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Great Sinners

Dostoevsky, my father, and me

“In four years in prison I came at last to distinguish men among criminals.”
—Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, letter to his brother Mikhail, soon after release from the Omsk prison, February 22, 1854

1. Sin and Suffering

In the dream I’m standing with Dostoevsky on the scaffold, as though I’m seeing through his eyes as he and his comrades, convicted of political crimes, await execution. It’s December 22, 1849, and in the scene that unfolds on the ground below in St. Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square, the first three of the condemned men are tied to stakes before a firing squad. Fyodor Mikhailovich appears to be in the next group, and he’s certain that he has only a few minutes left to live. On the scaffold (as Joseph Frank describes it in his monumental biography), Dostoevsky turns to Nikolay Speshnev—who twenty years later would be an inspiration for the nihilist Stavrogin in Demons—and says, “We shall be with Christ.” To which Speshnev replies, smiling strangely, “A bit of dust.”

Of course, the firing squad never fired. The mock execution was staged, to the last detail, according to the tsar’s personal instructions. A messenger galloped dramatically into the square to announce that Nicholas I, in his great mercy, had commuted their sentences to Siberian prison and exile. Dostoevsky got four years of hard labor, followed by four more in the ranks at an isolated garrison on the southern steppe—all for the crime of conspiring to print and distribute subversive writings.

One of Dostoevsky’s comrades, his nerves already broken by the eight months of solitary confinement they had endured, was shattered by the mock execution. But Dostoevsky, though deeply shaken, was nothing short of reborn. That is, reborn but not yet transformed. That would require the next four years in the katorga, the vast system of Siberian forced labor camps, years he semi-fictionalized in the autobiographical novel Notes from a Dead House, published in 1861, only two years after his return from exile. There in the harsh military prison camp within the fortress at Omsk, he experienced what many would later call one of the great moral-spiritual awakenings in world literature, and Fyodor Mikhailovich, you might say, became Dostoevsky.

Early on in Notes from a Dead House, he offers a glimpse of how this process began. As an educated nobleman (even if from the lower ranks), Dostoevsky’s narrator is cut off from all but a handful of his fellow convicts by a chasm of social class and privilege, and he soon realizes that he knows nothing of these men and how they think and feel. He’ll have to reexamine, if not throw out entirely, his utopian socialist assumptions and any kind of simplistic idealization of the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, he meets with extremes of moral depravity, along with depths of desperation and hopelessness, previously unimagined. One prisoner, the narrator tells us (in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation), was said to have “put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion.” Another, we’re told, “cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife.” Others, he comes to understand, have committed their crimes precisely “so as to get to hard labor and thus rid themselves of an even harder life in freedom.” Still another tells the story of how he savagely beat and murdered his wife for confessing she loved another man, to which his listener replies coolly: “Hm . . . Of course, if you don’t beat them—no good’ll come of it!” (The latter chapter-length scene is just one of Dostoevsky’s numerous cries on behalf of oppressed women.)

Today, the word sin has an almost archaic sound to it. But perhaps it has its uses.

Perhaps most troubling, he finds it impossible to read the souls of his fellow prisoners. “I did not see the least sign of repentance among these people, nor the least heavy brooding on their crime,” his narrator tells us near the outset. “On the other hand, who can say he has probed the depths of these lost hearts and read in them what is hidden from the whole world? . . . No, crime, it seems, cannot be comprehended from given, ready-made points of view.”

In fact, the complexity and moral chaos of the “humanity” the narrator now encounters in prison would seem to defy the rational modes of explanation he has learned to rely on, and this leads Dostoevsky to a philosophical reflection that seems to point toward a new trajectory in his thought and writing. Trying to divide the convicts among the “good,” the “wicked,” and “those in total despair,” the narrator steps back and admits: “However, here I am now trying to sort our whole prison into categories; but is that possible? Reality is infinitely diverse compared to all, even the most clever, conclusions of abstract thought.” Acutely sensitive to the hostility of the peasant convicts toward educated gentlemen like himself, he yearns for some tangible human connection to break through the barriers of class, yet without deluding himself that they can be erased. “We’re all people, all human beings. But the idea is too abstract.”

“In prison it sometimes happened that you would know a man for several years and think he was a beast, not a man, and despise him,” the narrator goes on. “And suddenly a chance moment would come when his soul, on an involuntary impulse, would open up and you would see in it such riches, feeling, heart, such a clear understanding of his own and others’ suffering, as if your own eyes had been opened.”

