A few years ago, I decided to end my relationship with my father. I would still be polite to him at family gatherings, but would not engage in private conversations with him or read his e-mails. I told him I needed to set these limits because he had hurt me so badly growing up and had continued to say things that took a toll on me — and because I had come to realize he was never going to understand, feel sorry, or change.
His primary response was to become preoccupied with the question of whether or not I thought he was a monster, and also to become very insistent that he was not one. For months, he repeatedly went on rants about this to anyone in the family who would listen. From my perspective, the whole monster/non-monster question was irrelevant, but also more evidence of the futility of trying to mend things between us. He was trying to reduce the concerns I had expressed to a ridiculous caricature that could be readily dismissed, and to frame the impasse between us as if he were the one being victimized. Once I reassured him that he was not a monster, his concern about my decision to keep my distance from him subsided, and we went several years with only minimal contact.
My father’s anger is extreme and extraordinary. When he thinks that someone is doing something wrong, he becomes fixated on the idea that everything is about to be ruined, and becomes completely focused on getting this person to change his or her ways. Typically, this involves a loud stream of insults and expletives, accompanied by dramatic gestures. Once in a while he kicks or smashes and breaks something, cries, spits, threatens suicide, or suggests that the person making the infraction may as well kill themselves (since they’re ruining everything anyway). Afterward, he explains the whole incident in terms of something having made him “blow up,” as if he had little control of his actions once that something occurred. Over time I’ve come to realize that he doesn’t even remember most of these incidents or what had triggered them – because those memories are obscured by whatever is making him upset today. The current issue is the only one that matters, and it obliterates everything.
Apparently, sometime in childhood, I developed a habit of constantly doing things that could ruin everything. I got off to a bad start by not being born a boy, an extravert, or athletically talented — so when I came home in tears because I was being bullied in school, my father lashed out at me for not having been popular or tough enough to have won the bullies’ respect. I was also somehow incapable of writing a college-level paper at age 14, and while I had excellent grades, I never did anything that would make me a star. But I have to admit that some of the ways I most seriously disappointed my father were by choice – choosing to not to be interested in sports, wearing what my friends were wearing rather than styles my father would have found attractive, becoming a psychologist rather than a medical doctor, and so on. Often I was so oblivious to the objectionable nature of my choices that my father’s hateful reactions to them took me by surprise. One Sunday morning when I was about 8, I was quietly entertaining myself with a craft project when my father came into the room, grabbed my creation out of my hands and threw it away, shouting “What the fuck is this garbage?!!” Another odd violation I once made was to put sugar on my waffles rather than maple syrup. Suddenly my was yelling at me that I was stupid and going to get fat and lose all my teeth. Telling my father that maple syrup also contained sugar did not help matters. In fact, as I got older and tried harder to defend myself, he started mocking my voice in some exaggerated aristocratic tone, and saying that I might have friends if I didn’t act so uppity.
After his explosions I’d go to my room and cry — a lot. I found it very hard to stop crying, in part because I knew that what I was expected to do was to come out of my room and smile and act like nothing was wrong. Even just thinking about that would get me to start crying again, because it felt like having to betray myself. My father never physically bruised me, and in the presence of others he was the charming, actively involved parent many kids might wish they had. The brutality I experienced about twice a week for more than a decade seemed invisible to everyone else and I was determined to bear witness.
Often, after these incidents, my mother would tell me that I had to stop crying because it was making my father upset. A few times my mother started crying too, and said that since the rest of the family couldn’t treat each other decently, she wished she could just leave us and live on an island alone somewhere. I couldn’t even imagine losing her, and I was frightened and ashamed to think that in her eyes, I had done something to deserve that. When I was hospitalized for depression and suicidality at age 20, and a therapist confronted my mother with questions about abuse, she finally acknowledged that my father had been emotionally abusive to me. It meant a lot to hear her say that — but even then, she was quick to say that my father had never intended to hurt me. Apparently she had married a rare specimen of man-toddler who was capable of all kinds of intellectual accomplishments and other admirable things, but simply could not be expected to control the tantrums of the two-year-old inside him. She was trying to say, in other words, that he wasn’t a monster, but someone who was worthy of our care and was helplessly in need of our patience.
Seeing my father’s cruelty as merely incidental to his good intentions kept me trapped in self-doubt. Why was I too stubborn or stupid or spiteful to be grateful for the intensity of my father’s commitment to my well-being? When I was in high school, he had cared enough about my future to tear up a several-inch-thick college guidebook with his hands and leave it at my place at the breakfast table where I would find it the next morning in the presence of a friend who was sleeping over. Just looking at that pile of torn pages, the conviction and rage required to have done that was obvious. It was as if he symbolically tore me to shreds to show me how wrecked and useless he could see me ending up if I kept failing to take his educational/occupational advice as seriously as it was intended. Perhaps my friend, who probably didn’t have a father who cared enough to leave a hand-shredded book at the breakfast table, should have felt jealous?
My father cared so much about me fulfilling his dreams that he was incapable of appreciating the person I actually was — and this did not make me feel grateful, it made me feel hurt and angry. Yet because my father continued to hurt me without intending to or even knowing that he did so, my anger was targetless and voiceless, much like the nightmares I still have in which I’m trying to yell and unable to make a sound. As I got older and saw friends grieve the loss of their parents, I started to wonder if I would someday be glad that I was continuing to try to understand and comfort my father after more than 40 years as the receipient of his oblivious disdain. But eventually I decided that the answer was no. Although I can’t predict how I’ll actually feel when he dies, I’ve come to realize that I have the right, as well as a need, to not maintain a relationship with him.
After several years of not talking, my father and I were recently forced to spend a lot of time together while waiting to visit another relative in intensive care. As I watched him try to exert control over several family members’ lives — and disrespect their own choices — I felt overwhelmed by emotions from the past, and told him so. His response was, “I know I wasn’t perfect as a parent. But as a psychologist, what do you advise a parent to do when they have a child who is like a drug addict, throwing her life away?” I was so stunned by his question that my response was incoherent. But I know what I’d say now. If I were advising the parent of a child with a serious psychological problem, I would suggest that the child get professional help – the thing he repeatedly prevented and dissuaded me from doing when I needed it. Moreover, I never had anything like a drug problem. What he views as me throwing my life away were just examples of me making age-appropriate choices that happened to differ from his own preferences.
The thing is, even though I knew by early adolescence that I often disagreed with my father and the tactics he used to teach me lessons, I absorbed his lessons anyway. What he taught me is that I am undeserving, selfish, stupid, ugly, backwards, uppity, friendless, crazy, and unable to trust my own judgment. Not talking to my father hasn’t erased those basic views of myself, but it has definitely been a step in the right direction.