We’ve Waited Our Whole Lives to Help Our Father, David Milch, Tell This Story

From a New York Times guest essay by Elizabeth Milch and Olivia Milch headlined “We’ve Waited Our Whole Lives to Help Our Father, David Milch, Tell This Story”:

We’ve heard the story of our dad shooting out streetlamps while on acid more times than we can count. Sometimes he does it with a shotgun, sometimes the New Haven cops know him by name (he’d been arrested before), but it always ends with him saying, “I refuse to speak to you until your badge stops melting.” It’s a good line.

Our father, the TV producer and creator David Milch, is a storyteller. Even before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he was always a bit of an unreliable narrator. His penchant for embellishment, and at times ellipses, comes from his belief that in narrative storytelling, “what literally happened need not be overly determinative.” Now, nearly a decade into his diagnosis, having finished his memoir, Life’s Work, he has shown us even memory itself is not entirely a requirement for finding truth.

When he first started to lose his memory, we thought it may have been hard living catching up with him. He was a guy with a lot of “city miles” on him. Remembering things like the location of an event or our friend’s names was never his strong suit. But it became clear that this was more than age and disposition. He was sick. His brain, his greatest gift, was turning on him.

When we began in 2017 to piece together his story, the dementia he was diagnosed with in 2015 had already progressed. He was a different version of the person who had written hundreds of episodes of television, a different person from the one who used to hold court at any table. As a family, we knew he would need help to make his way and to finish.

This time, we weren’t just another audience but interviewers, crate diggers and collaborators. In a certain sense, we’d been preparing our whole lives to help him tell this story. We’d always been listening.

He grew up the child of a venerated surgeon who was an absolute drunk, was sexually abused at camp beginning at age 6, and started drinking himself at 8 years old. He began writing in college after his best friend from childhood died in a car accident. After he graduated magna cum laude from Yale, he would continue years of what he referred to as “pharmaceutical research,” including a long stint “studying” heroin.

None of this was kept from us. His stories were told freely and often, part of the large, uncensored tapestry of humanity he exposed us to as children. We could trace the tweaks, the shifts, the new lines when his jokes got better. But he always laid his truth bare.

Part of his tellings and retellings had to do with his own process of healing, of seeking the internal emotional coherence of his life. He pursued this same effort with his studies of character and language and morality on “Hill Street Blues,” “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” “Deadwood” and other TV series — his work has a fearless relish of complexity.

Getting to know your parents is a strange enterprise. They mediate so much of your understanding and experience of the world, including their own influence on you, and then you have to learn how that mediation is made up of their own experiences, and their parents’, ad infinitum. All parents are unreliable narrators. Many conceal their personal histories from their children, or only offer an abridged version. That wasn’t our dad’s way.

His unreliability was its own established fact. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when we were in elementary school. He continued using drugs until 1999, when we were 15 and 10. His gambling addiction came to a head in 2011. In 2014, our parents sold the house we grew up in to pay off his horse racing debt and back taxes. Our father’s demons were a part of our childhood, and our adulthood too. For better or worse, at every turn, we were privy to the truth of “life on life’s terms” (one of his favorite phrases).

In that sense, there were no secrets to unearth as we worked with our dad, but there were variations, like the streetlamp stories. Versions of his time in Mexico working on an acid farm, of what happened to his first unpublished novel, of just how much money he lost at the racetrack (somewhere between $17 million and $100 million).

And there are different versions of our dad in the book. In 1966, a drunk college student finds a mentor in Robert Penn Warren and sees in Warren’s discipline and enthusiasm for art a chance for another kind of life. In the summer of 1997, he claims to be sober when he isn’t, pays for 30 college students to live in apartments for the summer because he misses teaching, shows them episodes of “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and explains what he was doing line by line. In 2017, at home with Olivia and our mom, he speaks into the air, as he always would, the words that would be the prologue to his memoir. In 2021, from the memory care unit where he now lives, narrating the words that would be its final pages.

It’s an odd thing to encounter so many different versions of a person simultaneously. Sometimes it would hit hard and we would be flooded with memories: Oh, wow, haven’t heard that guy in a while. We remembered him and our feelings toward him at each of those different moments in his life and in our lives. We experienced a kind of mourning, too, as we said goodbye to different versions of him, imagining them gone forever, even while he was right there.

One of the strangest parts of this disease in our case has been associating a certain increasing sweetness with a sense of our father’s decline. Now, when he isn’t sure what else to say, he tells us he loves us.

We sometimes find ourselves missing the roughness and wildness of mind and speech that felt so core to his vitality. That was the part of him that could cause pain, but it also taught us there was no experience or feeling beyond comprehension, or beyond loving, which is another way of saying there’s no experience or feeling that can’t be made into art.

Olivia Milch is a screenwriter and director. Elizabeth Milch is a writer and consultant. Both live in Brooklyn.

 

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