The short life of an aquatot
September 5, 2008 1:36 AM   Subscribe

Russell Tongay cheerfully dropped his preschoolers into the Mississippi River. Two-year-old Kathy made it five miles before he pulled her out. Her five-year-old brother Bubba finally staggered to shore after 22 miles. Merely a warmup, their beaming father told the media gathered on the St. Louis riverbank, for what would be his children's crowning achievement: to swim the English Channel, England to France, a crossing that in 1950 had been completed only four times. And so began the short, sad celebrity of the Aquatots, another chapter in America's morbid fascination with children pushed by parents and coaches beyond overachievement into the realm of abuse and endangerment.

Although the appalled British and French refused the Tongays permission to attempt the Channel swim, America reveled in the performances of the prodigies. By 1953 it was all over, Kathy dead of internal injuries suffered in a high dive, her father convicted of manslaughter in her death, and son Bubba, forever bound to the water, destined for a (not unblemished, scroll to the bottom) career as a lifeguard
posted by stupidsexyFlanders (30 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
In the summer of 1951, Russ and his wife took both tots to England, amid a gratifying fanfare of publicity, to swim the English Channel. Bubba was five and Kathy four. The British were horrified, and after debate in Commons, refused to countenance Russ's fondest dream. Russ took the kids to France, but the French turned him down, too. Eventually Russ gave up and brought them home.

posted by three blind mice at 1:49 AM on September 5, 2008

Oh, sure. Everyone gets bent out of shape when parents push kids to perform athletic achievement normally only capable by adults. But they also get bent out of shape when you make kids work in sweatshops. You can't win. And it's not like these young achievers grow up maladjusted or anything. Lindsay Lohan is an inspiration!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:02 AM on September 5, 2008

This same kind of curious parental overengagement in their childrens' activities produced some of the strangest music around, as well. You might argue that taking an obsessive interest in your children ends in tears, no matter what the venue.
posted by electronslave at 3:01 AM on September 5, 2008

Article says he was sent "up river" for this.
posted by pracowity at 3:08 AM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's tragic.
posted by dabitch at 3:22 AM on September 5, 2008

Had they not heard of the Olympics?
posted by pompomtom at 5:26 AM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

While I can't read minds, I can only presume that a father that would force his children to do such things even after their persistent protestations and visible evidence of bodily harm is fucking mentally ill. And this is probably cliche, but as the father of an 18 month old daughter, these kinds of tragic stories horrify me and haunt me at night.
posted by lyam at 5:29 AM on September 5, 2008

Please do not confuse with Aquadots
posted by poppo at 5:36 AM on September 5, 2008

Wow, I'm glad this guy is in jail or was put in jail. Who in their right mind would make a kid at the age of 5 swim the English channel?? Then the same man gave them the name "aquatots"?!?! I'm sure you still get beat up in school for having a name like that.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 5:42 AM on September 5, 2008

He actually only served six years in prison (even after attempting escape once by jumping from a moving train), of a ten year sentence.

Also, I didn't put it in the post because it was tangential, but that's a hell of a last sentence in the "endangerment" link about Jessica Dubroff.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:04 AM on September 5, 2008

Actually, it was the press who called them the Aquatots.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:05 AM on September 5, 2008

Please do not confuse with Aquadots

Or the Aquabats.
posted by Spatch at 6:08 AM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the Mississippi River incident, Kathy was 2 and Bubba was 5. Two years later, Kathy was 4... and Bubba was still 5. That's the real story here.
posted by rodii at 6:17 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thanks stupidsexyFlanders.

Excellent post with a tragic and makes-my-blood-boil story. Didn't know about any of these particular biographies, except the 7 year old girl, Jessica Dubroff, who died in the plane crash because her so-called father wanted his "15 minutes" (I dislike that expression, created by a narcissist nutcase for other narcissist nutcases)

Googled Russel Tongay, the malignant narcissist, sociopath-traited father, who was trying to pimp his kids to the press for narcissistic supply and glory-by-proxy. He's dead and a good thing that. Good riddance.

Those poor kids. Yikes, what misery the poor daughter, Kathy, had in her short, tortured 6 year old life. Starved on infant baby food to be 'lean', beaten, put in near drowning situations over and over and over.

Tongay bragged about their strict diet of baby food. When a press wag suggested the kids looked thin, the father explained, "I keep them lean because they swim better."

