RIP: Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

McCourt Brothers

At age 66, Frank McCourt published his first book:  Angela’s Ashes.  It was a New York Times best-seller for two years, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a movie.  His success inspired other people who had experienced abuse to write their own memoirs.  There wouldn’t be a Life Rafts section on this web site but for Frank McCourt.

Alice Miller in The Truth Will Set You Free observed:

Humor saved Frank McCourt’s life and enabled him to write his book.  His readers are grateful to him for it.  Many of them have shared the same fate and they want nothing more dearly than to be able to laugh it off.  Laugher is good for you. . .helps you survive.  (page 102)

Folks in Limerick, Ireland, however, were angry he broke down the walls of silence.  In an interview with Slate, he recalled:

When the book was published in Ireland, I was denounced from hill, pulpit, and barstool.  Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother’s name, and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lampost.

His mother Angela claimed, “it’s all a pack of lies.”  His brother Malachy disagreed, “our life was worse than Frank wrote.  Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us.”

Frank McCourtFrank McCourt was retired and married to his third wife, Ellen Frey, before his voice emerged as a writer.  According to his Time obituary, he had to split with the Catholic Church and babysit his granddaughter before he could write like a child and purge his voice of anger, bitterness and self-pity:

I was so angry for so long, I could hardly have a conversation without getting into an argument.  It was only when I could finally distance myself from my past that I began to write about what happened.  My dream was to have a Library of Congress catalog number, that’s all.

When the Korean War broke out, Frank McCourt enlisted.  He went to New York University on the GI Bill and became a teacher in the New York City school system.  In a PBS interview, he passionately explained why teachers are important:

What’s the most precious material we have in the country:  children.  If we don’t give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we’re destroying them. We’re destroying the country.  They are the future, and the teachers are there everyday with the future. . .[Teachers are] the single most important profession in the country because they’re shaping the future. . .[We] don’t like our children.  Because the proof of it is how we treat our teachers. . .they’re treated badly.

Frank McCourt also liked to take on the old adage about teachers:

George Bernard Shaw said those that can do, and those that can’t teach.  Just goes to show that Shaw didn’t know his arse from his elbow about teaching. 

Despite all his success, Frank McCourt never gave up teaching.  He taught memoir writing at Stony Brook Southampton College.  Robert Reeves, the director of their fine arts program in writing, said McCourt’s liked to laugh at himself and he enjoyed life in an NPR obituary:

He was an enormously popular teacher. . .Frank’s serenity may have come from the fact he’s surrounded by and had lived through so much that would be upsetting to serenity.  There was a willful calm and happiness.  I think people can decide to be happy.  Maybe that was it.

Before Angeles Ashes became a best-seller, his younger brother Malachy was the famous sibling.  He was an actor and owned a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I was blessed to meet Malachy at a writer’s conference last year. 

Frank McCourt wrote two more best-selling memoirs before his death:  “Tis and Teacher Man.

Frank McCourt passed away on July 19, 2009.  He is survived by his wife and daughter.


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