Father Seraphim Rose, Charles Dickens, and dominant women

by Andrea Elizabeth

From Father Seraphim Rose, His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene.

Eugene [Father Seraphim’s birth name] began reading the works of Charles Dickens at a young age. He especially loved the Pickwick Papers, the book that had once brought Dickens overnight fame. His mother later remembered him laughing aloud while reading it. When it came time for him to go to sleep she would barge into his room and turn off the light. Later, she would be awakened by the sound of giggling. Returning to her sons’s room to see what was going on, she would discover him under the blankets with a flashlight, continuing to read the book. (p.11)

The Fr. Seraphim/Dickens connection is closer than I expected when I wrote two posts ago.

On to more specific issues, Wikipedia and other sources have revealed that Father Seraphim struggled with homosexuality in his younger years. I haven’t gotten to that in this book, but it seems to me that Hieromonk Damascene is setting the stage for why in the way he describes his parents. I have heard of the stereotype of the dominant mother and absent or passive father, and this scenario is brought out in the book. I don’t know if his mother read this (there are some quotes from her but they could be second hand), but I don’t think she would like how she was described, such as by the word “barge” in the above. She apparently did not respect her children’s privacy, as it says that she would search their drawers and read their letters (p.6). However I believe it is the parents’ responsibility to know what their children are up to and the nature of their relationships. I think privacy should be more respected in regards to bodily modesty, but not so much about what they are doing. I don’t think children should be allowed to have private stashes of magazines, unsupervised time on the internet, or be allowed to be alone with other children too much. They can’t handle the responsibility of supervising themselves, and I think they would appreciate being stopped before something develops into deviant behavior. Apparently she was not sneaky about her “invasions”, as I think that would be wrong. But mothers do go in children’s rooms and discover things, which is not a crime. Parents are responsible for what goes on in the house. [edit: I just read that it was these letters discovered by his mother that lead to his “coming out” or “being outed”, so that could explain some of Hieromonk Damascene’s inferred defensiveness.]

Back to dominant mothers,

Frank’s docility, together with Esther’s strong-willed personality, made it inevitable that the natural order of the family would be reversed in the Rose home. This was the only truly unfortunate factor in Eugene’s upbringing. Yet, in all fairness, it must be said that Frank was not simply a doormat. If one looked hard enough, one could see hidden strength in him. He displayed that shy, dogged integrity, that deeply loving nature which is embarrassed to express itself, characteristic of the common man who (so the populist books and movies of the period claimed) could become a hero if placed in the right circumstances. In his later years, there would even be times – although few and far between – when he would stand up to his wife or at lest express disagreement with her, especially when he felt this was needed for the sake of his son Eugene. Eugene would one day remember these rare incidents with gratitude. (p. 7)

I expect his mother was grateful too. I don’t think strong women really want to be the strongest. Not that we want to be dominated either. Why does it have to be either/or? What is right should be first priority, and the woman needs to trust that the man will take care of what is right, and will listen to her opinions too. If a woman has grown with the experience of a failed system, such as Esther’s childhood forced frugality and when her children were young, the stock market crash, then she can’t just surrender the reigns to someone who hasn’t demonstrated strength in that area. Some women do, but I need to think about that more. Frank had tried a few business ventures with candy and ice cream, which both failed (p. 4,5).

It seems that Frank had little choice but to be dominated. When Esther expressed her strong opinions – which was not infrequently – Frank listened attentively and generally responded with nought but silence and a smile. He scrupulously avoided conflicts and usually expressed assent by saying “Betcha!” He rarely if ever harbored bitterness or ill will toward anyone.

Like his father, Eugene responded to his mother’s will without complaint. From his father’s example he learned to listen attentively but silently to Mother. She set the standard for the family, and Eugene did his best to live up to it. He was remembered in the family as the “perfect son,” the proverbial dutiful child. “If there was a favorite child,” Eileen recalls, “it was Eugene, because he always tried hard to do what was expected and did not cross Mother.”

