[Memoir] The Silent Type, By Sam Sussman | Harper's Magazine

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[Memoir]

The Silent Type

On (possibly) being Bob Dylan’s son

Illustration by Joanna Neborsky

[Memoir]

The Silent Type

On (possibly) being Bob Dylan’s son
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In 1974, my mother was twenty years old, trying to make it as a theater actress in New York after dropping out of Bennington College. She was in a painting class led by the eccentric Ukrainian-Jewish artist Norman Raeben (the youngest child of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem). One day, Bob Dylan showed up unannounced. They were painting abstracts at the time, and when it was my mother’s turn to comment on Dylan’s work she just shrugged. At first, that was the sum of their relationship: her quiet refusal to adulate Dylan’s celebrity.

One evening, after a particularly long session, Dylan abruptly asked my mother whether she wouldn’t mind hosting a party. It didn’t make much sense: she lived in a third-floor walk-up in the East 70s; he was Bob Dylan. He came to her apartment in red cowboy boots. People drank and chatted and left around 2 am. Dylan closed the door behind the last guest with a flick of his boot and turned to face my mother. So began a year of what she would later politely refer to as “dating.”

In that East 70s walk-up, they painted and read poetry, and talked very little about the fact that he was married. He often called at odd hours to play the music he was assembling into what would become Blood on the Tracks. Once, she read him Petrarch while they smoked, which is the only time she seems to have made it into his lyrics:

She lit a burner on the stove
and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said,
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
and handed it to me
written by an Italian poet
from the thirteenth century
and every one of them words rang true
and glowed like burnin’ coal
pourin’ off of every page
like it was written in my soul
from me to you
tangled up in blue

Eventually, the relationship lost its allure. She must have known there were other women. (It’s now a matter of record that Dylan was tangled up in those days with Ellen Bernstein, a twenty-four-year-old employee of Columbia Records, and the actress Ruth Tyrangiel.) My mother never told him things were over; she just changed her phone number and stopped responding to his letters. In the years that followed, she left acting to start a business, married my father, passed the lease on the walk-up to a younger sibling, and relocated to rural Orange County, New York.

I was born in January 1991 in a farmhouse near Goshen, a bucolic town protected by slumbering hills and apple orchards sixty miles northwest of New York City. My parents divorced when I was two. I lived with my mother and sister in a world as different as could be from the city she had left behind. We chopped firewood and picked blackberries and wore sweaters my mother knit out of yarn spun from the wool of our sheep.

My mother loved stories. When I was a child, she read to me about King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Harry Potter, her voice changing tone and temperament as the characters danced across our kitchen table. I remember Willy Wonka leading Charlie through the chocolate factory, my mother’s voice almost singing his lines, and the Merry Men defying the Sheriff of Nottingham—she had a stunning English accent she only ever used for Robin Hood.

When my sister and I were young, my mother became interested in holistic health, and slowly built her own practice. She saw through conventional shortcuts—fad diets, overmedication—and drew on her training in psychology, meditation, homeopathy, and kinesiology to help others develop a more intentional relationship with their health. She came to believe that mental, spiritual, and physical well-being are interwoven, that negative relationships to food, self, and other people are often cyclical. What she cherished most in her work was hearing her patients talk about their lives. Here’s how she put it in a 2013 essay, “Thoughts on Love from a Happy Woman”:

I listen to people’s stories all day long, and my heart fills with love for each of them. Whatever they are going through, for whatever questions they are seeking answers, I recognize that it takes incredible vulnerability to ask for help, and I am so humbly fortunate that they are asking me.

For all my mother’s love of stories, she resisted sharing her Dylan chronicles. The episode came to me in pieces, always reluctantly—an old friend reminiscing, a stranger prying. My mother told anecdotes the way she held a yoga pose, the way she practiced holistic medicine: with attention to each detail, strength radiating from her core. She felt that nothing cheated narrative of its elegance more than swagger, excess, hyperbole. Perhaps this is why she rarely talked about Dylan. The affair too easily made too much of itself.

By the time I was a teenager, I had begun to wonder whether there was another reason my mother preferred not to talk about the man. It seemed that every adult in my life—teachers, coaches, strangers—wanted me to know how uncannily similar to Bob Dylan I looked. I cut my hair and the comments continued. I let it grow long and was told I resembled him more than ever. A teacher once emailed me in the middle of the night to say that he was watching a documentary about Dylan and could not stop thinking about how much I looked like him.

