Courage, Wisdom, and Love — The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by His Daughter by Judy Golding

The word “trouble” reappears frequently throughout the book, as the adolescent Judy grows increasingly disillusioned with her beloved role model. Chastising him on one occasion for his drunkenness and rude behavior, she is startled by her father’s “ferocious” response — “‘Your trouble is you want everything to be smooth’” — but has sufficient presence of mind to recognize his disingenuousness, his tendency to set one standard for himself and another for her. “He really didn’t like me to upset people — especially him,” she observes wryly. “He taught me to revere establishment rules, while he could show contempt for them. In that way we would always differ. It was not something I was brave enough to emulate. He had taught me too well” (p. 48).

Characterized by this interplay of narration and commentary, the book at times reads almost like a play, the author stepping out of character to offer asides on the action. Most often this device is handled deftly and works well. It is less successful when the psychological speculation reads more like a clinical diagnosis and hampers the story’s dramatic momentum. Ruminating on Bill’s struggles with writer’s block is one example of this tendency:

“I believe [the voyages] were undertaken even… before the years of real difficulties with his writing, as voyages — escapes which fed my father’s imagination. He didn’t know where the books came from, so he lived in fear that they would just stop…. He had a feeling this was the state he needed, the receptive state…. The fallow state needed to be filled with things that engaged him and moved him — sailing, or visiting places that resonated for him. That way he didn’t fret. He was pleasantly distracted, he had his family with him for company, and he didn’t search anxiously for the next book.”

— p. 159

Such diagnostic passages might appeal, however, to psychologically sophisticated readers who can identify with the author’s dilemma. How else to explain (or cope with) a father whose opinions, tastes, fears, and demands fluctuate with the winds?

As Bill raises the bar, adding a new set of intellectual expectations to the physical endurance tests, Judy strains to accommodate him until — failing her final semester Greek exams and forfeiting an Oxford scholarship — she suffers a nervous breakdown and must leave school. Driven by her shameful failure to attempt suicide, she is finally sent to a psychiatrist. Amazingly, instead of rallying on her behalf, her parents “bowed down their heads in shame.” By now accustomed to her mother’s coldness, Judy looks to the father she has idolized and emulated all her life for comfort, only to have him turn on her brutally. “Sometime in the autumn my father and I had the terrible conversation about my wanting to die, with his level, bitter reproach – ‘I know you’re sick….’ There was the hate and contempt.” Soon after this confrontation Bill leaves on his own for an extended stay in the United States. “I missed him terribly, crying hysterically when he left. I still thought of him as that large, comfortable shape from my childhood. In reality it had not just gone to America — it had vanished altogether. Of course, none of this was said, even to the psychiatrist…” (pp. 179-180).

Judy slogs on gamely until her father returns, still “hoping for a change in me.” When there is no change, and she is sick enough to take fourteen pills a day, with the prospect of becoming a mental hospital in-patient, like her brother David, seemingly inevitable, she no longer looks to her father for rescue. In fact, it is she who becomes the rescuer on a trip they make together to the Cannes Film Festival, when Lord of the Flies is passed over for first prize and a devastated Bill goes on a drunken spree. Mustering her own “heroic” resources, Judy tosses out her fourteen tranquilizers and antidepressants and takes charge: “… finally, the huge figure from my childhood had begun to shrink” (p. 183).

Realizing now that her salvation lies in leaving home, she obtains that Oxford scholarship — this time on her, not her father’s, terms — with a major in English literature rather than Greek. Outwardly, leaving home brings freedom; but the excruciating see-saw relationship with Bill continues throughout her university years, her career as a copy editor, her marriage, and even as she buys her first home and starts a family. Now the physical and intellectual endurance tests of Judy’s childhood and adolescence give way to raw, unconstrained psychological abuse. “His behaviour was monstrous and would have been so if directed against anybody. Against his supposedly much-loved daughter, it was simply extraordinary” (p.210). But why now, when she is a grown woman and safely out of reach?

Earlier in the book Judy alludes to her father’s fear of incest as a possible reason for his hostility toward her, a plausible explanation that only comes to life in the final heartbreaking chapter, when the hidden wellspring of forbidden love generating that “monstrous” abuse bursts forth at a party, on the last night of her father’s life. Everyone is drinking; Bill is already quite drunk. A guest innocently asks what he would say to Judy if he knew they would never meet again.

“Daddy looks at me, and puts his large, warm hand on the back of my neck and rubs it as if he knew there was a pain there.

‘Love,’ he says. ‘Just love.’”

— p. 241

This poignant scene signals both the end of their fraught relationship and, in a symbolic dream later that night, Judy’s release from her own long struggle with writer’s block. When Bill is found dead the next morning, it is as if, corroborating the dream, her father himself has freed her to tell their story. And tell it she does — beautifully — with the courage and wisdom borne of her loss.

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