Patricia Lockwood's family story is stranger than yours

by Diana Wichtel / 01 March, 2018
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Poet Patricia Lockwood. Photo/Supplied

NZ-bound US poet Patricia Lockwood, whose startling new memoir is Priestdaddy, says she’s ordinary compared with her weirdo family. 

Patricia Lockwood. Rolling Stone called her “the poet laureate of Twitter”. To the New York Times she’s “indie-poetry royalty” and “the smutty-metaphor queen of Lawrence, Kansas”. She attracts the sort of elaborate descriptors that pile up around someone so insistently original as to be essentially indescribable.

From her name you might imagine a Middle American church lady and in a way she is. “Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised in all the worst cities of the Midwest,” goes her author bio. Her father is a Catholic priest (there’s a doctrinal loophole) who, since his daughter unleashed him upon a startled world in her new memoir, Priestdaddy, has been described as “Homer Simpson in a chasuble”.

Lockwood is 35. In photos, she has the innocent, challenging gaze of a practised provocateur. In her 2014 poetry collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, the poems have such titles as The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics (Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman respectively) and Rape Joke. May contain sex, violence and stuffed animals, sometimes in the same work – see He Marries the Stuffed-Owl Exhibit at the Indiana Welcome Center.

She’s excited to be heading here for the New Zealand Arts Festival and to be reading with local poet Hera Lindsay Bird, known for poems with titles such as Keats is dead, so f--- me from behind. “Last time, when I met her in Australia, we spent an evening reading each other’s tarot from the White Cats Tarot in my hotel room,” she says happily.

She may also encounter some of her Twitter followers. She has legions, attracted by her surrealist “sexts”: “I go up to heaven and open God’s Bible. It contains only a single sext: ‘Im hard’.” She once tweeted “f--- me daddy” at Donald Trump from the Twitter feed of New Republic magazine. “Reached for comment,” reported gawker.com, quoting a follow-up tweet, “Lockwood said: ‘ehehehehe’.”

Father Lockwood in 1981. Photo/Supplied

The word “weirdo” gets used. “It definitely does,” she says, from her home in Savannah, Georgia, where she is reclining regally, as befits a smutty-metaphor queen. She’s known to work in bed. “Actually, I’m laid out on the couch with my kitty cat next to me,” she says, as she considers the matter of her weirdness. “I always think, ‘Guys, among my family I am so normal.’ You’d think maybe my pharmacist sister would be the normal one or my sister with all the kids. It is me.”

It’s all relative and Lockwood’s relatives – certainly her parents, as presented in Priestdaddy – are so extravagantly eccentric as to make almost anyone else seem like the normal one. Her father, Greg Lockwood, was an atheist until the mid-70s when, a navy man stuck on a submarine, he watched The Exorcist 72 times. He became a Lutheran minister. Later – “He was tired of grape juice. He wanted wine,” writes Lockwood – he became a Catholic priest. The world now knows Father Greg Lockwood hates cats – “He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur” – and pants. At home he’s often clad only in tighty-whiteys or semi-transparent boxers, “with his thighs spread so wide”, Lockwood marvels in Priestdaddy, “it seemed like there might be a gateway to another dimension between them.”

When she brings home a guy she met on the internet (future husband Jason Kendall, whom she marries at age 21), the scene is equal parts Breaking Bad and Meet the Fockers. “Jason went up the great staircase to try to talk to him. He found him sitting in silence, practically nude, and surrounded with gun parts like a deranged warlord.” Her father: what a gift for a writer. She resisted. “It seemed so obvious that I didn’t ever want to do it. He’s such a character and so over the top.” Surely she’s exaggerating for comic effect. “People can feel like I’m laying my soul bare and telling everything, but in reality that’s maybe one-tenth of what’s actually going on. Everyone in my life understood that I have underplayed things.”

Selfie of Lockwood, an inveterate tweeter. Photo/Twitter

Selfie of Lockwood, an inveterate tweeter. Photo/Patricia Lockwood Twitter

Mitford-grade eccentricity

Gracious. Priestdaddy arose out of a period when Lockwood’s husband was recovering from surgery and circumstances were straitened. They went to live with her parents in their Kansas City rectory. Lockwood could observe them at close quarters through adult eyes. She has talked about the book as “an attempt to stay sane and make money”. Maybe there was also a touch of utu. When she finished high school, she was told there wasn’t money to send her to college, though her father could afford an expensive guitar originally made for Paul McCartney. “Later,” she writes, “I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had been unwittingly robbed from me by a Beatle.”

