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going to pieces after the assassination

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icon1.png going to pieces after the assassination

My friends at this site and in the assassination community may be interested in my most recent book, just published, THE BROKEN PLACES: A MEMOIR, my first since INTO THE NIGHTMARE: MY SEARCH FOR THE KILLERS OF PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY AND OFFICER J. D. TIPPIT. This (other) longtime labor of love is not primarily about the assassination or my research but partly about the period in which those events occurred and the shattering (but enlightening) impact they and other factors had on me as a teenager. The book is now available from Amazon.com. See an excerpt below dealing with my response to the assassination.


by Joseph McBride

In The Broken Places, Joseph McBride, an internationally acclaimed American cultural historian, recalls his troubled youth in the Midwest during the 1960s. Searingly immediate and yet reflective, this is the author’s memoir of his breakdown as a teenager and triumphant recovery. It gives an unsparing look at physical and psychological abuse, family dysfunction and addiction, sexual repression, and Catholic guilt. And at its heart, this is a haunting, often joyous love story.

The Broken Places offers an unforgettable portrait of Kathy Wolf, a brilliant, vibrant, shattered young Native American woman who taught Joe how to live even though she could not save herself. Kathy’s life exemplifies what Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.” This extraordinary love story will move you and disturb you.

Joseph McBride was born in Milwaukee and educated at Marquette University High School and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He lives in Berkeley, California, and is a professor in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University. McBride is the author of seventeen previous books, including biographies of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Steven Spielberg; three books on Orson Welles; and Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit.

Available from Amazon.com

An excerpt from THE BROKEN PLACES:

[My parents] were both newspaper reporters, my father a veteran feature writer, columnist, and rewrite man for the [Milwaukee] Journal and my mother a local and national political reporter for the Sentinel, worldly people who were fully engaged with the hectic workaday world of politics, business, and crime. Raymond and Marian Dunne McBride (called “Toni” by everyone) were masterful reporters with graceful writing styles, influential, well-regarded, the opposite of recluses. My mother had also been active in the Democratic Party and served as the state vice chairman during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. She had brought me into his primary campaign as a volunteer. While covering the White House for the Sentinel, she later helped the dean of Washington journalists, Helen Thomas, break down the barriers against women at the National Press Club. Thomas wrote me about my mother in 2005 that she “always admired her; great journalist.” My parents talked shop at our dinner table each night, helping educate us seven children with a fairly sophisticated and precocious understanding of politics and journalism. . . .

I found bitter amusement in the fact that to the readers of the Milwaukee Journal, the McBrides were the source of (mostly) jolly entertainment in a column my father wrote called “All in the Family.” Years before Archie Bunker was created (a character with whom my Dad, who spent most of his home life muttering nasty remarks in front of the television his easy chair as he drank himself blotto each night, unfortunately would find much to identify with), the McBride version of “All in the Family” provided a highly sanitized “comical” account of our family doings in the Green Sheet.

Twice a week, amidst the comic strips and the “Dear Mrs. Griggs” advice column, my Dad deftly amused the readers with the antics of the seven McBride children, ages six through seventeen, pictured in ascending order in a cartoon at the head of the column, waiting to use the bathroom in the morning. My father is pounding on the door with my mother, my sister, and two little brothers in back of him; evidently I’m the one inside, working on my zits or maybe studying a skin magazine. In later years I would come to appreciate the column’s frequent charm and graceful prose. It was the verbal equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting, folksy and warm and idealized, a form of wish fulfillment that papered over an ugly reality. But it was only a minor embarrassment to us children until, little by little, bits of reality began to intrude into the column. . . .

My own blowup over the column was late in coming because my father seldom wrote about me. There were no funny stories to tell about my life in those days. I did not engage in any of the normal teenage shenanigans. I didn't smoke, drink, or drive a car. I didn't go out on dates (my flower hadn’t bloomed). As a high school senior [at Marquette University High School], I had no friends outside my schoolmates, mostly the handful of boys who worked with me on our monthly newsmagazine, The Flambeau Monthly, a slick publication slavishly modeled on Time magazine. That was the extent of my social life, my only genuine recreation. All I did otherwise was study, go to church, and jerk off. But a clash over the column was inevitable, and it came in my senior year, that October 27, 1964, when my Dad wrote a piece called "Chess Moves."

