As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling
The name Rod Serling immediately conjures up the black and white image of a man in a dark suit, tight-jawed, with smoke curling from a cigarette as he speaks in clipped tones about the bizarre, horrifying, wistful and remarkable adventures of a place known as “The Twilight Zone.” This travel guide to the fantastic is the Rod Serling we know. He was quite easily the most recognizable and well-known writer in Hollywood at that time, and his creative impact in those earliest years of television were monumental.
What is less known is his penchant for self-deprecating humor, his love of practical jokes, and his easygoing demeanor colored by humor and intelligence that caused his friends to gravitate towards him. Now, thanks to his daughter Anne, the world at large can know more about this remarkable talent and the completely different life he had away from the camera.
AS I KNEW HIM is, in many ways, a beautiful love letter from a grieving daughter to a father who was taken too soon. Detailing the life of her father from his youth, Anne relies on her memories and those of friends, along with the lifetime of letters that Rod kept and frequently poured over during annual summer trips to their family cabin.
Included within AS I KNEW HIM are letters between Rod and his parents while he served in the Pacific during World War II, and especially telling is their closeness and devotion to each other. Our first awareness of the tragic roots of his life comes when his father dies at age 52. A young Rod was refused a leave to return home for the funeral, and it "destroys something within my dad. It is a loss of such magnitude that he will never truly recover." Through the horrors of war, Rod would also suffer wounds, physical and emotional, that would haunt him for his entire life. He would have frequent nightmares, and young Anne would hear him screaming in the middle of the night. His wounds would cause him to fall down the stairs, to the horror of his daughters. But he would always smile and say it would all be alright.
"AS I KNEW HIM is, in many ways, a beautiful love letter from a grieving daughter to a father who was taken too soon."
So damaged and disillusioned after the war, Rod turned to writing as a means of healing and, as would be a standard for his stories, to explore the human condition, penning radio dramas and eventually landing on CBS television with “The Twilight Zone.” Much of what he would highlight within those episodes would be autobiographical and carry much more of him than was realized at the time. He would work diligently yet never overlook the need to spend time with his daughters. Rod always made sure he properly played the role of father and set his work aside.
There is another side of AS I KNEW HIM. More than just a biography of Rod Serling and his life as a father and friend, the book also serves as Anne's story --- a story of devastation, an inability to cope with the loss of her father, and using her memories, photos, letters and his “Twilight Zone” episodes in an effort to find him.
It is a haunting discovery to see the similarities between their lives and losses. Anne's utter devastation at losing her father when he was only 50 years old is so starkly similar to Rod's own loss of his father. It is also striking to see Anne looking back, digging through the past to find her peace, much as her father could never let go of his childhood, would never discard letters from his parents and would frequently revisit them, or his trip back to the Philippines in an effort to bury the ghosts of war...which he learned could never truly be healed.
For all of the sorrow and pain found in AS I KNEW HIM, there are extraordinary moments of joy. Stories of Rod rolling on the floor with his beloved dogs, his practical jokes that caused his wife Carol to shake her head while the children laughed, and the love of time spent with his family dominate the book. Anne plucks them from the ether and clings to them as she shares them, but the dark cloud of impending anguish always hangs over them because everyone knows how this book must end.
AS I KNEW HIM ends with a death, of course. Rod Serling fell victim to his own addiction to cigarettes, suffering devastating heart attacks, the final one during heart surgery. It was an extraordinary loss to the creative world. That loss is nothing, though, compared to the devastation felt by a 20-year-old girl who had him stripped away from her, leaving an empty cabin devoid of his laugh, of all the sounds that signaled he was there.
Because the book is two stories, it also ends with a life, a rebirth. Through her own spiral of depression and despair, Anne Serling fought to cope with and accept the death of her father but also to ultimately learn that with all he has left behind for her --- letters, photos, memories, and with all of her father she begins to see woven into the fabric of “The Twilight Zone” --- he is never truly gone.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on May 10, 2013