On a February weeknight in Santa Barbara, California in 1956, Linda Millar, only sixteen and already chronically sad, sat alone in a car and steadily drank nearly two quarts of wine. Then she started driving. She ran through three 13-year-old boys walking home from a middle school basketball game, killing one and maiming another. She didn’t stop and minutes later she plowed into a parked car with its lights on, throwing it and the couple inside sixty feet. Linda’s car rolled over. When she was detained, she lied; it took her forty-eight hours to admit to both accidents. A month afterward she cut her wrists and was hospitalized. In June Linda was found guilty on two felony counts and sent to the prison hospital in Camarillo, California. Her father was undone.
Kenneth Millar, using the pseudonym Ross Macdonald, had published six popular novels with Lew Archer as the detective by 1956. Now, frantic to help get his daughter well, Macdonald would write something very different. “Notes of a Son and Father” is an unpublished, confessional, harrowing account of his childhood, marriage, and fatherhood and can be found amongst the Kenneth and Margaret Millar Papers at the University of California at Irvine Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives. It’s a dime-store spiral notebook with thirty-nine pages of small, tightly penciled handwriting, an anguished exercise in courage for Macdonald to write and then give over to researchers who might come along. He wrote “Notes of a Son and Father” for Linda’s psychiatrist, to provide “enough to give a line, at least a line to read between. [W]e are interested in the moral mechanisms of family life, and where the machine broke down.”
“Notes of a Son and Father” and his own full-bore Freudian analysis got Macdonald to a place where he could make the best of the rest of his life. His detective changed too, of course: “Solve is the wrong word,” Macdonald would tell Paul Nelson. “Let’s say understand.” In one of Richard Layman’s and Matthew Bruccoli’s literary reference books, Macdonald is quoted: “I think [my novels] have deepened my understanding of life. …[m]y novels have made me into a novelist.” They made him into a father too. Over and over again in his later, best books there are blamed, lost, uncared-for children who haunt Macdonald and consistently motivate his detective.
The Galton Case (1959) is built upon an innocent Canadian Oedipus named John Galton who believes he has killed his abusive father. His California grandmother hires Lew Archer to find her son, Anthony. When Archer learns that Tony is dead but an unknown grandson is alive, Archer searches for him. The Galton Case’s plot is a series of repeating stories: a murder a generation ago connects to a murder now, misidentifications beget correct identifications, and second chances lead to a process of apology and forgiveness.
The Oedipus of Greek mythology didn’t knowingly kill his father. Moreover he had no choice in the matter: Oedipus was destined to kill him. Building on the myth, Sigmund Freud mandates a progressive task for sons: to eventually move past their erotic and jealous desire for their mothers and on to other, appropriate women. Macdonald’s novels extend the myth and the archetype: fathers go off, knowingly leaving their sons to insufficient mothers.
Macdonald’s father, Jack Millar, was a dreamy, wandering poet who had fascinating adventures and loved his son, but he was simply gone, sometimes for years at a time, even as he knew that his wife was too unstable to raise a child. The boy experienced this as guilt: “My original sin was to be left by my father,” Macdonald said in an interview with Paul Nelson. In adolescence he was a thief and a bully. His later novels are full of compromised fathers and culpable-feeling sons.
Macdonald’s history and his fiction beg the question: what happens when fathers aren’t there and so sons win the Oedipal battle? What happens then to boys and mothers? Don’t forget: what Freud taught and Macdonald came to believe is that every man has been an Oedipus. “We all,” he said in another interview, this one with Art Kaye, “eventually lose our fathers.”
Lew Archer connects three murders In The Chill (1964). In the present, a woman professor who was blackmailing a male dean is murdered. Archer then learns of a shooting ten years ago wherein the mistress of the selfsame Dean Roy Bradshaw, was killed. Eventually Archer discovers a third murder 22 years ago. That time a woman named Tish Deloney was surprised in bed with an adolescent boy named Roy Bradshaw. Tish murdered the interloper, married Roy (25 years her junior), and went on to pay for his Harvard education. 12 years later she shot her husband’s mistress. Now Roy is the dean of Pacific Point College, he and Tish are living together ostensibly as mother and son, and a professor is dead.
For her part Tish makes teasing asides to Archer, “Roy’s a bit of a mother’s boy, wouldn’t you say?” and “Roy has always been attracted to women who are obviously mammals.” Macdonald has created a juvenile Bradshaw who became erotically victorious with a woman old enough to be his mother, resulting in an arrest in his psychosexual maturation. He’s won the Oedipal struggle by marrying a mother figure sick enough to pretend she’s both mother and wife. Bradshaw is endlessly recreating his adolescence: his mother/wife calls the shots and he sneaks around like a bizarre teenager, manipulating a woman without boundaries.
Macdonald knew about boys like Roy Bradshaw. As a child Macdonald was both aware of societal taboos and absent patterning from his parents. Biographer Tom Nolan writes that Macdonald and his mother shared a bed “far past a proper age” and in that Annie was devoted to him “in ways that seemed unhealthy.” A boy who desires his mother but senses that this is proscribed is reassured by a mother who can be trusted. But the child of a mother who might do anything is in free-fall territory.
In December 1935 Macdonald came home one day to the apartment they shared to find his mother naked and helpless. She died of a brain tumor before Christmas. 21 years later when Macdonald was writing “Notes of a Son and Father,” he still felt guilty about her. In the short run, Macdonald was twenty, without parents or siblings: he would start all over, beginning a twenty-year impressive, willed performance. He earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan with a dissertation on Coleridge, served in the Navy in World War II, wrote popular genre fiction, married well and had a healthy child.
