At the age of seven in the summer of 1965, I lived on an island in Galway, Ireland, with my mother Deborah Love and father Peter Matthiessen, and my twelve year old step brother Luke from my father’s first marriage. The rare opportunity to rent such a place came to us through my father’s profession as a writer, and by extension his circle of artistic and literary friends from his first marriage to Patsy Southgate, Smith graduate and daughter of Richard Southgate, Chief of Protocol for the Roosevelt White House. He would expand that circle through his subsequent two marriages, first my mother Deborah Love, a poet and writer originally from St. Louis, and then Maria Eckhart, a doctor’s daughter from Tanzania by way of London, poet, gifted editor and storied hostess.
Through a myriad of manifestations my father always had a stunning ability to move on, sometimes shucking earlier friends like fresh snow from his shoulders. That summer and always, aside from his travels for research, he never had to be any particular place to do his job. It was easy to pack up for a month, for three months, for six months, sometimes with family in tow, often on his own to gather research and write. To some, this might seem a great freedom and in many ways it was. But one idiosyncrasy of not having to be tied to anyplace can also extend to anyone, and that became pervasive throughout the culture of our family in its various forms in the following years.
My first taste of this shape shifting always-forward flow, this ability to land somewhere and recreate ourselves, or at least try to, came that summer of 1965. As I was only seven, I couldn’t have known that there was another aspect—they had planned the trip as an effort to save their marriage. The tense atmosphere between them was like a constant weather pattern, each season recognizable—gathering storm clouds a cue to ramp up defenses, and the good parts very good, more so for their impermanence—while signaling another cue to let some air from the balloon and fly a little closer to earth for fear of crashing.
The castle, called Annaghkeen, was at least six hundred years old, my mother told me. It had been erected by the de Burgh family in the 1300’s. For our purposes it lent a magical air to all that it surveyed, including our island, with its own pine wood, monkey puzzle tree and ancient cairn. A retaining wall ringed the side facing the castle. From the edge of it the lake waters were grey brown and spooky even on sunny days. The water in Lough Corrib was good enough to drink, and we did. My brother and I swam every day, diving from the dock or the retaining wall. I was to find that no, you couldn’t throw a ball to the shore. It was at least two hundred feet away.
For me at seven Annaghkeen was the place where a certain sort of sense memory began; myself as extraneous in it, people and places and things getting tangled together apart from me, and at the same time becoming visible in a way they had not been before. At home in New York my father’s earlier books, written in the mid to late fifties, weren’t big sellers. But in 1965 he was putting the finishing touches to At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which would be his breakout book. Our house had been remodeled, a sitting room upstairs was claimed by my mother as her “study.” It was a happy place with a fireplace in the center of white painted brick. My brother Alex had just been born. There were parties with stars of the art and literary world dropping by regularly—writer and bon vivant George Plimpton and his wife Freddie, writer William Styron and his wife Rose, the writer John P. Marquand Jr., Joe Fox, my father’s editor at Random House and his wife Jill, to name a few. As my father’s career took hold, he needed the household to run well; he might’ve been surprised to discover that his intellectual and ambitious second wife was not domestic in any way. Instead, my mother wanted to practice Japanese tea ceremony in a special room she had made up with rice paper screens and tatami mats, or walk on the beach at the foot of our road, or sit at her own desk writing down all that she thought and wondered about. It was a good thing she did not defer her hopes. The journal she kept in Ireland would become her first and last book. It was called Annaghkeen, after the castle. Over the course of my life I would read it many, many times.
From the beginning Deborah was much more radical and experimental than he. On their first date she insisted that he bring psilocybin for the two of them. I was a baby, and they muddled through the evening at her house, with me playing on the floor. He later told me that he was concerned about me that night. He never called her reckless. He didn’t feel she was. He was interested in the same things she was—mind expansion through psychedelics, and later Asian practices and religions, but he was naturally more cautious. He said that she was impractical, yes, but she was interesting to him.
