Why Do I Write About Dysfunctional People?

Vaughn C. Hardacker

On June 4th of this year, I received a phone call from a friend of my younger brother, Dana, informing me that Dana had died at 1:30 a.m. that morning. Four years younger than I am, Dana had been battling kidney disease for the past year and had been undergoing dialysis treatments.

I was the second of my father’s three sons and the first of my mother’s. My father was a merchant seaman and had been married to Agnes Wallace Hardacker.  While my father was away, she gave birth to a child. She named him, Norman, after my father’s father. It was the beginning of a very dysfunctional life. Norman’s mother suffered from tuberculosis and her disease had advanced to the point where after Norman was taken from the delivery room, she would never again be allowed to hold her son.

Norman was then sent to live with our grandmother. In 1945, my father’s ship docked in Cardiff, Wales, UK and he met a young woman named Lorraine Virgin. Two weeks later they married. A decision would later be made to allow my grandparents to adopt Norman. The rationale was that he would serve as a replacement for my namesake, Vaughn, who was killed in the fighting for the hedgerows in France in August 1944. It was a decision that would have long-term repercussions.

My father took his new bride to the United States and left her with his family. He then went back to sea. I was born in Caribou, Maine on July 20, 1947. My

Vaughn C. Hardacker

mother took me to Wales when I was one year old and stayed there for a year. She then returned to the United States. My father, still in the merchant marine, was shipping out of New York and she settled in nearby Jersey City, New Jersey. She was a young woman alone in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the U. S. and found a circle of friends with whom she spent much of her time. The problem was not so much who she spent time with as much as where they spent it. A the corner of the block was Bea and Steve’s Bar. I have no idea how much time she and her toddler son spent there, but I have no memory of the apartment in which we lived. However, to this day seventy-three years later, I can still draw a floor plan of Bea and Steve’s.

Dana Michael Hardacker

The year 1951 was traumatic for me. I had thus far lived my life as an only child. In Jersey City on June 21, 1951, Dana Michael Hardacker came into the world. I was struggling to adjust to the new arrival when my father returned from sea. Before leaving on that voyage, he had promised my mother that it would be his last. I later learned that when he announced he was shipping out again in a few days, a great argument took place. He had a collection of paperweights that he’d collected from numerous places he’d visited and she knocked him out with one. He had made his last voyage.

I now had two strangers in my life. One I was told was my brother and the other was my father (heretofore I had no idea who he was. I was once told that when my mother and I would walk down the street, I’d ask men we’d pass if they were my father, At this age, I had no knowledge of Norman.

When I was seven, in 1954, we left New Jersey and returned to Maine. It was my first experience with how dysfunctional my family was. I was introduced to my Uncle Norman. I still wonder how Norman felt when he learned that his father was now his brother, his uncles were also brothers, his grandparents were his parents, and his brothers were his nephews. To say the least, my relationship with Norman was very strained and would remain so for the rest of Norman’s life (Norman died a few days before Christmas 2006–three months after I lost my wife of thirty-six years).

The four years difference between Dana and me didn’t seem to be a big deal. When I was in high school he was still in grammar school and we started to drift apart. My high school years were spent in a state of constant warfare with my mother, who was a full-blown alcoholic by this time. I was seventeen when I graduated high school and within days left home. The situation there was so bad that I left Caribou in the passenger seat of a truck headed for Boston to pick up a load of beer–now ain’t that a coincidence? I had one small suitcase with two shirts, two days’ worth of underwear and socks, and the grand sum of $5.00. I hung around the Boston area from June to September working as a laborer for a construction crew. In September the owner offered me the opportunity to stay on and he would teach me the masonry trade. Instead, I left and went to New London, Connecticut.

I ended up in a boarding house where Norman, now out of the navy, was living and working at Electric Boat.  I don’t know which of us was more relieved when in November I decided I wanted no part of submarines and departed from New Jersey.

Over the years, I separated myself from my brothers. I very seldom spoke or visited Norman in Connecticut and Dana who became a career soldier was in Oklahoma (he also suffered from the effects of our mother’s alcoholism and PTSD. This may explain why he was married five times to four different women.) Over the years Dana and I would speak over the phone two or three times a year, I visited him and wife #3 in Oklahoma and quickly realized that he and I had little in common and again, don’t know who was happier when the visit ended.

