Though throughout his memoir, Tobias Wolff’s painful childhood memories are often recast in a darkly comical light or otherwise relayed in such a way that demonstrates his own worst instincts and impulses, This Boy’s Life is, at its heart, a story of the abuse Wolff and his mother suffered at the hands of his first stepfather. When Jack’s mother, Rosemary, already in flight from an abusive relationship and hoping to make a new start, meets Dwight—a seemingly oafish, benign, and slightly odd man—Dwight offers to fold Rosemary and her son into his own family, giving them a home and a sense of stability. Dwight quickly proves himself to be a cruel, controlling addict, a man who emotionally and physically abuses both Rosemary and Jack. As the story of Rosemary and Jack’s time under Dwight’s roof unfolds, Wolff reflects on his mother’s suffering—and his own—and ultimately argues that long-term suffering in an abusive situation “trains” victims not just to accept abuse, but to perpetuate it against others both physically and emotionally.
Before Wolff even gets to the abusive triad at the heart of his youth—the relationship between him, his mother, and his stepfather Dwight—he relays several other stories of abuse from his own childhood, and his mother’s, in order to show how abuse takes root in an individual and a family, and then proves difficult to eradicate. The novel’s opening chapters are concerned with Jack and his mother’s flight from Florida to Utah in search of uranium, a valuable ore that had recently exploded in popularity. This motive seems like more of a cover, though, as Rosemary is also trying to escape a controlling and abusive lover, Roy, who has begun stalking her. Roy tracks Rosemary all the way to Utah, and when he finds her there, she is forced back into a relationship with him—a relationship in which Roy follows her home from work every day, often with Jack in the car beside him, in order to demonstrate the control he has over both Rosemary and Jack. Roy even buys Jack a rifle, perhaps as a way of further intimidating Rosemary and attempting to show her the extent of his influence on Jack. Jack digresses into a series of anecdotes from his mother’s own childhood—her massively wealthy father, referred to in the text only as Daddy, both spoiled and abused her. The young Rosemary lived a life of luxury, but was also subject to daily beatings—Daddy assumed that each day, Rosemary had, while at school, done at least one thing deserving of a spanking. This atmosphere of simultaneous doting and abuse created a confusing conflation of love and hatred in Rosemary, who has, clearly, sought out—perhaps subconsciously—relationships that mirror that abusive dynamic even in her adult life. Through his mother’s story, Wolff sets up a lens through which his readers can understand—and, sadly, predict—the continual cycles of abuse she will subject herself to, and drag Jack into as well.
Once Rosemary marries and moves in with Dwight, she realizes that she has, once again, committed herself to an abuser. Dwight, a drunk, berates Rosemary for less-than-perfect behavior, and verbally, emotionally, and physically attacks Jack in the same manner. Dwight is not a great father to his own children Skipper, Norma, and Pearl, either, but it is clear that Rosemary and Jack bear the brunt of his violence, and that his goal is to keep them under his thumb through intimidation and deceit. Dwight’s abuse of Jack almost always happens when Rosemary can’t see it happening, such as when Dwight and Jack are at Boy Scouts, or on a drive, or home alone. In making Jack feel as if there is no witness to his abuse—and no one, thus, who will believe him—Dwight is both preying upon Rosemary’s willingness to turn a blind eye to what’s happening to her son due to the decades of abuse she’s already faced, and is also counting on Jack to have learned these same coping and avoidance mechanisms from his mother. As Jack, however, grows more and more strong-willed, his clashes with Dwight escalate, and soon Dwight can’t even stop himself from hiding the abuse from Rosemary. When he attacks Jack in front of her, pushing him to the ground and causing him to land on a recently-injured finger, Rosemary is finally able to see past the ways she has been trained (and has trained herself) to look the other way. She gets Jack out of the house—and herself, too.
Towards the end of the memoir, after Rosemary and Jack have escaped from Dwight, Rosemary remarks to her son how odd it is that Dwight continues to pursue her. “I don’t get it,” she says to Jack in one passage, “He doesn’t even like me. He just wants to hang on.” In these few sentences, Rosemary herself sums up the mechanism behind many cycles of abuse and entrapment that keep victims in compromising and dangerous positions; abuse is never about extremity of feeling, but rather about control and manipulation. Repeated abuse—such as the kind Rosemary has suffered throughout her life—relies on getting the victim to believe that the opposite is true: that abuse is motivated by love and feeling, not by the desire to perpetuate the sense of isolation and entrapment victims feel so that it seems as if escape is truly impossible.
Abuse Quotes in This Boy’s Life
Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 rounds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.
At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. At first I described myself in pretty much the same terms as I had in my letters to Alice, who was now very much past tense, with the difference that instead or owning a ranch my father, Cap'n Wolff, now owned a fleet of fishing boats. I was first mate, myself, and a pretty fair hand at reeling in the big ones. I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old.