I was raised on tales of princes mistaken for paupers and muggles revealed to be wizards. What sort of reader would I have been had I not wondered whether my claim to Dylan ran deeper than secondhand acquaintance?

Admittedly, this reverie was born in part from unhappy facts. My father remarried when I was eight, and I’d struggled to feel welcome in his new family. I admired his work as a civil-rights lawyer and loved talking to him about baseball and politics, but I didn’t always feel secure in my relationship with him. Meanwhile, my mother’s romantic life introduced me to a range of alternative father figures. Some men stayed years, others only hours. One stopped returning my mother’s calls after I lambasted him for being a Red Sox fan. My favorite was Rusty, the only one she married, a born-again Christian with two sons my age. We put up a second basketball hoop at the far end of the driveway and spent countless evenings playing two-on-two. He and my mother divorced when I was twelve.

So I’d entered my teenage years with the usual maladies of a boy who reads too much and lives inside his own head, my awkwardness compounded by familial dislocation. It wasn’t the warmest time between my mother and me. I missed my stepfather, while she wanted to distance herself from him. The only candid conversations we had were on drives home from the therapy sessions I’d begun with a local counselor, who, under cover of his suburban-father affect, tried to determine just how fucked my inner life was.

On one of these drives, my mother mentioned Dylan unprovoked for the first and only time. The headphones that were semipermanently clapped over my ears must have hinted that I was listening to Blonde on Blonde, and she would have been desperate to find common ground. It is the first time I remember hearing the story in one piece: the painting class, the party, the red cowboy boots, the midnight phone calls, the silent breakup. When she finished I asked what I thought was an innocent question: Did you ever see him again?

She said she had. In the spring of 1990, her sister received a phone call from a man asking for my mother. The caller said Bob Dylan wanted to talk to her. (My aunt later confirmed this call to me, though she couldn’t say why Dylan’s overture had run through her.) After receiving Dylan’s message, my mother made plans to meet him at the old apartment. Dylan arrived in red cowboy boots, whether out of habit or nostalgia she never knew. As I registered the date—roughly nine months before my birth—my mother went silent. The car swept through the black winter night.

Was this half-story an admission? Or was my mother gifting me Dylan as an imaginary father to compensate for the difficulties in my actual paternal relationships? Had she started with benign intentions, then realized the story’s danger midsentence and decided not to finish? A stranger thought: since she had been with my father at the time of the reunion with Dylan, was it possible that she herself did not know which man was my father?

After shock came elation. What more satisfying validation could there be for a shy, Jewish, vegetarian, bullied teenager than a secret lineage from the greatest bard of our age? Dylan was the rare celebrity I could identify with: a Jew fluent in the tradition but rooted in rural America, a storyteller as unbridled by form as every young writer wants to be, a defiant political voice resistant to sloganeering, a freewheeler moving between cultures at his own chosen speed. “I was raised in the country, I been working in the town,” Dylan sings in “Mississippi,” “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” When I read in Chronicles: Volume One that Dylan told Columbia Records he had come into New York on a freight train, I knew that if I ever made it to Manhattan I’d claim the same damn thing. There were worse people whose secret child I might be.

In those days, I read everything I could about Dylan, and I soon discovered the maze of his private life, the secret marriages and unaccounted-for children. Could these conspiring facts—Dylan’s profligacy, the 1990 reunion, our canny resemblance—really be coincidence? And if there were others, all the better: I had plenty of practice with half- and step-siblings. I would fit in just fine with the motley crew of secret Dylan offspring, this club of father-hungry poets drawn together by the exclusive invitation of the accident of our births.

But perhaps more than seeking a literal father, I looked to Dylan for evidence that I could make it as a writer. Besides my mother and my tenth-grade literature teacher, nobody had ever given me a reason to believe I could. More than one high school teacher accused me of plagiarism when I used a four-syllable word. I was from an apple county nobody had heard of; if Dylan didn’t kosher my creative aspiration, I felt certain nobody else ever would. I imagined him reading my work and responding with a single aphorism that I would spend years deciphering. I knew that Dylan never commented on his own writing, but surely in the throes of a father-son reunion he would offer at least a sentence of commentary on mine?