The week before he died, I spoke with Dana on the phone and when I learned that he was not doing well, I said, “Dana, we need to talk to each other every week. He passed away one week later to the day.

Today, six weeks after his death, I can’t help but wonder if the thought of having to talk to me weekly helped him along. I think about our lives. As stated I don’t know much about Norman’s life, only that the only time his father/brother paid attention to him was when my grandmother called saying that Norman was acting up. Then the old man would play Dad and correct him, usually with a physical reminder. I’ve come to realize that my father’s decision to marry my mother had devastating consequences for Norman. I have no doubt that she influenced my father (who had little if any contact with his oldest son) because she was not about to raise another woman’s kid.

Of the three, I was the wildest and most rebellious. My reputation in Caribou, a small town, was so bad that I had been gone from there for more than five years when I met the woman who would have to deal with me for thirty-six years. The first thing she said when we were introduced was, “I’ve heard about you.” I once met an old girlfriend at her father’s funeral and she saw me in my Marine uniform and asked: Of all branches, the Marines are the last I thought you would join. My reply was, “I guess something inside of me knew that if I was going to get straightened out I needed to get my butt kicked.” She smiled and said, “My father said that about you when we were seeing each other in our junior year.”

I mentioned earlier about my stormy relationship with my mother, it never got better. At her funeral, a childhood friend said, “I’m surprised to see you here.” My reply: “I wanted to make sure they weren’t lying to me.” I hope those of you who have known me for a while may get a better idea of why at times I can be cold, aloof, and unapproachable. It’s nothing you’ve done it’s just my battered self-esteem hiding behind the wall I’ve built around my feelings.

So, to answer the question posed in the title of this blog all I can say is this, I know more about dysfunction than anything else. And, ain’t we always told, “Write what you know“?


About Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn C. Hardacker has published seven novels and numerous short stories. He is a member of the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, and the International Thriller writers. Three times he has been a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards Crime Fiction category, SNIPER in 2015, THE FISHERMAN in 2016, and WENDIGO for the 2018 award. The second installment of his Ed Traynor series, MY BROTHER'S KEEPER, was released in July 2019 and is available through all major booksellers. A signed copy can be ordered directly from Vaughn (vhardacker@gmail.com). RIPPED OFF is his most recently published crime/thriller, it was released on January 25, 2023 by Encircle Publications. He is a veteran of the U. S. Marines and served in Vietnam. He holds degrees from Northern Maine Technical College, the University of Maine and Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Stockholm, Maine.
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5 Responses to Why Do I Write About Dysfunctional People?

  1. They also say “write what you want to know,” don’t they? There is a great cartoon of a high school gymnasium with rows and rows of chairs facing the stage. Over the stage is a banner reading: Welcome Children of Functional Families. In the audience are about seven people, sitting far apart from each other. Maybe disfunction is necessary for writers?


  2. Could be! I’m so dysfunctional that I find functional boring…and no one wants to read something boring!

  3. John Clark says:

    And normal is a setting on a washing machine. Thanks for being able and willing to share this.

  4. jselbo says:

    An amazing tangle. The webs of lives that make up our backgrounds – yours is quite mind-boggling. Wow.

  5. Marina Sutherland says:

    Vaughn, I’m a distant relative by marriage. You have met one of my daughters, Jill Sutherland, I think it was last summer. Grammy Sutherland mentioned Norman’s name quite often, but I can’t recall your name. She was the best Grammy my kids could have and we all miss her very much. I married Stanley Sutherland in1956. I’m originally from Canada but we met in Connecticut. Stanley passed a few years ago, Jill is one of three of my girls and we all live in CT. We don’t go to Maine as often now but did spend some time at a lodge this summer, we enjoyed it so much the kids want to go again soon, maybe we can plan a visit. You are quite a writer. Have a great Christmas Holiday and a Happy New Year, you deserve it.
    P.S. Of course Jill is travelling again, she is in Virginia right now taking photos of the wild ponies in Chincoteague and, hopefully painting them. She used to have a big dog travelling with her as her protector but he passed a couple years ago, he was almost 17 years old. Now she is taking care of my (almost) 100% Maine Coon Cat.
    My landlord does not like cats and will not allow them in the apartment, only dogs. Apartments are very difficult to find since Covid. Nice chatting……….Marina

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