After a traumatic adolescence and seeking shelter in a “safe” life that no longer fit, writer Bernadette Murphy found her way back to her true self through risk taking. In a riveting excerpt and Q&A, she describes crossing paths with her childhood idol character, The Fonz, in a surprising way.
The desk of Matty, a salesman at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, features a picture of Fonzie sitting on a Triumph motorcycle with a girl wearing a skirt sitting on the back, holding on to him fetchingly. The photo surfaced from the auction catalog when the actual motorcycle was found in someone’s garage after years of neglect.
“I always wanted to be Fonzie,” Matty says of the TV character whose last official appearance dates back nearly thirty years. We’re hanging out and chatting while my motorcycle is being serviced. Matty is almost ten years younger than me and must have gotten in on the tail end of the Happy Days era.
“I always wanted to date Fonzie,” I reply, plunking myself into the proper gender-specific role. As a girl who grew up in the ’70s, I can’t rightly wish for more than that. Yet I can’t explain to Matty that my yearning was deeper, more visceral. I wanted to consume Fonzie—just like the Holy Communion I took each week at Mass—and by ingesting him, to engender in myself the qualities I so admired.
I haven’t thought about my Fonzie obsession in decades. As a teenager, the names Fonzie, the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Henry Winkler could all rocket me to a fourth dimension. I was a tomboy, a girl who competed and was ranked nationally in skateboarding, a young lady more comfortable in a pair of Van’s slip-ons and corduroy OP shorts than kitten heels and skirts, someone who liked to hang with the guys at empty, abandoned swimming pools to skateboard rather than go to the mall with girlfriends to shop.
I bought fan magazines featuring Henry Winkler, went to every movie he made, read his biographies, toyed with acting because that would put me in the same mental territory as this man/character/dream figure. Though Fonzie was my favorite, Winkler didn’t have to be Arthur Fonzarelli to make me swoon; any contact with him would do it. If we were to sit down and talk, I believed, we’d pick up a conversation that had already been in progress.
Perhaps I was searching for male approval. My father was preoccupied caring for my severely mentally ill mother, watching out for my youngest brother who was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent, and trying to tend the five basically motherless kids in our family, while striving to keep food in the kitchen cabinets and making sure we went to Mass on Sundays. I’m sure, in some way, my father would have given me that approval if I’d known how to ask. But I didn’t.
When couldn’t get the approval I was looking for at home, I sought it with my skateboard and the grudging respect I earned from the boys – male approval was male approval, after all. But soon even that power faded and I looked where young girls turn next for that anointing: my own sexual power. Only, in adolescence, I didn’t know really that’s what it was I was reaching for.
My conversation with Matty moves on to other motorcycle-related subjects, but something is amiss. I’ve just lied to him and, more important, to myself.
“Actually, I take that back,” I clarify, knowing the truth doesn’t matter to Matty but it does to me. “I wanted to be Fonzie, too.”
After that, I decide to look deeper into my Fonzie obsession. Certainly, the Fonz was an important role model, demonstrating what it meant to be immune from peer pressure and true to one’s self. That made perfect sense at an age when my identity was forming. But now I am in midlife with established demographic markers — professor, author, homeowner, mother of three — when coolness seems radically beside the point. Yet the more I think about my long-forgotten Fonzie fascination, the more I find the qualities he embodied as important as ever. I am grappling once again with issues of identity.
I have just separated from my husband of 25 years and am living on my own for the first time. I now make my home in a one-room apartment perched above a garage, just like Fonzie. When riding my motorcycle, I wear motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket, just like Fonzie — though to be fair, I wear spring dresses and lace blouses when not on the bike. I’m learning to make my way through life as a solo person, no longer tied by traditional family bonds, a loner, just like Fonzie. Only I am the parent of three nearly grown children, 49, and female. Still, I feel myself channeling some of the energy, the chutzpah, the boldness, the generosity of spirit I found in the character. In short, I find myself needing to emulate Fonzie in order to survive.