So interesting how abusers like Tongay Sr. get a support network together, to financially or socially enable their abuses.

Tongay declared his kids would cross the hard way, from Dover to Calais. Aquapop's motivation: a $20,000 prize offered by a London newspaper.

Once in a blue moon these abusive parents push their child genius into the limelight and the world gets an amazing treat, like a child Mozart, or Judy Garland or Michael Jackson. but it seems almost always to end in the child becoming an addict, a life of abject misery, suicide or early death. Shirley Temple seems to be the exception there but I wonder what the toll on her as a human being was/is.

There should be laws against the obsessive manipulation and puppeting of stage mothers and stage fathers. And then we'd be without a George W.
posted by nickyskye at 6:18 AM on September 5, 2008

'He's no land lubber, this Bubba'... I love newsreels

And that looked like an horrendous belly flop that the girl did. In the UK we are all now, of course, all experts on diving after a summer of Tom Daley mania (probably a bit too old to be an aquatot though...)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:19 AM on September 5, 2008

Russ billed them as the "Aquatots," and was as proud as the owner of a top dog act.

... dad wasn't so much a pushy parent as an out and out psychopath.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:23 AM on September 5, 2008

Another phenomenon not limited by geography.
posted by FuManchu at 6:36 AM on September 5, 2008

It's interesting how, in many of these cases, these people are roundly celebrated in their home culture (for a while), and regarded with disturbed amazement by foreign cultures -- even while those same foreign cultures are doing exactly the same thing, just with a different sport/pasttime/stunt.

So Nation A produces lunatic fathers with swimming kids. Nation B deplores the cruelty. Nation B, however, is celebrating a mother with an equestrian kid. Nation C deplores that cruelty. Meanwhile, Nation C is fixated on a child who can supposedly run really far. And so on. are a child-abusing monster! Our kids on the other hand just happen to really like jumping their motorbikes over pits of flaming alligators. It's a totally different thing, and demonstrates the superiority of our way of life over you barbarian thugs. Someone should call the authorities on you. Not me though, I'm a hero.
posted by aramaic at 7:16 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Has anyone seen the recent documentary, Surfwise, about a Yale educated doctor who abandons medicine to live with his wife and ten kids in a camper van while they dedicate their lives to surfing?

The father was barking mad and the way that he raised his kids was unquestionably abusive. But the movie is fascinating.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:20 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

He escaped during a trip to a hospital by leaping off a moving train. He turned up in Los Angeles, claiming amnesia.

Amnesia my ass. Russell was an obvious sociopath, I agree with all who have said that. I mean, he even ripped off a later wife for 12 grand.
posted by IvoShandor at 7:23 AM on September 5, 2008

As a parent of a former nationally-competitive athlete, albeit in the wings of the sport, and a coach in that sport, I can tell you, Tongay notwithstanding, abuse and tolerance of abuse starts with the coaches. When my daughter proved resistant to the coach's emotional abuse he turned on me, and I can tell you you have to be unbelievably strong emotionally to withstand the kind of crap these guys can dish out. I spent the entire year crying, questioning myself as a parent and a human being, and just generally in misery. Thank god my daughter is so grounded and sure of herself, because frankly she was the one with the right perspective.

Parents of gifted kids, and sports fans have a responsibility-- to let the kids be kids, to not follow media hype, and to recognize abuse when you see it. Instead of celebrating a 65-pound Chinese diver, the press should have been investigating the reason that a 14-year old weighs only 65-pounds, and fans should have been writing to the sponsors and the sports federation. Parents need to ask questions-- if something seems suspicious, then it is. Ask the coach directly, or call the sport's federation.

These kids get abused because someone is making money at it. So don't play the game. Don't buy the sneakers, don't turn on the tv, and recognize your own kids' limits.
posted by nax at 7:49 AM on September 5, 2008 [9 favorites]

I'm sure you still get beat up in school for having a name like that.

Oh don't worry, he spent their entire childhoods "acclimatizing" them to that kind of thing.

The fucker.
posted by emperor.seamus at 8:04 AM on September 5, 2008

Another true story about a son, Tony Fingleton, surviving a swimming-abuser father, Swimming Upstream, with the brilliant Geoffrey Rush.

