Don't Tell Dad

Katharine Whittemore reviews 'Don't Tell Dad' by Peter Fonda

By Katharine Whittemore
Published April 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"The little brother with the big mouth," as Time once tagged Peter Fonda, has written an angry, funny memoir. It's no "Mommie Dearest," but there is plenty of rotten parenting to blanch at. In a family atmosphere limned as "a dark, silent, booby-trapped thing," 7-year-old Peter is fed daily lunchtime beer because his father thinks he's too skinny. His mother believes the thinness might be from tapeworm; without telling Peter what's to happen, she has doctors hold him down and coil a wire up his anus. He suffers from nightly anal abuse nightmares well into his 40s.

Peter and Jane Fonda's mother, an enigmatic socialite who could trace her lineage back to Lady Jane Seymour, commits suicide when Peter is 10. The boy wanted his father to be shining and fine like Tom Joad or "Wyatt Earp riding into town," but no. Dad's off-screen psyche is stunted, Peter theorizes, by his Christian Scientist background. It "ascribed sickness to some inner failing or sin," and "sickness," it seems, encompasses just about anything deemed unmanly. If Peter acts afraid, in other words, Henry acts disgusted. "We were abandoned and abused," Jane tells Peter.

Fonda certainly doesn't stint on this front, but this is no Albert Goldman/Kitty Kelley fever dream. The star of "Easy Rider" and "Ulee's Gold" writes in a nice, conversational, been-in-therapy style. He also tries to apply a little research -- he visits all the places the family lived, talks to lovers from his past (like '60s model Vera) and he and Jane tape five days of conversations (the book is dedicated to her). Yes, the book rambles; let's just say he is quite a child of the '60s, sprinkling more than his fair share of phrases like "Far Out," "Man-oh-Manischewitz" and such synonyms for "party" as "Heinies and a doob."

The childhood stuff is the most heartfelt and harrowing -- Fonda's prep-school vignettes make Holden Caulfield's teen years seem cushy. The adult stuff is, at times, downright winning; there's a truly touching reconciliation scene with his dad, and it becomes clear that Fonda tries hard to be a good dad to his own kids.

As for the adult-acting-like-a-child stuff (aka the counterculture), well, it's both tart and wearying: We get a nice set piece describing Rip Torn and Dennis Hopper -- Fonda semi-affectionately calls the latter "a little fascist freak" -- going at each other with butter knives on the set of "Easy Rider." Then there's the drugs. And the drugs. Did we mention the drugs? My favorite acid trip moments in this book would have to be when Fonda repeatedly spits cherry tomatoes at Rock Hudson and when he watches the fibers of Jean Paul Belmondo's jacket surrealistically unthread and rethread. Peter Fonda's own life has unraveled and knit back together many times; in "Don't Tell Dad" he's working with fine material.


Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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