My phone rings one evening while cooking dinner.
“Hello,” a gentle male voice speaks. “This is Henry Winkler.”
I almost drop the phone. “You just made my night,” I say.
Weeks ago, I’d told a writing colleague that I’d love to chat with him. Winkler now coauthors with my colleague the Hank Zipzer series of children’s books that tell the everyday adventures of a bright young boy with learning challenges. I never thought he’d actually call. He graciously agrees to schedule a phone interview. I try not to gush.
I competed on skateboards until age 16 when I attracted my first boyfriend, a “bad boy” in his own way. Over time, I gave up my skateboard and 501 Levi’s for high-heeled Candies sandals, Calvin Klein must-lie-prone-on-the-bed-to-zip-them jeans, makeup, and giggles. I learned to toss my hair and came to understand that boys didn’t want girls to hang with them at empty swimming pools if they could make out with them in cars. I discovered the socially acceptable role for girls like me: to become pretty like the rest.
My foray into that world wasn’t a comfortable fit. That first boyfriend pressured me into having sex when I was just as happy to cuddle. Fear of abandonment was enough to earn my acquiescence. That coupling at age 16 resulted in a teen pregnancy and a child relinquished for adoption. Returning to my high school after a stint in the Teen Mother Program brought with it whispered cruelties, ugly notes on my locker, a sense of being ostracized, and a cloud of shame surrounding my sexuality that would shadow me for the next thirty years.
“All I know is what the Fonz was to me, and what I added on, over the years, to the fabric of the Fonz,” says Winkler when we talk. “When I first started him, even in the audition, he was — the first word that comes to my mind but it’s not the best word – cooler than I am, he was more definite than I am, he was more sure about the air he moved when he walked through the world than I am — or even was. He was my alter ego. He was fun to play because he was who I wanted to be, also.”
As a result of my high school experiences, I learned my lesson fast and hard. Girls were meant to be not only pretty but also tame, and to follow the socially conscribed rules. Take one step outside of that realm and you will be slammed.
I finished my education, commuting from my father’s house to the local state college, and was married upon graduation to the most Richie Cunningham-type man I could find – no more bad boys for me! In short order I became a mother of three and settled in, adopting Winnie-the-Pooh jumpers paired with sensible mom shoes. Long gone were both extremes: the tomboy in torn Levi’s scrambling over a chain-link fence to gain access to a skateboarding venue, as well as the girl surprised by her budding sexuality, outfitted in too-tight jeans, unsure of what the sensual realm entailed other than trouble.
“He was who he was,” Winkler reflects. “And that was the strength that pushed everybody back, that made them want to follow him, and backed people down when they wanted to fight. He never actually threw a punch,” Winkler pauses. “It was the intimidation of authenticity — and that is more powerful than anything. He was so confident that he was able to be vulnerable.”
My life choices were exactly what my father would have wanted. Traditional Irish Catholic to the core, he prized the virtue of motherhood and was most pleased when I fulfilled that role. At the same time, he disapproved of my writing. When my first book was published, he was so angered by what I’d written about my mother’s mental illness that he didn’t speak to me for two years. I tried through my writing to get him to see the “real” me, asking him to acknowledge if not approve of who I was. He preferred the construct he’d created: the good wife and mother to his grandchildren, the docile and obedient woman. That was the only woman he could condone. The same was basically true with my husband. He loved the homemaker image of me, the Play Dough-making mother, and didn’t seem to care to meet the full person I was.
Aren’t these the lessons the larger culture instills in us, simply reinforced in my case by my family members?
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the tomboy in me began to rustle, calling, bursting through the constraints I’d placed on her. I started backpacking, then climbing mountains, open-water kayaking, getting tattooed, running marathons, coming out as who I really was and had abandoned decades earlier. People who’d known me for years looked askance. Midlife crisis, they concluded.
But that wasn’t it. I was a reclaiming the person I’d always been, the girl who’d shaped herself into a mold that didn’t fit out of fear of yet another cultural and familial banishment.
