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Father Figure

[whitespace] Author Gus Lee sounds off about 'A Soldier's Daughter'

By David Templeton


For five years, Writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. His guests have included Joan Baez, Larry King, Suzie Bright, Barry Lopez, and Ram Dass. This week, he meets up with best-selling author Gus Lee--a West Point graduate and former San Francisco deputy district attorney--to catch the latest Merchant-Ivory epic, an adaptation of Kaylie Jones' autobiographical novel A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.

James Jones, the author of the classic novels From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Some Came Running, was known to be a hard-drinking, hard-hitting man--but with a heart as soft as butter when it came to his children. He was a soldier, decorated with a Purple Heart during World War II, and a writer with a knack for clean, honest realism and a grasp of the dimension of human tragedy.

Of that there is little debate.

How good a father Jones really was, however, has been open to discussion since the 1990 publication of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. Written by his daughter, Kaylie Jones, and now a film starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey, the semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of the Willis family, an eccentric but genuinely loving American family living in France during the '60s and early '70s. In the film, lyrically directed by James Ivory, the parents' alcoholism and temper tantrums are greatly downplayed. What is left is a complex, fascinating look at a haunted man whose parenting may have been progressive to a fault: He encourages truth-telling at all costs--to the point where his adopted son Benoit is never allowed to forget that his real mother abandoned him--and encourages his 14-year-old daughter Channe to have her boyfriend sleep over ("I'd rather have you doing it in your own bedroom than in the back seat of a car. Especially my car," he says).

The film is sure to spark heated post-film discussions: Was James Jones an enlightened dad, way ahead of his time, or was he a permissive, oblivious screw-up whose "tolerance" actually amounted to emotional abuse?

"I think you can find the answer by looking at how his kids turned out," suggests Gus Lee, the best-selling Colorado-based novelist and former San Francisco deputy district attorney. "In the movie at least, his son is so closed up he can't even talk about his feelings, and his daughter has said yes to so many guys that now she's afraid she's earned a reputation as, in her own words, 'the school slut.'

"I think," he deduces, "that this is evidence that something was out of balance there."

Not to say that Lee disliked the film. On the contrary, he agrees that Soldier's Daughter is among the year's best. He also agrees that Jones was an extraordinarily gifted writer.

"From Here to Eternity was the first book I ever read about the military," he recalls. "It had a melancholy sadness to it that I found remarkable." The famous epic was one of 50 novels that were mandatory reading for all newcomers to West Point. Lee remembers it as the best of the batch.

As Jones did, Lee has used his military experience in his own writing career: Honor and Duty (1995) was based on his West Point experience, and autobiographical details were woven into 1991's poetic China Boy. His lengthy stint with the San Francisco district attorney's office brought him close to the issue of "at-risk teens," a subject at the heart of his latest book, the superb courtroom thriller, No Physical Evidence.

Perhaps it is this issue in particular--the plight of children wounded by their own families--that is at the core of Lee's surprisingly personal response to the film. That and the fact that he is a father as well--and has put enormous effort into assuring that his own son and daughters need not look elsewhere for love.

"In my case," says Lee, his voice and manner both forceful and soft-spoken, "I set out, not only to avoid becoming the father that I thought my own dad was, but not to be a father at all. I was going to avoid marriage and fatherhood absolutely, because I was convinced that would be a failed venture. So when I ended up becoming a husband and a father, I really tried to be different.

"My father had no idea what his daughters were doing," he explains. "He controlled them in areas in which he should have given them freedom, and in areas in which he should have provided care and attention and focus, he was absent."

Later in our discussion, Lee will tell me that early this year, his father--at the age of 91--after a lifetime of anger and a turbulent relationship with his children, announced that he was all done with being angry. Shortly thereafter, he moved in with Lee and family in Colorado. Within two months, he had, in his son's own words, "reversed half a decade of bad relationship."

When Lee's father passed away in March, enough healing had taken place that he was able to openly mourn the man he was once terrified of becoming.

"What I've done," he explains, "is to listen to my kids in the way I wish my father had listened to me. I've tried to give them the respect I know they want, by listening, by paying attention, by providing time. When they come in, even if I'm in the middle of writing the best passage I'm going to come up with all week, and I know it--I'll go, 'How can I help you? What's up?'"

"That's to make up for the years, the first five years of my son's life, when, if he interrupted me, I'd say, 'Eric, I'm busy right now.' In other words, 'I'm doing something important, and you're not. You don't fit into the important category.'

"When I realized I was doing that," he acknowledges, quietly, "I knew I was in danger. So I turned it around. I did not want my son and daughters to become the kind of kids that give up feeling, like Benoit, or to become the girl who sleeps with so many guys, like Channe. I didn't want that for my kids. I didn't want them to ring that bell and then regret it."

Lee admits that it isn't a simple matter to change, but points again to his father, able to learn a vital new trick at the age of 91.

"When a parent decides to change, though, it isn't easy for the kids, either," he smiles. "They'll think, 'What are you doing? Why are you suddenly going out of your way to listen to me?' And hopefully there is a reason other than 'I want you to avoid sexual promiscuity.' Its more than that. It's really, 'You're so much better than that. You're so much better than the way I've treated you.'

"I'm convinced that if any of us succeed in life," he adds, "we succeed because of the time that others were willing to invest in us. That's how we learn what we are worth."

As for James Jones, Lee concludes, "I think he meant well, but he had his own wounds he couldn't drink away. And I think he ended up teaching his children the wrong lessons."

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Web extra to the October 1-7, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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