December 11, 2019
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Maine poet pens memoir about growing up in the shadow of her brilliant, troubled father

Courtesy of Iveta Holden
Courtesy of Iveta Holden
Elizabeth Garber

For decades, Elizabeth Garber of Belfast pushed down memories of her tumultuous childhood and adolescence in Cincinnati, Ohio.

She was a poet, an acupuncturist and a mother, who had built a good life in Maine. She didn’t want to dig into the layers of family dysfunction and madness that she had left in the past. Garber, 64, grew up in the shadow of her brilliant but controlling father, a visionary of modern architecture who ruled his family like an old-fashioned tyrant. They lived in an actual glass house they built mostly themselves, but its transparent walls somehow obscured a Russian novel’s worth of family pain and secrets.

Then 10 years ago, Garber had heart surgery to correct an arrhythmia she had inherited from her father, Woodie Garber, and during her recovery something seemed to crack open inside her. Every night, she was flooded with vivid, detailed dreams of her childhood, and every day she wrote them down. This process of remembering lasted for two years and covered her life from childhood to her 20s. By the end of it, she had filled hundreds of pages and had started to imagine writing what became her just-released book, “Implosion: a Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter.”

“This is a haunting story, but it’s the story,” she said in a recent interview at her home about the book, which has received accolades i ncluding a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. “I had never intended to write about any of this. I arrived in Maine and became a Mainer. I didn’t go back to Cincinnati, except for my dad’s funeral. But then I had heart surgery, and this steady stream of memories — everything from that era I had never wanted to write about.”

The book starts in Nantucket in 1959, with 5-year-old Elizabeth Garber walking on the beach with her dad, who asked her to close her eyes and tell him what color she “felt” in a pebble he slipped into her hand. It was a dilemma, one she solved by remembering a sunset she had drawn. She told him the grey stone was “bright red with orange streaks,” and he beamed approval at her.

“I was Woodie Garber’s little girl, a modern architect’s daughter, and I knew he did not want a simple answer,” she writes. “At 5 years old, I had already found comfort in the private way we saw the world. I had to discover a magic answer that would please him.”

Even as a small child, she was learning that ordinary answers and ordinary activities would not do for Woodie Garber and his family. She grew up an acolyte of modern things, including design and jazz, and could speak knowledgeably about her favorite modern architect — Swiss-French architectural pioneer Le Corbusier — when she was just a schoolgirl. This emphasis on the modern and the new were no doubt a welcome distraction from the scary, distressing events happening in their lives, such as the death of her toddler sister, who was born with a heart defect. Or the way that Woodie Garber, who had bipolar disorder (and possibly borderline personality disorder), would sometimes go to bed and stay there for weeks.

“I believed [my father], that the Modern would release us from the smothering confines of the Victorian world, not knowing what legacy would follow us, even into a glass house,” Garber writes.

And, oh, that glass house. Woodie Garber broke ground for it in 1965, and the family moved into the unfinished house the following year. Elizabeth Garber, then 12, her younger brothers, then 9 and 7, and their mother, Jo Garber, were put to work finishing the house. Beginning at 6:30 a.m. Saturday mornings and winding up on Sunday nights, they toiled, stacking scraps, sanding surfaces, rubbing on coats of linseed and tung oil, vacuuming sawdust. If they weren’t working on the house, they were outside clearing brush, tilling gardens or weeding.

“We learned to work; our muscles ached, then grew stronger. Our tender palms blistered and callused. This was our father’s plan,” she wrote. “He lectured us on the evils of our generations, lazy from constant television exposure and permissive parenting.”

That would not be the case in Woodie Garber’s household. The patriarch, who was about 20 years older than his wife, ran the whole household with an iron fist. Some of his mandates seemed innocuous, such as insisting on a formal dinner every night, but others were more ominous. In the glass house, where he often walked around naked, he forbade his children to close even bathroom doors behind them or pull curtains shut to keep the world at bay.

“Glass-walled houses allowed the private world to be made visible to the outside. We lived overexposed, in a life designed by an architect determined to break the tyranny of Victorian modesty,” she wrote.

Garber writes with sensitivity of her father’s most disturbing violation, his sexual abuse of her that began when she was a young teenager and lasted until she was 16 years old or so.

“Each time it happened, I would forget it in the morning. I wouldn’t think to tell anyone, never my best friend or my mother. It was just one of the weird things that happened in our family. It was just something I had to endure until someday I would leave home,” she wrote.

The tough realities happening inside the house were echoed and amplified by the cultural changes and turbulence occuring in Cincinnati and the world beyond, including the 1967 race riots and the growing counterculture movement. “Implosion” doesn’t shy away from recent history and its effects on the Garber family. Elizabeth Garber’s first high school boyfriend, Alvin, was handsome, smart, athletic and black, and her father railed against their biracial relationship, trying his best to forbid the two from seeing each other. Her mother, Jo Garber, a woman who had lived under the heavy thumb of her husband for years, started to leave the confines of the glass house to study criminal justice reform at college, to her husband’s displeasure. Her younger brothers tried to cope with the emotional and mental tyranny in their own ways.

And then there was the saga of Woodie’s most important and most doomed design, Sander Hall, a 27-story glass tower built to be a freshman dormitory for the University of Cincinnati. The controversial project was a financial disaster for Woodie Garber, who was forced to reimburse the university the equivalent of $250,000 in today’s dollars to reverse the glass panels because a board member didn’t like their color. It seemed like the building was cursed, the president of the university said later. It was known for “an epidemic of arson,” Elizabeth Garber wrote, and the building was closed by campus officials 11 years after it was opened. It stood empty and derelict for nine more years, until it was finally destroyed in 1991, in the single largest implosion in the western hemisphere.

Elizabeth Garber’s gripping, poetic prose tells the story of the family’s own implosion, and how she, her brothers and her mother finally did their best to escape their dad’s long shadow. Through telling the true story of her life, she also was able to reclaim some parts of it she didn’t expect.

“As a writer, what you’re going for is understanding. I gained so much compassion and understanding about my dad,” she said. “I feel actually amazingly peaceful now.”

Readings, signings and presentations promoting “Implosion” include: an event at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 10, at the Bangor Public Library; at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 12, at Longfellow Books in Portland; from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 14, at Books in Boothbay Book Fair at the Boothbay Railway Village; at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 19, at the Camden Public Library; 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 25, at the Blue Hill Public Library and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at the Cushing Public Library. Books will be available for purchase at the events.

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