It all started when, at age 48, I learned to ride a motorcycle. The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time. I felt as weightless and graceful as a dancer, executing moves of precision and elegance, as feminine as possible, while also aware of the brawn and boldness required to get that macho machine to do what I wanted it to. The male and female energies in me complimented rather than competed with each other.
There are few narratives in our culture that support this kind of tomboy, motorcycle riding, adventure-seeking life I was creating. I think back to Thelma & Louise, now approaching its 25th anniversary, the only road adventure film I can name in which women are the primary characters. In the film world, I struggle to name any female road story that does not end badly for the woman. Rape and death are the most common outcomes. There have been a few books featuring female adventurers – the tales of Dervla Murphy come to mind – but these are the exceptions to the rule. Where am I to find role models?
I ask Winkler about his experience with the motorcycle. I’d heard he was terrified of it.
“Not terrified,” he explains. “I almost never rode the motorcycle. I think I rode it for, like, 12 feet. But I was intimidated. I did not think that I could ride it with the internal confidence of not spilling it. I did not think I could figure out the hand, and the hand, and foot, and the hand, and the gear, and the speed, and the brake.”
I am ashamed of the hint of smugness I feel, hearing this. No wonder getting my motorcycle endorsement at the DMV felt so great. I had mastered a skill Winkler had shied away from.
So what was the draw of the motorcycle for Fonzie? The outlaw persona, the macho element, the beauty of the mechanics?
Winkler laughs. “All of it! He rode a motorcycle, loved it, loved just sitting on it.”
I knew the feeling. Not overnight, but fast enough to draw strange looks in my suburban world, leather boots and a jacket appeared, followed by a matte-black Harley that would make Bat Girl proud. The approval I’d craved from my father, my husband, and men in general was now bubbling up from within me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t simply want to be The Fonz. I had, on some psychic level, become him.
It’s a process Winkler knew well. As he puts it, he had long wanted to stop being “such a bowl a jelly at my core.” When his kids were growing up, he says, they were like muffins you’re baking. “You stick the toothpick in and you know they’re not done yet. Well, I wasn’t done until my late 40s, my early 50s. I think I mourned the sadness of how long it took me, all that time wasted, all the power you give away to other people.”
“Hearing that makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.
“You know why?” he pauses for dramatic effect. “’Cause we’re all the same. To varying degrees, we are all the same.”
I ask Winkler if playing Fonzie helped him get “done” any sooner? I’m hoping that my motorcycling experience is helping me get done, too. That maybe I’m on the verge.
“Fonz did not help me to authenticate. He showed me what was possible to be. I’m not talking about motorcycles, snapping fingers, that stuff, just walking your avenue through the world.” Playing the Fonzie character while still knowing he wasn’t as authentic to his core as he’d like to be was a frustrating experience he says. “Because I was still living with the worry while I was playing with the confidence.”
“But isn’t that how we learn to do anything in life?”
He agrees. “Then I’m luckier than anything in that I was able to play the character. People look for the metaphor of the character in order to get there. I was given it.”
For me, perhaps the motorcycle is the metaphor. It isn’t an act and the clothes aren’t a costume, but simply protective gear, not unlike the padded shorts I wore as a skateboarder. And because I know that truth to the depth of my being, and have never again since high school actively sought to appear sexual in my manner of dress, I can wear my black riding gear with no self-consciousness.
At least, that’s what I thought.
I was dressed in my leathers one day at the Harley dealership, looking at helmets and chatting with the guys working there. Quentin, the head of bike sales, introduced me to one of his burly, tattooed biker friend.
“You ride?” the friend asked, a bit surprised, probably wondering if I just sat on the back of some guy’s bike.
“She also runs marathons,” Quentin added, as if that explained the motorcycle thing.
The friend did what no one had done to me in decades — the slow up-and-down with his eyes, nodding approvingly. I could feel every inch of my thighs encased in leather as if lit up in neon.
