DAD STORIES – ELLIN CURLEY

I have two wonderful stories about my father that I’d like to share with you. One happened before I was born and the other is a fond memory from my adolescence.

DAD AND THE FBI

My dad, Abram Kardiner, was a well-known anthropologist and psychoanalyst from the 1930’s to his death in 1981. He was friends and colleagues with another prominent anthropologist of the 1940’s, Ruth Benedict. Benedict was being considered for a government job so she needed to get FBI security clearance. In the ‘40’s, it was de rigueur to be morally upright (and uptight) as well as anti-communist. The FBI asked to interview my Dad as a character witness for Ruth Benedict.

As it happens, Benedict had borrowed my father’s summer house on occasion and used it to have loud, wild parties. She was a lesbian, so no men were involved. But homosexuality was an automatic deal breaker in those days. My Dad was worried about how to handle the ‘morals’ question that was sure to come up in his FBI interview. He didn’t want to ‘out’ Benedict but he wasn’t happy about lying to the FBI either.

Luckily, the FBI agent framed his question very narrowly. He established that Benedict was not married. Then he asked my father, “Does she go out with a lot of different men? Does she party with single men a lot?”

Honestly and with great relief, my Father answered, “Oh, no! She’s not that kind of girl!” The FBI agent diligently wrote down that answer. He went away happy and Benedict got the job. Dad’s cleverness helped both him and Benedict dodge a bullet that day!

DAD AND HIS TEMPER

As I said, my Dad was a well-known psychoanalyst. But he was also a very anxious man with very little self-control. If he was upset, he yelled. He wasn’t mean or demeaning or hostile. He just ranted at top volume a lot. He had no filter and no off button. This drove me crazy.

One day, when I was about 15, Dad went off into one of his hysterical fits. I think he couldn’t find something and he thought that someone had moved it off of his desk (no one was allowed to touch anything in his office). I just snapped. I started yelling back at him, saying things like, “ How can you be a therapist if you can’t control yourself?! How can you tell other people how to live their lives if you can’t get a grip on your own?!”

He stopped dead in his tracks and thought for a few seconds. Then he uttered this classic line: “My dear. I SELL it. I don’t USE it!”

We both burst out laughing and the incident was totally diffused. I always felt that his comment showed some humility about his personal failings. It was one of the few times in his life that he admitted any of his faults to me. After that day, I was a little more tolerant of his outbursts. I’d like to say that they were less frequents but I’d be lying. I just saw them in a different light.

19 thoughts on “DAD STORIES – ELLIN CURLEY

  1. My mother used to throw fits because she was sure someone stole her glasses. Why would anyone take her glasses? No one else could see out of them. Otherwise, she was pretty even-tempered. Now my father, HE was a nut job.

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    • Everyone seems to have someone in their family with a terrible temper. But my Dad was really just anxious, not mean or derogatory in any way. So it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

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      • My mother was generally not particularly angry. She was a pretty happy lady most of the time, but for some reason, her eyeglasses were her hot button. Go figure. She didn’t get truly angry very often, but when she did, look out.

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  2. What a great moment that must have been.
    He was honest, open and vulnerable. You could have easily ridiculed him as a hypocrite. But you both saw the humor in the moment.
    Hopefully it brought you closer.

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    • You got it 100%! He was “honest, open and vulnerable” in that moment. It did bring us closer but not by much. It just eased some of the tenser moments, when I would use his quote as an explanation of his bad behavior and we would both laugh.

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    • My father was not classically good looking. But women loved him and he was mesmerizing when he spoke. He had real charm and charisma. And a fabulous, sharp intellect. He was fascinating.

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