But nothing touches a deeper chord in Dostoevsky than the Russian Orthodox rituals in preparation for Holy Week, leading up to Easter, when the prisoners were “taken under armed convoy to the house of God.” Huddled with his fellow convicts just inside the doors, the narrator recalls standing in church as a child, seeing “the simple folk thickly crowding by the entrance,” and thinking, “they were not praying as we were, they were praying humbly, zealously, bowing to the ground.” Now he finds himself in the same position, only “shackled and disgraced,” and paints a scene that could be straight from the Old Masters. “The prisoners prayed very assiduously,” he tells us, “and each of them each time brought his beggarly kopeck to church for a candle or the collection. ‘I’m also a human being,’ he may have thought or felt as he gave it. ‘Before God we’re all equal.’” During the communion liturgy, the narrator continues, “when the priest holding the chalice recited the words ‘ . . . but like the thief accept me,’ almost everybody fell to the ground, their fetters clanking.”

These occasional flashes of light alleviate the otherwise relentlessly bleak and brutal description of convict life—the cold, the cramped barracks, the food, the fear, the inhuman floggings, the stench and death of the hospital ward. And yet Dostoevsky refused to sentimentalize or idealize the “human spirit” of his fellow prisoners. He won’t let the reader forget that most of these men are capable of terrible things. They are both criminals and men, complex individuals, sinners and sufferers.

Some would no doubt prefer Dostoevsky without all the religion—they want the psychological, murder-obsessed, secular-philosophical Dostoevsky—but that’s like trying to have Marx without his theory of history. Dostoevsky’s deep-rooted religious faith—with all its intense internal struggle and its confounding, disturbing contradictions—is central. At its best, it was a kind of all-embracing Christian humanism; at its worst, in his last years, it served a combative Russian Orthodox nationalism.

In 1869, as he was finishing The Idiot—his less than satisfying attempt to bring an entirely good man to life, Christ-like but fallibly human—Dostoevsky started outlining a huge new multivolume novel, or series of novels, which he would call The Life of a Great Sinner. Never completed, various elements of it show up in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. In Dostoevsky’s notes, the protagonist, his “great sinner,” undergoes a life-altering crisis of faith, wanders Russia and Europe in search of “an idea,” and spends time in a monastery under the direction of the Russian saint Tikhon. “He finally comes to rest in Christ,” Dostoevsky projected, “but his whole life is storm and disorder.” The historical Tikhon of Zadonsk was said to have himself experienced a “dark night of the soul.” At the heart of the planned novel would be the principle, in Tikhon’s own words, that “there is no kind of sin, and there cannot be any such on earth, that God would not pardon to someone who sincerely repents.”

Today, it’s true, the word sin has an almost archaic sound to it. But perhaps it has its uses, even for the most militantly religion-free. The question still presents itself: What are we to do about the “great sinners” among us? Not the most extreme cases, the incorrigibly evil, who can only safely be removed from society. I mean the far greater number who, despite their “redeeming qualities,” their “better angels”—their capacity for humane feeling, compassion, love—nevertheless willfully cause great harm and suffering. They may have suffered greatly themselves, and yet for reasons they most likely do not understand—because we’re talking about something deeper, often subrational—these otherwise ordinary souls (if we’re honest, ourselves included?) turn their suffering outward and inflict it upon others, including the innocent and defenseless, whether strangers or those closest to them. And how do we relate to them, live alongside them, when we ourselves love them—or want to love them—and when those we love, even we ourselves, are the victims?

These are eternal questions, and there will never be any final answers or ready-made formulas. But let us acknowledge, at the very least, that these questions are real and pressing—never more so, perhaps, than at a moment in history when people in this country and everywhere must decide whether they can live with one another as citizens, neighbors, fellow members of a human family.

2. Confession

When I started dreaming of Dostoevsky, I knew it had become an obsession. And yet, tell me, what else was there to do, in the midst of a plague, except yield to it? For two years, I’d been reading all the major novels, and was now deep into the Frank biography. There was no turning back—the only way out was through.

