My Single Father. My Broken Hero. - James Michael Starr

My Single Father. My Broken Hero.


JAMES FRANK STARR, the man in the photo above, was the most consistent source of stability during my childhood. Here you see him as a young man of about 25, married and with two small children. Only a few years after this photo was taken, and almost two decades before the film Kramer vs. Kramer would make the single father a modern character type, he would play that role. Not that he had a choice.

And maybe my mother had no choice but to leave him. That’s what she told me when at the same age he is here, I sat on her couch in Cleveland, Ohio, and she tried to explain exactly what happened.

The soap-opera chronology is admittedly confusing, so I’ll itemize it here in…

A Brief History of My Own Personal Big Bang 

1. Joan Marie Starr, after repeated battery from her husband, Jim, moves out of the house and gets her own apartment near downtown East Liverpool, Ohio.

2. Pursuing her dream as a singer, she meets Bus Cartwright in a local nightclub. Unbeknownst to her, Cartwright keeps the books for several businesses controlled by the mob.

3. Cartwright woos Joan. She subsequently divorces Jim and marries Bus, only a year or so later to become disenchanted with the older man’s questionable activities.

4. When Jim decides to pack it in, escape the Rust Belt, and join his younger brother in Dallas, Texas, the idea of a fresh start inspires Joan to rejoin Jim and their children.

5. Within two weeks of their settling into a small rent house in a Dallas suburb, she gets a call from a stranger who threatens her and her children with bodily harm if she doesn’t return.

6. She goes back to Cartwright who eventually dies of natural causes, and eventually marrying for the third time, is finally reunited with her children 12 years after they were separated.

Throughout all this, my mother came and went, but my father was always there.

History vs Mythology

Of course, my dad was no angel. For one thing, his violence toward my mother may have been infrequent, but it was still inexcusable. And long before she first moved out, I remember a day on a swimming beach when I watched him being led away in handcuffs, apparently for threatening my mother and taking a swing at a policeman.

But you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that, away from the provocations of their relationship, I found him to be the most gentle and honorable man I have ever known. That’s the way he was to me right up until he died in his early fifties.

What We Know vs What We Don’t

So, do any of us really know our parents? Can we? Or will we simply have to come to terms with their humanity, accept the inconsistencies, and reconcile it all in the choices we make for ourselves? I think this is the case, but in order to accomplish that, I believe we must first embrace them as the gods and heroes each of us has made them out to be in our own personal mythologies.

Here’s what I mean:

I see how, in the same way that I portray my father as a hero despite his vices, I also portray my mother as a villain despite her virtues. But I think this is what I must do in order to learn everything I can from the way they lived their lives.

It does not mean that I don’t love them for who they were, only that before I can really do that, I must first accept their primary role as the most important teachers in my life. And they teach me as much from what they did wrong as from what they did right.

There is a change going on within me now, even as I write. I have long felt more accepting of my father than I was of my mother. But in fully embracing and accepting the mythical and melodramatic character she was to me, I am for the first time in my life able to see who she really was.

Ironically, in that way she goes on teaching me. And by doing so becomes the best mother to me that it was in her power to be.

You’ve just read part 4 of this personal account. To read the fifth installment, click here.



If my story strikes a chord with you, please help me share it:

4 Replies to “My Single Father. My Broken Hero.”

  1. Jim, very beautifully written. I had no idea when Cindy left that she and her family were going through such a crises, but we were so young. I enjoyed your writing and hope to read more. Cindy never answered my list but I see she is not a frequent flyer on facebook. She may not remember me at all.

    1. Yes, Ginger, Rodger and I have been trying to encourage Cindy to be on Facebook, but she lives a rather idyllic life out in the country about an hour or so from here, so I doubt she has much reason to get with the technology, even if it’s only Facebook!

      I’d be interested in hearing your own recollections of Cindy and my family. Please write if you can.

      I was eleven when we left, and it feels like 5 lifetimes ago for me. So I sometimes question my own impressions. However, I’ve learned that the impressions are sometimes more significant than the facts, so I’ve decided that for the purposes of this website and my novels, there’s more value to myself and to readers if I just go with it.

  2. ” I see how, in the same way that I portray my father as a hero despite his vices, I also portray my mother as a villain despite her virtues. ”

    . . . JSR: i have enjoyed reading your story thus far. i do hope you continue. i think the reason the story appeals so much to me are the similarities with my own . . . in my story however, my mother was the saint, and my father the villain.

    and although i ‘think’ i have found a place for them in my life ‘as human-beings’ doing the best they could with what they had, i wish i had paid more attention.

    I’ve am on my way to reading the next (last) segment of your your story, but please keep writing.

    ps: i have been a big fan of your art for years as well

  3. Rebeca:

    I apologize for taking so long to respond to your comments. But thank you for reflecting on this journey that so many of us have in common. The very fact that few people who share these experiences feel they can talk about it is one reason I’m writing.

    Oddly enough, this series of blog posts actually came about because a little over a year ago I began work on a series of novels based on this very story. I’m not sure how many more posts I’ll be writing, but if you’re at all interested in seeing how the “true-life” drama takes shape in novel form, I invite you to follow my progress on the Facebook Page I’ve created for the series, called The Butterfly Myths. Over there I’ve been sharing sneak peeks into the books in the form of free chapters, and once the books start coming out, I plan to make free digital copies available. Here’s a link to that page if you’d like to check it all out:

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