“I can tell,” he said. “With legs like that, you could cut diamonds.”
I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. I was so embarrassed I fumbled my words and then dropped my helmet – a huge no-no. I scrambled to leave as quickly as possible. Riding my bike home, I bawled under that helmet, so shamed by that moment of male ogling attention after years of actively avoiding it with mom-type jumpers and loose-fitting clothing.
I was able to identify the source of the shame and within a day or two to let it go. The sexual vibe given by the leathers, I decided, was a vibe others were adding, an identity I did not have to be categorized by. The safety equipment I wear is not meant to be your sexual fantasy, though out pop culture has framed it that way. If there was a female Fonzie, I reflected, she would totally blow off this guy’s hyper-sexualized read of my manner of dress.
And so I did, and in doing so, reclaimed a sense of my own sexuality and attractiveness. A few weeks later I allowed my 17-year-old daughter to pick out jeans for me a full size smaller than I usually wore. Soon, I was able to embody a bit of the teen girl I’d left behind all those years ago, the one who was a hybrid between the tomboy and the sex-kitten, but who could own both parts of herself.
When my son, away at college, called to ask me about the separation between his father and me, his question surprised me.
“Mom,” he said, “did the motorcycle have anything to do with it?”
“No, of course not,” I replied, which was the truth. But not the whole truth. By embracing the part of me that had lain dormant all those years via the motorcycle, I had found myself again – a self my father did not want to meet, a self that hadn’t fit with my husband for at least a decade. My husband and I had grown so far apart, especially after I’d reclaimed my inner tomboy, that there was nothing left to connect us. And all the activities I’d undertaken – marathons, mountain climbing, etc.?
Henry Winkler puts his finger right on it. “Can I ask you a question?” he says. “Did all that activity fuel the separation?”
“Absolutely. It taught me what I needed to know: that if I could rally enough strength, enough courage, to do these things, I might have the courage to do what I desperately wanted and needed to do: to leave.”
In talking with Winkler about Fonzie’s authenticity, his voice becomes excited. “You know what it does?” he asks of claiming one’s self. “It frees you up and give you back so much of your life. When you talk yourself down, and cut the negative off your bone with a bowie knife, that’s powerful. And then if you replace with a positive you walk taller, straighter, farther.”
So playing Fonzie helped Winkler get “done” by his late 40s, early 50s? That gives me hope.
“No, no, no!,” he practically shouts. “To be on the road to being done. I still have a molten chocolate center that is still gooey!”
Winkler sounds exhausted as our conversation winds down. “Wow!” he says. “I swear to you that I’ve had these thoughts in isolated boxes in the attic. I’ve never put them all together. Now I realize I don’t have the fucking slightest clue if I’m on the track but it seems right to me. What I’m saying seems right.”
After we hang up I realize that what I’m doing – I also don’t have the fucking slightest clue – but it seems right to me. I am working to embrace authenticity and all that comes with it, including the aura of loneliness that surrounded Fonzie. He may have been able to snap his fingers and have girls flock to him, he may have been friends with all the guys in town, but he was still a loner and an air of existential aloneness clung to him. Which, perhaps, is the price one pays for authenticity.
I’m grateful to Winkler for taking the time to talk with me and help me sort out my obsession. I can’t help wishing we could chat like that on a regular basis. Still, one sentence he used describing Fonzie stays with me long after. “Everyone seemed to believe that, if I knew him, he would have been my friend; he would have taken care of me.”
I guess that’s how I think of Winkler, and perhaps in a just-getting-started way, how I now think about myself. At the very least, I am learning to befriend myself, to approve of myself, to care for myself while continuing to care for those I love. I think, in maybe a tiny way, I am learning to be strong enough to risk being real.
Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, published in May 2016 by Counterpoint Press.
“Fonzie” originally appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books.
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AFLW: You vividly describe a SoCal childhood, complete with skateboarding in empty swimming pools and OP shorts replaced by skin-tight Calvin Kleins and Candies heels. As an L.A. writer, how do you find the memories of place inform your writing?
