Heir to a Scandal
He should have inherited an ice cream empire. But all Andrew Gifford was left was pain — emotional and physical — and an improbable dream.
By Laura Wexler
Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, August 17, 2008
Each weekday morning Andrew Gifford wakes in his modest apartment in a complex on the outskirts of Silver Spring, walks to the bus stop a few blocks away, rides the bus to the Metro, takes the Metro to Union Station and walks the block to the headquarters of the American Psychological Association. He takes the elevator to the sixth floor, enters a set of glass doors and passes a matrix of cubicles to reach what he calls “the cave,” a windowless room where for the past seven years he has worked as a “communications specialist.” It’s a fancy title for what is essentially a boring customer service job: When subscribers to the APA’s 57 journals have a problem (an issue gone missing or arriving in the mail battered and dog-eared), they call Gifford, and he fixes it.
At 7 p.m., he passes the matrix of cubicles, walks the block back to Union Station, takes the Metro to Silver Spring, catches the bus, gets off at the bus stop and walks home to his apartment. He eats dinner, watches a DVD on his computer (he has no TV), reads and goes to bed.
Gifford is 34, with an average build and average features. He wears khakis and cotton shirts in muted colors. He doesn’t have children, a wife or a girlfriend. His life seems mind-numbingly routine. We might call it small. We might even feel sorry for him, as though he were some modern-day Bartleby, inscrutable and pathetic. How can you survive — how can you tolerate — such an ordinary life, we might want to ask.
But that would be the wrong question, because Gifford’s life has been anything but ordinary. When he was 21, he began suffering from what is widely considered some of the worst physical pain known to humankind, a condition eventually diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia (TN). In the midst of struggling with TN, an affliction so intolerable it’s known as the “suicide disease,” he managed to find the will to commit an act so idealistic it verges on foolishness: founding a small literary press and funding it through his credit cards and savings. This September, Gifford’s press, the Santa Fe Writers Project, will bring out its third title, a collection from cult writer and Bethesda native Pagan Kennedy called “The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories.”
“It’s become something of a calling,” says Gifford of his publishing efforts. He would like to devote himself to them full time, but he can’t afford to. Even though he lives close to the bone — working two jobs, eating ramen noodles, driving a used car and paying only $600 in monthly rent — he says he’s in a financial hole as a result of the press. When he talks about his money worries, there’s no anger in his voice, and yet it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Until he was 10 years old, Gifford lived comfortably as the heir to one of Washington’s most beloved family businesses. Then, almost overnight, he went, as he says, “from riches to rags.”
NEARLY ONCE A WEEK, someone asks Gifford, “Are you one of the ice cream Giffords?” When he says yes, the person might recall going to Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy as a child or a teenager, wax poetic about a favorite flavor or muse upon the elaborate ice cream logs that appeared for every holiday. “Sometimes they ask what happened, and I always dodge it,” Gifford says. “It’s a story I’ve not really shared, not really wanted to.” It’s not that he’s secretive. It’s that it’s impossible to tell what happened to Gifford’s, the legendary D.C. institution, without telling what happened to the Gifford family, a tale that’s complicated and sad, and remains ultimately mysterious.
On an afternoon this summer, Gifford stops his car in front of the two-story building at 8101 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring that houses Quality Time Early Learning Center. In 1938, Gifford’s grandparents, John and Mary Francis Gifford, opened the first Gifford’s ice cream parlor on this spot, offering table service, high-butterfat ice cream made from a secret recipe and sundaes topped with homemade chocolate sauce poured from individual metal pitchers. “You’d walk in there and immediately to the left was where they made the candy, big vats of chocolate. It was like Willy Wonka. Behind it and to the right were the tables and chairs,” Gifford says. “And behind that was the factory — I just remember all these big freezers and the freight elevator. You could really get lost in there. It was loads of fun.”