Still, Dylan remained unspoken between my mother and me, even as we grew closer. In the first two years after I left for college, she went through a difficult breakup and a bout with breast cancer, and something shifted in our relationship. We started talking regularly on the phone. I would sometimes take the bus to meet her in New York to watch theater performances. We went to Fun Home and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, and a staging of my favorite novel, Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. After each show we would have dinner and laugh about her dating life. It helped that I no longer had to see her love interests as potential father figures.

In our burgeoning adult relationship, I met a woman who spoke with as much ease about fate and free will as she did about gardening, whose wonder in asking a question always exceeded her certainty in any particular answer. She was a woman as knowledgeable as anyone I knew: about health and music, painting and animals, literature and tea. A confidante who challenged me to become the best version of myself without imposing her own vision of what that might be. A yogi who stood on her head each morning before the sun rose. She was the reader I trusted most with first drafts.

The only topic we avoided was Dylan.

The summer after my second year of college, I saw that Dylan was playing a concert at Bethel Woods, an hour west of Goshen. My mother agreed to go, on one condition: I was not to try to draw his attention to her.

It was a humid night, and we sat a dozen rows from the stage. The fourth song Dylan sang was “Tangled Up in Blue.” As always, he altered lines and vanished stanzas, but when he came to hers, every word was there. “She lit a burner on the stove,” Dylan wheezed, “and offered me a pipe.” My mother began to laugh. As he sang on, she laughed more freely, and by the last stanza her laughter had turned to tears.

All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives

My mother was crying and I was crying with her, we were weeping and holding each other. People were gawking at us, mother and son gone mad. Dylan was just fifty feet away singing his infamously mutating lyrics, which in the intervening decades must have become about almost anything other than the young actress in the East 70s walk-up, and my mother was weeping in affirmation of a life that had nothing to do with his.

A decade later—and three years after her death—this remains one of my most precious memories.

We drove home along winding back roads. I was still high off the music, thinking of all the strangers who had told me I looked like Dylan, and my mother’s tears, and their final meeting nine months before my birth. I heard myself ask what had happened that last time she saw him in New York. Whether there was a chance my resemblance to Dylan was not coincidence.

Her hands tightened on the steering wheel. For the first time in all our talks on the subject, I sensed from her something more than reticence. The ambiguity of whether I was Dylan’s child was so much less important than the certainty that I was hers. I hadn’t seen that, and she was hurt. We drove the rest of the way in silence.

In the years after the concert, as I left college and tried to find my way as a novelist, Dylan was never far behind. I taught “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in poetry seminars, and quoted my favorite line of his Nobel speech to my students. In my best memory of writing in grad school, “Series of Dreams” is playing in the background as night turns to day. I murmured my favorite lyrics all through Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country when it played at the Old Vic. I had degrees from Swarthmore and Oxford, but I still felt like that kid from the north country, “ramblin outa the wild west . . . til I come into New York town.” When I did get to New York, I didn’t know anyone in the cultural scene. Part of me still wanted Dylan to legitimize my creative work, or at least my choice to pursue it. My friends were charging into careers that paid more in money or prestige, and I wanted a justification for my decisions that might not be trivialized as easily as one friend had, dismissing being a novelist as a nineteenth-century profession.

Around this time, my mother and I had our last conversation about Dylan. We were at the Towne Crier in Beacon to see Sawyer Fredericks. The host led us to a table beneath a painting of Dylan in the mid-Seventies. He was looking away, his eyes hidden by sunglasses and a distant smile.

“What was he like?” I had never asked.

My mother studied the painting for a long time.

“He was brilliant, of course,” she said, “but a lousy date. You’d be talking and he would get up suddenly and reach for his guitar and say, ‘Oh, that reminds me. . . , ’ and he’d be lost for the night.”

At twenty-five, I saw for the first time the great courage it must have taken for my mother, just twenty years old, to know that her relationship with Dylan wasn’t right and end it of her own accord. She loved the painting and poetry and lyrics in the East 70s walk-up, but she wanted more for herself than to be Bob Dylan’s sometime girlfriend. She wanted her own rich and inspired life.

