Hooked...By the Nasty, Hooky Thorns!!!

Hi. My name is Miriam. I have a problem.

I like The Thorn Birds.

The WE (that's the Women's Entertainment network, thank you very much, which from what I gather means "Lifetime, but with sexy priests") has been re-running The Thorn Birds. All the original miniseries, as well as that tacked-on-at-the-end-for-more-revenue miniseries, The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years. And shamefully, horribly, I have been watching these re-runs.

And enjoying them.

Well, if by enjoying you mean shouting such things at the TV as "YEAH! THAT'S RIGHT, TOUSLE HIS HAIR, BECAUSE HE'S NOT YOUR SON ANYWAY!" or "UH HUH, GO AHEAD, COMMENT ON HIS LOVE OF GOD, AND HOW MUCH HE REMINDS YOU OF YOURSELF - HE'S ONLY DYING ON A BEACH IN TEN YEARS ANYWAY!!" Mmm, yeah. This is what makes The Thorn Birds fun. I went through all the melodrama and anticipation twenty years ago. Now, it's not the suspense that keeps me watching - it's that I know exactly what's going to happen.

In case you were wondering, the truly scary part about watching The Thorn Birds now is the fact that I remember nearly all of the storyline from when I watched it at age twelve, back in 1983. And by the time I'd gotten around to watching it at twelve, I was already familiar with the story. Sneaking peeks in the secret adult bookshelf?, you wonder. Reading way ahead of grade level in the school library? But no. Oh, no. Not at all.

The Thorn Birds was what my mother read to us on vacation.

No, seriously. We used to take summer vacations that involved us driving across the country in our brown Hornet. And that's not the souped-up-for-the-animation version of my childhood, either. We really had a brown Hornet. (I don't even recall who made the Hornet, but I'm guessing it was GM.) On these drives, my poor parents had to do something to entertain my brother and myself - either that, or be treated to hours-long renditions of "He's on my side! She's touching me! Moooooommmmmm!!!" Some of this entertainment was accomplished by sing-along tapes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger - hence my long-abiding love of lefty folk music. But the other bits…

…Well, the other bits involved my mother reading passages from The Thorn Birds out loud to all of us in the car.

My mother has always had a taste that included the extremely popular. One of my vivid childhood memories is of her watching Dallas, and the rest of us watching it with her - ostensibly to make fun of the show and how seriously she took it, but secretly, the rest of us were just as desperate to find out who shot J.R. as she was. We all liked the same stuff my mom liked - it's just that the rest of us had her interest as an excuse for being interested, and so the rest of us got to pretend that our tastes were more cerebral.

Mm hm. Right.

And that's how I got to know The Thorn Birds, too. Had anyone asked, none of us were actually, really, truly interested in the story. My mother was reading it, and we had nothing else to do while my dad drove the Hornet from Michigan to Yellowstone National Park; why not listen to the story of a priest impossibly in love with an outback ranching woman, and her unrequited love right back at him? I mean, it's not like we actually cared. It was just something to pass the time. I was ten. My brother was eight. How in the world would we even know enough about life to care?

Which is why, when my mother attempted for the fourteenth time to surreptitiously pull the book out of her bag and read it quietly to herself, there was the inevitable carful of protest.

"Is that The Thorn Birds??"

"What are you reading, Mom?"

"Has she told the priest about the kid, Mom?"

Actually, all of that dialogue was in German, which makes it sound just a little bit more bizarre. "Hey, Mama, du liest doch nicht gerade The Thorn Birds und erzählst uns nichts davon, oder?"

So my poor mother, who probably wanted to read The Thorn Birds as an escape from having to deal with, well, us from day to day, ended up having to read us excerpts and highlights from the book on a six-week trip across the country. I remember it well enough that, while I never read it myself, I can probably find it for you on my parents' second-choice bookshelf down in the basement. I know exactly what the cover looks like, the yellow-and-brown color scheme of the late seventies, with that block-print title, and I could even pick out the writing on spine among all the romances in a library fire sale if I had to. That book has been committed to my memory without my ever having read a word of it.

Naturally, two years after that trip, when the miniseries aired, my brother and I had an excuse to stay up late, and my dad had an excuse not to sit at his grant applications. After all, my mother wanted to see it, and this was quality family time.

And good lord, the television did not disappoint. We watched Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph, the lovestruck-but-pledged-to-God priest, frustrate first the mother, then the daughter. We watched the daughter, Meggie, fall in love with the priest. We watched, with fascination, the white rose fall out of Father Ralph's Vatican hymnal, a sign that he had unfinished romantic business with Meggie in Australia. We watched Father Ralph, on a sabbatical from priesthood (can priests do that?), travel back to exotic Australia, consummate his relationship with Meggie and then return to the Vatican, unaware of the child he'd fathered. We watched Meggie live her life defiant, a sort of outback Scarlet O'Hara, attempting to fall for and marry someone else, and finally realize that Father Ralph was the love of her life - not to mention the father of her son Dane. We watched Meggie's neglected daughter (because, poor kid, her father wasn't some sexy priest) searching for a father figure, and Meggie's son looking for God and, eventually, the son dying on a beach while his (half-)sister had sex with some old guy in her Italian apartment. Believe me, we watched all of it.

This show even had educational value. My first discussion of The Facts Of Life came as a result of this show. Early on, Little Meggie freaks out because she's bleeding between her legs and runs to (ew, yuck) Father Ralph because she thinks she's dying. Hoping I wouldn't do something equally stupid when my period started, my mother explained to me what exactly was happening to Meggie. By that time, I'd read a few Judy Blume books and was fairly clear on the topic (and fairly grossed out), but in spite of my "Mom, I know," my mother pressed on.Twenty years later, I now remember it fondly.

We watched, in short, enthralled and without reservation. It was a prime time soap opera, but it was set in exotic Australia (and at the time, the utter lack of native peoples didn't strike me as odd), and we'd already heard the story read to us. What was not to love?

All of this is why, in the past week, at a time when "X-Treme Dating" is generally my only option and I turn the TV off, I've actually been transfixed by television. When I first tuned in - to the final hour of the series - I frightened myself by being able to recap all of the important plot points for The One And Only, who was up late and had never seen the show on account of he went to a Catholic high school where it was, to put it lightly, anathema. (Yeah, in a brilliant move on the programmers' parts, it originally aired right at Easter.)

Yep. I've been taking up brain cells for a good twenty years remembering exactly what Father Ralph's relationship to Meggie's mother was, and just who Luke was, when he disappeared, and why Dane ends up dead on a beach. Thank you, Richard Chamberlain.

And yet, even though I knew exactly what happened - and even though I watched exactly how it all ended again, twenty years later, with Meggie and Ralph and Justine and Dane and Luke and all - a few days later I tuned in for the re-re-run of the first two parts of The Thorn Birds. TOAO laughed at me, to be sure - and then he stared at me in puzzlement when I laughed too, but didn't change the channel.

The sad fact was, I was hooked.

I'd been hooked for twenty years. And I'm still hooked now. I'm making no excuses. It's not pretty, but there it is.

And if you'll excuse me, I've got The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, Part II to watch.

 

20. November 2003

 

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