I come from an exceptionally unusual background. My father, a brilliant lawyer and entrepreneur, was a 5’2” Brooklyn Jew who went to Columbia at age 13. My Mother, who was raised Catholic on a Minnesota chicken farm, left home at age 17 and became a successful New York model and, later, a recovering alcoholic. At 24 she met my father, a 49-year-old multi-millionaire. He was the economic advisor and international lawyer to many corporations and high-profile people, including the Shah of Iran. They lived an eccentric, globetrotting life as some of the upper wealthy, we're talking houses all over the world with servants, staff, the whole shebang. The interesting part is that Dad lost his entire fortune when I was a young teenager and we faked being rich, for years, because my father demanded we keep up appearances...
The only escape out of this twisted reality was through art. I became an avid painter, majored in art in college, spent four summers landscape painting in Mallorca Spain, and then went on to study at a classical realist atelier. When I graduated from college in 1990, Mom and Dad were evicted out of their apartment in Switzerland. They had a month to pay a year’s worth of unpaid rent or get out. Mom, who was now bitter and resentful, had had enough. She packed two bags, left Dad, and moved back to Minnesota to live with her sister. She went on welfare, and scrubbed toilets to put herself through college. Dad, on the other hand, waited until the Swiss marshal escorted him out. With the little money left in his pocket, he flew to New York and moved into a YMCA in the Bronx. He bounced around from job to job for a few years, until a Texas friend hired him to help with oil contract negotiations. But after a series of bleeding ulcers and strokes, I convinced Dad to move up to Massachusetts, where I was then living, when he was 87.
Two years later, when I was 37, Dad had a whopper of a stroke. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. There was still so much I didn’t understand about our crazy past. In many ways, I was still angry with him. I couldn’t bear the thought of him dying without me forgiving him. That night, I franticly looked for anything that could help make sense of my childhood. Up in our attic, behind a series of cobwebs, was a box filled with my old diaries and high school journals. In one of them, my old English teacher, Mr. Birch, had written several comments. Mr. Birch was a dark-haired, scruffy-bearded man who often could be seen schlepping around my boarding school campus in a camel-colored corduroy blazer carrying books underneath one arm. He had a good heart, was incredibly engaging, and his apartment was a safe-haven for students with any type of emotional crisis. Mr. Birch was also my advisor, and instrumental in helping me stay sane through my teenage years.
The next morning, on a whim, I Googled Mr. Birch, and gave him a call. After a brief bout of hello and how are you, he flat out asked me, “Hey, I have often thought about your family and all you went through. Didn’t your dad used to trade arms in the Middle East?”
Besides the sudden urge to vomit, I was shocked. After all these years… of all the things he could ask me… Why did he ask me that? More shocking, however, was that my immediate reaction wasn’t “No.” Dad had always been very vague about his business.
While I sat there waiting for words to come out my mouth, I had a flash back to the early 80’s. Dad was sitting in his yellow suede armchair, stirring a Cutty Sark on the rocks with his finger. Mom was in the bar mixing another cocktail for herself. My older sister, Saraya, younger brother, David, and I were crowded around Dad, trying to get his attention. It was a typical evening in the Perl household, except for one thing -- there was a stack of gun catalogs spread out on the table next to Dad. David asked what they were for, and Dad explained how he had been approached by his connections in Iran to sell ‘the items’ in the catalog, and that there was a lot of money to be made in this line of work.
While Dad was contemplating the pros and cons of doing this, Saraya voiced her disgust in the arms-trading scenario, and I did what I usually did in stressful situations -- blended into the furniture around me like a chameleon. Dad got irritated with Saraya and claimed, “Well someone is going to make a lot of money selling ‘these items,’ and it may as well be me!”
Whether or not he actually did this was still a mystery to me.
I spent the next two days interrogating Saraya and David about Mr. Birch’s comment. Was it true? What did they remember? Saraya and David had similar memories, but we were all a little fuzzy on the details. Maybe we blocked these memories out as children. Maybe it was too overwhelming to conceive as a child. What else did we block out?
Dad’s lies were so difficult to distinguish from the truth. He was such a magnificent story teller. There were still times I found myself discovering things I thought were truths that turned out to be completely false. There was a lot I didn’t know about my father -- but one thing I knew for sure was that he loved me. And although I resented him (and Mom) for our rollercoaster of a childhood, I couldn’t bear the thought of him dying with me never having forgiven him. I suddenly needed to know everything about him. During the 10 days Dad was in the hospital, I tape recorded his every word. I listened, laughed, argued, and cried -- trying to make sense of it all: Mom and Dad’s passionately dysfunctional relationship, Mom’s depression and alcoholism, Dad’s rise and demise, his hair-brained ideas to get rich quick, the arms-trading scenario, his brilliance, his dealings with socialite Alice Astor, the Vatican, the Shaw of Iran, and the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, how he struggled to stay alive financially, all the crazy lies, and ultimately how I broke free from all of it to make a life of my own. I wanted so desperately to forgive and forget. I finally got the truth, his ‘truth,’ a truth that eventually helped me understand whom he really was, and ultimately who I was and who I wasn’t.
In Art I've found myself and my truth, and it's an honor to share it with you.