Editor’s Note: “An interview with George Merrill, followed by his powerful personal essay, opens the Nonfiction section of the new Delmarva Review, now in its 14th annual printing as a literary journal. Merrill’s personal journey dealing with important emotional and intellectual issues are sure to resonate with readers everywhere. The review features new evocative essays, short stories, and poetry from seventy authors. We welcome you to take a breath and read Merrill’s journey.”
A Shot in the Dark
IN 1945, WORLD WAR II ENDED AND THE LIGHTS CAME ON all over the world. For me those lights shone only three months. Then they were extinguished with a shotgun blast I never heard and a flash of light I never saw.
My father, an Army officer, returned safely from overseas that August following the war’s end. The day when darkness descended was a Saturday at noon in late November, two days after Thanksgiving.
I was eleven then, and I liked spending time at the candy store. It was the hangout for neighborhood kids. We bought sodas and smoked cigarettes pilfered from the packs our parents left around the house. I planned to be home for lunch. My father was leaving for New Jersey on a hunting trip. My mother arranged for us all to have lunch together.
I went inside. Near the foot of the cellar stairs, by the furnace, I could see my father lying on his back in my mother’s arms as she cradled him slowly back and forth like a baby. His chest was covered with blood. She looked up as I entered, and I saw her expression—dazed, horrified—as she struggled to grasp what had happened and not wishing to grasp it at the same time. My father, an experienced hunter and a veteran of three years of combat in the European Theater of the Second World War, had killed himself with his own shotgun.
What happened next seemed like a dream; my aunt, with no more explanation than there had been an accident and that my father had been hurt, ushered me to my room. She told me to wait there. I sat alone. I heard people rushing up and down stairs and past my room, attending to God knows what. I heard fear in their hoarse, muffled voices as they spoke in half whispers. What wasn’t said I already knew, but I wanted to hear someone say it; I wished a human voice to put the unspeakable into words so that my mind could begin to wrap itself around what it couldn’t embrace. I awaited a word, a sound, something to make it right. I longed just to be held so I could feel something besides waves of panic. I wanted to hear from someone else what I couldn’t listen to in my own heart but kept hearing. The truth remained unsaid, and the pain began at that moment and endured for months and years after that.
Shortly after my father left for Europe in ’42, my mother and I had wallpapered my room. The paper was popular then—a mural, with ships, tanks, and planes at war. The ships were pitching in the waves, firing rounds of munitions, while tanks barreled over hilly terrain. An American plane soared upward leaving in its wake an enemy fighter plane—a Stuka with smoke trailing from its fuselage. It spiraled downward to the earth. No soldiers appeared in the scenes, but only the industrial material of war doing its tasks of killing—lots of iron, but no blood. The scenes, once stirring, became frightening.
Sitting alone in the room, I fabricated a story. My father was an undercover agent for the Intelligence Branch of the Army, and it was necessary for him to feign his death in order to undertake the assigned mission. Even his family would have to be deceived. I needed only to wait for the mission to be completed, and he would then reveal the ruse and life would return to the way it was. At an early age, I learned how much comfort denial brings when the world crumbles, when your father is lying near the furnace in your cellar, cradled in your mother’s arms, dead.
His suicide left me with nothing, no legacy to hold. The heritage to which I was entitled as his son––a father I could confidently identify with, the person through whom I’d understand my own manhood, who’d care for and protect me–– had been violently denied me by his own hand. Something dark and terrible lived inside him. Did something as dark and deadly lie within me, too? Was that his legacy to me? I was left with questions, no answers, and a myth, which, if scrutinized, would evaporate. “The gun had a faulty mechanism. It went off accidentally.” The family ranks closed around this myth the way Mafiosi swear to honor a code of silence. We never talked about it.
At home, I looked for a sign, something to reassure me that I could be my father’s son and be safe in that identification. I’d go up to the attic from time to time and rummage through some of his belongings. The attic contained his collection of guns, a few of his uniforms, and a small box containing a magnificent assortment of American Indian arrowheads he’d collected over the years.
The guns frightened but fascinated me at the same time: two shotguns, a six-shooter, and a small revolver, silver plated and stubby, different from the others. The arrowheads were beautifully fashioned from flint and other stone, all, oddly, in the shape of a heart. It was peculiar, I thought, considering the predatory end they served. In the library, I found my father’s camera. The discovery would change everything.
