Son a survivor of paternal rage and sorrow
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