A HOLE IN THE WORLD

An American Boyhood

By Richard Rhodes

Simon and Schuster. 271 pp. $19.95

RICHARD RHODES is a successful and respected writer, the author of numerous books including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, for which he received both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But Rhodes is also, at age 53, a survivor of his stepmother's brutality and his father's indifference -- a victim, that is, of what we now commonly call child abuse. A Hole in the World is his account of his suffering and his difficult, incomplete triumph over it, and thus is a timely contribution to the literature of a problem we are only beginning to understand.

Its subtitle seems intended both literally and ironically. In certain respects Rhodes had what was, for those of his generation, an archetypical "American boyhood"; he grew up poor but provided for in Kansas and Missouri, worshiped his big brother, learned how to do farm work, won a scholarship to a prestigious university -- Tom Sawyer and Ragged Dick rolled into one. But there was far more darkness than light in his childhood, which is to say that behind the comfortable mythology of "an American boyhood" lie the individual secrets of each boy who experiences it, secrets that can belie as well as affirm the myth.

Rhodes's horror began when he was too young to comprehend what was happening to him. He was barely a year old when, in the summer of 1938, Georgia Saphronia Collier Rhodes took her own life. She had three sons: Mack, 10 years old, Stanley, 2, and Richard, 13 months. "At the beginning of my life the world acquired a hole," Rhodes writes. "That's what I knew, that there was a hole in the world. For me there still is. It's a singularity. In and out of a hole like that, anything goes."

For nearly a decade his father tried to fill that hole, but with only limited success. Arthur Rhodes, a boilermaker for the Missouri Pacific who subsequently went on to other railroad jobs, was a decent if selfish man who loved his sons but hadn't the strength of character to put them first in his life. He sent Mack out West to live with relatives, with the result that the eldest child effectively vanished from the lives of his younger brothers. Then, in 1947, he hooked up with a woman named Anne Ralena Martin, a veteran of four or five previous marriages: "She was evidently a mantrap, someone who bushwhacked husbands and cleaned them out. Dad became her plow horse; she worked him for more than 15 years, until he died of cancer of the stomach in 1964. Stan thinks she married once more after that."

If she was a mantrap, she was no less a child-abuser. For two years and four months, "until we were removed by the Jackson County juvenile court to the relative safety of the Andrew Drumm Institute for Boys in July 1949," she subjected Stan and Richard to what the former recalls as "force and power and dominion." It began with the insistence that the boys adhere to rigid if capricious rules and steadily escalated to a point at which they were subjected to violence and starvation:

"For me what happened was first of all existential. To manipulate and tame us, to make us new men, our stepmother -- we never did call her Mother, nor did she ever even remotely deserve the name -- self-righteously attacked our mental and bodily integrity. She tinkered sadistically with control worked out on the surface and the interior of our bodies. I don't believe she began with a calculated program of coercion, any more than the Nazis began with a calculated program beyond expulsion for the European Jews. The problem was to deal with them, but once they'd been stripped of their rights, everything became possible. Since we were children, and had few rights in the first place, since our father was too cowardly to defend us from brutalization, everything became possible for her as well."

When at last the boys had suffered all they could bear, Stanley took the heroic step of entering a Kansas City police station and pleading for help. The social worker who investigated the case found that Stanley, at age 13, stood 5 feet 4 inches and weighed only 97 pounds; Richard, at 12, was 4 feet 11 and weighed 80 pounds. Six years later, when Richard was about to graduate from Drumm and go on to Yale, the same social worker "cried with happiness for me" and told him: "We had a real dilemma. You had a home and two parents. You weren't technically indigent and normally we wouldn't have removed you from a home with two parents. But I could see you'd both been starved. That's what I remember most of all, how terribly underweight you were. She obviously wasn't starved."

Thus the long process of recovery began. Drumm was a far piece short of heaven, but it was there that Rhodes "deflated and solidified and filled," shaking free of his wicked stepmother and her complaisant husband but not of "the lurching monster of overwhelming, intractable, involuntary rage that my mother's suicide, my father's neglect and my stepmother's violence installed in me." Not until he was nearly 50 did he "let that anger go," when he "met a woman who needed me as much as I needed her." They live together now, and seem to have found a common peace.

This is a powerful and instructive story, and is certain to be praised as such. But the story itself is stronger than Rhodes's telling of it. He has a fondness for the squishy language of pop psychology that ill serves the hard truths he tells; when Stan describes an unhappy experience at Drumm, for example, the most Rhodes can come up with by way of response is the singularly inadequate, "It was a very profound rejection." More than that, he dilutes the force of the story with an excessively detailed recounting of his chores and lessons at Drumm, rarely managing to connect this excess of detail with the recuperation he was undergoing.

But for many readers these are likely to be cavils, and they are offered as such. Unlike too much of what is offered for public edification (and titillation) in this our age of confession, A Hole in the World comes straight from the heart with no apparent self-serving motives. Richard Rhodes is here to tell us three things, all of them important and useful. The first is that it is dangerous and self-deluding to sentimentalize the myth of idyllic American childhood. The second is that a child caught in a hell not of his own making must devise strategies for survival and must cry out for help; there are others, outsiders, ready to provide it. The third -- and to those caught in their own torment the most important -- is that it is possible to escape, to rise above hurt and rage, to live a life that is useful and good.