The camera belonged to my father, a pre-war German camera called a Voigtländer Brillant. It had been there since he’d left for the war. He never used it again. Like his guns, the camera’s gadgetry intrigued me: boys love gadgets, and the Voigtländer was a gadgeteer’s delight. It was a reflex with a coal- black stippled Bakelite casing. Its chrome lens rings, shutter, and aperture controls shone prominently against its coal black body. The camera, when I first saw it, seemed to insist that I pick it up and look it over. I did, and thus began a lifelong romance with classical black-and-white photography, making images with an instrument I know my father loved. But it differed significantly from his other passions: when you shoot guns, somebody’s killed. When you shoot with a camera, no one dies; you’re actually saving them for posterity.
THE WAY WOUNDED BODIES DO, an injured spirit becomes symptomatic. In my case, symptoms appeared in my school performance. Teachers’ chief complaints would go something like this: George never pays attention; he daydreams; he doesn’t finish his assignments; he’s lazy and won’t apply himself. Miss Richter offered this definitive diagnosis that became the occasion for still another parent-teacher conference when my mother was requested to come to school and discuss my poor school performances. The conferences––and there had been a number of them––proceeded with liturgical predictability: Conviction of my sin first, then my expression of proper contrition, the promise to reform my ways and pay attention and not daydream. Then absolution was pronounced, and I was given another chance. Within three months I was totally symptomatic again, daydreaming in class and not applying myself. Miss Richter was at her wits’ end. My mother was sad and exasperated, and I felt lost and afraid––I did not understand. Was I just dumb? I was remanded to the principal’s office for remedial action, which, among students, was considered the last resort. I went to his office. In the waiting area, the secretary, Miss Lipshitz, had her eyes icily transfixed to her typewriter, never acknowledging my presence. Things did not bode well.
Mr. Abraham Rubin, the principal, entered the waiting area. Speaking softly, he invited me into his office. Instead of sitting behind his desk, he remained in front of it, where I stood. What would come next, I wondered. There, he arranged two chairs facing each other and asked me to sit.
Mr. Rubin didn’t mention my poor school performance. Instead, he asked general questions, casually. What did I like? How did I spend my time after school? He asked if I had any pets. I was surprised, wary at first; was he up to some kind of grown- up’s trick to trap me somehow? I responded cautiously to his questions and soon found myself talking more easily. I grew more confident that he had no punitive agenda. He seemed hospitable, like the sunny room we were in. There were large windows through which morning sunlight shone as though it had been poured. Slowly, words began tumbling out of my mouth. To my surprise, I found myself eager to tell him about myself…but not everything.
I told him about my dog, Pete. Pete had died just two months after my father. One day, the normally happy and gregarious Pete began snarling and baring his teeth at me and even snapped several times. Pete had contracted and died of distemper. Like my father’s suicide, distemper was an ugly death, although I said nothing like that to Mr. Rubin. When Pete came up in the discussion, the interview took a remarkable turn. I began crying.
The tears surprised me. Where was all the feeling coming from? Mr. Rubin sat looking at me inquiringly. I started talking about my father, and I told Mr. Rubin of that day coming home from the candy store and seeing my father dead in the cellar and my mother holding him. I never mentioned the word suicide. I couldn’t then, nor for many years after that. But when I finished telling him that much, I knew that he knew, and in his silence, I sensed his warmth. The conspiracy of silence about my father’s death to which the family held tightly, the myth that had been imprisoning me in darkness for those two years following his death, was exposed slightly in the kindly light of Abraham Rubin’s heart.
By then, I felt I had lots to say. I didn’t ever want to leave the principal’s office. I told him about discovering my father’s camera, the Voigtländer, and all the pictures I’d taken with it. I told him that I really loved photography, but it was expensive; how I worked for Mr. Sullivan the pharmacist delivering prescriptions for fifteen cents apiece. I told him how each week I looked forward to delivering Mrs. Robins’ headache powders because she gave me quarters as tips. He seemed interested that I worked after school, and he lifted his eyebrows with interest. I told him how pleased Mrs. Robins was when I delivered her prescription—she was often in pain—and how her generous tips helped me with my photographic expenses. My suspicion and tension slowly dissipated, and I began to feel safe.
I talked almost nonstop. Mr. Rubin listened silently, a silence different from the one I had been living with. His was a silence that invited the light rather than the kind I was used to, the kind that confined me in darkness. His silence seemed spacious, as if in it, he offered me sufficient room to accept and to gently enfold everything my heart had been rejecting. It was a space that, not unlike the best photographs I’d made in my darkroom, accommodated a full range of tones, from the deepest blacks to the most brilliant whites, with shades in between. It was in this kind of space that I felt free to tell, if not the whole story, enough of it to feel sufficiently safe in embracing some of the pain of it. I recognized that he understood enough of what had happened to me to know how I had been feeling. He pondered what I was saying with ease. I felt his silent understanding. I still could not say the word suicide.
