2009-03-09 11:14:07 UTC
The late poet John Thomas was lauded in his obituaries. A daughter
remembers him a little differently
Published on July 25, 2002
My father, ”Venice West“ poet John Thomas, died of congestive heart
failure on March 29 at the age of 71. His April 7 Los Angeles Times
obituary describes him as ”the sage of Venice“ (Beyond Baroque
executive director Fred Dewey), ”mentor“ (Wanda Coleman), even ”the
best unread poet in America“ (Charles Bukowski). Another journalistic
elegy, appearing in Los Angeles Magazine, depicted my father as a man
with a ”piercing wit [and] generous spirit,“ for whom ”poverty and
love were equal teachers in a life of wisdom.“ His obituary was
carried by wire across the nation, even making news at the Washington
Post. Soon after he died, a public memorial was held in his honor and
a ”John Thomas Memorial Fund“ was set up at Beyond Baroque.
No publication mentioned that my father was, at the time of his death,
serving a sentence in Los Angeles County Jail for sexually molesting
his daughter—my half sister Susan.
Posthumous descriptions of his life left out other significant
information: that he was a fraud, a thief and an endangerer of
children, and that, while he often bragged that he‘d ”retired at 28,“
he’d made an impressive career of consumption. As his last child, I
spent a good deal of intimate time with him. He lived with my mother,
Rose, and me in Echo Park and then northeast L.A. during my first 13
years. Let me introduce you to the John Thomas I knew.
In the nearly two decades my father spent with my mother, he didn‘t
work, and he wrote virtually nothing except for ”From Patagonia,“ a
prose poem about what he described as his inner landscape of
desolation. Real-world decimation, however, was his true
accomplishment. As he told it, he left his first wife when his
daughter from that marriage was still an infant, then abandoned his
second wife, along with my young half brother and half sister, to
become a Beat poet out West. He dropped his last name, Idlet, to avoid
paying child support. A favorite story of his when I was little had to
do with how he’d so effectively evaded authorities that his second
wife had him declared legally deceased so she could collect a small
sum from a dead relative to help raise the children he‘d left behind.
His name changed frequently, in fact. A late-’60s issue of the men‘s
magazine Oui published a feature on my father, celebrating him as the
country’s leading perpetrator of mail-order fraud. He cooked in stolen
pans, ate off swindled dishes with thieved cutlery, sat in chairs that
were delivered to a phantom purchaser at an untraceable address, and
wrote with thousands of ripped-off pencils that he‘d had inscribed
with the name of bank robbermurderer Harry Pierpont.
Growing up, I watched him feast on raw hamburger, grabbing it straight
from the Styrofoam package. Puffing through packs of unfiltered
Picayunes, he created what he called ”a conversation piece“ beside his
chair: a trash bin he used to stub out his smokes until they grew into
a thigh-high volcanic heap. In order to avoid taking out the garbage,
he found two industrial-size trash cans for the kitchen and let scraps
collect for months at a stretch. I knew it was summertime when I
stepped barefoot onto a sea of maggots that dropped from the trash,
wriggling toward the dog-hair-dense carpet. During one particularly
rough lunch, Daddy sprayed the kitchen floor with insecticide but left
the dying maggots, then served white rice and refused to allow me to
leave the table until I’d finished.
Drugs were a constant. Once, before I‘d entered kindergarten, my
father nodded off while painting. I crept into the space beneath his
knees and fell asleep. When my mother came home from work, she found
my father out cold, and me coated like an ice cream bar in shiny brown
paint. Left on my own while he slept off Benzedrine highs, I made a
sport of surprising the mouse colonies that lived in our kitchen
cabinets with a flashlight. I built amber pyramids from the scores of
amphetamine bottles my parents emptied (stolen by my mother, a
pharmacy clerk), and got stoned for the first time at 7 by eating the
Late in his time with us, my father made a pot roast so heavy it
collapsed the oven rack, then left the roast inside the stove to rot.
More than once, when I was preparing cocoa, boiled roaches poured out
of our teakettle. Dishes were left undone for a year; we turned to
paper plates while the sink-load grew strands of mold that dangled
from bowl to plate like lacy rain-forest mosses. The house was filled
with the stench of rotting food, cigarette smoke and Raid.
Equally noxious and permeating was my father’s sexuality. While he
made a game of insulting my mother and describing himself to me as her
”gigolo,“ he encouraged me to read his journals—beautifully
calligraphed legal pads filled with detailed sex fantasies. At his
bedside, paperback porn invited attention—one flashy spine read Father-
Daughter Lust. Our walls were covered with photos of Hitler, outlaws,
corpses and orgies; he kept his knife collection between hardbound
volumes by Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade. ”Tickle Time,“ a game
that invariably ended with his giant hands making their way beneath
the waistline of my underwear until I writhed in laughing confusion,
punctuated our days at home alone.
