my stepmother had a prestigious job at the National Endowment for the Arts, and he would express how much of a disappointment I was to him in one way or another. It took me years to understand that far from being an ally, he enjoyed my failure. It took me a long time to see that he was a narcissist. I should have known it the summer I was seventeen when I came across a diary entry he had written on a yellow legal pad, in a drawer in his study. Instead of the loving words I expected, he expressed his fears that I would become “a lonely drunk” in ten years, maybe. I was devastated, but shared it with no one.
While here, I’ve lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake, my mother’s death, being laid off from a well-paying job, and becoming self-employed. I’ve had just one long-term relationship in all these years here, with lots of time being single. Many friends have passed through my life. And I did indeed struggle with alcohol in my twenties.
But I’ve come to a deeper understanding. I realize now that in leaving Ireland so young, I cut off a vital source of support. Ireland was the last time I really felt connected to a family, or to a home. I sunk my roots down here, but in the wrong soil, it feels like. And I crave nature, peace, quiet, and animals, along with a sense of community that’s eluded me.
Yes, it was a huge, jolting move I took back in 1988, and looking back, I wonder: could I have done anything differently? I felt cursed already when I left, so it wasn’t as if I put a curse on myself. It wasn’t even really “a mistake.” But the inability to move on, to heal from my wounds and pick another path, has been a lifelong challenge.
I suppose I “adopted” the Bay Area, but it feels like the adoption didn’t take, and I sense the ground under my feet continually shaking, urging me to move on. Surely thirty years is enough in one place, I tell myself.
Yet I will never be able to go back to Ireland to live now, and I’m at peace with that. I do miss my siblings, even my stepfather sometimes, and I’m saddened that my life has involved such distance and separation from them. Were I there, though, we would all still feel separated. I’m sure of that. At least the ties have not completely been cut; at least I still have the capacity to care. And yet sometimes I wish I could go back, not physically go back to what is left there now, but go back in time to that little red-brick house in Dublin before our move to the country, where I felt secure, if not safe. If only it was possible. And it is, at least in my mind. Everything’s still there, invested with a terrible psychic weight.
For some reason, I still keep the small key for those now-battered green suitcases on my key ring. I see now that my stepfather was trying to give me a sense of freedom then, to let me go with his blessing, but all the other elements that made up my past stuck to me like invisible barnacles, and I have been more faithful to them. Yes, I did achieve my goal of becoming a writer, but sometimes it seems I did so at a brutal cost. I would have liked to have a good life as well, yet had no idea of going about getting it.
I did take one dramatic step in my life, once, I remind myself. Now it’s up to me to move, slowly and tentatively, toward what matters. What heals.
Gabriella West was born in California, but grew up mostly in
Dublin, Ireland, which she left after graduating college. She earnedan MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 1995.Her work has been published in many LGBT-themed anthologies, and she is the author of six novels, including Time of Grace (Wolfhound Press, 2001). She (still) lives in San Francisco. Visit her website and connect with her on Twitter: @GabriellaWest