America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Donald N.S. Unger
30 September 2017
I finally had to break down and admit that my father’s obsessive mastication habit had just gotten out of control; I took him to his first Masticators Anonymous meeting earlier this week.
It’s mortifying, of course, to be discussing something like this publicly, but my wife and I eventually decided that—for the sake of the millions of other people that we know are suffering problems related to parental mastication in silence—this was the right thing to do.
My father remains in denial.
And the things he said during the intervention were just textbook evidence of that.
Starting with: “Everybody does it.”
Leaving aside the question of whether that’s strictly-speaking true, I had to point out that, “Not everybody does it morning, noon, and night.”
He said he’d been doing that his whole life!
I was just stunned.
I mean, before he came to live with us, we perhaps allowed ourselves to believe that this was something he did once in a while, but we never imagined it took up so much of his time.
Three times per day!
A man of his age?
Then too, I didn’t tell him—the next-to-the-last straw—that I had actually caught him at it: in the middle of the night; in the kitchen!
I was just appalled.
The . . . splatter!
I don’t know that I’m ever going to fully recover from the experience.
Luckily, he hadn’t seen me; but I’m going to have to live with the deep shame—and the horror—of walking in on him like that for the rest of my life.
In the end, the last straw really came when my wife confronted me, after dinner one night.
She’d hustled me down to the laundry room, to get us away from my father, and the kids. She started to cry, which I find difficult to bear; but what she said was even more heartbreaking—and the truth of what she sobbed out was impossible to deny.
“He is doing this,” she managed to gasp, “in front of our children!”
There was just no rebutting—or minimizing—that; we held the intervention less than twenty-four hours later.
I know that not everyone will feel able, feel strong enough, feel ready to take the necessary steps to address the mastication habits of their own parents, not immediately. And—call me sexist, but—the fact that there were almost as many women at the MA meeting as there were men just floored and revolted me: I mention this just to be clear that men are not the only ones whose masticatory impulses can get out of control.
And—the obligatory caveat: Masticatory excesses are not a moral failing; this is a disease; it should be treated as such, judgment withheld as much as possible; shaming has no useful role to play here.
The way my wife and I see it, all we can do is tell our story and let people address their own parental mastication issues at their own pace, in their own way.
We just hope that we’ve given you something to chew on.
Don Unger was born at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and has spent more than fifty years now touring medical facilities across Europe and the Americas. He has published about thirty short stories, a handful of poems, hundreds of journalistic pieces, and done a few dozen radio commentaries for local NPR affiliates. He writes the occasional unpublishable novel as well—one of which was his MFA thesis. He was disappointed to discover that his PhD did not earn him a prescription pad. He accepts that writing is clear evidence of mental illness; he also understands that any relief writing provides is symptomatic and temporary. He has had a headache since 1990.