My Life as a Tyrant
by Tony Viorst
Editor’s Note: Upon discovering the identity of Docket Committee member Tony Viorst’s mom, Judith Viorst, we insisted he write about his tormented life as the child of a famous author.
Being a character in a semi-biographical children’s book is not as glamorous as it might seem. My mother is a relatively-famous author. Her most popular books are children’s books, in which the characters are curiously named Anthony, Nick and Alexander. It’s no small coincidence that my brothers and I share those names.
The book, I’ll Fix Anthony, portrays a seven-year-old tyrant, Anthony, who repeatedly abuses his five-year-old brother Nick. Anthony’s actions include refusing to lend Nick any toys, threatening to clobber him, and telling him that he stinks. Written from the perspective of my brother, the story revolves around Nick’s fantasy to "fix" Anthony by exacting his revenge, once he reaches the age of six. When he’s six, Nick muses, he’ll beat Anthony at skipping, jumping, tic-tac-toe and bingo. He’ll also be a better swimmer, pencil-sharpener, head-stander and bike-rider. You get the idea.
Admittedly, when I was seven years old I committed many of the acts portrayed in the book. However, I’ve since wondered how fair it is to have my juvenile transgressions immortalized in print.
Take Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In this book, and the two follow-up books in the Alexander series, Anthony’s at it again, this time committing mean-spirited acts against his youngest brother, Lex. Here, Anthony pushes Lex into a mud puddle, calls him immature, and suggests that he "go downtown and buy a new face." These books became national bestsellers, even forming the basis for television and theatrical productions. My mean older-brother persona became common knowledge throughout North America, and beyond.
In my defense, I wasn’t a bad guy in all of the books. In Sunday Morning, the protagonists are my parents, who demand not to be awakened until exactly 9:45 a.m. The book is a lighthearted description of the problems my brother and I encounter in our effort to have fun without disturbing them. Inevitably, we finally cause enough commotion to wake them, but luckily, it is exactly 9:45 a.m. Whew!
Despite having my tyrannical, puerile episodes on display for all to read, there were certain advantages to being an author’s son. My mom always worked out of our family home, so when I was a teenager, I would bring my friends — especially girlfriends — upstairs to my mom’s office, where there would be stacks of different books that she had written. Needless to say, they were all usually impressed. For "special" friends, I would remove a copy from the stack and present it as a gift. "Very special" friends could get a copy signed by the author herself.
And, for those girls who weren’t sure whether they wanted to date me, my mom’s status as a best-selling author frequently tipped the scales. I can recall several attractive girls, who would have otherwise spurned me for the captain of the football team, who went out with me after learning the identity of my mother.
Because my mom writes humorous children’s books, people believe she must have been a hands-on, fun-loving mom. This perception is not completely accurate. My mother’s fluid-sounding prose is the product of meticulous writing and re-writing, which she works very hard to achieve. Thus, although she worked at home, my mother was usually sitting at her typewriter (now a computer), rather than playing with us kids. On more than one occasion, I heard my mother talking in her office, leading me to believe that she was taking a break from her work, and could speak with me. However, upon peeking into the office, I observed her merely proofreading her work, reading it out loud.
My father is an author too, specializing in political journalism. He has worked for the Washington Post and The New Yorker, and has also authored a number of books. Though not as widely known as my mother, he is well-respected in his field.
Not surprising, my brothers and I have felt a certain amount of pressure (self-imposed) to pursue writing as a vocation. As a kid, I wrote a monthly "newsletter," which my mother would type for me, and for which my grandmother and carpool driver paid an annual subscription price of fifty cents. For several years after college, my brother worked as a writer and publisher of coffee-table books, ultimately deciding that professional writing was not a good fit. Like me, he decided to attend law school.
At this stage in my life, I do not consider myself an author per se, but who am I kidding — most law practices, including mine, which emphasizes civil and criminal appeals, involve extensive writing. Perhaps there’s a reason I’ve been drawn to The Docket and The Colorado Lawyer, submitting articles as often as possible. Could I have inherited a "writing gene" from my parents?
"Writing gene" or not, my parents did endow me and my siblings with a love of reading, and an appreciation for the proper use of language in oral and written forms — an ever-fading art, in my view. I have adopted these values as my own and, since becoming a father, I have tried to pass them down to the next generation of our family.