After War And Fame, Dad Is Author's Challenge

Jun 17, 2012
Originally published on June 18, 2012 7:47 am

Seven years ago, writer and former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford had the success of a lifetime when his 2003 memoir Jarhead was turned into a high-budget Hollywood movie.

Swofford, then 35, had hit it big. But flush with cash and still grappling with post-war life, he suddenly found himself in the throes of a self-destructive rampage replete with drugs, alcohol and infidelity.

He recounts the battle to become himself in a new memoir, Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails. Swofford spoke to NPR's Jacki Lyden about why so many battle the men who raised them, and how he won his own fight with the help of a Winnebago and the open road.


Interview Highlights

On his father's parenting:

"My father was a philanderer — philanderer in chief, I guess, certainly of our family. He ran our home a bit like we were his little platoon. One of my duties was to pick up the dog waste in the backyard. I was always afraid of missing something. And one Saturday morning, I did. And my father became physical with me. Dragged me by the back of my neck across the yard and essentially pushed my face down toward this mistake of mine. It's something that haunts me now."

On acting out after the success of Jarhead:

"I was after this thing that I'd experienced when I was 20, which was combat. And this high and this exhilaration of having lived. And then coming back — like John Berryman says, 'Life, friends, is boring. But we must not say so.' And I think for me it was especially boring. I think for a lot of combat veterans — you come back, you look around. It's not quite as exciting."

On why so many men battle not to become their fathers:

"I think the fathers of my [father's] generation made mistakes. And we realize that those are models we don't want to repeat. We want to break the mold and become our own men and become our own fathers. You know, you walk into a room with your dad and you're 12 years old. I don't know that that ever changes. For me, what really changed was becoming a father myself and making that shift."

On driving across the country with his father in an RV:

"He made the effort. He asked me to jump in this Winnebago with him. We're on our way up to Aspen, [Colo.], and I'm a husband now, and my wife is five months pregnant. I really want to break out of this thing with father — me being the son. I realize I can't just be that anymore. My father, to his credit, said, 'Get your venom out, son. I'm not going to be here much longer, but you'll still be here and you don't want this hanging your life when I'm gone.' And he was right. I have to give him credit. He took it. He didn't always answer the way I wanted, but he answered for his sins."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS WALKS")

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) Yo, we at war.

LYDEN: Seven years ago, writer and former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford had the success of a lifetime when his 2003 memoir "Jarhead" was turned into a high-budget Hollywood movie. For Swofford, then 35, he hit it big. The film was directed by Sam Mendes. It featured this track from Kanye West called "Jesus Walks" and Swofford was played by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JARHEAD")

SCOTT MACDONALD: (as D.I. Fitch) Swofford.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (as Anthony Swofford) Sir, yes, sir.

MACDONALD: (as D.I. Fitch) You the maggot whose father served in Vietnam?

GYLLENHAAL: (as Anthony Swofford) Sir, yes, sir.

MACDONALD: (as D.I. Fitch) Outstanding. Did he have the balls to die there?

GYLLENHAAL: (as Anthony Swofford) Sir, no, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as D.I. Fitch) Too (bleep) bad. He ever talk about it?

GYLLENHAAL: (as Anthony Swofford) Sir, only once, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as D.I. Fitch) Good. Then he wasn't lying.

LYDEN: That scene was especially true to life. Swofford's dad did serve in Vietnam, but he was also a destructive father and an unfaithful husband. And in the years after "Jarhead," flush with cash, Anthony Swofford suddenly found himself becoming the one man he never wanted to be.

ANTHONY SWOFFORD: My father was, you know, a philanderer - philanderer in chief, I guess, certainly, of our family, and, you know, dishonest with my mother. And, you know, in my 30s living in New York City, I behaved that same way. It was in the wake of the success of "Jarhead." But I do think I was also after this thing that I'd experienced when I was 20, which was combat and this high and this exhilaration of having lived. And then coming back - and, you know, like John Berryman says, you know, life, friends, is boring.

LYDEN: Drugs, alcohol, women, Swofford grapples with and slays all the usual demons in those years, but the turbulent relationship with his father haunts him. He writes about it in a new memoir, "Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails."

SWOFFORD: He ran our home a bit like we were his little platoon. You know, one of my duties was to pick up the dog waste in the backyard. And I was always afraid of missing something. And, you know, one Saturday morning, I did. I missed. And my father became, you know, physical with me and dragged me by the back of my neck across the yard and essentially pushed my face down toward this mistake of mine.

And, you know, it's something that, you know, haunted - haunts me now and that my father and I will still argue about. And I know that it haunts him because he remembers it. And it became this rhetorical fight where he would say, well, I did not push your face into this. I pushed your face toward it. I thought it was silly to make that distinction because as a 7-year-old kid, being, you know, dragged across the yard by his big, powerful 38-year-old father, it didn't really matter.

It was an act of terror and something that, you know, reverberated with me for - throughout my childhood and even now.

LYDEN: Why did you write about this? I mean, at one point - at many points, you hate this man.

SWOFFORD: I do. I hated him. You know, I loved him, but I also hated him. I have to give my father credit, though, because, you know, these RV trips that occur in the book, they happened because of him. He asked me to jump in this Winnebago with him.

LYDEN: These are hysterical, riveting trips. You fly across the country to drive with your father from northern California to Aspen where you're talking to injured vets about riding. That's the night you really have it out by the time you get to Colorado.

SWOFFORD: Yeah. We - you know, we're on our way up to the mountain, and I'm a husband now, and my wife is five months pregnant - and I really want to break out of this thing with my father, which is, you know, me being the son and I'm really under his yoke. And I realized that I have to - I can't just be that anymore. I'm about to be a father and my behavior has to change. My behavior has changed.

LYDEN: This chapter you called "Getting the Venom Out."

SWOFFORD: Yeah. My father, you know, to his credit, he said, you know, get your venom out, son. I'm not going to be here much longer, but you'll still be here, and you don't want this hanging around your life when I'm gone.

And he was right. And, you know, I finally took him on about not making it to my brother's funeral. I took him on about his long list of infidelities to my mother. And, you know, I have to give him credit. He took it. He was there. He didn't always answer the way I wanted, but he answered for his sins.

LYDEN: So has it been better since then?

SWOFFORD: It has been. It has been. You know, we can be in a room and I feel safe. You know, we were in a car together recently last week, and I realized that he was about to bring some stuff up. And I think he was going to challenge me about some things. And I just said: Hey, Dad. I'm not going to play that game.

I'm - you know, I used to, but I'm not anymore. I love you. I hope you love me. I've got a daughter to attend to, and that's really where my energy is going to go now.

LYDEN: Why do you think so many men fight so hard not to become their fathers?

SWOFFORD: Well, I think the fathers of my generation made mistakes. And we realize that those are models that we don't want to repeat. We want to break the mold and become our own men and become our own fathers. And, you know, you walk into a room with your dad and you're 12 years old. And I don't know that that ever changes, but for me, what really changed was, you know, becoming a father myself and making that shift and realizing that, you know, that, hey, I'm a father now. I'm not just a son.

LYDEN: Has he read this book?

SWOFFORD: He hasn't. I'm sending him a copy tomorrow. He wants a signed copy for Father's Day, so I'm going to put it in the mail.

LYDEN: You want to wish him Happy Father's Day?

SWOFFORD: Yeah. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

LYDEN: Anthony Swofford is the author of the book "Jarhead," and his new memoir is called "Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails." It was a real pleasure to have you.

SWOFFORD: Thanks, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.