I couldn't watch Mad Men. I couldn't even really listen to people talk about Mad Men. So much of the talk was about Don Draper, his hotness and his promiscuity, and while I can appreciate Jon Hamm's blue eyes and sharp jaw, I could not deal with his character. That's because Don Draper and my dad are pretty much the same guy.
My dad didn't come from poverty, like Draper, but his childhood was rough. His mother died when he was young, after having five children in quick succession. His father, by all accounts, was an abusive, alcoholic asshole. My father's older brothers and sisters all left home as soon as they could, leaving my dad and his brother Peter, the two youngest, to fend for themselves.
My dad left home early and finished school on his own. I don't know all the details of his young life, because the stories I've been told conflict with each other, and many of the players are dead now. But I do know that when he and my mother went to get my grandfather's permission to marry (my dad was under 21, the legal age at the time), it was the only time my mother ever met Thomas Halpin Sr. It was the last time my father ever saw his father.
Like Don Draper, my dad maximized his good looks and charm to get through the world. He was smart — Ivy League–educated — but it was his Steve McQueen–meets–Mr. Brady vibe that made an impression on people. These were the qualities that made him successful, and he expected them of his children. Straight As, good at sports, and good-looking. My dad assessed my outfit for my first formal dance and suggested different shoes, bemoaned my braces when I got them, and commented on every haircut. I did my best.
My dad didn't restrict his comments on appearance to me and my siblings. When I was thirteen he told me my friend Sherry was pretty after she came over for a swimming date. We took my friend Jan to a Dodgers game when I was eighteen; he thought she was pretty too. I went to Weight Watchers while I was still young enough to appreciate a trip to Toys 'R' Us for a present if I'd lost a few pounds.
In my teens it felt as if everyone in my family retreated to some other world, one free of judgment: My brother got into Dungeons and Dragons and became a born-again Christian; my mom became a super-feminist and was off at N.O.W. meetings and protests; my sister, always an animal fan, expanded her pet collection and did biology experiments in the garage. I took the bus to Hollywood to punk shows and spent the rest of my time in my room feeling vaguely angry.
I didn't figure out how much my dad cheated on my mom until I was in my freshman year of college. I suddenly realized my memories weren't innocent. Once in third grade he took me on a day trip to a playground "in the city" and sat with a lady while I went on the jungle gym. I'm just going to call her "the lady" because I can't remember her name. We went to the lady's house for iced tea after that. Driving home, he said, "I know we had fun today,but we don't have to tell Mom about the lady, OK?" I nodded. When I think back on this, I have a stomachache. I think I had a stomachache at the time, but I'm not sure if I did. I remember sitting in the front seat of the car — a rarity — and nodding.
I suppose I took that secret pretty seriously, because I never did tell anyone. My dad was around less and less, but I went along with the premise that it was work-related. After college, I had a fellowship and got an apartment on my own in Venice. It was still the era of landlines — so when I got the new phone book, I looked myself up to see my name on the page. It was there, right below my dad's. His had an address that was not where my parents lived. You always feel psychic in retrospect, but I knew instantly that this was not some other Lawrence Halpin, and that it was bad.