Last May, I dialed my father’s high school alma mater with a simple question. Was the poetry prize I’d set up two decades ago still operating?
“I must be fully transparent with you,” a woman who now runs the contest says. “There’s been a firestorm on social media out here about the library.”
Twenty years ago, at the same time that I’d created the poetry prize, his Midwestern hometown had renamed its high school library for my father. So I wonder immediately if she might be talking about my two-year-old memoir, in which I revealed my father’s molestation of me when I was 17. The coordinator wastes no time telling me the school no longer wants my father’s name gracing its library. They’d like to maintain the poetry prize but rename that as well.
I am mute.
“The school board’s decision was unanimous,” the coordinator says. “They stand with all children and adolescents who suffer harm done to them by others.” She pauses for what seems a long minute before asking, “How do you feel about this?”
I think as fast as I can before responding. I want to rise to her candor and answer her direct question. I want to grasp the closest rung of this ladder she’s laying down across our telephonic crevasse. Her voice conveys compassion and empathy, and I trust her immediately. I sense my response will be as important to her as her news is to me.
“We’ve been trying to locate you to let you know.”
It’s true that I’d moved the prior year, and there was COVID before that. I hadn’t been in touch for a few years.
“It’s not what I expected when I called,” I say, stalling. “But I’m glad the prize is still popular and that it will continue.”
“I support the board’s decision. It’s the right thing,” I add. I fiddle with a pen. “But it’s complicated for me.”
What I don’t say is that it’s never been easy to square the impact of my father’s legacy, forever complicated by countervailing emotions.
My father, Richard Eberhart, Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. poet laureate under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, was born in 1904. He grew up hiking a Midwestern river that runs through endless miles of rolling prairie. He graduated from high school as football captain and literary club president, then built a poetry career on the world stage. My childhood was spent worshipping him and the literary greats who frequented our home — Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, James Dickey.
My father delighted in his fame. He earned his admiration through hard work, along with the privilege afforded to men of his era as they rose to fame and power. He benefited from the close-knit literary world of the 1950s to 1990s. Endlessly generous to writers, editors and friends, he greased the skids of connection for colleagues and students. He won the big literary prizes and was invited into the inner circle of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a position that, like the Supreme Court, is for life. In his field, he couldn’t have risen much higher. But his near sole focus put me off as a child. Back then, I just wanted a little of his attention for myself.
The idea for the poetry prize came in 2000 when his high school honored my father’s life and work by renaming its library for him. Then 96, he didn’t have the stamina to make the trip from the Northeast, so my brother and I went in his stead. The event covered three full days and required all 5,000 students ― kindergarten through high school ― to study his poetry and write at least one original poem. Prizes were handed out to the winning authors in each of the city’s eight schools.
Along with an all-city parade, attending classrooms to talk about Dad’s poetry and being introduced under the half-time lights of a Friday night football game, I spoke about him before the all-school assembly in an auditorium filled with 2,500 people. And there was a poetry slam. As I listened to the kids’ writing about their loves and losses, a parent away from home for the Iraq War, a possible teenage pregnancy, I was enthralled with their honesty and the support of their teachers. I wondered where I’d have been if, at their age, instead of being balled up in secrecy, I’d had the support to speak out after I was molested.
I enjoyed that weekend, but at 49, I was just beginning to reconcile the damage done to me by my father. I felt duplicitous to honor him so publicly. My feelings bounced around like billiard balls on a felted table. I was rummaging around in secondhand emotions I’d been trying to corral for years, forever stuck in holding as equal the very different sides of my father — his enormous warmth and kindness; his all-too-evident narcissism.
My own change came far too slowly. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was first silenced by the culture of my family and my own misappropriated shame, then chose to self-silence to protect my father and mother. Twenty-two years ago, I supported my father’s name on the library. Paraphrasing Therese Mailhot, as she writes in “Heart Berries,” power asks us to dedicate our lives to its expansion. I’d committed the younger me to upholding my father’s reputation at my own cost. While I spent much of my life trying to bind together the two sides of him into a single cord, the truth is that a single idea of him neither burned bright for me nor sputtered out. There have always been too many sides to hold.
My memoir came out post #MeToo, at the very start of the pandemic, and I heard from hundreds of women — and men — who resonated with my story and who shared their own with me. Part of my courage to finish the book had come from reacquainting myself as an adult with some of my father’s best friends, ones I’d known as a kid, about a dozen prominent poets, including Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur. Each acknowledged what I knew to be true — that my father had come on to a lot of women and that he’d had affairs outside his 50-year marriage to my mother. What I revealed about my own experiences made them sad but not surprised. By the time my book came out, I no longer needed anyone to change their stories about my father. I was just no longer willing to change mine.
I hadn’t hoped for, nor expected, to set in motion the library’s unnaming, but it felt right. Unlike the name on a building, abuse cannot be erased. It cannot be unnamed.
In recent years, I’ve watched in solidarity as Confederate statues have been toppled, as names have been taken off public and university buildings, as movie directors and high-profile predators have been convicted and thrown behind bars. As we survivors voice our truths, we are making society reconsider what and whom to revere. And yet society is as slow to change as I was. We watched Christine Blasey Ford’s attempted evisceration by those who closed ranks around her alleged abuser, now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We watched the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We watch, still now, as only 6% of the S&P 500 CEOs are women.
We can’t know who our books will reach or what impact they will have, but we write to be heard, to counteract prevailing stories, to change the world. In removing my father’s name from a library, the school honored my voice and sent a message to its students. I’m proud of that. And I’m grateful I heard about it after the social media firestorm because they made the ultimate decision.
But we must continue to hold powerful people — be they family members, CEOs, actors or presidents — accountable. We must oust those given positions they don’t deserve. That work can often feel exhausting. Praise to those who help us with the heavy lifting.
Gretchen Eberhart Cherington is the 2020 award-winning author of “Poetic License — A Memoir.” Her second book, “The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the Fall Guy: A Family Memoir of Scandal and Greed in the Meat Industry” (June 2023) further explores her family legacy when her paternal grandfather found himself snarled 100 years ago in a true white-collar crime scandal at what is now Hormel Foods. Kirkus calls it “a dazzling account that deftly combines crime, drama, history, and introspective remembrance... A mesmerizing story, one filled with drama and suspense and told with remarkable emotional insights.” Learn more about the author and her work at gretchencherington.com.