A Lagniappe About Mary Trump’s Book
R.U. Steinberg recalls a childhood in the distant orbit of “the world’s most dangerous man”
Unlike Susanne Craig of The New York Times, I did not show up on the doorstep of Mary L. Trump to ask about her uncle Donald. Using my journalistic research techniques, however, I did find out where her brother Freddy, my childhood school friend, lives, but it would have been super creepy of me to show up at his home after losing touch with him some 45 years ago and ask him how things are going. We last saw each other in seventh grade at a bar mitzvah party.
For three years, I attended Kew-Forest, a private school in Queens, New York. My parents put me there after I was bullied in public school for being Jewish. The whole fourth grade at Kew-Forest was about 20 people. I loved the small class size, and Freddy was just one of the guys like me. The boys all wore the same dark gray blazers with a school patch, white shirts, striped ties, and gray slacks. The girls wore white blouses and red-and-blue plaid skirts.
I first met Mary Trump when she was about 7 and I was about 10. Although we didn't interact much, I thought she was nice. Freddy, Mary, and their mom had a good-sized apartment in Jamaica Estates. One year, Freddy had a birthday party and his dad, Fred II, took us all to see a matinee professional wrestling match at the old Sunnyside Gardens on Queens Boulevard. We saw our heroes, like Chief Jay Strongbow and Pedro Morales. Freddy's parents were divorced so I didn't see his dad a lot, but he seemed like an easygoing, generous guy. I had a secret crush on Freddy's mom, Linda.
I bought Mary's book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, and now I feel a little guilty about the crush part, but what do you expect from a prepubescent boy? Judging by the book's timeline, my crush would have started just a couple years after Linda asked Fred Trump to move out after their fights escalated. I never got to see the bedroom described in the book as having a decaying drywall, or the snake Fred II bought to torment Linda. Mary says she used to call her brother "Fritz," but he was just Freddy to me. He was pretty stoic and never let on about his family's issues – his father's alcoholism, his mother's struggles, and how his grandfather treated the family.
Donald was kicked out of Kew-Forest before I was born. When I heard the supposed reason – that he had punched the music teacher – I thought of Virgil Toms, my music teacher at the school. Mr. Toms had us study the classical composers and for fun the class would sing songs like "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)." These were hardly punchable offenses. I later learned Mr. Toms was not the teacher Donald punched.
Mary Trump is now a clinical psychologist, and I appreciated her attempt in the book to diagnose her uncle. Having personally written brochures to recruit foster and adoptive parents for children who have been abused or neglected, I understood her emphasis on attachment disorders. If a child never gets a smile from a parent, it makes a big difference. You almost feel sorry for Donald and his brothers, having grown up in a family where their mom had health issues and their dad showed little affection. Still, it's hard to comprehend how Donald has handled the COVID-19 pandemic when you consider his grandfather Friedrich died from the Spanish flu.
In articles about Donald prior to the election in 2016, I read that Freddy's son was born with cerebral palsy and needed help paying for medical expenses. The story was actually old news, broken by Heidi Evans in The New York Daily News in 2000. I was heartbroken. My own son was born with a mild form of Asperger's syndrome – hardly comparable – but my parents, who weren't millionaires, helped out emotionally and financially, and it made a huge difference.
Now that I have a better understanding about the Trump family's dynamics, however, it makes sense how Freddy seems to have been treated by his uncle concerning his son's medical care. If there's anything I learned from writing those brochures, it was that children with attachment disorders can grow up into adults who lack empathy. In her book's epilogue, Mary Trump says: "The simple fact is that Donald is fundamentally incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others. Telling the stories of those we've lost would bore him. Acknowledging the victims of COVID-19 would be to associate himself with their weakness, a trait his father taught him to despise."
R.U. Steinberg is a Texas resident for the past 40 years. His trivia column “Mr. Smarty Pants Knows” has appeared weekly in the Chronicle since 1988.