I should also probably explain, before I go any further, that I lost both of my parents in the plague. They didn’t die of the plague, that is, of Covid-19, but they died during it—and at their age, approaching ninety, in steep physical and cognitive decline, under quarantine, in the time before vaccines brought some relief, it was in some ways almost the same. The plague—the isolation and loneliness, the enforced confinements, desolate absences—defined their end. They were its prisoners.

Not that there’s anything remarkable about this, or about the one writing it. I’m just a white, straight, married, middle-aged American male with two young-adult children and a house in an affluent town west of Boston where I’ve lived for twenty-five years. Of course, like so many others, I’m not from around here. I was born and raised in southern California, near LA, with roots in rural, working-class, small-town Texas, and with the fraught inheritance of a conservative, evangelical, Bible Belt Christian upbringing. But there’s nothing very remarkable about any of that either. I’m not going to tell you my life story—only certain facts that seem relevant to the topic at hand.

To begin with, there’s the fact that my parents were deeply in love, that they met and married in their late teens; he came from sharecroppers, her father was a rural mail carrier. There’s also the fact that they were, both of them, emotionally volatile, even unstable, given to explosive outbursts of uncontrolled anger and long, draining, fearsome fights. These scenes were countless, fraying the nerves of their children—myself and my three older sisters. Our parents separated several times, yet with the counseling of pastors and church elders, they would somehow be “reconciled.”

Whatever moral authority my father still possessed was destroyed and swept away.

It is also a fact that they were both, and especially my mother, devout, gentle and affectionate, generous and sentimental, and not least of all, funny. My mother loved to laugh, and to laugh with others, as if laughter, like prayer, like breath, were necessary for living, the antidote to suffering. Most of the laughter, and most of the prayer, of course, was hers—as was most of the suffering.

I want to be clear: my father was not a bad man. His better angels were, in the end, better than most. But he did some bad things, some of them very bad, which cannot be forgotten.

I’ll try to say this as simply and straightforwardly as possible. One morning at the breakfast table when I was in fourth grade (the only child left in the house, my sisters having graduated from high school), I witnessed my father commit what can only be called a violent crime, a vicious and brutal act. The victim was my mother. The memory has never left me, remains uncannily clear, and still comes, unbidden, without warning. It lives inside me, in my body.

I don’t remember how it started. I only know that they were arguing more intensely than usual, and there was something desperate in my mother’s voice, and my stomach seized up in that too familiar way so that I lost my appetite. And then this happened: My father took a small piece of paper that she had handed him, with something written on it, and wadded it up into a ball, and he told my mother that she was going to eat it, or he’d make her. And then he was on his feet, and he was holding her down in her seat across the table from me, and she was crying out, and then her cry became muffled, garbled, a groaning, and he was trying to shove the wad of paper into her mouth, and she was struggling, and he was yelling something, I don’t know what, something unintelligible to me, and one hand gripped her jaw and the other crammed the balled-up paper into her mouth, which was now bleeding profusely as she struggled. It happened fast, and also very slowly, or maybe that’s only in my mind, but I remember that I was on my feet, and I was yelling something in my small, pathetic voice, like “Daddy stop! Daddy stop!” and he didn’t stop, as though he didn’t hear me, didn’t even notice me. And then it was over. He walked out of the room, without apology, and I saw the damp and bloody wad of paper on the table. I’ll never know what it said, but I know that my mother’s lower front teeth had pierced all the way through the skin between her lip and her chin, and blood was pouring out, and she was sobbing and calling after him—crying out that she, she herself, was sorry—and her cries were like nothing human I had ever heard. And then I remember that he was gone, and I was standing at the front door as she sent me off to school—which was just up the street and around the corner, so that I usually walked—and she hugged me and assured me, as she held a wet washcloth with ice against her mouth, that she would be OK, and that she loved me, and that everything would be OK.

I’d seen him get physical with her before, of course. I’d seen him shove her down onto their bed. I’d seen him threaten her in an argument, leaning over her and jabbing his finger in her face. One of my sisters, when they lived in Texas before I was born, once heard her screaming and ran into their room to find her backed up against the wall, his hands around her throat. But I had never witnessed anything like the sheer brutality and violence of that morning. In that moment, I’ve since understood, my world was shattered. Whatever moral authority my father still possessed, after all I’d seen and heard, was destroyed and swept away. He had reduced my mother to a writhing mass of flesh—teeth and lips and blood—right in front of my eyes, and had walked away without a word to me, as if I didn’t exist. If such an act could go unpunished, and our lives could go on as before—if he could go on being my father and I his son, bound by the will of God to respect and obey him, as the Bible said I must—then there could be no moral order in my nine-year-old universe.

