Sink or Swim Parenting

In Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival, you’re not sure if  “survival” refers to the plane crash he walked away from, or the fact that he survived childhood at all. I’m sure the ambiguity is intended, since Ollestad’s parents were spectacularly unconcerned about pushing their son into life-threatening situations to toughen him up.
At age 3, he began surfing off the California coast clinging to his father’s back. His father also pushed him early into competitive skiing with training that took them only on double black diamond trails, or to those slopes that were pristine because no one else was crazy enough to ski them. Ollestad idolized his father and feared his accusations of wimpiness when Ollestad was frightened, frustrated, or expressed his own needs.
His mother appeared unfazed by the extreme challenges, unwilling to interfere with her divorced husband’s adventures with Ollestad, and also unconcerned about the sporadic violence her son suffered at the hands of her alcoholic boyfriend. For most of  his boyhood they all lived in a laid-back California beach community, where surfers were stars and the state of the waves was the most important news of the day. It was a world where a conventional childhood was unlikely.
For me, maybe because I’m a parent, this is a memoir about parenting and the way that children accept what they’re handed, at least when they’re young, too young to know how it could be different. Ollestad believes that his father’s regime of toughness saved his life when their small plane crashed in the snowy mountains. That’s a good thing for Ollestad to help preserve the myth of the charismatic father who only had his son’s interests at heart. The Talmud tells us that one of a parent’s 3 most important responsibilities is to teach a child to swim; but there are many ways to teach survival skills. Ollestad alternates chapters about the crash with chapters about his childhood, a good device that keeps the tension ratcheted up. This is an engrossing addition to the already rich genre of father-son memoirs.
The Three of Us: A Family Story,  by Julia Blackburn looks at frightful family dynamics from a daughter’s point of view. Blackburn’s parents had their own demons and didn’t have a clue how their actions affected their young daughter. Her father, addicted to sodium amytal and alcohol for decades, was a poet, whose non-poetic rages eventually drove her mother away. But as Blackburn says, she wasn’t afraid of her father since he never struck her. It was her mother, an artist, who took in male lodgers for sex and confided in Blackburn like a sister, who did the real damage. In 1966, when one of the lodger-lovers began an affair with the 18-year old Blackburn, it was too much for her mother, who drove her daughter away. Blackburn’s writing is dispassionate, almost clinical.Her words are made all the more effective by illustrations–family pictures that look almost like photos of happy times and her mother’s bleak paintings which reveal the ugly reality under the surface. It’s one of those memoirs that had me studying the author’s picture, trying to see in her face some indication of how she lived through it.

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