An Oral History of Myself #15: Neil Elliott


In 2005 I began interviewing people I grew up with. Because I left home at thirteen and spent four years in group homes, my social network was significantly wider than most people of that age. What’s most interesting about these interviews turns out not so much to be the things we remember differently as the things we remember the same.

Note: my father saw the first series of oral histories I published on The Rumpus and asked to be interviewed. I showed him the result and he was very pleased with how he was presented. Our relationship became strained, as it has been periodically all of our lives, and I decided to wait until he died to publish it. He passed away earlier this year.


Once your mother Kathleen knew she was pregnant we went to England to have you because National Health was so much cheaper than having you in Chicago. You were born early or something and they had to put you in the incubator at the hospital in Sheffield. We didn’t know if you were going to survive.

You were born on kind of the tail-end of my writing career and I started investing in real estate in Sheffield. We were doing wonderful business. I would take big old houses, convert them to apartments, and sell them to investors, making a fortune. Then the Labor party came to power. We couldn’t make ends meet so we decided to go back to America. I went back ahead of you and your mother and sister. In her letters your mother wrote whenever you got caught doing something you would say, “Daddy did it” even though I was thousands of miles away.

I went back to live with my parents in Chicago in a two-bedroom apartment. To save enough money to bring you all over I went without a car. I had a hard job as a warehouse manager in a place where the elevator didn’t work. I’d come home so tired, weeping from overwork, but I was doing it to bring you over because I missed you desperately.

Then, when I had sufficient work, we started over again in America.

I was starting to build my real estate empire again. I bought a three flat on Albion where we moved to. Your mother didn’t like living with my mother. Two women cannot share a kitchen.

elliott_forsaleOn Albion some kid threw a 2×4 on the porch. He was making fun of me, or whatever, mocking me. I don’t know. I probably should have stayed clear of that kind of thing. I was tense. He was fourteen or something, looking to egg me on. I hit him with the 2×4. His father said, “If it ever happens again I’ll have to kill you.” And he would have.

We sold the three flat then got a six flat. Sold that for a profit. I was still working as a driver for the water department. That was a good job. From the thirteen apartments I went to twenty-six apartments. Then I turned that over for a profit.

After I sold the twenty-six apartments I got apartments on the South Side and held those for quite a while. We were living on Coyle Avenue, which is where we had all our bad luck.

You were eight and your mother got sick with multiple sclerosis. She laid around quite a lot after that. She had a few little remissions, not much. She just laid there all the time. Broke my fucking heart. I think of your mother every day. I loved her.

At the time you were complaining you had to empty her bucket of pee and so forth. Bear in mind we must have changed her diapers hundreds of times. That’s the way it went. You had to look after her when I wasn’t home because I had to go look after the real estate. Also, I had to do research into multiple sclerosis and possible therapies for it.

At the same time she was sick, I was getting sick also. I had a prostate condition and I was losing my temper all the time. I would call names and make personal attacks on my daughter and son who I loved more than anything in the world. I guess I thought they could take it but I was mistaken. They were just children and it was brutal. It made their home such an unpleasant place. Homes are supposed to be a place of refuge where you come in and feel comfort and at ease and so forth.

We went on like that for five years. I tried to find a therapy that would work for her. There was one that gave her a month remission and her incontinence a remission that lasted five years, but otherwise nothing helped. And eventually she died. She said, “If this is life, I’d want it. But this is not life.” She really wanted to move onto the next world. She was very unhappy, as you know.

I think we were in the living room when I told you your mother had died. I’d already taken her body to the funeral home I’m pretty sure. Maybe I should have held a service or something, but I don’t know. I’m just not a guy who knows what the fuck he’s doing all the time. I’ve always had a hard time with social dynamics and so forth. I was crying all the time.


Death cuts everything off like a knife. I thought I was prepared but I wasn’t.

I took her ashes to England, spread them in the valley, because that’s what she told me she wanted.

And then I came home. I forget if I was yelling at you or cursing you or some other thing. You were thirteen and just walked out of the house and stayed away all night. That was the first time, probably November. When you came back I said I’m not going to hit you. Our door is always open. If you’re not happy here you can leave.