For whatever reason—shame? remorse? fear of consequences?—nothing like that scene ever happened again, and he never spoke to me of it. But from that day on, every argument, every raised voice I heard through my bedroom walls, sent a surge of fear through my young limbs. I can still feel it.

It’s not that I have no good memories of him, but they’re from before, when I was much younger. My mother would let me stay up late until he got home from the office, and after he ate dinner he’d lie down on the couch, and I’d stretch out on his broad barrel of a chest and fall asleep to the rise and fall of his breathing and the sound of his voice as he rubbed my back and told me stories of his own childhood, with his older brothers and sisters on the farm in Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, until those memories, the best ones, the ones he’d clung to, became mine. But the older I got, and the more I saw and understood, the more I learned only to fear him—and the fear strangled the affection, and the fear became rage.

I confess that, for a time in my early twenties, I wanted to kill him.

The summer before my senior year in college, he left my mother for another woman. That’s when I started dreaming of killing my father with my bare hands—I was strong and athletic, he was middle-aged and out of shape, and the most terrifying thing was that I knew I could take him, and I saw myself doing it. Of course, it never went beyond the dream—I remained the obedient son, went along with the new arrangements, was polite to his new wife, God help her.

My parents’ divorce dragged on for years—they owned their own business, and my mother had helped build it. Before it was all settled, my mother experienced a mental breakdown, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and was treated for severe depression and anxiety with, as the doctor put it, “psychotic features.” She recovered, with the help of medication and therapy and the love of her friends and her children—and, more than anything, her faith.

Maybe the most impressive thing about my mother, perhaps the great achievement of her life, was that her Christian faith—though not without her own dark nights of the soul—was rooted in hope and love, not the fear and judgment characteristic of her strict fundamentalist upbringing in West Texas. Her favorite Psalm was the forty-sixth, as Robert Alter translates it: “God is a shelter and strength for us. . . . ‘Let go, and know that I am God.’” The Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of compassion, of all-embracing and unconditional love, was real to her, present in her prayers. By some miracle she escaped, for the most part, the bigotries of her environment. (My father, alas, was less successful.) She loved her neighbor, whoever they might be, with an active, not abstract, love. She was “poor in spirit,” humble, acutely aware of her own sins, such as they were, and begged forgiveness of God and of all of us. She taught us forgiveness. “When someone is the most unlovable,” she would say, “is precisely when they need love the most.”

After eight years in what one might call a wilderness, my father left his second wife, and came back to my mother, all but crawling on his knees, and asked, I believe sincerely, for her forgiveness—and his children’s. And, yes, after everything he’d done, she took him back. You couldn’t write a better parable—the Prodigal Husband. And so she married him a second time, and they lived the rest of their days together, and we became, almost, a happy family.

She died on the afternoon of Saturday, June 6, 2020, in a hospital south of Nashville, where they lived in their last years near my eldest sister and her daughter. At eighty-nine, her dementia was advancing, and she’d suffered a bad fall in their small apartment at the assisted-living home, fractured her pelvis, and developed internal bleeding. For two months during that spring of 2020, she was moved back and forth from hospital rooms to rehabilitation facilities, under constant quarantine, no visitors allowed. My father—alone, all but blind, practically deaf, quarantined in that small apartment, Fox News blaring—never saw her again.

When it became clear that she wouldn’t recover, and we were told that family could visit her, I threw my things in the car and drove the eighteen hours from Boston to Nashville, praying I’d make it in time. When I got there, to my amazement, she was awake in her room, talkative, in good spirits. It was her last afternoon as herself. We even had a few laughs.

I confess that, for a time, I wanted to kill him.

By the next morning she was asleep and slipping into an ever-deeper unconsciousness. Her breathing, though, was peaceful, unlabored, and unassisted. I had downloaded the Bible on my tablet, and hoping she could hear me, I read aloud to her from her favorite scriptures, all the most comforting passages she’d read to me as I fell asleep in my bed as a child. And I sang old favorite hymns, the ones she always remembered her father singing. She was close to her father, and like him, she had a beautiful voice.

