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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Manning, Richard, It runs in the family : a memoir / Richard Manning. — First U.S. Edition.
ISBN ---- (hardcover)
ISBN ---- (e-book)
. Manning, Richard, – . Manning, Richard, —Family.
. Manning family. . Farm life—Michigan . Fundamentalism—
United States. . Conservatism—Religious aspects—Christianity.
. Journalists—United States—Biography. I. Title.
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First Edition: July
I started this investigation in deep winter of January ,
when I was in retreat, beaten and broke. My business had
failed, as did many in our nation that year. I drank too much.
My house was on the market, a forced sale, since sold. Journalism, the good work I had done my whole life, was necrotic.
The last of these weighed most on me, my life’s work rendered
worthless. Nonetheless, journalism was all I had then, so I
used it to dig my way out of a hole. This is the process recorded
in this book.
Asking questions and reporting answers is how I have always worked, so there is nothing at all unusual in my spending three years so engaged. What was unusual, though, was
that the questions, of necessity, probed private matters,
it runs in the family
because of my own state of disrepair in the beginning and the
simple fact that my father had died a few weeks before. He was
an extraordinary man, and mostly not in any good sense of
the word. Part of my burden that winter was a sense of shame
for who he was. The truth is, I had spent most of my life to that
point trying to get away from him, trying to ignore him and
the rest of my family and trying just as desperately to deny
any influence he might have had on the course of my own life.
Yet oddly it occurred to me that the time had come to account, not just for my own sake, but more relevantly because
of the public’s stake in my private questions. I had until then
lived most of a life never publicly acknowledging my parents,
and now, paradoxically, public events demand I do so, as I will
in what follows.
Anyone who had seen my dad in his last days—and I had,
fi nding him literally in a jungle, a homeless, babbling bum
lost a hemisphere away from home—would have thought him
mad, and he was. He suffered a peculiar and specific madness. He and my mother—she had died a few years before—
had lived their lives as fundamentalist right-wing Christians
of the exact same stripe that plays an appallingly significant
role in American public life. Indeed, in that January of ,
the very month that fundamentalist-in-chief George W. Bush
left office, it was easy enough to see how my father’s madness
had become a general plague on the nation. It is this parallel
that dictated my assignment for the next three years, that I
would need to abandon my studied ignorance of my father’s
life and admit to our common story, our common genes, even
admit to the possibility of our common madness.
Now three years on, it is my job to report, but you already
In the Beginning
know I cannot bring news of great improvement in the nation’s
well-being. The troubles imposed by Bush did not end with
his presidency; John Birchers, Koch brothers, Tea Party, Fox
News, know-nothing fundamentalism, Newt Gingrich—my
father’s fellow travelers, every one—remain. We remain at war.
We are governed by plutocrats, many of us impoverished, and
a nation shaken to our fi nancial foundations. The country is
not much better off three years on, but I am, and I am as a
result of asking questions, of learning and facing the consequences of my story and my kinship with a madman.
Then, though, I could only retreat to watch it snow and
wonder what was to be done about me and about the rest of
us. So I rented a small cabin for a week on the edge of the Rocky
Mountain Front a few hours drive east of where I live in Montana. The cabin backed up against mountains of the vast Bob
Marshall Wilderness at the western edge of the howling Great
Plains. It snowed, and snowed hard nearly every day of the
week I was there. Just up the trail, there was a wintering herd
of mule deer, and from time to time I went out to walk among
them, grand ghostly creatures circling me in halting steps I
took for grace, but know to be their obedience to the demands
of winter, a sort of ambulatory hibernation. Step easy and conserve every bit of energy if you are to survive. If there were a
third party there to record that scene, it would look like a truce
of deep winter’s peace between man and animal. Honoring
and understanding the terms of that truce have much to do
with why I am better off today.
In the cabin, there was a bottle of good Irish whiskey with
barely the neck knocked out. I had six bottles of decent red
wine, a venison roast, some garlic and parsnips. I have a good
it runs in the family
wife, beautiful and decent enough to spend this week in the
cabin with me out of iPhone range, cell range, a rare electronic
silence. Willing even to tolerate my own silence as I retreated
to wilderness to think of these things. I had a Filson wool
jacket, red-and-black buffalo plaid, competent boots and thick
wool socks. I had a stack of books piled before the rimed mullioned panes of the cabin.
There was a wood stove, a Jotul, a clever little Norwegian
model and the best I ever used. There were parallel piles of
thinly split yellow pine, limber pine, quaking aspen, and a bit
of fi r to each side of the cabin door. For me and for the long
line of northern latitude people I come from, a woodpile is
well-being. So my days passed mostly in endless fascination
of feeding the fi re. Hundreds of generations of my northern
European bloodline, facing long, cold winters, bred this little
stove, and I am proud of our work, proud of our people, immediate and otherwise, and I connect to them through my
father. This, then, is my fi rst realization and admission of kinship to him and the privilege it brings.
The stove has secondary combustion, which means if I get
it running just right, it will burn its own smoke in a whooshing roar and with a blue flame one associates with natural
gas, not wood, and I do indeed get it running just right. I can
build a fire. I can jump-start a pickup truck. Grease boots. Wax
skis. Split wood. Dress a deer. Break rock. Right a raft. Incise
a clean dovetail in rock maple and fit the joint. Can and did
build a house every nail, solder joint, and wire nut. My dad
has something to do with this. He and everyone in his line
could make things work, a simple fact every bit as relevant as
his religion. This facility with real work is the counterbalance
In the Beginning
to religious fanat icism in the story that will develop here, in
my story and in the American story. Owning up to this is part
of what made be better.
My dad’s death put a trigger in my hand, with a command
to sit at this computer’s keyboard and fire. The death of both of
my parents frees me to tell our collective story, that last adjective a painful admission, but I make it. It is a family story, collective. I am from them. They are finally both dead, and now
there must be an account, not because they were unusual, but
because in the American context they were not.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
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