To me, Hieromonk Damascene is inserting more bitterness into the situation than was actually there. Neither Eugene nor his father appear to have resented his mother, nor she them,

“Eugene was a joy,” Esther [his mother] said in later years. “His father thought the sun rose on him.”

According to his wife, Frank was “satisfied with a little bit. His interest was to be at home with me; he was happy just to be at home and take care of the yard. He was a contented man, having no need of outside interests. He always took a lesser job, and never told Eugene what to be in life or pushed him to make money.”

“Frank was not a practical man,” Esther affirmed. “He was the ‘intelligentsia,’ and I was the ‘practical one.'” (p.6,7)

So maybe it’s my own bias, but I fault his father, not his mother’s (understandable) control issues, with being so passive. Another connection with Dickens, when I saw W.C. Fields in David Copperfield, I was very upset at how impractical he was, yet so sweet and charming, which landed him in the poor house and his family destitute. What good is sweetness if you’re starving to death? It’s very childish in my opinion, which is how the photos of Frank look. He has a very sappy look on his face. His mother looks very alert and watchful. I think, so far in the book, that Eugene did a good job of learning what parts of his parents to adopt and how to apply them. I don’t think I know how to analyze sexual preference though. I don’t think it is a healthy situation to have the woman be the strongest, most supervisory one. I think she can raise impressive children, provided she doesn’t have other extreme issues, but they will be vulnerable to unhealthy attractions, not that they can’t be overcome and patterns reversed with determination. Also, hormones and other environmental variables can contribute. I do tend, as does Hieromonk Damascene, to place a large responsibility on the parents’ choices and actions though. It was Esther who took the children to church, though she did seem to have some problems (how justified is not disclosed) with trusting even pastoral authority evidenced by the fact that they switched churches so often.

Together with his uncommonly loving nature, the young Eugene had strong religious inclinations. His mother, a church going Protestant Christian, was the one to encourage this interest. His father had dropped out of the Catholic Church at age eighteen. No one talked about this, and no one knew why. Although Frank Rose was not like his father in being anti-religious (Frank was not anti-anything, for that matter), he never showed any incentive to going to church. In later years he attended a Protestant church, but according to Esther this was only to please her.

“As children,” Eileen [Eugene’s sister] remembers, “we went with Mother to various Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, where Mother always sang in the choir. We usually changed churches because she had some disagreement with the minister.”

As a young boy, Eugene went to a Bible class at a Presbyterian church near his home. He often surprised his parents with his knowledge of the Scriptures, which he quoted to them from memory. According to his mother, the Old Testament books of Esther and Samuel left a deep impression on him. When he was in the eighth grade he went – entirely on his own initiative – to be baptized and confirmed as a Christian in a Methodist church.

I believe the next unexplained sentence is the real reason for why he may have chosen the wrong lifestyle.

In high school Eugene ceased to pursue an interest in religion. “Eugene was not religious at all,” recalls his best friend from that period, Walter Pomeroy [who is mentioned in the “coming out” part of the Wikipedia article]. (p.11)

Perhaps though, his parent’s failings did cause him to be disillusioned with religion (meaning corporate practice and creed, not one’s personal relationship with God). Sometimes inconsistent witnesses, whether from parents or the church one goes to, can tip the balance away from pursuing church and its values, when other issues or influences also come up. Not that that is a worthy excuse. I always wonder what would have happened in my life (like if I would have had a failed marriage) if I’d been Orthodox from the beginning. But cradle Orthodox obviously also struggle too. Lord have mercy. I do however believe that the Orthodox Church shows us the most healthy way to turn from our sins, if we will apply these measures, as did Eugene when he converted to Orthodoxy later.

I am finding this biography fascinating, and I very much appreciate Hieromonk Damascene’s diligent research, opinions, and sharing of Father Seraphim Rose’s life with us.