I wanted desperately to confide in him, to tell him more, but not about the suicide directly. To test him, I mentioned that I smoked cigarettes behind the candy store where the kids hung out after school. But I said I was going to stop. He listened without judgment. He grew slightly conspiratorial, suggesting to me that if I had to smoke, I should think about smoking a pipe because it would be less injurious to my health.
The wound festering around my heart, eating at my spirit and causing me so much pain, had been, by the oddest confluence of circumstances imaginable, diagnosed accurately and Mr. Rubin crafted some preliminary interventions. What was to be my punishment became my release.
With the wisdom of the serpent and the gentleness of the dove, Mr. Rubin offered me a partnership. He was in the process of initiating a school newspaper. He had been planning it for some time. He’d worked out most of the details except for photographs. Before I left his office that day, he asked if I would be interested in being the “official” school photographer. My task would be to photograph various school activities and bring him pictures every couple of weeks to review. He would choose the ones that he wished to appear in the publication. I was breathless.
The gentle cunning of his plan was how he had contrived to rein me in with some accountability by having me stay in touch with him on a regular basis, not under the auspices of my failures, but through the instrument of my photographic interests. By establishing this contract, he could keep an eye on me while not continually underscoring my liabilities. Becoming the official school photographer changed me: I looked forward to attending school for the first time and welcomed my visits to the principal’s office.
On my school photo assignments, the camera earned me social legitimacy among my peers I’d never had before. Everyone wanted me to take their picture. The social capital I amassed was marvelous; girls with whom I felt cripplingly self-conscious were now befriending me in order to have their picture taken. The prettiest ones, at that, and I made no distinction then about their enthusiasm in talking to me and the narcissistic needs that propelled it. It just felt good to feel respected and worth befriending, and that was all that mattered. This was also the case with the boys. I had only a couple of friends, but now I was something of a celebrity. Roy Butler, who often bullied me and made fun of me when I got glasses, for the first time was now solicitous, especially after I snapped a shot of him hanging by his legs upside down on the school playground’s monkey bars, his thumbs plugged in his ears, flapping his hands, his tongue prominently protruding. He was giving me the raspberry. I wouldn’t have understood it at the time, but there are perks in any devil’s pact: when a show-off sees an opportunity to be seen and the boy with a camera can supply it. Roy never bullied me again.
The social perks were but a part of the entire experience. I discovered the magic in performing the darkroom work of classical photography. Being in the dark was exciting, a darkness very different from the one I knew in the years after the suicide. I’ve read of the lives of distinguished photographers like Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Gordon Parks, and how they recall developing and printing their first photographic image. They described it the way I’ve heard junkies talk about their first rush: they couldn’t wait to feel the thrill again. For me, and I know for others in those days, being a shutterbug was addictive.
There was, in all this photographic activity, a reparative dimension, a kind of subliminal healing going on just outside my awareness and not yet clear enough for me to claim or understand it. That would come years later.
In the cellar of our house, near the coal furnace where my father once lay in his blood, there was a rec room adjacent to what we called the ping pong room. It fell into general disuse, and it turned out to be a perfect place for a photographic darkroom. It had only one window, easily darkened, and a washtub just outside the door where running water was available. Only later did I begin to sense a spiritual dimension in my activities: here I was, only fifteen feet from where the biggest horror I’d ever known in my life had transpired, leaving me in such a dark place I thought I’d never see light again. Within those fifteen feet, I was unwittingly being situated to discover light and life in the darkness. In my case, it was the joy of creating visual images.
Years later, I saw in those happenings a parallel process of sorts, comparing my circumstances to the creation epic where “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The tale goes on to say, “And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In the Biblical account, that divine motion was just before God said, “Let there be light.” The lights went on all over the universe.
I began emerging from darkness by returning to it, and I could feel the hope, for what I’m not sure, but just hope. The moment when I discovered light in the dark was seventy-eight years ago. However arcane and messy it is, to this day I still shoot with mechanical cameras and process black-and-white negatives and prints chemically in a darkroom. I know I could simplify my life greatly by going digital. The pictures rendered that way would have razor-sharp acuity and stunning colors and could be made with far less mess. It’s just that there was something about this antiquated process –– this magical relationship between light and dark—that will always be more compelling to me than any product it may render. Aren’t our spiritual lives all about its shadows and highlights, anyway? Classical photography is just a visual exercise involving this eternal theme. For any image to have a shape and a form, it must first contain contrasts. The contrasts are formed by shadows and highlights––darkness and light––the working material of photographic imaging and, as it turns out, spirituality.
