WU professor exposes hard childhood in memoir

'The Poison Tree’

Washington University professor Henry I. Schvey is the author of ‘The Poison Tree.’

A mensch. A widely published academic. Embraced by family and friends. Excels at putting others at ease, making them feel affirmed.

Why then would Henry I. Schvey, longtime Washington University professor of drama and comparative literature, suddenly expose – in print – his New York childhood with a domineering, often abusive father, and a mother with problems of her own? 

Although Schvey is accustomed to asking questions, whether to students or to the scholarly panels he diplomatically facilitates, here he pauses. 

Were his father alive, Schvey says, he would still have written “The Poison Tree: A Memoir” (Walrus Publishing, $15.95). But he wouldn’t have wanted it published.

During the 1980s and what Schvey describes as “the Reagan era of dog-eat-dog global finance,” Schvey’s father, Norman, who died in 1992, gained celebrity status as vice president and managing director of Merrill Lynch and chairman of its unit investment trusts division, the powerhouse brokerage firm’s most financially successful department.

His son’s memoir opens with a visit by Henry to his father’s apartment. Norman, meanwhile, is hospitalized with lymphoma.

Henry Schvey, by then “a reasonably successful professor” teaching at Leiden (Netherlands) University and lecturing throughout Europe, writes of feeling strange and confused.

No matter how well-manicured, handsome and powerful his father appeared, he says, “He could also be cruel and vindictive.”

The sight of his father’s possessions provokes rancor: “Like the pelt of a wolf,” the fur on Norman’s Austrian coat “prickles.” Within Norman’s English walking stick, a dagger lodges.

Such was the reach of a father who, according to his son, had slapped, undermined and publicly humiliated him for such youthful infractions as failing to thank a waiter for placing a napkin across his lap and later, in part, for wearing the wrong athletic shoes to a friend’s clay tennis court.

As an adult, Schvey says, “The central question I was asking myself was: Was there love? Or was there cruelty? What combination was there? Did my father want me to fail? Was there some way in which he hoped to shape me in a positive way?”

Years of therapy failed to provide sufficient answers. Neither did the evocative remembrances that a once rebellious Schvey, the elder of two brothers, wrote. Over eight years, he would start, stop, start over, rewrite and attend writers workshops. At one point, he tried turning the material into a novel. 

However, discovery of creative nonfiction, a genre that applies the dramatic techniques of fiction to factual narrative, persuaded  him to write a memoir.

Though he focuses on his father, his mother figures in, too. Like her husband, she came from one of New York’s wealthiest Jewish families. 

Well-educated, enamored of Shakespeare and the classics, Rita Lerner Schvey was nonetheless emotionally fragile. Cheated on multiple times by Norman before he divorced her, she was often depressed and prone to hoarding everything from Tiffany antiques to Welch’s jelly jars.

Before she died nearly three years ago, Henry read to her portions of his eventual book, in her assisted living facility in Florida. She knew his intentions, he says. 

Yet even though Schvey “purposefully set out not to be my dad,” he pondered how widely to share his output. 

“Frankly, people have horrible childhoods,” he says. “They survive.”

And many learn from negative experiences without writing them down. But for Schvey, writing became the challenge. His aim: “Organizing the material in a way that was not hateful, that was in a perverse way funny.”

Finding a publisher proved difficult. 

“I didn’t want to self-publish because I needed external validation,” Schvey says. 

General-interest national publishers rejected him as an unknown,  but St. Louis-based Walrus Publishing brought out his book. 

One realization, years in coming: 

“At some level, my father cared about me. I’m not saying it was loving. There was clearly a sadistic element. But I know he cared.”