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A Memoir

“A captivating journey through the humor, pitfalls, delusions, and dangers of extreme family dysfunction and the boundless capacity of human love. The intelligent facility of Birkenhead’s writing shines” (

Peter Birkenhead grew up trying to understand his father, a terrifying, charismatic presence who brutalized his family but also enchanted them with his passion and whimsy. An avid gun-collector and a virulently anti-war peacenik, a popular economics professor and a wife-swapping nudist, a near-radical leftist and a lifelong fan of the British Empire (who would don a pith helmet and imitate Michael Caine playing Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in the bloody war film Zulu ), he was a man who could knock his young son down the stairs one day and the next cry about putting the family’s aged dog to sleep.

When Birkenhead reached young adulthood, he reacted to his volatile childhood by forgetting its worst moments, trying to adopt all the trappings of normalcy, and sleepwalking through life. On occasion he found himself falling into rages that reminded him of his father, until a moment of revelation sparked the painful but necessary process of examining his childhood, and of ultimately moving beyond it.

Shocking, funny, redemptive, and utterly original, Gonville is light on its feet even as it deals in the darkest family tales.
Choose a format:
  • Free Press | 
  • 272 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416598848 | 
  • April 2014
List Price $17.99
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Hear more about Peter Birkenhead's memoir of his father, GONVILLE

Gonville is the story of a son coming to terms with his alternately charismatic, mortifying, thoughtful, violent, generous, and cruel father.

Read an Excerpt


Okay, I’m flying. I’m three years old and I can fly. Who knew?

But I’m always full of surprises and today’s is that I’m flying. Not in an airplane, but like Superman, with my arms stretched out in front of me and the wind in my face. There’s a lot of turbulence, but I’m not flying through the sky. I’m setting what must be the indoor air-speed record, flying down a long stairwell without touching the stairs. The turns are very tight, really scary, and as I approach each one, I sense that I’m flying too fast, and that I’m going to crash into the wall. I don’t... see more

About the Author

Peter Birkenhead
Photograph © Allison Shallert

Peter Birkenhead

Peter Birkenhead is a regular contributor to, where he writes personal essays and cultural criticism. An essay about Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret was the most-read piece on the site in 2007. He’s also a regular contributor to Marie Claire Magazine, and has written for GQ, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and other publications. As an actor he has extensive stage and television credits. He lives in Los Angeles.




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