Lifelong Silver Spring resident Robert Aubry Davis, host of WETA’s “Around Town,” lived just down the street from the Gifford’s Silver Spring location. He says that his parents used to court there before they were married and that they took him there once every few weeks as a child. Time hasn’t dimmed Davis’s memories of the shop’s glass cases full of delectable homemade candy, or the old-fashioned fountain that dispensed ice-cold water, or, especially, the Swiss chocolate sauce and Swiss chocolate ice cream. “Until you’ve tasted it, you’ve never experienced a flavor like it,” says Davis, a self-proclaimed ice cream aficionado.
Within two years of opening the Silver Spring store, Gifford’s opened a second location in Bethesda, followed by one a decade later in Arlington County and a fourth at Baileys Crossroads in 1956. With each new location, the popularity only grew. “Ask anyone about Gifford’s on a Saturday night. Lines were out the door,” says Allen Currey, 82, Andrew Gifford’s maternal grandfather, a retired Montgomery County science teacher who worked nights and weekends as the chain’s general manager. “We had to have a greeter at the door to govern the seats, or else someone would have gotten hurt.”
From the factory behind the original Silver Spring store, Currey says, ice cream was shipped to restaurants throughout Washington, and occasionally to the White House. According to the Gifford’s legend, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a fan, as was Jacqueline Kennedy.
When John Gifford died in 1976, his only son, Robert, a Harvard-educated accountant, took over as president. The stores continued to be packed and profitable, Currey remembers, but behind the scenes, things quickly went downhill. “Robert Gifford had some mental problems, and he for some reason intentionally would not pay people,” Currey says. “He didn’t pay suppliers. He would even give employees bad paychecks.”
In 1982, the Bethesda location closed, and in 1984, Gifford’s filed for bankruptcy protection, citing roughly $200,000 in debt. One Friday evening that year, Andrew Gifford, who was then 10, recalls his father, Robert, telling him in the parking lot of Jhoon Rhee Karate Super Center in Kensington (now Black Belt Martial Arts Center), where they were both taking taekwondo lessons, that he was going to Charlottesville for the weekend and would return that Sunday. “Those were his last words to me,” Gifford says. “He vanished then.”
“It was a blank trail,” Currey says. “He cleaned out all the stores and took all the money. Everyone in the family was left holding the bag.” Currey says law enforcement officials tried to locate Robert Gifford after the family filed a missing persons report but had no success.
Within a few weeks of Robert Gifford’s disappearance, Andrew Gifford and his mother, Barbara, were forced to apply for welfare and food stamps, because not only had Robert Gifford robbed the company of funds, he’d also taken the contents of the family bank accounts and the family car. The family’s stately home in Kensington was in danger of being auctioned off to pay Robert Gifford’s creditors (“I remember the day the sheriff came to the house and we hid behind the curtains,” Gifford says), but Currey was able to pay the liens on it, so Gifford and his mother were allowed to remain. Over the years, the home deteriorated around them, becoming what Gifford calls “the House of Usher.” “The gutters would fall down and shatter the bay windows,” he says. “The floors were rotted in the basement. . . . We were pariahs in the neighborhood.”
For Gifford, more crushing than the financial ruin was the shattering of his family. His mother, who had met Robert Gifford while working as a waitress at the original Gifford’s store, suffered from alcohol and drug problems, as well as mental illness. “Dad leaving ruined Mom,” he says. “She was always nuts, but this put her over the edge.” She believed the birds outside their house talked to her, he says. One, she insisted, was Jesus. Stunned by the loss of his father, his mother’s sanity, any sense of financial stability and the family business he’d been raised to assume was his to inherit, Gifford turned to books. He read science fiction and fantasy novels voraciously, grateful for the escape they offered.
Months after Robert Gifford disappeared, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the company’s assets should be liquidated, and on April 26, 1985, as the Baileys Crossroads store sold off the last of its ice cream and homemade sauces, customers flocked there to get a final taste and recall their relationship with what had become, in nearly 50 years, a local tradition. One woman said Gifford’s was the first place her husband brought her after they were married. “I remember days when you had to fight to get in here,” she told a Post reporter.