I still didn’t have a clue if there was something wrong with me. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Looking back on it I should have said, “Son, you have to spend every night here. That’s the law until you’re eighteen.” I should have made it definite that you can’t do anything illegal, can’t smoke dope in the house. But I thought if he’s not happy here there’s nothing I can do about it. For the last month you were with me I made a serious attempt to be calm and quiet and speak nicely to you and so forth. But the damage had been done already and one month was not sufficient to fix the schism, the weariness that I created in you. You could not find a quiet refuge in our house. And then John was around, who to you seemed like a glamorous figure. All the girls liked him. He was living on the streets and you wanted to copy him. So you were driven out by me and attracted out by him.

There were quite a few forces at work. You were depressed over your appearance. You matured early, grew a beard when you were eleven or something. I was yelling, calling you names, running you down, making you feel small. John was an attraction. You wanted to lark about, show off to your pals. The drugs probably made you feel good. I didn’t give you a happy home. But of course that’s my analysis. I might be wrong. I can’t pretend to be objective or omniscient at this late stage. It’s funny because I loved you more than anything but I was crazy.

You turned fourteen on December 3rd. I was looking back on myself at fourteen. I was basically independent and I thought fourteen is not too young if he wants to live outside. I was not too familiar with the law. You took my ultra light suitcase, which I’d had for twenty years or so, and took your belongs and went.

elliott_fathersonI was totally confused, and I had to make a living at the same time. I had terrible psychosomatic pains worrying about you. I couldn’t play soccer because you were all I could think about. Is he going to survive? Where is he?

Other parents make all the right decisions but I didn’t.

I started seeing Kit in the spring before your mother died, or the winter. She was in a soccer class I was teaching. She came over and met your mother and loaned her a book. Kit and your mother were great friends. Kit and I were aligned boyfriend girlfriend or whatever but your mother had no objections. She said she hoped I would marry Kit when she passed on.

I can’t say it was a bad thing. De facto I was a single parent with a disabled adult and two children. Your mother was not a wife in any way. I had to carry her everywhere. I didn’t have any ill will for that. I still don’t. I’m just saying. I was a single parent. That’s the truth of the matter.

I forget when we got married but Kit wanted to live in Evanston and I had no objection. Coyle had been bad luck for us. I found a house that was a good investment, but I had to sell the house on Coyle. It was a very difficult time to sell. I did not expect to profit. In the meantime I’m running my other buildings on the South Side, trying to keep them up.

In August of that year we closed on our new house and moved. I didn’t know where the fuck you were. At one point I ran into you coming out of Roger’s grandparent’s house and you ran from me. I wanted to bring you to our new house on Michigan but you wouldn’t even talk to me. The grandparents called the police. I tried to explain that you were a runaway and I wanted to talk to you and I was your dad. But the police got in the way. They wouldn’t let me talk to you. And you insisted you didn’t want to talk to me.

Anytime we tried to bring you in there was an objection on your part. You didn’t want to live with Kit. You didn’t want to live with your uncle. You made it clear you didn’t want to hang out with me. You had no curiosity about where we lived, what we were doing. I left a notice of our new address with the post office. You say that’s not good enough for a fourteen-year-old. Well, of course not, but I didn’t know where you were and even if I did would I want to give you our new address? It’s hard to say. I didn’t have firm ideas about it. I went through the motions anyway.

So I’m trying to sell this house on Coyle and after a hard day’s work I come in there and I find you put out a cigarette on the windowsill. You’ve been in there. I’m trying to sell this goddam house and I’m a janitor. I’m not giving a three-bedroom house to a fourteen-year-old boy. I went down to the video game parlor and I warned you not to go in that house anymore. I was not rich. I’m not rich. And I needed the money. You didn’t want to live with us when I was there; now that it’s empty you want to make yourself at home. Well, it’s not acceptable. And one Sunday I came in and you were there and that’s when I pulled you up and you started swinging on me. I restrained you with the force necessary to make the arrest that I was taught in the sheriff’s department. Did I hit you? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think anybody’s ever seen you with a bruise or a cut lip. I restrained you, no questions, as forcefully as I had to. And if I did it angrily it’s because I was upset. When you tell people I shaved your head that’s fair enough, I guess. Everybody else said I shaved your head. I was just so angry I couldn’t get control of the situation. I was just crazy crazy crazy. elliott_headlockAfterwards I came upon you sitting on a bus bench and asked you what your plans were and you said, “Well, I guess I’ll just commit suicide.” I had to go to work or something and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I do know that if you had committed suicide I would have been haunted for the rest of my life. I would have never recovered. So fortunately you didn’t.

