Son a sur­vivor of pa­ter­nal rage and sor­row

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Tim El­liott’s ‘‘mem­oir of love and mad­ness’’ is di­vided into two parts. The first ends with the sui­cide of the fa­ther, med­i­cal spe­cial­ist Max El­liott; the sec­ond with the son’s — and au­thor’s — pre­car­i­ous sur­vival. Each suf­fered from clin­i­cal de­pres­sion.

Farewell to the Fa­ther com­pels at­ten­tion from its open­ing sen­tence: ‘‘To­wards the end of his first se­ri­ous sui­cide at­tempt, my fa­ther said the strangest thing to me.’’ It was 1977. The son was seven or eight, his fa­ther 40 years older. Four words were said: ‘‘Al­ways be a man.’’ What was a child to make of such an ad­mo­ni­tion? How to judge whether it was sen­ti­men­tal or dic­ta­to­rial (con­di­tions that of­ten blend)?

Now also in his 40s, El­liott pon­ders what might have been meant, the words com­ing from ‘‘some­one like him who was big and tall and had played rugby for Aus­tralia. A doc­tor who worked 80 hours a week and shouted a lot. Who drank a bot­tle of gin ev­ery night and took an over­dose of Ro­hyp­nol.’’ This is the fa­ther whom El­liott seeks to farewell.

Fa­ther and son, and in­deed the fam­ily gen­er­a­tion be­fore them, grew up in a mon­eyed har­bour­side Syd­ney that, in­ci­den­tally, fur­nished some of the ripest satire of Pa­trick White. Max El­liott’s mother, Nan Ell, was an in­domitable doc­tor’s wife whose apart­ment was stocked with paint­ings by Arthur Stree­ton, Fred­er­ick McCub­bin and Tom Roberts. She lived across three cen­turies, dy­ing at 107.

Rosie El­liott nee King grew up in Vau­cluse and went to a pri­vate girls’ school. She and Max mar­ried in 1956. His med­i­cal ca­reer was bur­geon­ing and there was a long sec­ond­ment to Britain for doc­toral work on chest com­plaints. His com­mit­ment to rugby was also con­sum­ing. Al­though she briefly de­camped to her par­ents’ home, Rosie learned to man­age what was left over from her hus­band’s com­mit­ments for her needs and those of their four chil­dren.

Tim El­liott, ‘‘a mis­take’’ ac­cord­ing to his fa­ther, was the youngest of them. Rosie had pri­vately re­solved to stay in the mar­riage as long as she could, but also that any breach would be ir­rev­o­ca­ble.

The fam­ily lived in Mos­man. El­liott re­mem­bers the huge oak tree in the grounds. Both tree and fa­ther ‘‘seemed too big for the world, too heavy, too un­yield­ing’’. He fol­lowed his fa­ther to Syd­ney Church of Eng­land Gram­mar School, known as Shore, ‘‘a per­vert’s par­adise’’ with a se­nile head­mas­ter. Through­out El­liott’s school days, his fa­ther’s con­di­tion wors­ened. Di­ag­nosed with clin­i­cal de­pres­sion, he started to drink heav­ily and be­came more vi­o­lent.

Lows were more fre­quent than manic highs — ‘‘deep val­leys of long, fe­ro­cious sor­row­ing’’. Even­tu­ally his fa­ther re­tired, but ‘‘for the de­pressed per­son, the con­cept of free time is mean­ing­less’’. More tellingly for the story that he is re­lat­ing, El­liott re­marks that ‘‘de­pres­sives are bor­ing to be around: all the in­ter­est­ing bits have gone’’.

The un­avoid­able con­se­quence is that El­liott has to work very hard to sum­mon in­ter­est in and sym­pa­thy for his fa­ther from the reader. The nar­ra­tive is also nec­es­sar­ily repet­i­tive, as one shock­ing in­ci­dent suc­ceeds an­other un­til the end. That was pre­cip­i­tated af­ter Rosie fi­nally left, tak­ing Tim with her. Max El­liott wrote to her ev­ery day for five months, ‘‘love letters, ran­som letters’’. Copies are in­ter­leaved be­tween the book’s chap­ters. But ‘‘her mar­riage was fin­ished; life as she had known it was over’’.

The shorter, sec­ond part of Farewell to the Fa­ther is El­liott’s ac­count of his own tra­vails. Some are sta­ples of sto­ries of young adult­hood: drugs, travel, re­la­tion­ships and break-ups (no­tably with Mar­got, who did how­ever be­come his wife in 2001), uni­ver­sity (an arts de­gree; fam­ily won­dered what was wrong with a pro­fes­sion), his early work­ing life.

All this pleas­ant and painful busi­ness was over­shad­owed by the omi­nous le­gacy of the fa­ther: ‘‘Around my twenty-third birth­day … I suf­fered my first de­pres­sive episode.’’ The nar­ra­tive now be­comes, in part, the names of suc­ces­sive drugs thought apt for a life­long af­flic­tion: Prozac, lithium, Sero­quel, Lexapro. All these were pro­fes­sion­ally pre­scribed to

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