I HAVE A MEMORY, a black-and-white memory of sorts. It’s a vague recollection of contrasting mental images generated by an event that happened when I was very young.
An apple tree grew in the backyard of the house I grew up in on Staten Island. In May, when it blossomed, the exquisitely delicate fragrance scented the air all around the house. It was the harbinger of spring, an affirmation of life. On May 6 in 1937, a zeppelin, the Hindenburg, left Germany on flight to the United States. It would be its last. As the airship made its final leg over Manhattan and then south to a landing site in Lakehurst, New Jersey, it passed over Staten Island. I was in the backyard near the apple blossoms next to my father that day. I was a small child, and I clung to my father’s leg, terrified. I knew only that something dark and sinister was passing overhead, darkening the sky as if some pterodactyl from the past had risen to life and was coming to devour us. At many different levels, its presence was a portent of the evil and suffering that the Nazis would visit on the world and bring to my life.
I dimly recall watching the sky as the behemoth slid silently overhead, and with no idea what it was, I felt all the more terrified. I found sanctuary in that moment only by clinging fiercely to my father’s leg, like a drowning child holds fast to anyone they can seize upon.
Years later, as I turned the memory around in my mind, I accessed more of the incident’s details. The airship was mammoth; it was Germany’s bold statement to the world of the power of its new order. The Hindenburg was 804 feet long and measured two stories high. On its tail fins, huge swastikas were prominently displayed, like billboards advertising the ascendency of National Socialism. The airship’s mission ended in a conflagration while heralding a new era of bloodshed and suffering. The Nazi dream of world domination would also end in a conflagration, but not before it took countless lives and scorched Europe’s earth, leaving scars that would never quite heal. My father bore one of those scars––the resulting pain was not visible to the naked eye. He passed the pain of it on to me.
Soon my father would be commissioned as an Army officer and be sent to the European theater. He was there three years.
The days following my father’s return from the war in August of 1945 were festive. There were parties almost every night. People toasted his return with their glasses. Neighbors and friends came and went regularly, welcoming him home. The house would fill with tobacco smoke that rolled throughout the rooms like fog. The inner tension of the war years was being released with what I felt, even as a child, was an exaggerated hilarity. The festive climate could not quite mitigate the frenetic tone of those days, as if what was really going on was being hidden in the thick smoke and submerged in the alcohol.
In the kitchen at one of the parties, I stood near my father and two of my uncles. Their arms were thrown over each other’s shoulders in camaraderie, and they sang the old hymn, “Abide With Me,” in close harmony. They were well fueled with drinks and enjoying themselves, but the melancholy tone and the plaintive words seemed incongruous. “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.” I saw unmistakable sadness in my father’s eyes as he sang.
In the days following his return, I followed my father around like a puppy. He told war stories, but mostly ones that were light, even frivolous, like exchanging two packs of cigarettes with a German officer for a watch or describing the hammerhead sharks following the troop ship across the Atlantic. Did they really have heads like hammers, I asked?
One story I overheard was different. It involved his division entering a German city, Aachen, that the Allies had recently taken. Much of the civilian population had been evacuated, but some remained as they had nowhere to go. The Allies systematically destroyed most of the buildings. Old people and children had no shelter. He said they were foraging for food, were poorly clothed, and living under disabled tanks and trucks. Whatever the whole story of what he’d seen was about, I know now the substance of it left him with an invisible scar. I suspect what he had seen was how war quickly grows inhumane, affecting anyone involved. Civilian populations are especially vulnerable to all kinds of atrocities. I don’t know if the human soul is equipped to witness the dark capacity we have for acting totally inhumanely without suffering damage. PTSD is, among other things, a disease affecting the soul.
Soon after the gaiety of celebrating the homecoming ebbed, the house grew solemn. I walked into the dining room. My father was staring out the window in a kind of a daze. I greeted him. He turned slowly and looked at me, saying nothing. His face revealed a vacuous expression, and his eyes did not seem to recognize me at all. He said nothing and resumed looking out of the window. He was there, but he wasn’t; I didn’t know where he’d gone. I felt afraid.