New material keeps coming. “I’m like, ‘Man, if that had only happened when I was writing the book. That could go in.’ My dad is obsessed now with taking my brother and potentially my brother-in-law on a wild hog hunt in Texas.” She savours the words: Wild hog hunt. In Texas. “Everyone’s reluctant.” Fair enough. One of the book’s memorable set pieces demonstrates that her dad doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to hunting expeditions. “No. It isn’t good at all.”

The Lockwood family (Patricia in veil).

Her mother, Karen, appears as a sort of endearing, pun-loving human klaxon, sounding warnings of impending doom, staying up late shredding documents; Mitford-grade eccentricity, described with the fascination and (mostly) affection with which Gerald Durrell describes his weirdo home life in My Family and Other Animals. “I gave that book to my brother for Christmas,” says Lockwood. “I don’t know that there’s exactly a mould for the sort of man my father is in a place like America. You can think of him maybe in a cowboy sense, but that’s not quite right. It’s really that sort of old-school British eccentric that I grew up reading about, not realising that I was in a way reading about my own family.”

She’s a masterly observer of the wild, strangely relatable dynamics and ecclesiastic architecture that inform her family’s particular dysfunction. “The craziness,” she writes, “was in the house.” The watchfulness that makes her a terrific writer evolved as a survival strategy. “There’s a certain kind of kid who just cannot handle the sort of yelling that my father did.” When she’s in a room with her father, she says, she disappears. “I float up to a corner of the room near the ceiling and just watch. As I was writing the book I was, like, I understand that this is why I’m less present in the text. I wonder if people will be able to read between the lines and see that’s what’s going on.”

Priestdaddy is eye-wateringly odd family fun. See Lockwood and her mother in a hotel room where Karen has become convinced that a stain on the bed is semen. “Mom, no. We’re not calling the police … Absolutely not. There is no Special Cum Division.” All true, swears Lockwood, of her mother’s outlandish catastrophising. “You’re taken along like it’s a wave that you ride.”

Jason Kendall, whom she married at 21.

Well, you couldn’t make it up. She considered playing the whole book for laughs. “I could have gone with a book that was entirely humour or a book that was entirely serious, in a The Glass Castle kind of way.” In the end, the hilarity has a treacherous undertow. Lockwood records the distress of being taken along as a child to anti-abortion rallies; a priest known to the family ends up jailed for sexually abusing children. “Around the dinner table you were riotously laughing about something and then the conversation would turn instantly to some priest who was rumoured to be a paedophile,” she says. “The conversation in my house turned on a dime. I think that is something that became part of my aesthetic, the way that I process the world.”

Lockwood and her husband were still in the rectory when her poem Rape Joke was published online. It’s a witty, confronting, incantatory account of being raped by a student of her father: “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend …” It went viral. She was deluged by stories from other women. “It was doubly surreal because I was experiencing all of this storytelling from other people as validation and I was experiencing it in a place where I felt that I had no power or that I had disappeared again.” In Rape Joke, she writes, “The rape joke is that when you told your father, he/made the sign of the cross over you and said, “I absolve you of/your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the/Holy Spirit, which even in its total wrongheadedness was so/completely sweet.”

He absolved her? “Correct. So you’re thinking, ‘In what universe am I the one absolution falls over?’” It’s a Catholic thing. “A huge part of the problem in the Catholic Church is that there is a lot of emphasis on forgiveness of the one who committed these acts. A lot of times we’re talking about forgiving him before he’s punished for anything or removed from the position of power over young people. Growing up, it was like all of our tenderness, all of our sympathy, had to go to the one who had committed the sins.”

Lockwood. Photo/Greg Hoax

Lockwood. Photo/Greg Hoax

Once a Catholic

Lockwood lost her faith but counts herself a cultural Catholic. Even – especially – the profane content of her work springs from Catholicism. “It’s not just a very thinky, cerebral religion. It’s also so centred in the body. When you’re at Mass, you’re staring at the body, the essential part of a body, hanging on the cross. You’re thinking about it all the time.” Body of Christ: it is also consumed. Lockwood’s poetry is a fleshy, carnivorous world of hungry moths and cannibals.

“A lot of my moral responses, inner paradigms, inner architecture are definitely all Catholic, but I set foot in this church and hear something in the homily that is completely anathema to me and everything I believe.” She’s interested in the possibility of a new Catholic left. “The mercy of Catholicism, the caring for the poor, the redistribution of wealth, that kind of thing. But it’s hard for me to put myself back in that position of subordination to the kind of guy that I have known too well.”

It’s hard to imagine her in subordination to anything. In 2016, Lockwood went to a Trump rally to write an essay for the New Republic. In the piece she refers to the penchant of some millennials for tweeting inappropriate messages at celebrities, “the legions of teenagers who spend a significant portion of their free time tweeting ‘f--- me daddy’ at Barack Obama and the Pope”.

