Shaped by Sophocles


“I suspect it is not so universal an experience as the good head-shrinker supposed, but we in the West are Freudians now, and Oedipals, as well, and killing our fathers is expected of sons. Metaphorically speaking.”  —William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

My father with pen.
My father with pen.

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—6/6/2016—Sons and fathers are meant to come to loggerheads. Dr. Freud said so. I suspect it is not so universal an experience as the good head-shrinker supposedbut we in the West are Freudians now, and Oedipals, as well, and killing our fathers is expected of sons. Metaphorically speaking.

It was a shock to realize I had become the patricidal usurper not long after puberty restructured me, when I overheard a terribly wrought, painfully emotional middle-of-the-night conversation between my parents. My father was trying to understand how I, his eldest of five children, could have come to despise him so intensely. “Every time he looks at me, it is with disgust,” he told my mother, and I heard buried tears in his voice as he spoke.

I was overcome with shame. My father had lovingly rocked me to sleep far beyond infancy, had sung lullabies to me, had taken me with him to show me every new wonder our surrounding world might offer. He had always been available to teach all of us new games and to introduce us to all sorts of sports.  

He had given me his name.

My father and me, c. 1 ½ yrs old.
My father and me, c. 1 ½ yrs old.

I had never intended to hate my father, although I sensed the truth in his accusation. Even more, I never wanted him to feel that I despised him. But I suddenly knew that my adolescent maelstrom had frayed the ties throughout our family, and I was incapable of finding a way to repair the rupture. From that night onward, any look I gave my father was tainted by the bitterness I had overheard. We built mechanisms for surviving those teen years, but avoidance of one another became my father’s and my refuge.

The enmity between us, and the grudging forbearance that followed, did have causes, of course. 

I worried that I might be gay and, by the time I had reached puberty, I was beginning to have some comprehension of what that would mean for me and for those around me. The same concern worried my parents, too, and I remember frustrated admonitions from my father to change my gestures and correct my speech patterns—admonitions which I knew meant, “Butch it up, Kid!”

There was also the burden of the terrible family secret I thought I had uncovered, a discovery which, I suspected, meant that my father was not my real father. There were several years of carrying around that secret, protecting my younger siblings from its import, before I realized the gross error I had made in my conclusions. Those were the years of rupture between father and son.

Going to college would mean leaving home, leaving the fraught circumstances that had become our domestic life.  

Then, from a distance, I was slowly able to reach a fuller understanding and acceptance of my relationship with my father. Whereas my mother had been family correspondent since my childhood, I began writing letters to my father from college. At first, these were general updates (and probably pleas for money) but, very quickly, I began to express regret about my distance, to declare my affection for him, and to try to open an avenue of communication.

My father, for the first time I could recall, wrote back. Throughout my years away at school, we wrote. To be sure, the process was stilted on both sides; each of us was fully aware, I think, that ours was an effort to break through a historical impasse, and it would take some time before our correspondence was natural and easy. 

After graduation, I became intensely committed to organizing against the war in Southeast Asia. At the time, one of my brothers was already in Vietnam, in the army, and my father had been a highly decorated pilot in World War Two. Perhaps inevitably, my antiwar efforts resulted in my arrest, coverage in the national news, trials, and convictions. I had wanted to keep my family as far from the spotlight as possible, and I knew their political positions and social standing would leave them no room to support my cause.  

But, letters remained a lifeline for my father and me. We had, by then, taken a more protective tone in our writing, seeking, I think, to spare each other some of the more painful consequences of my actions.

I learned much later—not from his letters—of the shunning he and my mother suffered at the hands of their friends and neighbors; of the criticism and condemnation they bore from family members; and the many acts defending me that both parents performed despite their own politics and the risks to their standing in the community.

I suspect his experience of suffering such antipathy for the perceived sins of his absent son may have been as painful for him as was his sense of my rejection of him when I was an adolescent. 

Whatever the cause, our correspondence waned, then stopped. We would speak on the phone and visit, but the distance between us was reestablished. I moved to a distant city to build a different life. 

I remember our letters, now that my father is gone, as surprising in their simple elegance. An engineer, he preferred things without unnecessary adornment. He used plain speech in every situation, although he possessed curiosity and wit and pursued direct engagement in his dealings with other people, regardless of station. 

My father found conversation, albeit plain-spoken, to be a delight, but it was a surprise to me how comfortable he was with written language. It was a revelation, after so many years without his regular letters, to read the memoir he had written late in his life, recounting his experiences a lifetime earlier as a sailor and a pilot in the Pacific war. 

My laconic and distant father had found his voice and had decided to share it with the world. 

The letters between us had years before shown me that voice and made me love it.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state’s namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation’s capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for “The Lowcountry Weekly” newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk’s aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.” (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Peggy Zeigler

    I am a little surprised by your story. It gives me a new perspective. I think you are brave for writing it and I hope you will continue. Well done, dear brother.

  • Will B

    Thanks, Peg. There’s little bravery, I’m afraid. The repercussions are long past life-changing. It’s the reflection and thought that’s difficult, and I realize that the entire experience can be told in utterly different ways, each having its own impact and meaning. This is one way of telling it.