The Endless Search - A Memoir by David Ray
SEARCH A Memoir by David Ray. Soft Skull Press. $22.00 303 pps.
With this absorbing memoir, poet David Ray joins the ranks of those who have sought to erase their demons by setting them down in print. In vivid language and detail, he recounts his childhood, growing up with his younger sister Ellen in dirt-poor small Oklahoma towns. Not all of the memories are unpleasant - there were family picnics, there were aunts, uncles, cousins, and a simple farmer grandfather whom the young David finally came to love and appreciate. There may have been needier and grayer childhoods, but few have been filled with a greater sense of emptiness and longing - of the nagging, almost subliminal knowledge that something was terribly, achingly missing.
What was lacking was a sense of being wanted or loved by either of his parents. Although they tried to make it work, their youthful marriage was doomed from the start. His mother's feelings of superiority towards her rough-hewn, uneducated husband were a constant irritant to the family dynamics. Without warning his father would take off for weeks or even months at a time without a backward glance, filling the young David with dread that he would never return. Relief at his reappearance soon gave way to terror, as the dysfunctional father alternated between positive role modeling and unforgivable brutality. Nor was his father the sole giver of mixed message, which were telegraphed by his mother as well. Though she paid lip service to the adoration of her children, she thought nothing of leaving them for long stretches at a time, depositing them with uncaring relatives, foster homes or, finally, an orphanage. Nor did she hesitate to introduce into their home a series of strange and abusive men. What stands out over and above these experiences is the writer's constant sense of longing for a father.
With his marriage finally over, Ray's father made his pilgrimage to California, beginning a series of seemingly unending new marriages and families that produced in his son a greater sense of disconnect and isolation than ever. Finally, as an adolescent, he met the man he hoped would be the answer to his prayers. John Warner was a wealthy Oklahoma scoutmaster who immediately took a shine to his young charge. This perverted, sadistic personality would prove his undoing, leading the boy down a path of destruction from which it took years to recover. Promising to "adopt" David and make him his heir, Warner traveled with him to his ranch in Arizona, introducing the impressionable boy to a life of culture and hedonistic pleasures. Unbeknown to anyone, Warner subjects him to humiliating and unwanted experiences, turning him into little more than a sex slave. For years, Ray is afraid to leave until finally, finding himself between a rock and a hard place, he exercises the option of running away. After landing a series of menial jobs, his native intelligence surfaces and he is able to enroll in college. Eventually he finds himself at the prestigious University of Chicago. When he at last begins to write, he is mentored by the famed and eccentric novelist. It is Jones who encourages him to join the cult-ish writer's colony run by the sadistic "teacher," Lowney Handy. Once again, a promising father figure has betrayed him.
After escaping the Colony, it is but a short hop to an immersion into politics, fringe groups, and psychotherapy. Ray takes us quickly through the remainder of his life, whizzing speedily past marriages and fatherhood. He often pauses to quote psychologists and philosophers, wisely attempting to extract a lesson from his experiences.
If at times the absorbing piece appears rambling or out of sync, it is only because a memoir should not be confused with an autobiography. "Ideally, a memoir should allow one to exorcise the past, be free at last" the author tells us. This is illuminating and absorbing material.