That Friday night, at around 9 p.m., my father found the courage to call, and I put my phone near her ear. There we were again, the three of us, and I listened in the darkened room as my father struggled to say goodbye to the woman who had loved him, actually loved him, like no other person ever would, or could.

Late that night I went back to my hotel room to try to sleep a little, and I woke at 3 a.m. crying. I was back at the hospital early, and when I saw her, I knew. Her breathing was barely audible, her face drawn, sunken, pale, yet without any sign of pain. My sister and I sat with her, talking so she’d hear our voices, until out of nowhere she took a deep, elongated breath, and then another, and another, at lengthening intervals, but without struggle, without gasps—and we stood by the bed, said soothing words, gently held her hands. I stroked her forehead and the hair brushed back at her temple, and sang to her, and she was gone.

It was a “good death,” as they say, as if the good Lord decided that this good and faithful servant had suffered enough for one lifetime, so why make her suffer any more in leaving it?

Yes, if there is a good Lord who decides such things, that must surely be what He would decide.

3. Judgment

“I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself. And retribution not somewhere in infinity, but here and now, on earth,” Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother, Alyosha, as they sit in the local tavern in the pivotal “Rebellion” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (again in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).

Ivan is the great sinner of Brothers K., though he has some stiff competition, not least his debauched and lecherous father, Fyodor Pavlovich, and his profligate and violent brother Dmitri. Only Ivan, however (as Dostoevsky’s image of the radical intellectuals of the day), goes all the way and rebels against God, plunging headlong into the moral abyss in which, according to reason, “everything is permitted.” It is Ivan, possessed by his “idea,” who gives “permission” to his father’s murderer—and Ivan’s belated realization of his own culpability provides the coup de grâce to his teetering sanity. But there in the tavern, face to face with Alyosha, still a novice monk under the direction of the saintly Elder Zosima (Dostoevsky’s tribute to Tikhon), Ivan reveals the inner torment at the source of his rebellion: the problem of theodicy and the suffering of innocents, especially children.

Ivan is a great cataloguer of atrocities, as was Dostoevsky, and he has just told Alyosha of a wealthy landowner who sicced his dogs on an eight-year-old serf boy, who was torn apart as his mother watched, because the boy had thrown a rock at one of the hounds; and of a five-year-old girl, abused by her parents, who was locked in a freezing latrine all night smeared in her own shit and forced to eat it because she soiled her bed. “Listen,” Ivan says to his brother in a kind of fever, “if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it?” Even if one grants, for the sake of argument, that we’re all sinners, Ivan wants to know, “what solidarity in sin do little children have? And if it is really true that they, too, are in solidarity with their fathers in all the fathers’ evildoings, that truth certainly is not of this world and is incomprehensible to me.” Ivan rejects any “higher harmony”—any promise of ultimate truth or salvation, any utopian vision—if it requires the torture and murder of innocents: “They have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. . . . It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

If Ivan’s “great sin” is his “rebellion” against the Christian God (or one twisted conception of it, anyway) and his embrace of moral anarchy, then what of Dostoevsky? What were his sins? He was famously conscious of his own status as a “sinner,” maybe even a “great” one. He was depressive and suffered at times severe anxiety, and we know about his terrible moods, his irascibility and explosive—though not, it seems, physically violent—outbursts. We know about his compulsive gambling and how it drove the long-suffering Anna, his young second wife, to the edge of despair. (Hers is a remarkable story.) We also know that he was tormented by religious doubt; after all, Ivan K. and his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” were always too convincing. More than anything, though, if I were to be the judge, Dostoevsky’s “great sin” resembled Ivan’s—a sin of intellectual pride, of a dehumanizing ideology, and most important, the exertion of a murderous influence.

As his fame grew in the 1870s, Dostoevsky launched a surprisingly successful one-man monthly journal called A Writer’s Diary, in which he let it all hang out: his post-Siberia conversion to tsarism (reformist, naturally), his aggressive Russian Orthodox Christian nationalism (he beat the drums for an imperialist war against the Turks), and perhaps most damning of all, his antisemitism, ascribing the decline of Europe to the materialistic influence of Jews, “Yids,” and decrying a creeping “Yiddism” that supposedly threatened Russia. These opinions, far from being confined to private correspondence (though there’s that too), were paraded in print at the height of his popularity, in the most widely read journalism of his career and as he was gaining access and influence within the royal family itself. Responding defensively (and, tellingly, at great length) to offended Jewish readers in the March 1877 issue of the Diary, he claimed that his use of the term “Yiddism” referred to a broad social phenomenon, a tendency of the time, by no means restricted to Jews, and that he directed no hatred toward the Jewish people. Really?

