In his deeply personal and compassionate collection of essays, Criminals, Robert Anthony Siegel explores his unusual upbringing as the son of a charming, erratic criminal defense attorney, whose ethically dubious practices eventually send him to prison, and a culturally eloquent mother who was always reaching for more. Siegel’s writing is breathtaking—I had to take a walk around the block after reading the crushing, beautiful title essay.
I asked Siegel, who lives in North Carolina with his family, a few questions about his parents, the Hells Angels and the unexpected solace he found in Eastern traditions.
What was the most surprising or challenging part of writing this book?
There were a lot of surprises. The first was just the fact that I was writing a memoir at all. I’ve always thought of myself as a private person. But then the second surprise came very quickly after that, which is that I’m actually no more private than anyone else, just way more ashamed of myself.
I’m not sure either of those two surprises would matter much without the third, which is that there’s really nothing to be ashamed of. My family and I made a stupid hash of things, just like a lot of other people on this planet. The sense that this was all so very shameful, that I had to protect us with my silence—really, I was just frightened of everything I would have to feel if I ever tried to tell our story: anger, sorrow, forgiveness, and of course the hardest thing of all, love.
Do you think it’s possible to truly know your parents? Would anyone really even want to?
I sometimes feel that thinking about one’s parents is really just a way of thinking about oneself in disguise. But that’s what makes it such an important thing to do.
How accurate do you think the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” are?
I’ve always loved Larkin, but I don’t think that poem is about its first line. If you look at the poem as a whole, it’s really about the way pain is transferred down from one generation to the next. It revolves around a moment of compassionate insight, when the poet realizes that the harm his parents caused him was rooted in the suffering they themselves experienced as children.
But I don’t share Larkin’s conclusion, his wish to stay aloof from life. When we had our firstborn, Jonah, I couldn’t believe they were letting us leave the hospital with that beautiful little creature. Didn’t they know we knew nothing? That baby care books scared us? But a voice inside my head kept whispering, Jonah will show you how. Just listen to Jonah. If you listen to him, everything will be all right. And it was.
Growing up, your family had a fraught relationship with food, especially your father, who “believed that eating would protect us from sorrow.” Can you tell me more about how food factored into your family’s dynamic?
Food was a form of comfort, something that would make us feel a little better, at least temporarily, when we felt sad or lost or disappointed in each other. It was also something we could give to each other, a way of showing love, and something we could share, a way of experiencing connection. And it was aspirational, a form of self-transformation—we could imagine ourselves differently in a French restaurant, eating escargot with those long delicate forks.
But my father would sometimes go on eating binges that lasted for days. He seemed helpless to stop, but it also felt as if he was wielding his eating as a kind of weapon, and that the rest of us were being held hostage, a captive audience to something that we didn’t fully understand.
Your memoir beautifully recounts your growing realization as an adolescent that the parents you adore are, in fact, also flawed humans. Do you think the parent-child relationship is inevitably set up for disappointment, or is it just continually evolving?
Oh, I vividly remember the comfort of thinking my parents were magical, and that I was privileged to be at the very center of the universe. And looking back, I can still see how a little kid might draw such a conclusion. My father was the kind of criminal defense lawyer who wore cowboy boots and a beard and drove to court on a motorcycle. My mother was a lawyer, too, but gave it up to take us kids to the symphony and ballet, all the things she thought necessary to a real education.
Of course, what I see now is that my belief in them was driven by a sense of their underlying fragility, the fear that they might fall apart and then there would be nobody to take care of us. The period when my father came under investigation and I started to see the cracks in our façade was the most painful of my life. It felt as if I were cracking. But I don’t believe that kind disillusionment is a necessary part of growing up. On the contrary.
Your father represented the Hells Angels, and was careful to cast them as bumbling “characters” instead of dangerous figures, and he took you to the clubhouse regularly. Has your understanding of your father’s work changed given your adult knowledge of the Hells Angels’ white nationalist connections and today’s political climate?
I think we were always secretly uneasy about our relationship to the clients, Hells Angels included. They were criminals and did bad things we ourselves would never do. We didn’t want to be tainted by them, or feel responsible for what they did. At the same time, they were the source of everything special about us, including our money, and we wanted them to love us and need us, like we needed them.
The way we elided that contradiction was humor. In the jokes we told each other at home, we made the clients look harmless and silly, and we made our own participation in the situation feel ironic, a kind of tongue-in-cheek performance that would never have any real-world consequences.
What strikes me now, looking back, is how that kind of joking bled into the rest of our lives without anyone even noticing. We started using it among ourselves whenever we were mean to each other or failed each other in some way. Turning the situation into a joke prevented the other person from expressing any sense of hurt and erased our own sense of responsibility. The interesting thing is that the Angels used much the same strategy to talk about themselves. Just watch their self-produced documentary, Hells Angels Forever, and you’ll see what I mean: It keeps switching rhetorical modes between threat and joke. Cross us and we’ll kill you. No, just kidding! And of course, that kind of rhetorical strategy has gone mainstream now, from Neo-Nazis and racist internet trolls to our elected representatives.
You write that you are from a “family of endomorphs,” and your family was shocked by your interest in judo. Why do you think judo became such a passion for you?
If you’re not familiar with the sport, go to the internet and find a highlights reel from one of the big international competitions and you’ll understand: Judo is exquisite, a kind of human fireworks. And it’s a powerful form of self-cultivation, too: The little I know about bravery and resilience, I learned from judo.
But in my case, there were confused motives from the very start, and that’s the part I wanted to write about here. I think I wanted judo to take away my fear and my loneliness, and cure my sense that something was wrong with me. That was asking too much.
Your mother was particularly interested in being “cultured,” and you were drawn to Eastern traditions such as Taoism and judo, and you have lived in Japan and Taiwan. Why do you think Japan holds such a fascination for you?
Oh, that question has many, many levels to it. If you’ve ever been to Asia, then you know what it’s like to step off the plane and find the English language gone, even the Roman alphabet gone, an entirely new set of rules in place. It’s more than a little scary, but also incredibly thrilling.
On a deeper level, I think I had a secret wish to remake myself: to stop being me and start being somebody who came from an ancient culture and a highly nuanced civilization that offered clear rules about how to treat other people and how to make sense of life. Of course, that was a fantasy. As far as I can tell, everyone on this planet is utterly lost. But even with that understanding, I always feel better in Asia. It makes me present in the moment in a way I can’t always manage elsewhere.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve written the one story I was never supposed to tell, and the result is that I’m feeling a tremendous sense of liberation. Suddenly, everything seems possible. So, the short answer is that I want to write as much as I can, with all the daring that I can find.
Author photo by Jonah Siegel