It’s impossible at this time of year to avoid all the spam, emotionally manipulative articles, targeting advertising, saccharine memes, and heartfelt testimonials about fathers. This is fine (maybe even great) for people who have admirable dads and are happy to be reminded about how marvelous a good father can be. It is not so good for people whose fathers have died (especially recently), making all this hype a reminder of their grief for the father they loved. It’s not a delight for those of us who had terrible fathers.
I was lucky enough to have two incredible, wonderful, and loving grandfathers as well as an incorrigible (but still loving) great-grandfather who were all three very involved in my life throughout my formative years. I’ve written about my two grandpas on this blog: Rinse, don’t wash and What do you mean, real father?. I’ve mentioned my great-grandpa many times, but haven’t written about him. I need to do something about that.
But not today. This blog post is for all the people who, like me, had a terrible father. Please note my use of the past tense. One of the few bright spots to this holiday is that since he has died, I don’t have relatives (sometimes those who almost never contact me otherwise) trying to guilt me into calling him, or sigh disapprovingly when I tell them I haven’t talked to him in a long while. Two Father’s Days ago I did get a lot of cringeworthy messages from well-meaning relatives trying to offer me comfort in the grief that they assumed I must be experiencing. I was spared that last year, and so far I have been spared it this year.
It’s one thing when people who don’t know me very well express condolences when they learn he is dead. I can accept those sorts of things fine—especially after one friend made me practice saying “We weren’t that close; we’d hardly spoken in forty years.” But it is another thing altogether when it comes from the people who knew he was a physically and emotionally abusive man, who terrorized his wives and children, who regularly spouted racist and misogynist beliefs often phrased with the foulest slurs, who sneered at religious or liberal expressions of compassion for the downtrodden, and who never apologized to any of those he hurt.
I mentioned in an earlier post the mind-boggling series of messages I got from some relatives that all followed the same pattern right after his death:
- Recitation of two or more anecdotes of what a sweet, loving young man he was when he first started dating my mom,
- Reference to how excited he had been to learn he was going to be a father when mom became pregnant,
- Skip to urging me to try to remember the good times “before the troubles began” because of reasons.
Not a single one of the extended family members who sent me messages and cards like that included any memories or examples of him being that wonderful person that occurred after I was born. And that’s the thing, I don’t remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t deeply afraid of being alone with him. The first time he beat me severely enough that I had to be taken to an emergency room I was only four years old. I and all my younger siblings experienced at least one beating that required emergency medical care. So I have trouble believing the claims that before he became a father he was a paragon of kindness and love.
Even if they are right, most of the people on that side of the family have previously expressed a narrative of how he became the angry, manipulative, bitter man I knew. Most of them say it stemmed from a single betrayal that happened to him which involved the pastor of the church he had grown up attending. This betrayal happened when my mom was about seven months pregnant with me. The fact that she was pregnant and that this betrayal cost my father a job that he had been looking forward to as a way to properly provide for his wife and soon-to-be-born child is one of the central details in the story as they always retold it.
They claim this one single event transformed him from an angel to a monster, they know it happened before I was born, and yet, they expect me to have memories of the alleged angel.
I get it. Denial isn’t a rational process. If they consciously admit that they knew he was violently abusive for my entire childhood, they have to also admit that they stood by in silence as I, my sister, my mom, and later his second wife and my three half-siblings, were subjected to his abuse. And that is a very scary thing to face.
If the only way they can look themselves in the mirror each day is to be in denial, I guess that’s their business. But trying to erase my past in order to assuage their conscience isn’t something I am willing to enable.
I only have some inklings of what made my father tick. Maybe he was a sweet kid. But all the evidence and research out there about abusers is that they don’t just one day go from being a kind empathetic puppy to an angry beast. It’s something that happens over a long time. My maternal grandmother was an emotionally abusive and manipulative person, which I assume was a major contributing factor to Dad’s abusive personality. I also know that as an adult, Dad could be charming and friendly toward people whose approval he sought. So I suspect the sweet, kind young man my various older relatives remember was simply him being on his best behavior toward people who he had no other power over.
I try not to dwell too much on all this. As I said shortly after his death, I thought I was mostly over it. Until the moment I was told he had died, and I felt not just an incredible sense of relief and peace, but also a bit of gratitude.
I am truly happy for all the people out there who have good, loving fathers and wish them joy in celebrating their love for those fathers today. And Just as I wish comfort for those others who have lost their wonderful fathers and find today a reminder of their loss.
But don’t ask me to pretend my father was a good man. Don’t ask me to pretend to be grieving. Don’t expect me to smile and agree with any sentiments of admiration for him you may feel compelled to express. The only thing I have ever mourned with regard to my father, is that I didn’t have the good father that they want to imagine he was.