Ivan wants to know “what solidarity in sin do little children have?”

It’s impossible to reconcile this late-career Dostoevsky with the Christian-humanistic ideal of universal love at the heart of The Brothers Karamazov—which, amazingly, was conceived during those same years. He seems to have been as demoniacally divided within himself, in ways he may not even have understood, as any of his most disturbing (and disturbed) characters. The best that can be said is that Dostoevsky, in his last and greatest literary work, couldn’t help but contradict and subvert, consciously or not, his own worst ideological convictions.

If that sounds too easy, too convenient, then look closely at the unexpectedly complex figure of Alyosha—too often written off as a kind of two-dimensional picture of piety—who explicitly embodies Dostoevsky’s Christian-humanist ideal and his hope for Russia’s future, and who is, after all, presented as the novel’s protagonist. There are two things worth noticing. The first is a conspicuous absence of any nationalist politics—or any Orthodox exclusivity, for that matter—in Alyosha’s character. He is remarkably free of xenophobic bigotry or theological dogma and sectarianism; he favors a living, tangible, earthy ethics; he sees and cares about people as people, not theological or ideological constructs. And the second, as emphasized throughout the novel, is Alyosha’s steadfast refusal to condemn anyone: not his brute of a father, who abused his devout and doomed mother (she dies when he’s a child), and not the atheist and nihilist Ivan. Alyosha seems to grasp intuitively the distinction between judgment and condemnation. He knows it’s one thing to judge an action as immoral or criminal, to call a sin a sin, but another thing entirely to condemn a person as irredeemable. It’s the latter that Alyosha, under the tutelage of Zosima, refuses to do.

The refusal to condemn—is that what forgiveness is? Not to justify or condone the wrongdoing; not to say, “No problem, we’re good, it’s OK.” But to say: “Actually, it’s not OK, and yet despite your crime, despite the harm you’ve caused, for which you must be held accountable, I still accept you as a fellow human being. Because I, too, am capable of causing suffering, even willfully, if I’m honest. I, too, am a sinner. I accept your flawed humanity because it’s my own.”

I can’t help wanting Dostoevsky, the human being, to live up to the best ideals of his art. But given what we know, and was easily known to his contemporary readers, about Dostoevsky’s political obsessions and bigotries—and no matter how much the Christ-like Alyosha may subvert his author’s own darkest obsessions—there will always be something unconvincing in the Christian-humanistic vision of The Brothers Karamazov. As a profession of faith, it is a hollow testament.

Then again, so are most professions of Christianity. It’s hard, if not impossible, to escape inconsistency or hypocrisy in any expression of a moral-ethical ideal—thus the convenient escape of amorality. And yet even a hypocrite, even a great sinner, can write something true.

“Brothers,” says the Elder Zosima, “love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth.”

4. Forgiveness

My father was born in July 1932 in the little town of Blossom, Texas, just east of Paris, the fifth of six children. His parents were tenant farmers, sharecroppers, day laborers. I never knew them; they died too young. That’s what poverty does.

The paternal family name was Stefensky or Stefanski (it’s not clear which) before his great-grandparents arrived, in 1881, from what is now the Czech Republic. He was the first in his family history to get a college degree, went off to Abilene Christian College in 1949, and worked in the oil fields to pay for it. He met my mother, a classmate there at Abilene, and got married at age eighteen; got drafted upon graduation; got his master’s degree in accounting at the University of Texas on the GI Bill. The rest, to those who knew him, is the stuff of legend. In 1966, two years before I was born, he followed a job out to LA, his wife and three young girls in tow—and that Texas farm boy was off to the races. He built a successful small business and sent his boy to Harvard. Not that he took much interest in the substance of a Harvard education—not until I wrote my thesis on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I think it was the title that appealed to him.

He never went back to those little towns where he grew up, except for rare visits. I went there with him a couple of times, most memorably in 1999, when I made a two-week solo road trip around Texas in search of my roots, four months before my son, our first child, was born. Daddy met me in Paris for two days, and we explored the country church cemeteries and found the old family home places down the dusty back roads. He told me that trip to Paris was one of the best trips of his life—and this was a man who’d been to Paris, France, multiple times.