The magazine recklessly offered Lockwood its Twitter feed to commune with readers. “I always feel a little bit reluctant to do that kind of thing. It brings out an orneriness in me.” You want to give me your Twitter feed? Hold my beer. “Exactly. There’s definitely a sense that when you write for a major publication, they’re attempting to harness an energy or a transgressiveness that you have, but they don’t necessarily want to sign up for all of it.” No. She made a joke to her husband. “‘What if I tweeted “f--- me daddy” at Donald Trump?’ He’s like, ‘Tricia. You have to.’ So I was like, ‘All right, I will.’ It’s probably pertinent to note that I had been drinking, like, a huge Red Bull at that time and I cared nothing for consequences.” Legend. The tweet was soon deleted.

In the Trump piece she describes having her palm read. The reader sees no men in her love line. “Queer,” she explains to him. “I certainly consider myself a queer person,” she says. She has said she doesn’t consistently feel male or female, more – possibly thanks to an early, serious reading habit – like an 11-year-old protagonist. “I just have been married to a man basically since I was a baby. That doesn’t really dictate,” she tells me. “Men are not really like the pinnacle of my sexual attraction. They’re not really the thing I think about the most.”

Lockwood. Photo/Twitter

Telling it like it isn’t

When she was 16, Lockwood took an overdose. “I just want to thank you for ruining our anniversary,” said her father. She must sometimes have hated him. “Yeah, well, I’m definitely a person who buries my anger fairly deeply, or maybe I don’t feel my anger the way other people do. Writing a book like that, you’re thinking, how do I love these people while at the same time thinking about what they’ve done to me? Every child has to confront the fact of what their parents have done to them versus what their parents have given them.”

Were there things she worried about whether or not to include? “Very much so. When it came to my mother and my father, there were things they did that I might not have wanted to put down because it cast a bad light on them. I kept having conversations with the editor. He was like, ‘Tricia, you need to talk about why you didn’t go to school. You need to talk about all these things. If you’re protecting them to that extent, the real story isn’t there.’”

The real story: through a skilful accretion of anecdotes and observations of parental hits and misses, she comes out on the side of love. Writing about the suicide attempt, she describes a moment, at the hospital, when her father talks to her, “his voice quieter and more targeted at me than I had ever heard it. He said, ‘The last time I tried to do it …’”

She certainly has put it all out there. In Rape Joke, she writes, “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re/asking for it to become the only thing people remember/about you.” We agree that there ought to be a word for the opposite of closure. “Actually, it opens up a fresh wound every time you read it. Or sometimes, in the course of an interview, you’ll get a question that makes you just that little bit more raw or uncomfortable. You’re keeping it in mind in a way that probably would not have happened if you hadn’t written about it.”

The freedom she felt while writing it was some compensation. “And the fact that it frees up other people to speak. The number of people that have said to me, ‘This is my story’, or, ‘You helped me to think about what happened to me in that way’, that’s the freedom. So I think it’s worth the exchange. I think it’s worth that personal cost. I guess it’s very Catholic as well to think of it in that sacrificial way. Taking a burden on yourself and walking forward with it on your shoulders in the event that it might make things lighter for other people.”

Her father hasn’t read Rape Joke, or anything else she has written. “So a little bit of that anxiety is removed. I feel like that is a kind of freedom he has given me, in a way. It means that I can set down my own version of things and talk about things that maybe I wouldn’t feel as comfortable about if I knew that he was going to be reading it the next day.” It’s a sort of gift, then, to his clever, wayward daughter. “He may not think of it in terms of a gift, but it actually has ended up being one, I think.”

Priestdaddy offers its own sort of mercy. There’s a scene when Lockwood and her husband are finally leaving the rectory. Lockwood’s waiting for her father to say goodbye. It becomes clear – “Is that Cheap Trick?” wonders Kendall – that her father will stay locked away listening to music. He won’t come downstairs. She’s hurt but philosophical. “Who among us is not the great I Am? Who among us doesn’t live in a nightgown or some bare-ass outfit at the centre of his own sky?”

She absolves him. “Yeah. Because I think about the ways in which that’s true of me as well – removing myself emotionally from situations, not being fully present. I say, after begging him to come downstairs, ‘I’m going to go home and I’m going to shut myself up in a room. I’m going to completely sequester myself.’ So this is clearly something we have in common.”

In family photographs she looks spookily like him. They both have their vocations. Like him, she seems to live a lot in her own world. “You do belong to yourself when you’re doing that. Growing up, I didn’t ever feel I belonged to myself in that way. It’s this rebellion that I enact every day. I claim that and I say, ‘This is what I’m going to continue doing. I’m going to belong to myself.’”

Lockwood is appearing in the Writers & Readers section of the New Zealand Festival, Wellington, March 8-11.

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (Allen Lane, $45).

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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