A brilliant surgeon created a private hell at home for his family in this memoir of 1950s and '60s Rochester.
Not many children would joke about requesting "fifteen minutes for rebuttal" on the way to their father's funeral, but for the six Sullivan brothers it was this kind of gallows humor that helped them endure their childhood with their brutally cruel and desperately sick father. As the boys pulled up to the First Methodist Church in Rochester, Minn., that hot July morning in 1966, they held back their laughter, and then their tears, as their father's Mayo Clinic colleagues paid their respects to Dr. Roger Sullivan, the 45-year-old father, husband and surgeon whose life had so fatally spun out of control.
The title of Luke Longstreet Sullivan's memoir, "Thirty Rooms to Hide In," refers to the colossal home that he grew up in during the 1950s and '60s with his five brothers, mother Myra, father Roger and a series of unfortunate pets. While Myra tried to give the house a bucolic title, it was Roger's nickname that stuck: the Millstone. The front yard of the Millstone was like a "Currier and Ives print by Quentin Tarantino," with hard-packed snowballs in winter and a football game called "Smear" in summer; in other words, a boy's paradise.
That is, until the dark shadow of Roger's rampant alcoholism fell over the Millstone and his abusive personality dominated every inch of the vast estate. "Lies, sexual repression, public relations, and cheerfulness were the culture of the 1950s," writes Sullivan. The family was expected to hide their hellish existence behind closed doors, only exposing their pain to their closest friends.
Myra's attempts to shield the children, and even flee, only served to stoke the fire that fueled Roger's alcohol-induced "rages." The family therapist did not believe that such a prominent surgeon could be so out of control until the boys tape-recorded one of Roger's evening episodes. Even then, the Sullivan family was left to struggle with Roger and his disease with little to no outside support.
One of the many strengths of Sullivan's memoir is that it does not falsely create a tidy ending with Roger's premature death: "Yes, Dad was dead, but our family was still broken." Sullivan does not grant his father a reprieve for his actions, even in death, and deftly challenges the enduring and socially acceptable excuse of the "mythical marriage of passion, creativity and chemical dependency."
Sullivan writes about his family history with the help of interviews, diaries and more than 30 years' of intimate letters written between Myra and her father. The result is a memoir that is wicked in its boyish humor, raw with emotion and a radiant, loving tribute to a family of survivors.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.