Bernadette Murphy: I was born here and love Los Angeles, so it influences so much of how I see the world. Also, being a child of Irish immigrants gives me, I think, a slightly different take on things. I grew up with cultures in conflict with each other. As kids, we were the only ones in the neighborhood called in each night for family prayers kneeling in the dining room and saying the rosary before a makeshift altar, the only ones who’d never been to a baseball game and didn’t know how football was played. I always felt a bit out of step, but that kept me on my toes and honed the attention I paid to details. I was so determined to do it “right,” to be a proper Angeleno. But of course, I ultimately learned that there’s no such thing. As long as I’m as fully myself as I can be, I’m as Angeleno as they come.
The same is true when I write of other places – as I do in HARLEY AND ME with living in Tahiti and riding my motorcycle across the U.S. Whenever I’m new or an outsider to an experience, my perceptions are on high alert, I take in more, see more. I think that outsider status helps capture the experience more vividly. At least, I hope so.
AFLW: As a teen, you idealized Fonzie from Happy Days and all he represented. In one of those dreamed-of, fantasy-come-true-moments of life, you had the chance to talk to Henry Winkler himself about the Fonz and you two experienced epiphanies together. What surprised you most about your long-desired conversation with him?
BM: I was amazed at how the conversation unfolded just as I had thought it might, that we really “got” each other. I’d always had the sense that we would hit it off. But we often think that about famous people and are regularly proved wrong. I remember meeting my writing hero, Tim O’Brien, and it was nothing like I’d hoped. This, however, was everything I’d wanted: a moment of genuine human connection, a willingness on both our parts to be present. I had always heard he was a mensch and it’s true. He’s also just a very warm and incredibly “there” human being. And for my own part, I wasn’t overly distracted by his celebrity nor obsessing over how I was coming off in the conversation – a fact for which I’m eternally grateful – and that made our exchange one of simple, shared humanity.
AFLW: In your book you detail the intense amount of work you did to reclaim yourself. What do you feel is the relationship between risk-taking and authenticity?
BM: Being authentic is a form of risk taking and probably the riskiest thing I’ve ever done. To claim my own truth means, usually, that someone else will disagree with that truth or be discomfited by my sharing of it. And yet, I spent so many years of my life trying to be the person other people wanted me to be – I knew how deeply painful that experience was and I just couldn’t do it one moment longer. I had to be willing to lose people whose love and approval were contingent on me aligning myself with their desires. That, I decided, was not the kind of love I wished to invite into my life. I hope to love people just as they are and hold space for them to be authentically themselves when with me. And I look to populate my life with others who can do the same. When it comes to risk taking, what could be more close-to-the-bone and scary than that?
AFLW: You said your father disapproved of your first book because you wrote openly about your mother’s mental illness. What advice would you give to writers who want to tell their truth but feel disapproval, shame and fear over their shoulder when they sit down to do the work?
BM: First, write your truth and then worry about going public with it after the fact. It’s so easy to censor ourselves ahead of time. Decide you won’t fall into that trap.
Once it’s written, then you can decide. There are things I’ve written that I’ll never publish and yet I still needed to write them. With everything I publish, though, I try to make sure I’ve been as honest as I can be and that I’ve approached delicate material with as much generosity of spirit as I can.
That said, I know countless writer friends who had similar concerns and were relieved when family members gave their blessings – or at least withheld their condemnation – to the words they’d honed. That is more often the experience, I think, than the disapproval I encountered. Either way, though, what choice do you have? If you want to write about things that matter deeply to you, it’s likely that the process will uncover dark, cobweb-y feelings. But guess what? You can get past that. It won’t kill you.
Eventually, you might start to see that the shame and disapproval you feel may have more to do with another’s expectations. Maybe that roiled pit of embarrassed or awkward emotions actually belongs to someone else? If so, let them have what’s theirs and you hold tightly to what is legitimately yours.
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Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction, including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.