We talked more honestly that night than we ever had before. She told me about her years in the city: that she had been raped twice, and was married briefly to an abusive man. She said it was the most harrowing period of her life, but that she had gained a resilience that would help her survive later events that did not turn out as she imagined. She had learned, she said, that we are designed to heal. I thought of the life she had conjured from that suffering, the refuge in the woods she created, the blackberries and hay bales and two children dressed in knitted sweaters, the holistic-health practice she built to help others heal, and I saw as I never had before the majesty of my mother’s life.

She said she hoped I would escape the troubles she had faced, but that I was choosing a difficult path as a writer and I would have to find my own resilience for times when it would be easier to give up. She said that even after having her heart broken many times she still believed in love, and that despite losing people who had meant so much to me, she hoped I did, too. “You’ve always been intelligent,” she said, “but it’s your heart that makes you special. Just don’t forget that, all right?”

I did not know what was ahead of us, that as she spoke ovarian cancer was already spreading through her body. I could not have imagined the last month at home, when she was in too much pain to sleep and I read to her until her eyes closed. The drives to the doctor, her body so fragile she would shudder in anguish each time the tires struck a bump in the road. Helping her into bed, her palm in mine, each step a mountain. The afternoons when the IV dripped chemo into her arm while we watched films on her laptop and she somehow had the energy to tell me what she thought of the latest draft of my novel. The day she couldn’t drink water anymore. The week in the hospital, seven days and seven nights, sleeping beside her on a fold-out cot. The day she looked at me as I read to her and said, “Need to sleep now.” The days at her bedside as the palliative drug slowly took her into its awful stupor and my sister and I told her our favorite childhood memories, no longer sure whether she could hear us. The moment she stirred awake—the last time my mother ever spoke—and said, “I can’t do it without my kids.”

All of that was still ahead of us. That evening in Beacon, it was just my mother and I sitting opposite each other at a dinner table as we had so many times before, a conversation that began at the concert and finished in the early hours of the morning. “We are here,” she said to me toward the end of the night, “to take the pieces of the universe we have been given, burnish them with love, and return them in better shape than we received them.” She told me she had always thought this was the only reason to tell a story, to redeem what is broken in our world, and for what it was worth, I might keep that in mind.

I never asked her whose quote it was. After she died, I googled it. The only thing that came up was her website. Like almost everything else about her, those words were original.

Once, on a cross-country road trip, I met a woman from Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. She seemed about his age, and I asked whether they had known each other growing up. She said yes, but there wasn’t more to say about his early life beyond what he’d written in Chronicles. We were silent, and then she looked at the light-blue skies over the Badlands and said that just before Dylan left home she saw him at the county fair kissing a girl who had long scrawls of hair and hickies on her porcelain neck. The woman said she had thought little of the encounter at the time—two local teenagers in love—but that as Dylan’s fame grew she often wondered whether he longed for that innocence, if the nostalgia of “Girl from the North Country” spoke to the displacement Dylan felt, the certainty that he would never again be with a woman he could trust not to define him by his fame. I thought of my mother’s indifference to him in Raeben’s painting class. I wondered whether this is what had drawn him to her, whether even at twenty, so long before my mother became the woman I knew, she had already developed the authentic sense of self that would shape her life.

In the months after my mother’s death, I knew it was time to relinquish the Dylan reverie for good. My writing wasn’t anything like his (how could it be?), and while strangers still occasionally told me I resembled him, this had become less routine. And for all my difficulties with my father, many of our conversations about baseball and politics were winding their way into my first novel. My writing was starting to find its place in the world, and did not need Dylan to kosher it.

Last year, I received a call from my uncle, who was leaving New York to escape the pandemic. He invited me to move into the walk-up on East 78th Street, which has been passed around my family for five decades. I’m writing now in that apartment, with the same hardwood floors and likely the same burner on the stove. In the evenings, when “the heat pipes just cough,” I sometimes think of the smoke and poetry that once lingered between Dylan’s lips and my mother’s. But on nights when I reach for creative guidance, I think not of Dylan, but of my mother: her belief in the integrity of any story told on its own terms, whether it’s the tales of King Arthur she read to me as a child or the stories I am trying to write today. When I look at words disordered on the page, I am never sure how being Bob Dylan’s child would help me come closer to beauty or truth. But I know the infinite gifts of being my mother’s son.