The column’s complaint was that “It’s hard to outsmart a teenager.” My father thought I was testing parental authority by staying up too late doing my homework (four hours a night by that point). After noting that I was an honor student and stayed up long into the night studying, my Dad wrote, “This may seem admirable, but too much study possibly is as dangerous as too little.” His oldest son would come to the breakfast table “bleary-eyed from hours of study.” The column detailed my Dad’s battles with me over my schedule -- an attempt to impose an 11:30 curfew on studying, his struggles to wake me at 7 each morning, and my coming to breakfast in my pajamas to read the paper and eat before I dressed -- all of which struck him as acts of defiance.

Although the column manifested a vague concern with my possibly “dangerous” health situation, it missed the actual seriousness of the situation, showing no sense of any deeper underlying causes. Still, it was an inchoate cry for help. A very public outcry it was too, delivered to the entire city of Milwaukee, one of the most unpleasant side effects of having parents who wrote for newspapers. They tended not to take our problems to psychologists or psychiatrists who might actually be able to help us but perhaps might have been seen as threatening their authority; only in occasional desperation did they send me to irresponsible quacks who didn’t do a bit of good. In any case, my parents were Catholics, and generally in those days you were supposed to take your problems to the priests.

My father reported in his column about me that after he succeeded in getting me to show up fully dressed at breakfast, it did not last long. Then the column reached the conclusion that would get me in trouble. He told the readers that after more of this struggle ensued with his son, “a little later he asked if he could get some pills to keep him awake in the morning.

"'Boys your age can’t be on drugs,' I said curtly, but I’m preparing rebuttals for his next arguments."

Since I rarely bothered to read "All in the Family," I didn't know what my father had written about me until the following day, when Father McGinnity stopped me in the hall at Marquette and asked if it was true that I was "on drugs." Afraid of punishment, I said my father didn't know what he was talking about. I have to give Father McGinnity credit for seeming to be the only person in Milwaukee (population then: 741,324) who responded at all to my father’s cry for help, but it is a shame in retrospect that I couldn’t be honest with the priest about the spiritual and physical struggle that was affecting my health. And it’s unfortunate that he let the matter drop. If we had been able to deal with the problem frankly, I might have received the help I needed at a time then. Around that same time, a classmate who worked with me on the Flambeau Monthly asked, “Are you OK?,” and I became uncomfortable with his probing question and stare, mumbling a false affirmative.

Today, a student so visibly afflicted with health problems might get more attention at school. But in those days not only parents but also teachers and school administrators seemed almost entirely oblivious to such problems. Since I was barely eating as well as getting too little sleep, and my weight was plunging so rapidly, it is clear in retrospect that my problem not only should have been visible, but that it was as much physical as psychological, the blending of afflictions that are now seen as interrelated symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Back then, that term was little known to the general public, and it would not enter common discourse for than a decade. Severe eating disorders and their psychological causes were not much understood; today we recognize that anorexia can stem at least in part from fear of the onset of puberty. Subconsciously I was reacting against the onset of uncontrollable sexual drives, natural impulses that were stigmatized by my church, teachers, and family as sinful, and my reaction was to severely punish my body. Early studies of anorexia connected the illness with religious fasting and self-starvation, a condition so frequent among religious women in the Middle Ages (including some who were later canonized) that it was sometimes referred to as anorexia mirabilis. But my problems, our family’s problems, were shrouded in a heavy fog of taboo and denial.

Even though my father may have meant well, in his own clumsy way, I did not take it kindly that he went public with his sketchy apprehensions about my health, particularly after Father McGinnity had accosted me in the hall with his worry about my drug-taking. That night at the dinner table, I screamed and cried when my father tried to make light of the situation. My mother took my side, contending as she sipped a beer that the column showed a "pretty goddam warped sense of humor." My father retreated to the living room with a bottle of wine to drink himself into oblivion in front of the television.

I broke my curfew with impunity after that, studying past two every night. In early November, about a month before my second run at the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests), I bought a box of NoDoz tablets to keep from falling asleep at my desk. I took the SATs with an unhealthy degree of seriousness because they would be critical in determining whether I would be accepted at Harvard, the school of my choice. I cared so intensely about that potential achievement that I kept taking the SATs over and over to keep improving my score, an obsessive process that made me increasingly agitated and collapsed my few remaining reserves of energy.

My father’s column seemed to fumble around the key but unspoken question, Why was I so driven to overwork? I felt I knew part of the reason why that was the case, but I would have been hard put to articulate it to anyone, since it rested on such troubling foundations, and at the time I did not fully understand what was happening to me. Nor could I have explained then the overriding reason: Although I had tried to rebel in grade school by doing poorly in my studies, a cry for help that failed, now I was trying to win approval from my parents and society by doing the opposite. It was a year earlier, in December 1963, that I had first consciously recognized I was developing a monomania about my studies.