The parent who does nothing, remains silent or approving of the abuser, is not held accountable in the same way the overt abuser is. Perhaps the ineffectual parent is also abused but in the case of the Tongay kids, she sounds like an enabler.

Interesting that Betty Tongay was 2 years older than her husband, Russell. That is common among pathological narcissists, to marry an older person (surrogate parent figure or else somebody inappropriately younger, extension of their child-self).
posted by nickyskye at 8:31 AM on September 5, 2008

Sissies. Check out the early life of Buster Keaton, who at the age of three had a suitcase handle sewn into his clothing to make it easier for his father to throw him around.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:47 AM on September 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

None of these kids are sissies.

They were all just abused differently by their sociopathic parents.
posted by batmonkey at 9:36 AM on September 5, 2008

who died in the plane crash because her so-called father wanted his "15 minutes" (I dislike that expression, created by a narcissist nutcase for other narcissist nutcases)

As I pointed out the other day in a different thread, Andy Warhol's promise of "15 minutes of fame" for everybody was offered as a warning. The subtext: in the weird times to come (ie: now) the real wisdom will lie in remaining anonymous.
posted by philip-random at 10:32 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Tragic stupid waste.
Reminds me a bit of W.J. Sidis.

nickyskye - I don’t think Mozart was pushed that way. His dad was a fairly successful composer and taught music by trade so he just grew up in a musical environment with the musical language already there. I don’t think you can create that sort of genius. Which is what makes this all the more tragic.
There’s a difference between technically skilled - even flawless execution, and true genius.
I think you’re right about Temple and Garland. There’s a contrast there though - genius won’t be denied.
Sidis, for example, was a brilliant prodigy, but he really didn’t do much. Mozart, on the other hand, will be remembered as long as there is music.
Parents, through a combination of (as said) narcissim and twisted obession with their child’s ‘superiority’ try to force it.

I mean look at the perfect storm around Mozart - there were plenty of other child prodigy’s back then performing for the royal courts. But Mozart’s dad was not only a composer but a music teacher. And Mozart was exposed to some of the finest musicians and composers in the world (all time and of that era -Bach for one example). And so much was happening in Germany at that time in music and other arts. It was just one of those rare moments in time. (And indeed, Mozart contemporarily influenced Beethoven)
So - someone tremendously gifted technically (as a typical prodigy might be) but was also a genius, and had a built-in teacher and had other brilliant teachers and was immersed in a musical culture and had an environment that prized that sort of excellence and, importantly, funded it - yeah, you can’t just practice enough to reach that.

But yeah, (quibble over a minor detail aside) I’m totally with you, there should be a law. I think it’s all the more tragic that people don’t understand the near impossiblity of replicating those kinds of circumstances even with a prodigy.

And there’s a vast difference between supporting and giving a real genius support (and room to grow) and crushing all other options to do anything else out of a child.

nax - yeah, I was headed that direction. My dad said (literally) “go fuck youselves” and let me go do whatever I wanted. I was still an athlete, but it was the best gift he ever gave me - the whole rest of my life.
(of course, I blew a lot of it, but still...)
posted by Smedleyman at 1:19 PM on September 5, 2008

From the NY Daily news article:

Russell Tongay plopped his two towheaded children into the murk of the Mississippi River,

Tongay had been born in St. Louis with water on the brain.

Judge Ben Willard sent him up the river for 10 years.

The following year, he was declared insane after a suicide attempt and spent time in the loony bin.

My eyes demand an apology for having to read such horseshit.
posted by Dr-Baa at 1:21 PM on September 5, 2008

Smedleyman, as an adult Mozart had "an extensive drinking problem." Was this self medicating for Tourette's or something else? I don't know.

"It was so bad that it put him deep into debt", he "was scared of the dark and of supernatural beings", wrote " filthy, excrement-obsessed letters Mozart"; "Mozart had numerous obsessions: clocks, cats, shoe sizes, his wife's safety - he had an unnatural fear of letting her out of the house. There is evidence of him twitching, grimacing, tapping his feet together and behaving oddly", " Mozart died on December 5, 1791 he was 35 years old".

Those are things that are, imo, indicative of a not so emotionally well person and that usually has roots in a not so healthy childhood.
posted by nickyskye at 10:49 PM on September 6, 2008

I seem to remember watching some doc that said all the scatological stuff in the letters was kinda normal for the time...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:53 AM on September 7, 2008

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