Andrew Gifford is the last of the original ice cream Giffords. His mother died in 1999 in a car crash. His father, Robert, resurfaced after his mother’s death — not to apologize, make amends or even explain his absence, but to file suit against Andrew for the $20,000 he’d received from his mother’s estate. (A judge threw out the case.) At that time, Andrew learned that his father had been living in Atlanta for the 15 years since his disappearance. After Robert died in January 2007, Andrew went to his Atlanta home in search of answers. “There has always been this idea of trying to find the Gifford millions buried in the back yard,” he says. “I took that house apart, piece by piece, looking for clues to his life and clues to the money, and there was nothing.”
As part of the liquidation back in 1985, the Gifford’s name and logo were sold, allowing for a succession of ice cream stores to open under the Gifford’s name in the past 20 years. The current Gifford’s incarnation has six locations in the Washington area, none of which Gifford can bring himself to patronize. “It’s a combination of thinking of all that could have been, and also thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s my name they’re using,’ ” he says. “There’s a resentment and loss that my dad ruined it for no particular reason. I was very stunned. Still am.”
AFTER LEAVING DOWNTOWN SILVER SPRING THAT DAY, Gifford drives out to his old house, a five-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath, white brick home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Kensington. “Well, the house looks good,” Gifford says. “I guess it recovered from us.” Just a few blocks away is Kensington Frederick Avenue Park, where, on a summer night in 1995, when he was 21, Gifford argued with a friend over a girl both wanted to date. While the girl rocked back and forth on the swings, the argument escalated until the friend rushed Gifford, head-butting him. The blow pushed Gifford’s front upper teeth back into the roof of his mouth, shattering the palate.
Months later, long after his jaw and mouth had healed, Gifford was sitting in a classroom at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, where he was putting himself through school, when he suddenly felt a jolt radiating through the right side of his face. It was pain like nothing he’d ever experienced, and it was made worse by the fact that he immediately assumed it was a lingering effect of the fight over a girl he didn’t even care about anymore. For two weeks, he missed classes while he writhed in bed. Then, one day, the pain left as suddenly as it had come on — until, a few months later, it returned.
For the next five years, as he graduated from college with a degree in history, worked at the Audubon Society and traveled throughout the United States and England, Gifford experienced what he came to call pain attacks. “I’d be fine and be able to eat and talk, and then I would say a word that would trigger it, and I would feel an electric current in my right cheek,” he says. “I kept going back to the dentist and orthodontist, and they couldn’t find anything wrong. I went through 10 doctors in the 1990s. One put me on nasal spray. One put me on antibiotics. One did a root canal. From a couple of them, I got, ‘Maybe it’s in your head.’ ” As the years passed, the pain intensified. “It would come and sometimes be extraordinary and knock me out for weeks, and then it would drift away. I’d be bedridden — I couldn’t eat or sleep or talk. My grandfather had to nurse me.”
Then, in the winter of 2000, the pattern changed: The pain came and never went away. Gifford couldn’t put his head under the water when he showered. Brushing his teeth and shaving — even blinking — exacerbated the pain. Anything touching his cheek, even a breeze, sent shocks through the right side of his face. “The rush of wind in the subway tunnels really did a number on me,” he says. “But, then, so did the motion of the subway. There were many days I’d have to get off at each stop on the way to work, just to recover for a bit.”
When he went to restaurants, he rarely ordered anything; he could barely choke down protein shakes and soups at home. If he turned on his right side while sleeping, he cried out. He withdrew from friends and potential girlfriends because he could barely converse — and any physical romantic contact was impossible. At times he lived with roommates, at times with his grandparents. He didn’t think about the future or about creating a satisfying career. He was thankful just to be employed at APA, where his boss was sympathetic to his condition.