What was the urgency of that need? I remember clearly recognizing then another, more specific trigger for that development, one that had contributed to my sense of mounting desperation. I was aware then that it must have something to do with the murder of President Kennedy just a couple of weeks earlier, and that my overcompensating reaction was some form of the grieving process. I felt a crushing weight of depression and disillusionmen, a sense of being abruptly cut off from the person I thought I was in a way I could not entirely comprehend and did not have the tools to examine. There was a numbness, a void caused by the loss of another of my major illusions, the props of my shaky existence, that needed to be filled somehow. Why I sought a refuge in accelerating my studies so frantically rather than in some other form of achievement was unclear to me then. It was only much later, when I could view this period in hindsight -- with what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquillity” -- that I realized I threw myself headlong into the thickets of schoolwork, a maze that had no limit or exit, partly as a way of blotting out the terrifying questions raised by the president’s death and because it was the only way I knew how to do so. And though the escalating battle between my religious faith and my sexuality seemed, at the moment, even more urgent than this bewildering political calamity, for which there already seemed no clear explanation, I knew in some inchoate fashion that my heretical feelings about these two major crises in my view of life, personal and political, were coming together to contribute to my emotional, spiritual, and physical isolation.

After I had worked as a volunteer for JFK in the Wisconsin presidential primary and met him three times (once in 1962 when he was president), his inspiration was what had led me to my planned career: I had it all mapped out, to attend Harvard, study law, and enter politics, probably running for Congress. When I had answered a question from Kennedy about his book Profiles in Courage at a small “Kids for Kennedy” rally my mother organized at the Wauwatosa Civic Center in March 1960, he quipped, “I hope I don’t have to run against you in 1964.” He then launched into a humorous anecdote about a boy who, upon meeting French President Charles de Gaulle, advised him on his foreign policy. But now that I had to face the realization that my candidate had been murdered and the government seemed strangely uninterested in solving the crime, I was losing another of my bedrocks, my faith in the American democratic system as well as in my religious beliefs. Where there had been faith now I was starting to see mostly lies and insane delusions.

When I watched Dr. Strangelove shortly after the assassination, with my friend Dick Benka in February 1964 at the Tosa Theater in Wauwatosa, that black comedy about nuclear war brought about another paradigm shift in my view of the world. The film made recognize that world events I had found simply frightening could also be thoroughly absurd. Rekindling the subversiveness engendered in our Baby Boomer generation by Mad magazine in the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Strangelove helped me see that I should question authority and not to follow it so blindly. I could not fail to notice that the psychoses that cause these men of power to blow up the world in Dr. Strangelove have twisted sexual roots. I did not have to be convinced that sexual impulses could be so explosive, but to discover that sexual pathologies could also be hilarious was somehow a promise of liberation.

Nevertheless, these developments in my life, drawing together inflammatory political and sexual revelations, involved incremental realizations; painfully so. I ploughed ahead blindly with my Harvard ambitions, mostly out of inertia, as I can see now. My suppressed anxieties about my future plans ironically made me all the more determined at the time to follow through on that goal. My quest for a National Merit Scholarship, which I thought would be the catalyst that would make everything happen for me, became the conscious center of my universe, almost a form of magical thinking. But in fact, all my philosophical underpinnings were coming unmoored at once; the pillars of my existence were beginning to topple systematically, inexorably. That is a dangerous, if potentially creative, situation, and so I was in the disorienting throes of a life-threatening struggle over my illusions as I approached my crisis point both physically and psychologically by November of 1964. . . .

Edited by Joseph McBride
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Good luck.

These coming of age in the sixties stories are always interesting to me for a lot of different reasons.

First because that was my coming of age decade of course.

Secondly, because as so many books and films declare, something really happened to America then. Its a main theme of American Graffiti which is pointedly set before the JFK assassination.

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Thanks, Jim. That period leading up to the assassination

is filled with foreboding, even more in retrospect, in both our political history and our cultural history (cf. the

foreshadowing of the assassination plot and coverup, complete with a "grassy

knoll," in John Ford's 1962 film THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY

VALANCE). The blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky was a friend

of mine, and when I asked him about AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which I like very much, he expressed astonishment

that "anyone could be nostalgic for 1962." When I interviewed Richard Lester,

he noted that A HARD DAY'S NIGHT reflects the optimism people had in

the early sixties, even though there was really no reason for it. Those

were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nuclear saber-rattling of

the Joint Chiefs, after all.

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