By Meyers, Jeffrey
The World and I , Vol. 17, No. 5
Jeffrey Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, will publish Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam in 2002.
Quite suddenly, I began getting phone calls in California from strangers in New York, warning that my 85-year-old mother had deteriorated, both physically and mentally, and could no longer take care of herself. The alarming symptoms, on the vague border between senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease, I was told, were all too clear. Drinking and smoking heavily, the once-robust woman had stopped eating, now looked skeletal, and weighed less than one hundred pounds. She repeated herself over and over again. Confused and forgetful, she didn't understand that the telephone company had changed its name but was still serving her. She had not filed a tax form for several years and could no longer pay her bills or manage her financial affairs.
She had also put herself and others in great danger. She got her medicines mixed up and could not remember if or when she had taken them. Though she had fallen down and broken bones at home and in the street, she said she no longer had a doctor and had not seen one in many years. I later discovered she'd recently been treated by doctors and in hospitals all over Long Island. She claimed that thieves had made off with her shopping cart full of groceries and had stolen her car from a secure parking lot. In fact, completely forgetting where she'd left the groceries and parked the car, she'd simply walked away and abandoned them. She insisted that people had entered her apartment and taken her things, but also admitted that she'd invited complete strangers into her place (who might have robbed or even murdered her) to "interview" her for a job she didn't want and couldn't do. She'd filled the apartment with smoke several times after leaving boiling pots on the stove, and both neighbors and firemen feared she might burn down the entire building.
Clearly something had to be done. As her only surviving child it was my duty to intervene, but I did so with great reluctance. I'd always hated my mother, who had a hair-trigger temper and had beaten me mercilessly as a child, and I used to hope she'd die in some horrible accident. I still vividly remembered her standing at the top of a staircase, screaming abuse and throwing ashtrays, clocks, and framed photos down at my father, who held me up to shield himself from these dangerous missiles. More depressing, even, than his cowardice was her willingness to hurt me instead of him. She once made herself black and blue with self-inflicted injuries and convinced her brawny brother that my father had beaten her. I often wished he'd put an ax in her head but knew he was too frightened to touch her.
I also recalled sitting on that same staircase and peering through the rods of the banister--horrified, yet relieved that I wasn't the victim- -while my mother, with her knee on his back, beat my younger brother on the head with a wooden hanger. When we went on holiday in Florida, she took, along with bathing suits and suntan lotion, a thick leather riding crop. It caused such extensive bruises that I--feeling guilty about what she'd done to me--had to remain fully clothed at the swimming pool.
I was a skinny little boy with a delicate stomach and couldn't force down her disgusting meals. Night after night she'd stand over me and scream, "Do you want to eat it or wear it?" and then pour the plate of food over my head. Her violence also extended beyond the family. On several occasions we were thrown out of movie theaters, and she was later convicted of assaulting people who'd tried to get ahead of her in line or refused to remove their large hats. Selfish and spiteful, vindictive, vain, and recklessly extravagant, she worshiped the rich and famous, despised the unfashionable and unattractive. She once justified an adulterous affair by insisting that her lover's wife "didn't look good in slacks. …