I honestly couldn’t think of a title here… I’m starting a series of 3 posts on father’s day and what better way to start than with some catharsis. It’s long, sorry, It was a quick write.
We are a few weeks away from father’s day here in the US and I want to share some thoughts on being a father that I’ve learned from my own father and his family. Before I do that… I want to take you on a high altitude cruise over my childhood. I think it’s important to try and highlight that these lessons are even more special, since I didn’t have access to them for 15 years of my life, basically… So that’s what this first of three posts is about. The next two are about my dad and his family and the lessons I’ve learned and still need to work on applying. Before I go farther.. I want to say to you that I’m not trying to lay blame in this post. I’m not trying to create strife in either side of my family, I’m not looking for or making excuses for anything in my life and I’m certainly not looking for sympathy or validation. I’m not talking in depth about siblings or other family members here, I haven’t consulted them and I’m sharing my thoughts of the past 26 years (still can’t believe it’s been that long since I’ve been 7)
From the age of about 7 until the age of about 22, my dad wasn’t in my life. Well he wasn’t… But his name always was. An intense anger towards him was for a lot of that time. A fear of him was there. Sure I’d see him sometimes at court hearings, I’d talk about him to countless therapists for most of my life and he seemed to be a good excuse for all that was wrong in our house growing up.
You see, I grew up as an abused child. I was a
victim – well no, my mom heard someone use the word survivor once and thought that more empowering – so I was a survivor of child abuse. My father – my one armed, skinny father – had abused me. In elaborate ways – like the “electric suitcase” I described once on the witness stand… A device that would get plugged into a wall outlet (110 volts) and somehow send electricity through two handcuffs – one affixed to each wrist – and yet leave no permanent heart injury, bruise or burn somehow. There were a few attempts at sexual abuse that went nowhere. There were beatings, threats with knives, clown costumes and repeated exposures to scary behavior….
Well… That’s what I said anyway. That’s what I said in therapy sessions, apparently. It’s what I said to judges, lawyers, juries and guardians ad litem. But you know what? None of it happened. Yes.. I remember he and my mom fought a lot. I remember he lost his temper a couple times and would run at my mom and then stop, to scare her… To be a jerk, I guess. But even those situations I can look at with a slightly different lens now. Not a condoning one, but one that understands there are two sides to every story and while that behavior is not acceptable – people can screw up in tough situations…. But me? No.. I’ll talk about all the good memories I have in the next post, in fact.
I am not going to get into how I think this happened or what may have caused it all to boil up. I have my theory and the important people involved understand that theory. Right around the time our case was getting going, a witch hunt was on in the MA court system. Child abuse was a big deal, prosecutions were up and there were likely other bad cases going through the system, some more famously documented and debated. That didn’t help things. I remember the excitement with which therapists would ask leading questions, “Show me how your dad would hit you?!” and the interest in the answers. I remember the attention from mom. I remember having a badge to wear.
So on prosecutions went until the prosecutors had to drop the charges because they knew they wouldn’t get anywhere. My father refused to take a plea bargain with an admission of guilt – even with no jail time. He refused to back down on his integrity and say he did something he didn’t. I’ve since heard stories from his close knit family of how they tried to convince him (along with his lawyer) to just do it and move on and say, “forget it”… He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. I now know that is because he was and is innocent. I can’t even begin to put myself in his shoes… Hearing those allegations from a child you loved so much. Knowing what the implications were on that relationship. I can tell you I have no clue what I would do in that situation. Tears well up just thinking of the potential… Eventually they offered him a deal that would have no admission of guilt and he’d just have to watch his step and also not force visitation rights for a period of time…
Well he quickly gave up on that end of it. He couldn’t not see his children. So he started fighting to see us shortly after the trials quieted. I can imagine the hope he must have felt… “They’re older. they probable remember now that it was all mistakes and nothing happened. I’m their dad and I love them.. They’re gonna want to see me.. They can’t keep me from them forever, I didn’t do anything… We’ll get through this and look back and laugh about it..”
Well that isn’t what happened. Instead the visitation proceedings started. By this time I was maybe 11 or 12.. I was tortured. Conflicted. On one hand I remember staying up in bed at night – not being a Christian or having an understanding of grace – literally thinking, “Oh man… We lied.. I lied… Dad is potentially going to jail (I didn’t understand the deal he agreed to) and it is my fault.. I don’t understand this but I screwed up his life.. I swore on a Bible at court.. I’m doomed to Hell – whatever that is…” So on one hand I really felt like something was wrong with our story… But somehow on the other hand I had this hatred for my dad. I had this hatred for a system that was trying to make me visit him. Again, I can’t go into how I could be tortured here without causing more hurt than worth but I understand now… I think I welled that fear of what I’d done to him, that hurt, that despair – I welled all of that into the anger and frustration I had. I let the fear and worry take over and more or less bottled up the thought that he was innocent way down inside.