That was not the first time I shaved your head. That was probably the second time. The first was when you had been telling people at school that I was abusive. That must have been spring when you were out on the street with John. But you were still going to school. They asked me to come to school and you were called into the meeting and I said, “Tell these people how is it you mean I am abusive.” And you shook your head, leaving the impression that there was sexual abuse of some kind. Anyway, that’s the way I thought.

This is probably one of those interviews where I should keep my mouth shut but you’re my son.

So anyway, I was so angry you had told people I was an abusive dad that I brought you home and hit you and cut your hair. You had hair down your back. I wish I had never hit you and cut your hair. I can’t begin to tell you what a terrible memory that is for me. Afterwards you were sitting in the bathtub crying.

That’s the first time I cut your hair. I still have pictures of it. But that haircut was not quite so close. The second time I did it to stop you from going into that house. I’m still unhappy about it. I probably shouldn’t say these things but I’m going to anyway because I might not have much time left in this world. If you want it I’m going to be cooperative. The hell with it. I’m not worried about how I look anymore. Doesn’t matter.

One time I handcuffed you. I had been under tremendous pressure from people that said I should have you institutionalized. So you were living on the street with John. I must have taken you from the video game parlor. People were saying you should be locked up, given to a psychologist, but I had a feeling that would last only so long as we had insurance to cover it. I had a feeling it was a racket. I brought you home, handcuffed you to a pipe for about thirty minutes while I tried to figure in my own mind, reach a decision, about what I wanted to do. Fortunately, after thirty minutes, I decided, Fuck all those people. I took the handcuffs off and said you go and do whatever you want.

Now it’s August of that same year and the state takes you to Reed [Mental Hospital]. They must have picked you up the next day [after I caught you sleeping in the house]. I’m notified one way or another and invited to Reed. I made appointments with the elliott_varioustherapist and they always stood me up. Always. Those cocksuckers. And I never once saw the psychologist who wrote up the report on us. DCFS never had anyone visit us in our home. Nobody ever saw us together, period. To say we were dysfunctional is just made up out of their heads. I never even had an interview with anybody. It’s just bullshit they made up.

I went to see you a few times but you didn’t want me and the state tried to take you. You obviously wanted to go with the state and at some point I said, okay, the state wants him the state can have him.

I don’t know when you ran away from Reed or whatever. By November you were totally lost to me. Finally, some social worker slipped or was a good enough guy and told me that you were in a home on the South Side. The home was near my building. I brought you over to the building and gave you some work painting. John also did some work.

That December we started to get friendly again, or not friendly, but I knew where to find you. We were in association. Then you went to JCB home on Campbell. A nice home as far as I could tell. It wasn’t too crowded. You said you once asked to live with me on Michigan. I believe you but I can’t recall it offhand. It was probably good you lived on Campbell. We were separate. I still had my moods. I was still yelling at the little kids that Kit and me were having.

Rich kids go away to boarding schools. Prince Charles was not raised by his own mother. So, it’s not terrible you were in a home and I was in another house nearby. Nobody bothered you on Campbell. Nobody yelled. They gave you free room and board. I was still a crazy person. From my standpoint it turned out to be ideal, because we could become friends. And we did too. We started going to poetry readings together. We went to the No Exit Cafe. Even after you left JCB we were still together quite a lot. So I think we were friendly. There was always a little bit of weariness because I didn’t quite understand you. I was always afraid I’d lose track of you. That was my biggest fear.

Then at some point you went to college, then graduate school. We continued to be friendly over the years. We’d have coffee together.

Victoria says you dance like me. Dancing and writing, that’s what we do in our family. I used to be really good before I lost my legs. Real athletic. I wish I could have played an instrument. I’ve got a good voice for singing. Could have been a rock star.


Rumpus original art by Justin Limoges.

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Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books, including The Adderall Diaries. More from this author →