In their early years, it was she who went first to Alan Watts lectures, did yoga, and practiced Zen. I remember her getting out her yoga book (with photographs of an emaciated swami in what looked like a diaper), and practicing yoga on the bathroom floor. Her friends thought she’d gone mad. She didn’t care. When we traveled to Italy in 1968 and lived in a castle with ex-pat friends from New York, my parents and their friends took a very pure LSD that came in blue liquid form, because LSD was purported to be like “Twenty years of psychoanalysis in a vial.” By that time, partly due to my father’s constant affairs, their marriage was in trouble. My mother treated the evidence of his dalliances in the same radical spirit—she dropped me off at a babysitter and went to the city to meet up with any of a number of admirers. There were many to choose from. LSD became another drastic remedy, pushed to the limit in sessions in New York City and in Italy. She would pile on the dosage if she thought there was anything she might learn about how to fix herself, her husband, or her third marriage.
For me, as a child at Annaghkeen, the mood in our little house on the island was still insulated from all of that, if only by virtue of earliness of things, and me being very young, and the many miles between us and home in New York. Even if I had been able to see into the future, I could not have understood the enormity of the changes that were there, just waiting for us to step into them.
From a young age it was impossible for me to miss that there was something different about my father. He drew people to him, whether he wanted them around or not. He often wanted to be alone, working. Yet somehow his considerable self-containment leant him a tremendous personal power. He was absolutely a star. He was charismatic, he was glamorous, and so was the world that he lived in. He had a gaze that was memorable, and sometimes frightening. It bore right through you. Was it depth of vision? All seeing? Was it wisdom? Was it something bottomless in him? Some great void? In the mid-sixties we were in the nascent stages of a new presence in our lives, a powerful external force that was easily mistaken for other things: love, altruism, pure intentions. Fame didn’t bring any of those, not even part of the time as far as I could tell. I remember my mother waking me very early one morning to watch him on the Today Show. He and Hugh Downs sat on tall stools, their heels hooked on the stool rungs like two people hanging out in a bar. My father’s peg leg suit seemed too small for him. The black and white picture was slightly distorted at the sides where the thick screen curved, accentuating the strangeness of his behavior. He was rubbing his fingers together (a nervous habit), and squirming in his seat. His patrician accent was keyed up to something out of a BBC costume drama. I felt sorry for him. He was small and far away from us, his voice coming through the side of the TV. At that time his career was just getting started—and so uncomfortably it seemed to me.
Later I came to understand that stars are strange and are hard to live with. The heat they give off burns everyone, and can consume them too. They need more of everything—more room, more support, and a certain kind of selfless love that they often don’t return. They can be like imploded versions of themselves—black holes. The family around them must be in service to them and their brilliance, and by extension the hungry public who, as the star rises, become more and more a part of the equation. Everything gets sucked into the black hole. It’s impossible to have a normal relationship, a true thought or an idea that can form independently of it. The inland kingdom of living, of love, of intimacy is always under the scrutiny of a floating eye, and further disassociated from the actual and personal. Sometimes the eye is his, turned inward too, sometimes it is ours, turned inward and at each other. What is never not present is theirs: the audience sitting on chairs out on the lawn, craning their necks and peering through windows, waiting for some tidbit to drop. That changes things.
In those early years my mother’s ambition slowly sharpened, writing late into the night in her study, fueled by cups of Droste’s hot chocolate. I’d often fall asleep on the day bed near her, comforted by the sound of the typing, feeling us all somehow in tandem still. It stands out vividly because even though it was a big house that one could get lost in, and I was very young, and we each had a certain pre-measured distance from the other, there was a thread through all of us that held us—my father in his studio, my mother at work on her poetry and journals, Alex babbling away in his crib or playing on the living room floor with me. After Ireland the pace sped up, taking with it whatever contentment there might have been. I know, because I still miss it.