Inherent inheritance

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by Richard Nilsen

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I grew up in an era of vast cultural change. We went from Eisenhower warning us about Pentagon power to Allen Ginsberg levitating it. If you are a certain age, perhaps you remember. Certainly, in the Sixties, we wanted to correct all the social evils that beset our society, and the world. We were up against racism, sexism, ageism, different-ism — to say nothing about the Military-Industrial Complex. 

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And with the belief that societal ills could be corrected, if only our elders would listen to us, came the belief that it could be fixed by simply re-training the misguided. Surely, it was just that they didn’t know better. Their minds and personalities had been formed in unfortunate circumstances.  

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And one of the bedrocks of our belief at the time was that “it’s all cultural.” I can’t remember how many times I heard that phrase. No one was destined to be a certain way; it was all how you were brought up. If you were born to a racist family, you learned prejudice; if you were raised by a macho father, you became a patriarch. Blank slate. Genetics be damned. 

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Such beliefs were in part a reaction to a horrific century in which genetic inheritance had been the excuse for so much death, destruction, and genocide. We rebelled against the notion that your DNA was in any fashion your destiny. We relished personal freedom and free will was essential to that. An entire generation of parents with this belief tried to get their boys to play with dolls and their little girls to play with trucks. But, of course, the boys turned their dolls into hand grenades, and the girls held the trucks in their arms and rocked them back and forth. 

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Well, I was part of an inadvertent biological experiment that took place over a period of nearly 50 years. It was not part of a CIA covert program, but set in motion by my own indefensible immaturity and selfishness. 

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In the late 1960s, I got married and we had a child. It was not a good marriage; we were both too young. Before our son, Lars, was even a year old, I left. I went on to my own life, my ex-wife went on to hers, as a single mother. I am, of course, mortified and shamed now, but then, it all just seemed the way a bohemian poet-to-be expressed his freedom and unwillingness to be tied down. No excuses, though, I was a beast. 

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For the next 45 years, I had no contact with either mother or son. None. Period. Then, one day at the office, I got a phone call from Texas. “Are you the Richard Nilsen who had a son named Lars?” “Yes.” “Hello, I’m Lars.”

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He called because he needed some medical background information, which all worked out fine. But we decided we should meet and so, my second wife and I drove to Austin to meet him. It was a revelation.

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It should be said here, that we have been in touch ever since, and have re-formed a meaningful relationship. But on first seeing my son Lars, I almost laughed. It was like looking into a time-machine mirror: I was seeing myself 40 years ago looking back at me now.

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He was tall, like me; had long hair, like I had four decades earlier; he had the same scraggly beard; wore the same kind of thick black-frame eyeglasses I used to sport; wore the same kind of flannel shirt that was once my uniform. 

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Some of that was expected. While the belief that our personalities were merely learned still hung in the air, everyone knew we inherited certain physical traits from our ancestors. That Lars was tall was hardly surprising. But what was more striking was his choice of thatch and habiliment. 

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As the visit went on, more things uncovered themselves. At the time, Lars worked in a used bookstore, in charge of the Classics section. He said his favorite book was Homer’s Iliad. Bingo: That has been my fave for ages.  Lars now makes his living programming and writing about movies; I have a page to myself on Rotten Tomatoes. Lars often talks on stage to audiences while introducing films, and he interviews filmmakers; I often talked to audiences, also, as some Spirit of the Senses members may recall, and for a while I introduced films to the series. And, of course, interviewing people was part of my job as a journalist. Music is also essential to Lars, and I don’t think I could live without my Mahler and Bach. Our tastes, however are very different. Very different. On a recent radio interview, Lars made the case that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an art film. But the point is that he has chosen, as I did a half century earlier, a life of art and culture.

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When we got to his house, it was filled to the brim with books and CDs and movies. Anyone who has visited me knows wherever I have lived, the walls are lined with bookcases, filled with thousands of books and DVDs. 

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Then it turned out he was living with a young woman with the same name as my first wife and from the same North Carolina county as the wife I finally wound up with. This could be mere coincidence, and probably was. But, it was getting a bit spooky. 

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Then came the clincher. 

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On his desk, piled like my own, higher and deeper with papers and books, there was a world globe. He had disassembled it and put it back together with Antarctica at the top — a world turned upside down. I did a double-take: On my desk at home, back in Arizona, I had long had a globe I had turned upside down, in order to break habit of seeing the world only one customary way. I venture to guess very few people have done the same. But there it was.

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The two of us had had not contact whatsoever for four decades plus, and yet, so much of our behavior was eerily similar. And I had to come to the conclusion that some of this had to be genetic. Did Lars inherit from me, without any consciousness of it, a love of Homer, movies, music, flannel, an easy, laconic manner, and — a need to turn his globe on its head? 

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Where else could it have come from? I don’t want to imply that Lars is just a mini-me. We are very different in many other ways. Even physically, his nose and the thickness of his hair come from his mother, not from me. He revels in pop culture in a way I have never been able to enjoy.

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His knowledge of movies tends toward the lesbian vampire movies and drive-in exploitation films — indeed, he is writing a book on such films. He doesn’t have the high-low art bifurcation that I grew up with. That doesn’t mean he can’t cite chapter and verse on Fellini or Angelopoulos, but that he can also teach his old man an appreciation for Johnnie To and the Hong Kong gangster genre. 

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Still, my reacquaintance with my son Lars has persuaded me that it is not merely noses or hair colors that may be transmitted through DNA, but that certain personality traits, even preferences, may be coded in those double helixes. 

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A series of so-called “twin studies” have compared identical twins separated at birth to see how closely they matched. The results have been equivocal, but some information is hard to dismiss.

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A 1979 study by the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research found one pair, separated at birth and reunited at 39. “The twins were found to have married women named Linda, divorced, and married the second time to women named Betty. One named his son James Allan, the other named his son James Alan, and both named their pet dogs Toy.” 

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Other anecdotal evidence includes twin sisters meeting for the first time as adults, both wearing identical dresses. Such evidence may seem too tidy. And some skepticism is always called for. After all, the very first twin study was conducted by Greek stoic philosopher Posidonius in the 1st Century, who attributed similarities to the twins’ shared astrology. Conclusions may be jumped to through faulty theory. 

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But there is still that upside-down globe. 

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The Minnesota Center’s co-director, Kelly Klump makes the case that “What they show is that we we enter the world not as random beings or blank slates.”

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When I was reviewing movies for The Arizona Republic, I had assumed it was just acculturation that led me to recognize myself in Bergman films rather more deeply than in Fellini films. I loved Fellini greatly, but I felt completely at home with Bergman. I grew up around Scandinavians and knew their reticence, dourness and love of bad coffee. My entire chromosomal grab bag is Norwegian; I may be the whitest man you’ve ever met — But since facing my time-shift Doppelgänger in Lars, I now think there may be a purely genetic component in my taste for Scandinavian cinema over Mediterranean.

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Any faith in the “blank slate” has truly evaporated for me. Clearly in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, it is both. But the strength of genes has been drilled home to me for once and all by that time-shift mirror I call my son. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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