"Was I doomed to suffocate in a hole of my own digging? Perhaps my late father’s wild rollercoaster of a life held the answer…"
David Labi relates the background of Pieces of a Man, his tragicomic one-man show about his Holocaust Survivor father – showing at CPT on 29 September.
With my 40-year-old birthday looming, I found myself paralysed and depressed in Berlin, unable to take the step to join my girlfriend and a new life elsewhere. Enthusiasm had drained from my work, my creative outlets were jammed, and I was joylessly pursuing hedonistic self-destruction. Repetitive, obsessive behaviours ate up my days and I could see only the inside of my head.
Hovering above me hung the image of my father, dominating me. At my age he’d had a wife and kids, a house with a pool, a successful business – a big man in the pomp of life. On the one hand I didn’t match up to his values in life and what he’d wanted for me.
But on the other hand I felt the weight of his own perceived failure. In later life, he declined rapidly and I watched him slide into financial collapse, depression, and death. His last years saw him compulsively glued to the television, volume blaring to block out the unprocessed trauma that must have roared inside his head. Was self-destruction hereditary? Was I doomed to suffocate in a hole of my own digging?
The only thing I could grasp was that my father’s story might hold the answer. As a small child, he’d been plucked from home by the Nazis, transported across a continent, and imprisoned at the notorious concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. He was lucky to survive with his mother and sister, and though he could remember little of what happened, the horrific emotions he’d felt in his most formative years were imprinted.
A proud, bombastic alpha male, he went on to build impenetrable fortifications around this childhood trauma. But the seismic activity thrumming inside fuelled a life of extremes. Business success and cataclysmic failure, casinos and Armani suits, dealings with the Mossad and Russian mafia – even an unexplained bomb in a sleepy London suburb. En route, his family of six were dragged on a breakneck rollercoaster ride that almost drove each of us mad.
I went on a journey to discover him: interviewing family and friends in Israel, Italy, Canada, and London – including my mother, brother, sisters – and my father’s sister. Everyone had a different character in mind. He was at times hilarious, heroic, ridiculous, exasperating, monstrous, mad. I found out much I hadn’t known, even challenging the fundamentals of what we thought we knew about him. The project began as a podcast, then became a book, switched to a documentary film, and finally burst into shape as a one-man show, veering between standup comedy, documentary, and dramatic monologue. Somehow the medium felt apt both to his crazy collage of life experiences – and to my own globetrotting life in ethical storytelling.
When I first performed the show, what I didn’t expect were the reactions. People I didn’t know approached me to share highly personal stories of their own parents. Though my father’s story was so extreme – and his unique personality all his own – people identified with all kinds of moments. “That part reminded me of my alcoholic mother…” “That was exactly what my dad used to do…” Of course your parent doesn’t need to have been in a concentration camp for them to have carried trauma – and passed it on to you. Vividly I saw how nearly all of us carry some parent-related blockage. And I recognised how telling my story, making myself vulnerable, had helped people come forward and share theirs.
The three-year journey I took to find my father allowed me to process the trauma I had inherited – and to accept it, consciously, as part of myself. Having worked designing and implementing interactive experiences since I was a teen, I have been developing workshops on people’s parental stories as a complement to this show. It seems my journey could help others in some small way to meet their own parents. Not the real-live ones (though it might help with that) – but the little miniature parents we carry around inside ourselves, and bicker with as if we were still rebellious children.
Sounds heavy. But it’s not as heavy as carrying leaden weights around with you. Actually bringing them out into the light can make it all much lighter. Perhaps it’s a Jewish cliché, to laugh in the face of trauma, or perhaps it’s just quintessentially human. But since we all have had parents – this is something we can share, and might even laugh about, in the end.
Thurs 29 Sept at 9pm