Monday, December 7, 2009

Remembering Martin Jerome Kaufman [February 7, 2007]

That he was the son of my namesake John Ned Kaufman and Celia Kaufman probably meant that my uncle Marty was doomed to be damaged, as my mother, their eldest surviving child, certainly was. John Ned was a brawl-prone ne'er-do-well who commonly moved his family out of rented premises in the dead of night to avoid having to come up with the rent, but when Marty was probably around 10, John Ned suddenly made a fortune as a liquor wholesaler. The family didn't have to move anywhere under cover of darkness anymore, and had nice furniture (lots of which survived into own childhood, some of which, since re-upholstered, now belongs to my sister). But there is no evidence that wealth made any of them any happier, though I know my mother, who'd once been sent home from elementary school for smelling bad (the Kaufmans apparently couldn't afford hot water for baths) to have revelled in her ability to dress very modishly, a fact celebrated in her high school yearbook. John Ned was dead at 42. I never met him.

In the drawer of the elegant coffee table that survived into my childhood, my grandmother kept a photo album in which Marty was seen, hand-coloured, walking through the woods and enjoying archery with John Ned, but my mother said my grandfather never had a moment for any of his three children, that never was heard an encouraging word in their household.

In his late 20s, Marty studied psychology at Loyola University in Los Angeles, still lived with my grandmother, and apparently suffered fierce depressions. The medication his psychiatrist prescribed made him an inattentive driver, and he was in a terrible accident, after which he lost part of his chin and the use his right hand. He sued the psychiatrist and lost. The depressions got worse. Feeling– quite wrongly – that the accident had left him too hideous for decent folk to have to see, he became ever more reclusive, eventually persuading my grandmother to relocate to the desolate Antelope Valley. He discovered and fell in love with the fiction of Thomas Wolfe, and set about becoming a writer himself. Having read that Wolfe was fantastically demanding as a teacher, Marty jeopardised our relationship by demanding an awful lot of me. I'd just won the creative writing prize two years in a row at my junior high school, and didn't think there was much anyone could teach me.
He was funny. He invented a comical form of speech that my sister and I, when we're not pissed off at one another, use to this day. He distorted words for comic effect, pronouncing little, for instance, as yiggle. I named my first production company Yiggle. He beat me mercilessly at chess. I became fascinated with abnormal psychology looking through his textbooks.

He tried to kill himself with an overdose of barbituates. Los Angeles County General Hospital emergency room doctors managed to resuscitate him. Encouraged by my mother, I, 15 years old and expert on how everyone should behave (yes, yes, as I remain), wrote him a letter cruelly castigating him for his selfishness. Didn't he realise how much he'd hurt Gram and my mother? I shudder at the memory of my presumptuousness, which, to his enormous credit, he didn't hold against me.

They moved to an even more desolate part of the Antelope Valley, but my grandmother couldn't bear it anymore, and returned with him to West LA. He took pains to walk his dog only very late at night and very early in the morning, when it was least likely anyone would catch sight of his truncated chin and throw up in revulsion. He sent his short stories to everyone he could think of. Nobody published anything.
He squirreled away enough meds for another overdose. My grandmother found him too late this time. He was trying to make handwritten additions to his carefully typed letter of farewell, a letter of rare viciousness and palpable agony, to the very end. When I saw the letter a few years later, and saw how his handwriting became ever less legible, I burst into tears` imagining him trying to strike out with the last of his strength at a world that had hurt him so grievously. When I first learned about his death, though – my sister, then around eight, told me, "Marty died," as I arrived home from high school -- I was the very picture of tough-guy taciturnity. "Yeah, so?" I was in an awful lot of pain of my own. And that's no excuse at all.

And don't imagine that I learned anything. Almost 30 years later, when my dad died, my mother asked me to phone my cousin, whom I wouldn't know if I sat next to him on a bus, to tell him the news. He said how sad the news made him, in view of what a great guy Uncle Gil had been. I vigorously refuted him.

Can there be any question that if anyone has ever deserved to be self-loathing, it's me?

I'm further ashamed of myself for having lost track of what happened to Marty's stories, of which I only ever read a couple. (At 15, I found them off-puttingly self-conscious and laboured; it might very well be that I missed something). It'll only be poetic justice if all the unpublished work I'll leave behind gets lost.
I like to imagine it might please Marty to know that someone cherishes his memory 43 years after his death. God knows there wasn't much pleasure in his actual life.

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