The Scientists: A Family Romance
Published: Oct 04, 2012
Guest Butler Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She’s the editor of the landmark anthology Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. She teaches writing at Brandeis University.
Much of Marco Roth’s childhood was spent watching his doctor-father die from AIDS, which he claimed he contracted from a slipped needle in his work at Mt. Sinai Hospital. In 1999, Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, published a memoir about her childhood. In “1185 Park Avenue”, she dropped a bombshell: the story Dr. Roth told about contracting AIDS might have been an alibi to conceal his life as a gay man. Now, eleven years later, we have what has been described as Marco Roth’s response. [To buy the book of “The Scientists” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
EB: What’s been your family’s reaction to the book and to the reopening of the subject of your father?
MR: I’ve always thought that I came to write “The Scientists” in response to a conversation with my mother in 2005. I’d started a version of a response to my aunt’s book when I first read it, but I couldn’t write it the way I’d planned to. My talk with my mom came out of that first failure, and I couldn’t have written this book without my mom’s willingness to return with me to a moment in a time she didn’t want to revisit at all.
EB: You don’t see it as a corrective history?
MR: I wanted “The Scientists” to be about the process of how we come to learn difficult truths about our parents and our families. When we hear stories at second-hand about our families, we have to ask ourselves about the motives of the people telling us those stories. My aunt’s memoir was a more public version of this kind of everyday storytelling, and that meant that my own investigations would necessarily be more complicated.
EB: A line in your biography on the book jacket — that you "grew up amid the vanishing liberal culture of the Upper West Side" — has gotten some flak. Dwight Garner, in The New York Times, likens you to members of Salinger’s Glass family.
MR: “Oy veh!” as they say on the Upper West Side, also elsewhere. It’s jacket copy! I didn’t think people reviewed jacket copy. On the other hand, if we’re going to review the jacket copy, it should be noted that what it says is true. The culture and income levels of the Upper West Side have changed enormously since I was growing up on Central Park West, only thirty years ago. There are still writers and musicians, teachers and psychiatrists who live up there, but there are more super-wealthy types. It’s a microcosm of the unfortunate changes in New York and in America over the last 30 years.
I honestly wasn’t thinking at all of Salinger when I wrote. The Glass family, people forget, were “part-Jewish, part-Irish,” though the Jewish part isn’t much in evidence. Mama and Papa Glass were in show business. There were seven of them. I’m an only child. If anything, they’re too self-sustaining; the world can’t give them the goodness and beauty and truth that they can give to each other, and from there comes Salinger’s existential tragedy. In my case, the lack was at the center of this small nuclear family I write about.
Culture, even highbrow culture, has many forms and many purposes. Sometimes the very thing you think is improving you is also helping you to hide from yourself. I was trying to write about my parents’ New York culture, which is also my culture, the classical music and the high modernist European literature in a way that was neither anti-intellectual and dismissive nor purely elegiac and self-celebrating.
EB: Has writing — and finishing — the book alleviated some of the torment you explore in it?
MR: Writing the memoir has felt like an act of separation, but separation on my terms. I feel as though it’s allowed me to gain a measure of independence that I’d been lacking. At the same time, I think I could only write the book because I’d already achieved some of that separation and calming of passion, even if I didn’t yet know it.
EB: As I read the book, I felt your mother, a classical musician, was a nearly silent character.
MR: The central drama of my family life was my father’s illness, the way it affected my education, his weird outburst of vicious rage at me because I wouldn’t go to the college he wanted me to go to after he’d spent years raising me to be “my own person.” In the aftermath of my father’s death, my mother did, in fact, remain silent or was often silenced by the wordy males arguing and lecturing around her.
My mother also got very good at talking about everything but the essential matter between us, so time was filled with her analysis of concerts (which are usually really smart and amusing), her stories about friends, her take on contemporary politics. She encouraged and cultivated a certain distance, maybe not consciously, and so I, also not consciously, came to mimic her.
That said, I also think my mother acted in perfect accordance with her notion of dignity, and I wanted the book to honor that. Her response to the book has been similarly dignified and action-based; I can’t tell you how she really feels because I don’t really know. She’s read the book and told me that she found it powerful, that it’s helped her understand what I was going through while my father was dying and also afterwards, but I’m sure she regrets that I had to write it.
I should also add something I haven’t said elsewhere: that the music I listened to while writing the book was all music she’d taught me to appreciate, and so whatever music there is in my prose is as much hers as mine.
EB: We met when you were a student in a fiction writing class of mine 13 years ago. I wonder if you gave any thought to writing the story of your father and the aftermath of his death in fiction or whether you always knew it would be nonfiction?
MR: Thirteen years ago, I couldn’t have written this story at all, since I didn’t know what the story was. As a young fiction writer, I had terrible problems with plot, generally. I mention this in the book, that I failed to understand family drama as drama because my family had been so much about the avoidance of drama and tended to shift all explanations on to accidents, internal medical systems, things over which we had no control. I wanted to write my father’s story, when I learned it, as non-fiction because it’s a story that is a lot about what it means to look for the truth, and about love.