Reviewed by Don Noble
A river of books has come out of the civil rights moment: large-scale general histories like Taylor Branch’s three volume America in the King Years and more focused studies such as Diane McWhorter’s investigation of the Movement in Birmingham, Carry Me Home. Likewise there are memoirs by famous activists such as John Lewis and by many minor figures who have contributed their small pieces to the historical picture.
Up until now we have had almost no reports from the other side of these ’60s and ’70s battlefields. What were the violent racists, brutal policemen and troopers, Klansmen, thinking? Why did they behave as they did? What beliefs, emotions, one might one say misguided principles, caused them to act in vicious, cruel, and finally futile and stupid ways? There is now a trickle of memoirs from those individuals, “recovering” racists, the most articulate of whom attempt to explain why they acted as they did.
Tim Parrish, Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University, holds the MFA in fiction writing from the University of Alabama. His previous book, a collection of stories titled Red Stick Men, is set during his childhood in blue collar Baton Rouge in the 1970s. This book, Fear and What Follows, is set in the same time and place and makes expansive use of fictional technique: Parrish generates dramatic scenes and dialog that could not possibly be remembered verbatim from when he was a teen. He covers this properly in the Foreword, not wishing to be attacked for exaggeration as was James Frey in A Million Little Pieces. Thus, the memoir reads like a novel and has power—a sad, unsettling power. It is painful to read and must have been agony to write, but Parrish means to find the truth about what formed him.
One of the sources of his anger and fear is his church, but the title overstates the case against Christianity. A believer at the time, Parrish complains of the hypocrisy of extolling the power of love and then voting to ban blacks from entering, and generally the “hatefulness and sadism” of the hell-centered theology, but this is not the root of his problem. Parrish is also rattled by his older brother Robert’s experiences in Vietnam. Robert has a traumatic time—after his return he suffers PTSD before it officially exists—and Parrish, like many even at the time, feels the government lied and the war was a folly.
Parrish’s father is a vocal racist, issuing a stream of hate against blacks. Nevertheless, he’s horrified at what Tim gets into. Although Tim thought Dad would be pleased, Mr. Parrish, like many a parent, wants his son to be better than he is. He does not want Tim to follow in his path. (Readers should know, the language used by Mr. Parrish and Tim and his friends is authentic, obscene, and relentless.)
This memoir is, above all else, about fear, the sources and effects of being afraid, and the catalyst for Parrish’s fear is race. As he says, “race trumped everything.” We sometimes forget it was mostly the lower middle class whose schools were integrated, who had to cope with the changes, not the suburban well-to-do. Parrish writes of being an honor student and a promising athlete. His school, previously a haven, is in turmoil and there is indeed some black-on-white violence. Parrish feels threatened.
At home, Parrish’s family is afraid they will lose their home to integration and indeed they do. As in so many other neighborhoods, if one house is bought by blacks, it is viewed as an invasion, Armageddon, and the whites sell and flee.
Swept away by this sense of being at war, with him and his buddies white soldiers on the front lines, Parrish, like most boys, is mainly afraid he is not courageous enough, not a real man, whatever that might mean. He seeks approval from older boys who are, by any standards, bent, and overcome by insecurity and toxic peer pressure, he gets into needless fights, flirts with maiming or killing blacks, even murderous arson, and comes close to being arrested and ruining his life’s prospects forever.
Now forty years later Parrish, a teacher and writer, uses the process of memoir “to understand the despicable things I thought and did.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show Bookmark and the editor of A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama. This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.