I AM AN AGING MAN, AN OCTOGENARIAN. As I write this, I am looking back over an incident occurring seventy-eight years ago. I do not know the measure of my days; time’s velocity seems to escalate more rapidly, and where it’s directing me is fairly predictable. With this uncertainty, I feel a need to write about his suicide, I suspect in the way children seek to manage and ultimately master their psychic pain by playing it out using the toys they’re familiar with. I am ready now to put the matter to rest by writing it on paper.
Survivors of a parental suicide often struggle with guilt, as if they were, in some measure, responsible. The question: “Is there anything I could have done?” lives on in the survivor.
I never felt responsible; I felt betrayed. When I was a boy, I loved him, even idolized him. That he chose to exit my life enraged me. I had little need to know a reason, but a greater need to scream at him how deeply he’d hurt me. Until much later, I never thought too much about how he must have been feeling. Wasn’t this all about me? After all, he was dead. I was the one left with all the pain of loss and saddled with a damaged idol I’d once worshipped.
Where the bone has been broken it will, when it heals, be stronger for the break.
The significant losses and wounds of our lives, as they heal over time, will become woven into our whole fabric. Wounds and losses, when processed openly––not silenced or dismissed––can not only make us stronger in significant ways but may even dictate the trajectory our lives take, like a choice of vocation. Vocational choices are frequently dictated by unconscious needs to master, in ourselves, those same struggles that the vocation we choose addresses.
I’ve been an ordained priest for sixty-one years. It’s clear to me now that the choice to enter ministry was partially interwoven with the consequences of my father’s suicide. The priest of the parish where I worshipped as a child was a good man. Fr. Rogers was a person to emulate. He was good with kids, self-disciplined, fun, and was kind to me, and I wanted to be like him. He was especially fond of church liturgies. I remember when he officiated at my grandmother’s funeral. It was a bleak November day, windy, overcast, and cold. As the graveside services concluded, we all turned away to return down the hill to the waiting limousines. I was deeply fond of my grandmother. As we moved down the hill from the site, I felt a desperate sense of loss and abandonment, as if we were leaving her alone in the ground on such an inhospitable and dreary day. I looked back. Fr. Rogers stood by the gravesite, confidently, as if keeping watch, or maybe even reassuring her as we left that she would not be forgotten, either by us or by God. I found something profoundly comforting watching him standing there: his pastoral duties included comforting the bereaved and helping people through their dark moments. I understood that he was making sure she was not completely alone. Nor for that matter, were we. He was there to help us endure the pain. I wanted to be able to provide such interventions for others who, in their darkness and desperation, sought comfort.
Shortly after ordination, I became interested in psychology and did postgraduate training to become a certified psychotherapist. During the training, candidates were encouraged to enter their own therapy––to deepen self-awareness and to better understand the therapeutic process. I chose to enter psychoanalysis. What the analysis did was to afford me my first experience of being able to speak my mind, express what I felt, and know that someone was listening to every word. For a man like me who had been reared in the oppressive culture of silence and denial, I can’t say enough about just how liberating psychoanalysis felt. It helped me, not as I originally thought it would––to cure me of my neuroses––but instead allowed me to get to know them better and live with them more companionably. That included the rage and grief I harbored of my father’s suicide.
I WRITE NOW IN WHAT I CALL MY STUDIO. There are two bookcases, and in one, on a shelf, sits an old battered Voigtländer Brillant. Off the studio, I have a working darkroom where I still have two print trays, different from my others. They were my father’s, metal, unlike the modern ones made of plastic. His are covered in white porcelain with blue trim, like old-fashioned hospital trays. I think of these antiquated photographic tools in the way I’ve come to understand sacraments: as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces.
The trays and the camera remain, for me, a small remnant of a much bigger picture.
George R. Merrill is a featured nonfiction writer in the new edition of the Delmarva Review. He is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. He is also a writer, photographer, and a regular contributor to Spy. He has authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. A native New Yorker, he provided counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and Baltimore before moving to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Merrill’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines. He is a former nonfiction editor of the Delmarva Review.
Delmarva Review’s 14th edition, was just released as an annual, independent literary journal. In this, its largest edition with, editors selected the new writing of seventy authors that stood out from thousands of submissions during the year. The review is now for sale in print and digital editions from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers, as well as from regional specialty bookstores.
Published locally, the journal is an independent, 501(c)3 nonprofit literary organization with funding support from individual tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a public grant from Talbot Arts with revenues from the Maryland State Arts Council.