A Review of
Shattered: A Son Picks up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage
Reviewed by Denise Frame Harlan
“…isn’t it stunning to see that you don’t understand enough about
your own parent to witness their story?” Luis Alberto Urrea
Michel Montaigne, the father of memoir, employed the word “essay” in French, meaning “to try, to attempt.” My favorite nonfiction tries hard. The author demonstrates muscular work, like writing the steps to a math problem that ought to make sense. After all, the real life of a person is not fiction; a real person can be observed. Theoretically, characters can be understood, and people can be known.
Unless a person doesn’t want to be known, like this author’s father. Unless their guard is forged in extraordinary circumstances, beyond knowing.
In Arthur Boers’s generous memoir, Shattered: A Son Picks up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage, Boers studies his father, his father’s physical rage, and his family’s reaction to his father, from Boers’s earliest memories to his father’s death.
The book begins with his mother’s voice through the bedroom wall, “you’re hurting me.” And sometimes the same words are uttered in play, so the child will run from his room and hurtle into his parents’ bed, to rescue her. Sometimes it is not play. What is a family joke? What remains unnamed, beneath the joke?
A potted plant is thrown through a plate-glass window, shards embedding themselves in the carpet. No one is surprised: Boers’s father has broken glass before, building greenhouses, and he will break glass again. The father stomps away, leaving his wife to make the room safe again—mostly safe, though splinters will be found for years. Somehow the story of the broken window is retold and retold, using the three-year-old Arthur as the punch line, parents laughing to tears when the boy says, “Nyeah nyeah, you missed her!” in a voice like The Three Stooges, as the glass falls. No one treats this incident as violence, as a disaster. In the retelling, somehow the parents never hear pain or fear, because they’ve told it as a comedy. His father never apologies, because men don’t apologize. His mother always cleans up quickly, dutifully, and wary because the plant was thrown at her. No one is ever safe.
In Shattered, Boers’ paints a complicated portrait of his father as a dutiful provider, alongside a portrait of himself as a growing young man encountering a spiritual life. Young Arthur confuses his parents, steadily moving from woundedness to self-awareness, while maintaining a hypervigilance against physical attacks, and while deeply involved in protecting his mother. The family attends church with other Dutch immigrant families in Canada, in a respectful way, but Arthur’s reverence worries them: they don’t really do mystery. The author studies his own tendencies to perfectionism, his own judgmentalism, as carefully as his mother removes glass shards.
Along the way, the reader learns that the Boers family comes from The Glass City in the Netherlands, that Boers’s father invented a type of greenhouse that holds up better in Canadian snow and cold. Boers worked long hours for little pay in his father’s business, and though he bears scars from many cuts, he knows his entire life was funded by glass.
His gratitude is conflicted: twice, he and his sister bring balloons in the house to play. Twice, his father casually destroys the balloons while kids are still playing with them, shrugging off his children’s unhappiness because he is the master of the house. Twice, Arthur is beaten, once to unconsciousness. The Dutch culture promotes punishment for everyone but the father, the ultimate disciplinarian.
In this father-centric study, each scene is a puzzle to ponder, about how a father’s love fails, how the extended family fails to rein in any of the men, how a certain brutal masculinity was generational, normalized, and how some Christian subcultures may have become intertwined with this brutality. Occasional footnotes explain the Dutch Reformed subculture with simplicity and clarity.
Often interspersed with the study of the brittleness of glass, Boers describes the glossy surface of glass to be like water. Water forms a healing element in his story, as he combs the nearby shore for sea glass, in long summer swims, in fluidity versus brittleness. It’s a second rich metaphor.
In some ways, Boers’s writing reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders’s Under the Influence, about Sanders’s own father maintaining self-control for many years, then succumbing to self-destruction. These writings break a societal taboo: we tell what our parents should have been ashamed of— and they weren’t ashamed, which is more shameful still. The reader hears the deepest question one can ask about parents: who are you, and how do you reconcile yourself with your own actions?
Those of us who’ve grown up with childhood adversity often find ourselves shrugging “it could have been worse,” and Boers captures this in a masterful list of neighborhood dads, showing how bad other kids had it, showing the ways we compare ourselves, how perhaps we minimize our trauma and bury our grief over lost innocence, lost childhoods. We didn’t lose a limb; we didn’t die, so we soldier on because how bad could it really have been? Sometimes we have joined in those family “jokes” for years before we ask why anyone would consider that story funny. While his father is volatile and an alcoholic, Boers writes like a man turning each story like a Rubik’s cube, trying desperately to find that human connection, to elicit some sort of acknowledgement or confession.
He doesn’t get one. Instead he finds a sort of communion with his father through the love of jazz—and that’s not nothing. Perhaps many of us who have lost difficult parents will resonate with this: we come to a different kind of resolve. In lieu of an apology or recognition of suffering, we ensure that we ourselves live differently. We find our strength elsewhere. We live with unanswered questions, and while we hope for our parents’ redemption, we know that they lived their own choices. We heal. Sometimes the healing surprises us. The book closes with Boers in his adult life, reckoning with his family inheritance while enjoying his glassed-in porch on a glassy lake, waiting for his wife to return from work, thinking about his grandchildren’s next visit.
Boers’s writing itself lifts the story, so the encounters with violence never feel sordid or voyeuristic. The finest memoir writers learn the dictum that “hot emotions require cool language,” and Boers fulfills this task— as a reader I expected to be more triggered. I leave heartbroken, but not sickened, and in many ways uplifted: this is well-crafted writing that is considerate of the reader, and it’s not a victimhood-memoir as much as it is a spiritual memoir, a spiritual coming-of-age that brings the reader along in the genuine power of such an awakening. I feel like I’m witnessing years of meditative editing and revision work. This is miraculously well-done.
Denise Frame Harlan
Denise Frame Harlan writes from the edge of The Great Marsh, north of Boston. Her essays have been featured in Ruminate Magazine, Interweave Spin-Off, Topology magazine, Living Crafts, The Other Journal, and in the anthology The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Wipf & Stock). Denise teaches writing by day, at Massachusetts College of the Arts and Design, and by night she crafts socks for Stockingfoot Knits.
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