And I FOUGHT. Looking back I’m proud of my fighting skills while utterly embarrassed and broken up about who I was fighting. About what I was fighting. I let myself believe that I was an abuse victim. I let myself believe this evil system was going to decide for me if I should visit my “abuser” (how we often referred to him….) So I did what any normal 12 year old would do… I wrote a letter. I wish I still had a copy but it quoted the declaration of independence, it quoted the star spangled banner and it was full of passion. It was an angry letter but it must have been convincing. I ended up photocopying the heck out of it with the help of teachers and I mailed it to everyone.. Radio, TV, State legislators, federal legislators, courts, etc. Stories were written in papers, NPR interviewed me, statehouse reps called me and a TV station interviewed mom and me… the victims… A bill was introduced (and it was poorly written and never passed – thankfully looking in the rear view mirror of my own situation) that basically said anytime there was even an allegation of abuse – a child could decide in their own mind what was in their best interests, instead of the court. I was incensed that here I was, a “mature” 12 or 13 who thought he understood the world having decisions made in the “best interests of the child” by a court system that didn’t appear to care what he or his mother said…. Well when I fought….
He retreated… It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t because he did anything to me. It was because he saw me fighting. He saw my venom. He has even since told me he secretly liked my letter when a copy made its way to him. He was even proud that TV news crews were trying to hunt him down at his place of work.
His retreat, though, wasn’t because he was mad or that he started getting threats and funny looks – like he was a child abuser who hurt his own kid (he did get those comments and those looks) … No… It was because he loved us… Because he saw the fighting. He saw the hurt and he remembered the first court fights.. He knew that it wouldn’t end well for us. So… this father, whose only wish all these years was just to see and hold his kids gave up… Not in desperation.. I think it was in courage. he selflessly gave up on what he wanted to make it easier on us. Because he loved us.
For the next 8-9 years he got himself by with the hope that someday he’d get to at least know us. That someday he’d get to chat with us and tell us he loves us and maybe, just maybe, hear it back.
I can’t tell you what that would do to me. I can’t tell you what that would do to most people. Knowing my dad now, and not wanting to spill too many secrets, I’ll tell you one thing about him. It’s awfully tough for him to get really close to folks. I don’t blame him… For crying out loud, his own kids were ripped from him – and they were still alive and living just 30 miles away. I don’t know what that does to a man’s heart and I hope I never have to find out.
For those next 8-9 years my life wasn’t great either.. I was living a lie. I was becoming a fighter for children’s rights from ages 12 to 16 or 17. I was starting self help groups half heartedly for abused kids, with this whisper in the back of my head that it was all lies. I received a “for courage to tell” award at a public and swanky ceremony. Publicity increased, while I still had this subconscious unease about it all. I felt like a fraud, had convinced myself that I just repressed memories and was confused and kept going. It was probably easier to keep going then to come to terms with what the truth might possibly reveal about the past. Those sleepless nights went away, replaced by anger, behaviors that I wish I could take back, excuses, etc. As an adult I can vividly remember that feeling of lying in bed at night staring at a dark ceiling worried about what was going on – worried about the lies from the age of 8 to 11 or so, with no one safe to talk to about it… I remember being so confused, and internalizing all those feelings. I imagine him having even more nights like that than I did. So alone. Even in the midst of an awesome and loving family… So terrified and feeling like he was stuck in some weird dream or a Kafka novel – waiting for everyone to yell SURPRISE! and laugh about the joke…
The story doesn’t end there.. I’m so thankful it doesn’t. My girlfriend at the time (my wife now, btw) had to put up with a lot of annoying whine fests. She had to listen to me recount things and start to come to the realization that it was quite possible that nothing happened to me. I stole some strength from her and wrote a letter.. Forget what it said but it was a hi.. An I want you back in my life letter. I think I ended it with a deal… Paraphrased, “I have no clue what happened… If you did – I forgive you… If you didn’t, I hope you can forgive me.”
That letter, that borrowed strength, was the start of a new relationship. A lot of new relationships. My aunts, my uncles, my cousins, their kids, my father. My children’s “papa”, and my own papa. I’ve heard that he was a source of strength for my dad and he was just as broken about it as my dad was. I’m so glad he got to see that reunion and get to know me a bit again before he passed on.
So here I am… In my 30s… A father myself who has a long road to go to be a better father. I’ll save the next two posts for how this situation and my own father taught me a few lessons about being a dad.