Over the years, I’ve made several trips back there on my own, the last time in 2016, when I drove up from Nacogdoches after a speaking gig. When I got to the old home place near Mt. Olive, just north of Blossom, now part of a subdivision—the home place where Daddy spent the best years of his boyhood, the years he told me stories about—I found, as I knew someday I would, that what was left of the small ruin of a farmhouse had finally been cleared away, and I walked around the spot where the house had been, now marked by an island of tall grass and wildflowers. But not everything was gone: the tall pine tree his own daddy, Hank, had planted off the front steps of the house was still standing, in spite of a long gash in the trunk where rot had set in.

Daddy never said much about Hank. He talked more about his mother, Lena Josephine—Josie—who’d raised six children in poverty. All I know is that Hank was a carpenter, did construction, day jobs, whatever he could get, and was often away for long stretches looking for work. One of my aunts told me he liked to drink, and had a temper, but she didn’t say anything more, and I didn’t ask.

That Christmas, in Nashville, I gave Daddy a few small pieces of bark from Hank’s tree, and a few bits of cotton I’d picked up by the side of a field south of Blossom, around Biardstown, where his parents were sharecroppers in the early years of the Depression. It was one of the few times I ever saw him tear up. He always said he could remember his mother pulling him behind her on a cotton sack as she picked cotton—hard, back-breaking labor—under the northeast Texas sun.

Can I judge the crime—and still love the man?

The last time I saw him, three days after my mother died, it was in the small lobby of the assisted-living home—that was as far as I could enter, like a prison visitation. I’d brought the paperwork from the funeral home for him to sign. We both wore masks, of course, and he had trouble keeping his over his nose. He was far frailer than I’d ever seen him, and quieter. When I got up to leave, we shook hands, and I patted him gently on his stooping back—and I told him, for some unknowable reason, that I’d be there for him, too, as I was for Mother, if there was any way I could. As he turned to go, he paused and looked at me, his mask off. The flesh hung loosely on his face, and his mouth, lips pale, bloodless, made a half smile, half grimace, and in his eyes there was something unmistakably like fear.

Early in the spring he got vaccinated, as did my sister and niece, so that they could visit him. I wouldn’t be fully vaccinated until the first week of June, exactly a year after my mother had died, but I went ahead and booked my trip to go see him as soon as I’d be cleared. Then, early in the morning on the last day of May, my sister called to tell me he was gone. He had died, unexpectedly, in the night. She’d been with him the day before, and we were both glad of that. But he never heard me say that I forgave him.

Did I? I don’t know. Is this essay my retribution or forgiveness? Maybe it was never up to me to forgive him, maybe that’s up to “God,” whatever that word means. Maybe there are things that are too much to ask of a child. Maybe it was all I could do, all that could be reasonably asked, just to love him. Not as a child has every desire and every right to love a father—that had long since been impossible—but as a Christian, no, sorry, as any decent human being loves another. Could I love him, as a brother, as a fellow sufferer, a fellow sinner? That’s the only question that ever mattered. Can I judge the crime—and still love the man?

5. Brothers

As the Karamazov brothers face each other in the tavern, Alyosha asks Ivan how his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor comes to an end. The Inquisitor, you may remember, is Dostoevsky’s fictional embodiment of what Simone Weil would later call the “totalitarian spirituality” of a church that yields to the third temptation of Christ in the desert: absolute worldly power. Ivan replies, describing the scene in the prison cell as Jesus (if that’s who he is) faces the old man who burns heretics in His name:

when the Inquisitor fell silent, he waited some time for his prisoner to reply. His silence weighed on him. . . . The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders. . . . “Go and do not come again . . .”

Minutes later, when Alyosha asks Ivan if he still holds to the idea that “everything is permitted,” Ivan answers with feeling: “I thought, brother, that when I left here I’d have you, at least, in all the world . . . but now I see that in your heart, too, there is no room for me, my dear hermit. The formula, ‘everything is permitted,’ I will not renounce, and what then?”

“Alyosha stood up,” Dostoevsky writes, “went over to him in silence, and gently kissed him on the lips.

“‘Literary theft!’ Ivan cried, suddenly going into some kind of rapture.”