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing well over 300 pounds, he lifted weights
in the back yard to develop biceps as thick as cinder blocks, read
thousands of obscure books, and invited acquaintances over for lengthy
rounds of intellectual combat. One such friend became a boarder at our
house when I was 4. The man told my parents that his last ”girlfriend“
had been 12. He lodged in a room with a doorless archway to mine. As
soon as the molestation began, I told my father, who responded, ”Don‘t
let it happen again.“ The sexual abuse went on nightly for three
years, when I had to confess that I’d been unable to stop the abuse,
and Daddy finally threw his friend out. Later, my father denied that
he‘d known about the abuse while it was happening, but I think of that
period as incest by proxy.
While my father treated me with steady affection, reading me great
literature and talking deeply with me about art, philosophy, and other
adult topics, he likewise made sure I understood by the age of 4 that
all people will die and there is no afterlife, by 10 that a nuclear
Armageddon (replete with vividly gruesome details) was not an unlikely
future to anticipate, and by 12 that my disturbance at hearing the sex
he had with my mother was actually a Freudian response of desire on my
part and my real yearning was to be his lover. His warmth, always
tinged by an air of seductiveness befitting a lover, ensured that he
had in me a loyal ally in what was for him at that time an otherwise
emotionally alienated life.
In the early ’70s, my father flew the teenaged Susan (whom he hadn‘t
seen since she was 3) to Los Angeles, drugged her with a potent
pharmaceutical hallucinogen, and submitted her to sexual abuse a
several times over the course of her three-week visit—on at least one
occasion with the participation of my mother, who had also supplied
the drugs. Afterward, my father bragged to friends about his conquest.
In March of this year, thanks to a 1993 law allowing victims of child
sexual abuse to file charges years later—and my sister’s determination
to find healing through justice—he was convicted and incarcerated for
Several of my father‘s poet-colleagues and friends submitted letters
of support to the court in hopes of protecting him. Universally, they
praised his brilliance and generosity as a writer and teacher. Anyone
who knew John Thomas would agree that he possessed unusual quantities
of energy, intelligence and persuasive power. If he earned anything at
all, though, it was the legacy of suffering he engendered in his
children. ”Sexual abuse is not an art form,“ Susan told the court.
”There’s nothing poetic about the premeditated [statutory] rape of
your own 15-year-old daughter.“
In deciding to become a Beat poet, my father picked the right movement
to saddle up to. A culture that hinges on the breaking of taboos makes
room for the precise sort of madness that destroys individual lives.
Unarguably, the best of the Beats cracked open the second half of
America‘s 20th century by subverting postwar social mores. Without
”Howl“ and On the Road, there would have been no Electric Kool-Aid
Acid Test, no electric Bob Dylan, nor any of the other ’60s artistic
watersheds that followed. But in blasting apart the falseness they saw
in the America they inherited, the Beats as a culture left behind
little but the explosion (think Kerouac‘s unedited bursts—first
thoughtbest thought). And in their personal lives, many Beats left
trails of refuse made up of the children they forgot.
In a 1995 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Kerouac-lover Joyce
Johnson’s son, Daniel Pinchbeck, published a wrenching montage of
photos and vignettes called ”Children of the Beats.“ In it the writer
Caleb Carr, son of Lucien, argues that ”If any element got lost in the
Beat equation, it was the idea of children.“ Kerouac‘s writer-daughter
Jan, close to death from alcoholism, stares grimly at the reader.
Other discarded Beat offspring eye the camera with haunting gazes. The
article reads like a follow-up on abandoned Vietnamese GI babies: Many
of the Beats’ children were forced to feed on scraps in the bombed-out
hollows of the world their parents saw as phony.
While I lived with my father, he never pursued publication—it was a
point of honor for him. He responded to requests from editors,
however, so his poems did make their way into the world. And his work
was generally well respected. But as far as I can tell, his notoriety
derives principally from two facts: He outlived many of his Beat
cohorts, and he was friendly, for a time, with Charles Bukowski.
Indeed, he capitalized on his colleague‘s global fame by selling
transcripts of his taped conversations with Bukowski after the
writer’s death in 1994.
Simply living long enough to be a rarity, though, should not give a
person icon status. As for literary talent vs. humanity, Bukowski
himself said it best: ”It‘s so easy to be a poetand so hard to bea