Finally, in 2003, eight years after Gifford first experienced the terrible pain in the right side of his face, he visited a neurologist who gave his suffering a name: trigeminal neuralgia, a disorder that causes the trigeminal nerve, which runs from the brain to the face, to fire hyperactively, sometimes due to compression by an artery. “It is the most painful condition,” says acclaimed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has treated trigeminal patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore since he was a third-year resident 26 years ago. “It’s like a lightning bolt. There is not another pain I can think of that would compare with it.” Because the condition is rare (Carson says it affects about one in every 5,000 to 10,000 people), many medical professionals don’t recognize it, leaving people to suffer, as Gifford did, for years without treatment. “They are all severe cases,” says Carson, who is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins and treats trigeminal patients because he is so passionate about relieving them of their pain. “It totally takes over their lives. Everything they do is in reference to this disease.”
With the diagnosis came no talk of a cure, Gifford says, only prescriptions for pain medication that muted Gifford’s suffering somewhat but offered nothing close to relief or comfort. “I lived by the pain pills. I’d take the first dose early in the morning and wait for them to work so I could get out of bed. I’d take the next dose at 4 p.m. Then I’d get home from work at 7 and wait until 9 p.m. to take the last dose,” he says. “I wanted to die many times.”
And yet, somewhere amid the despair, Gifford found the optimism and the energy to pursue his dream of starting a literary press. “I’d always wanted to publish books. I guess I felt a challenge,” he says. “I felt defeated by a lot of things in life — I didn’t want to be defeated by this.” Since he’d turned to reading after his father’s disappearance, Gifford had been interested in books and publishing. In his sophomore year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, he’d applied to be editor of the literary journal Chips but got turned down. “So I started my own journal called Splinters,” he says. “I went around and asked a bunch of friends, and they asked their friends, and, surprisingly, a lot of stuff came in. It was crazy stuff. The first cover showed a baby urinating in the air. Inside it were the rantings of high school kids. I was told gently not to distribute it on school grounds.” After Splinters folded, Gifford started a publishing company, Purple Publications, to publish the work of friends whose work he admired. “One was a rewriting of the Bible that was pretty funny,” he says. “They would just be printouts that I Xeroxed and put a cover on.”
In a way, Gifford’s publishing company came out of a similar impulse to promote and share writing he admired. The idea was born in a bar in New Mexico one night when he and his uncle, Takoma Park-based writer Richard Currey, were bemoaning the lack of support for writers in America. Their first move was to create a writing contest judged by a notable author who would read the work of emerging writers and mentor and support them. Since its launch in 2000, the contest has been judged by such luminaries as Jayne Anne Phillips, Chris Offutt and Robert Olen Butler. After several years of running the contest, Gifford decided to plunge in deeper and create the press, using a chunk of the $20,000 he’d inherited from his mother to fund it. “In 2002, I read ‘Moody Food’ by Ray Robertson and loved it. It had been published in Canada but didn’t have a U.S. release, and I thought that was criminal,” he says. Gifford created the press and did all the work on the first book in 2005 (selecting a cover, hiring a printer, arranging for distribution, creating a Web site and handling publicity) while “high on pain pills,” he says. Yet when the book was released, Gifford couldn’t celebrate it because he was having a pain episode. “I couldn’t speak. I was gritting my teeth and inching around like an old man,” he says.
Robertson’s book, a fictionalized saga of music, love and the power of revolution inspired by the life of the legendary singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, cost about $10,000 to produce and sold only half of the 2,500 copies Gifford printed, resulting in a financial loss. And yet, a year later, Gifford selected two novellas from acclaimed Washington-based writer, National Public Radio books commentator and George Mason University creative writing professor Alan Cheuse and published them under the title “The Fires.” That project cost Gifford $15,000. Like many who know Gifford, Cheuse is awed by his determination to enter an arena with such slim odds of success. “You know that old saying, ‘You have to have a large fortune to make a small fortune in publishing,’ ” Cheuse says. “Any rational person would have said, ‘I won’t do it,’ but he didn’t pay any attention. He decided he was going to do it, and he did it.”