I got back some chipper official responses encouraging me to start an Annette fan club. In other words, to organize my competition. Fat chance. But when I upped the ante in my letters to her, they stopped sending me anything at all. The Disney Studio must have had a kind of secret service that monitored Mousketeer Mail for inappropriate sentiments and declarations. When my name went off the mailing list, it probably went onto some other list. But Alice had taught me about coyness. I kept writing Annette and began to
imagine a terrible accident in front of her house that would almost but not quite kill me, leaving me dependent on her care and sympathy, which in time would tum to admiration, love . . .
I wanted to do what Dwight expected me to do, but I couldn't. I stood where I was and stared at the beaver. Dwight came up beside me. "That pelt's worth fifty dollars, bare minimum." He added, "Don't tell me you're
afraid of the damned thing."
"Then pick it up." He watched me. "It's dead, for Christ's sake. It's just meat. Are you afraid of hamburger? Look." He bent down and gripped the tail in one hand and lifted the beaver off the ground. He tried to make this appear effortless but I could see he was surprised and strained by the beaver's weight. A stream of blood ran out of its nose, then stopped. A few drops fell on Dwight's shoes before he jerked the body away. Holding the beaver in front of him with both hands, Dwight carried it to the open trunk and let go. It landed hard. "There," he said, and wiped his hands on his pant leg.
Now I saw her only when Dwight agreed to drive me down with him. He usually had reasons for leaving me behind, the paper route or schoolwork or something I had done wrong that week. But he had to bring me sometimes, and then he never let me out of his sight. He stuck close by and acted jovial. He smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder and made frequent reference to fun things we'd done together. And I played along. Watching myself with revulsion, aghast at my own falsity yet somehow helpless to stop it, I simpered back at him and laughed when he invited me to laugh and confirmed all his lying implications that we were pals and our life together a good one. Dwight did this whenever it suited his purpose, and I never let him down.
[The piano] was just a piece of furniture, so dark in all this whiteness that it seemed to be pulsing. You really couldn't look anywhere else.
I agreed that it stood out.
We went to work on it. Using fine bristles so our brush strokes wouldn't show, we painted the bench, the pedestal, the fluted columns that rose from the pedestal to the keyboard. We painted the carved scrollwork. We painted the elaborate inlaid picture above the keyboard, a picture of a girl with braided yellow hair leaning out of her gabled window to listen to a redbird on a branch. We painted the lustrous cabinet. We even painted the foot pedals. Finally, because the antique yellow of the ivory looked wrong to Dwight against the new white, we very carefully painted the keys, all except the black ones, of course.
We climbed up into the attic and worked our way down to where I'd put the boxes. It was cramped and musty. From below I could hear faint voices singing. Dwight led the way, probing the darkness with a flashlight. When he found the boxes he stopped and held the beam on them. Mold covered the cardboard sides and rose from the tops of the boxes like dough swelling out of a breadpan. Its surface, dark and solid-looking, gullied and creased like cauliflower, glistened in the light. Dwight played the beam over the boxes, then turned it on the basin where the beaver, also forgotten these two years past, had been left to cure. Only a pulp remained. This too was covered with mold, but a different kind than the one that had gotten the chestnuts. This mold was white and transparent, a network of gossamer filaments that had flowered to a height of two feet or so above the basin. It was like cotton candy but more loosely spun. And as Dwight played the light over it I saw something strange. The mold had no features, of course, but its outline somehow suggested the shape of the beaver it had consumed: a vague cloud-picture of a beaver crouching in the air.
After I got up [Arthur] rushed me, and without calculation I sidestepped and threw him an uppercut. It stopped him cold. He just stood there, shaking his head. I hit him again and the bell rang.
I caught him with that uppercut twice more during the final round, but neither of them rocked him like that first one. That first one was a beaut. I launched it from my toes and put everything I had into it, and it shivered his timbers. I could feel it travel through him in one pure line. I could feel it hurt him. And when it landed, and my old friend's head snapped back so terribly, I felt a surge of pride and connection; connection not to him but to Dwight. I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I'd struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.
Everyone liked Chuck. Sober, he was friendly and calm and openhanded. When I admired a sweater of his he gave it to me, and later he gave me a Buddy Holly album we used to sing along with. Chuck liked to sing when he wasn't in church. It was hard to believe, seeing him in the light of day, that he had spent the previous night throwing himself against a tree. That was why the Bolgers had so much trouble coming to terms with his wildness. They saw nothing of it. He lingered over meals in the main house, talked with his father about the store, helped his mother with the dishes. His little sisters fawned on him like spaniels. Chuck seemed for all the world a boy at home with himself, and at these times he was. It wasn't an act. So when the other Chuck, the bad Chuck, did something, it always caught the Bolgers on their blind side and knocked them flat.