His parents, however, were making his decisions for him. Yes, Macdonald the self re-inventor had married the mayor’s daughter and the president of his high school class but he hadn’t desired her then; he married her after she’d washed out of college, had a breakdown and attempted suicide. For all his intentions not to, he married his mother. “The son knew his fate when he saw it,” Macdonald writes of his decision to be her husband in “Notes of a Son and Father.” And when bright, angry Linda fell apart in awful ways, her father said, “My half-suppressed Canadian youth and childhood rose like a corpse from the bottom of the sea,” as quoted in Edward Margolies’s essay, “Ross Macdonald: Gentle Tough Guy.”
If you’re a Freudian, humanity’s basic unit is the family and pathologies in families create pathologies in individuals. The psychoanalyst talked about children needing to love their parents differently as they come of age. Macdonald says more in his novels: parents too need to change how they love their maturing sons and daughters, curb their own desires and encourage their displacement. They need to hand their children off. In the writer’s later work, mothers and fathers don’t do that. Fathers harm their sons by leaving them to their mothers and mothers scar their sons by staying too close and using them like husbands.
The Underground Man (1971) is a tale of fathers and mothers still fixated on their parents while their own children are ignored. It opens with Stanley Broadhurst leaving his wife and going off in a convertible in the company of a teenage girl, with his young son Ronny as witness. Lew Archer soon finds out that a generation ago, Broadhurst’s father Leo disappeared with an adolescent girl, leaving both his wife Elizabeth and their 11-year-old son Stanley. Archer, who is sounding more and more like a Freudian psychologist, says, “I needed something to fill up the gap between those versions of her, something that would explain why her husband had left her or why her son hadn’t been able to.” He finds the answer for Leo’s and then Stanley’s respective marital implosions by going back still another generation. Elizabeth Falconer Broadhurst had written an overwrought memoir of her father, ending with the assessment: “Robert Driscoll Falconer, Jr., was a god come down to earth in human guise.” Another character tells Archer that Elizabeth “was a frozen woman, a daddy’s girl.” There had been no sex in her marriage for ten years when Leo left her. The Underground Man ends with Archer hoping Ronny Broadhurst won’t bring the sexual fixation unto the next generation, wishing the little boy “a benign failure of memory.” Macdonald based Ronny on his own grandson, whom he protected and loved fiercely, to little avail, after Linda Millar died of a stroke at only 31.
Elizabeth Broadhurst isn’t the only frozen daddy’s girl in Macdonald’s canon. The Electra complex as formulated by Freud is axiomatic to the sexual path of daughters into emotionally grown women. A girl is initially attached to her mother, next desires her father, and eventually moves on, attracted to other men. But things can go wrong: if her mother doesn’t desire her husband and on some level encourages her daughter to “take over” sexually, then, like hapless Oedipus, the Electra daughter wins the battle while guiltily knowing this is terribly wrong.
In “Notes of a Son and Father” Macdonald discloses that he and Margaret never shared a bedroom; instead she and Linda had one until the latter was 11. That was when Macdonald went back to the University of Michigan for a summer and Linda lobbied to go with him. She would, she said, “keep house” for him. He turned her down and when he came back in August, he “found wife and child in a bad way, and ‘attempted suicide.’ The wife …suggested that he should have himself committed, but nothing was done. The husband resisted any thought of help, and is not sorry, except for the child’s sake.”
By the year of Linda’s horrific breakdown, the dynamic equation of Macdonald, Margaret and Linda was sexually precarious. In “Notes of a Son and Father,” Macdonald accuses Margaret of “hyper-awareness of the fairly normal incestuous content in the father-daughter relationship. This has its other side: the daughter has perhaps been unhealthily aware of her parents’ sexual life and jealous of it. But it is hard to know where normality ends.”18 A less honest man might have witnessed his adolescent daughter’s self-destruction in shocked surprise, but Macdonald admitted recognition: he had been here before. Knowing without knowing gave way to knowingness, and his fiction turned a corner.
25 years later, in 1981, Macdonald was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Macdonald scholar Tom Nolan writes that Eudora Welty came to see him: “He looked at me and he said, ‘I can’t write.’ And he looked at his hands.” Macdonald was 67 when he died in 1994. Nolan also recounts that after Macdonald was gone his friend, English poet Donald Davie said, “I thought he was a brave man, very brave. …he’d started with most of the strikes against him. That he managed to put it all together and get steadily better for a long time – I thought it was wonderful.”
Ross Macdonald conflated the guilty wounds of his childhood with psychoanalytic archetypes to craft his fictional families, finding connections between family members and repeating patterns between generations. An unlikely combination of genre detective fiction and psychoanalysis turns out to be apt: both start at a crisis point of suffering and work backward along chains of causality, looking at the ramifications of secrets. The complexes of Oedipus and Electra, and the repetition compulsion: these are Freudian terms for the sufferings-in-common of us all, Macdonald showed in his last, best novels. Writing this way provided him – and his readers – a safe way to acknowledge universal sexual fears. The emotions in question are powerful because they are repressed; once they are expressed they are no longer determinative. So there is an informed, qualified optimism in Macdonald’s work, carrying with it an indispensible feeling of membership in the wider world. After his death, Welty wrote, “What [Macdonald] was signaling to us in these fine and lasting novels is plain and undisguised: find the connections, recognize what they mean; thereby, in all charity, understand.” Forgiveness is always available in the simple recognition of one’s shared humanity.