Or, as Robertson said in an interview posted at sfwp.org, “Publishers like Andrew Gifford at SFWP are [expletive] heroes. Fools, maybe, too, but you probably can’t have one without the other.”
Pagan Kennedy’s book, “The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories,” will be the first title Gifford has funded completely through his own savings and credit cards. He has been a fan of Kennedy’s since he was in high school; he used to buy her ‘zines at Phantasmagoria in Wheaton and has followed her career ever since. Now Kennedy is a fan of Gifford’s. “Andrew is such a generous guy. All through his torment, he was building this literary press and working hard to support authors and the writing community,” she says. “He really is a hero.”
BY 2006, GIFFORD’S PAIN WAS ROUTINELY DEFEATING THE PAINKILLERS, even as he increased the amount until he reached the maximum safe dosage. At that point, his neurologist offered him a choice: He could start on a different regimen of drugs or undergo a surgical procedure. “I was tired of taking those pills,” he says. “I was so dopey for so long. That’s why I went for the surgery.”
In October 2006, Gifford underwent percutaneous glycerol rhizotomy, a procedure in which a surgeon inserts a needle through the face and into an opening in the base of the skull in order to inject glycerol into the trigeminal nerve. The glycerol damages the nerve and blocks pain signals, leading to relief for many TN patients. But Gifford wasn’t one of them. “I put a lot of hope into that and then just woke up in pain,” Gifford says. “After that, I went to see the neurologist again. I couldn’t speak. I was just grinding my teeth and crying. And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll go to Carson.’ ”
Months later, in April 2007, Gifford traveled to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to undergo microvascular decompression (MVD), a far more invasive surgery than the glycerol injection and one that carries with it all the risks of brain surgery: stroke, bleeding, death on the operating table. During the procedure, Carson entered the deep recesses of Gifford’s brain to separate the trigeminal nerve from the blood vessel that was compressing it and causing it to misfire. Then he wedged a piece of Teflon between the artery and the nerve to separate them and ensure the artery wouldn’t compress the nerve again.
Four hours after he went under, Gifford awoke in the Hopkins neuro-intensive care unit. There, a physician’s assistant pinched his cheek. At first, he was terrified. Then he realized that, for the first time in 12 years, he was not in pain. Someone had touched his face, and he was not crying out. He wept in utter shock, and in relief.
As days, weeks and months passed after the surgery, and as the scar behind his ear healed into a gently raised S, Gifford found himself at once fearing the pain would return (as it can for some patients after MVD surgery) and, oddly, mourning its disappearance. He found he couldn’t throw out his medication, even though he didn’t need it. Some nights he would pour the evening dose into his hand just to feel the familiar weight and shape of the pills.
“I’ve often compared the pain to a lover,” he says. “It was that intimate and that consuming.” He still fears shaving and still cuts his food into tiny pieces and gums it down, even though he doesn’t need to. He’s still amazed that he can put his head under the shower and turn on his right side while sleeping. “It really does feel like I’ve woken from some sort of coma,” he says.
Before he left the hospital, Gifford learned from Carson that the incident he was sure had caused his TN probably wasn’t a factor at all. “We don’t know what causes it,” Carson says, but there’s a slim chance that the fight over a girl 13 years ago played a role. Although Gifford was grateful to learn that he didn’t bring on the TN himself, he must now contend with the information that the sources of all of his life’s traumas — his father’s destruction of the family ice cream business and disappearance, his mother’s unraveling, his physical agony — remain inexplicable and mysterious.
What isn’t mysterious is the literary press that he founded and that he funds through his workaday job and his modest lifestyle. And that’s why Gifford feels something much more powerful than pride when he looks at the three books he has published in the past three years. The books are proof that in a life defined by bad things happening to him that were beyond his control, Gifford has created a small, good thing of his own.
Laura Wexler is the author of “Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America” and a writer in Baltimore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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