A Disconnected Father’s Day
Today lots of people are celebrating “Dad time” but I am not.
Most of the time I just let this holiday go by without too much attention but today I figured I had something to share, even if it’s a bit heavy. I know that a lot of people have less than stellar relationships with their fathers, so my situation is not by any means unique, but sometimes I do feel a little left out of the father-daughter festivities. Fact is I don’t buy anybody neckties or cards for Father’s Day although I do make sure to call Grandpa. This Father’s Day I’m still doing the usual but it seems a little different, a little bit sadder, a little bit more abnormal. I always feel like I’m missing out on something I never had but this year there is another layer to it. This is because just the other day I formally ended the non-relationship I had with my father.
On Wednesday I told my Dad not to contact me again. It wasn’t a decision I came to easily or without cause and it wasn’t a sweeping pronouncement either. It has an escape clause. He can reach out to me if he apologizes for the abuse and the lies. This means that it’s now quite likely that I may never talk to my father, who is not in good health, again. I am sad about it but I reached a point where it felt like I just needed to shut a steel door and leave him on the outside of my life. It’s not a feeling or a decision I wish on anyone and I know its something that too many other Quiverfull daughters have had to do in the interest of their own wellbeing.
This came about, ironically enough, because he had called me out of the blue to try and reconcile, likely in time for Father’s Day. The problem was that his attempts at patching things up involved trying to glibly rewrite the circumstances of our estrangement, retelling and sanitizing the past. I felt myself getting annoyed, feeling triggered. Every lie he told brought up vivid examples of things I didn’t want to think about, particularly while on the phone with him. “I helped you a lot when you were younger, you came to me for advice and assistance with college and all kinds of things and I gave it,” he said. Yeah, in his world not actually homeschooling me as a child, telling me I could drop out when he knew I was struggling in public high school, telling me ‘you don’t need college’ and that he’d be ok with it if I got married instead, telling me the only college he’d help me apply to was the one he went to (so that’s where I went even though I wanted to go to a different one), telling me right before the deadline that he wasn’t going to fill out the FAFSA paperwork (needed in order to be eligible for financial aid) and then watching me squirm and having to tearfully beg my Mom before relenting were “help” and “advice” meaning that today he can totally take some sort of due parental credit for my education, including the fact that I now have a masters degree! I said nothing but he seemed to sense it was time to move on to other topics.
I was grateful for a change of subject and listened to him talk about politics, education, and social justice, and it was almost soothing (I hadn’t heard his voice in some time) except I knew this choice of subject matter meant he was now trying to compete, co-opt, be the expert on the things he knows that I’m working on and interested in. He does this often, finding someone’s area of expertise or interest and then “informing” them about it using a tone and style my sister once labeled as “out-lawyering the lawyer” and certain feminists have termed “mansplaining.” Other family members mostly brush it off but somehow I can’t. It drives me nuts, feels incredibly invasive and disrespectful. It doesn’t help that I am also the fighter, the war child of my family. Growing up I pushed back and challenged him so that the others didn’t have to and the habit stuck, became part of me. As an adult I have had to learn what “pick your battles” means. As a girl I was inclined to pick all of them, square up to any conflict and charge it like a bull.
My Dad and I’s conversation dragged on. I waited for the point. He seemed unsatisfied, trying different angles, looking for something. I thought about all the other times he’s disowned me and then sought me out again, beat me and then offered me ice cream, tried to reattach the puppet strings and then got disappointed and retaliatory when I pulled a hidden pair of scissors out of my pocket, snipped them and walked away. I felt a knot in my stomach, the beginnings of a tension headache. As usual, he was to once again trying to establish dominance, control, and superiority, not to meaningfully interact. He was barking up the wrong tree though. I’m not a girl he can do that to anymore and I haven’t been for a long time.
“Well,” he said, “I just wanted to say I don’t know where this talk of abuse is coming from Heather. I mean, you’re really exaggerating. I only spanked you maybe four times as a child.” I told him I had to go, that I’d think about what he had to say and call him tomorrow, and then I realized I was feeling a little hypnotized and kind of depleted of energy. That drained feeling where you dizzy-headedly wonder if maybe you were wrong, if maybe you were exaggerating, if maybe you were only spanked four times and just misremembered how bad it was. I’ve since learned that that’s just kinda how it goes when speaking with people who are emotional vampires. In fact, getting some version of “who are you gonna believe – me or your lying eyes?” is a good clue that you’re talking to one.
I sat and thought for a moment about my Dad and I, some of the good things he’d done for me. He’d taught me how to write an essay once (“you hook ‘em, tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em”). He showed me how to catch, clean, gut, and fry up fish. He also told me “a sign of maturity is when you own up to your mistakes.” I really learned a lot from my Dad growing up, despite the fact that I tiptoed around on eggshells and never knew what I was going to get with him, and the fact that he most definitely belonged to the “do as I say, not as I do” school of instruction. I always wanted a good relationship with him but the truth is that for most of my formative years, in between the threats, bullying, and beatings that I simply described in my diary as “Dad got mad,” I thought that being treated like a pawn, or a slave, or some other owned and bossed creature was just what being a daughter and having a Dad was like. Now I know that it is not and that many people experience something quite different, something much better.
My Mom used to say living with my Dad was like living with Jekyll and Hyde, but I’ve since realized that what it is is that when he has his human mask on, when his inner scaly lizard-narcissist skin isn’t showing, he can seem pretty amazingly Dad-like. That isn’t me trying to be mean either, rather just trying to describe what I really see. My Mom had found him so handsome and intelligent when they first met as young people that she quickly fell head over heels and could hardly believe her good fortune at snagging such a good catch. I don’t know if nature or nurture made him into what he was, but 25 years later, post-divorce, stressed over his successful recent bullying of her in family court, creases lining her worn face, my Mom told me “I never even knew men like your father existed.”
My Dad is a former part-time pastor and missionary. Someone who cares for trees and birds and insects, knows their Latin names. He’s also a man who teaches GED classes to prisoners. You’d like him if you met him, think he was a pretty nice guy. The painful thing is that the “nice guy” he comes off as is also exactly the kind of Dad I’d want. I’d be so proud to have a Dad like that. And that’s how people like him work and walk among us, doing what they do. They know how to say the right things, appear like they feel the right things, mirror your emotions, put you at ease, make you feel good, that is until their hooks are in and they decide they’re bored with making you happy, facilitating your every whim, and now they want to see (and feed off of) your other emotions. Screams and tears? Check. Wide eyed shivering fear? Check. Confusion and bewilderment? Check. Self-loathing and a clinging cloying hope? Check.
As it is, back in the day I often felt like I was secretly trying to bake a mud pie into a real cake, thinking that if I added enough cinnamon, vanilla, or cooked it just right that it wouldn’t be wet dirt anymore. I am 30 years old now and have long since abandoned those amateur attempts at alchemy, resigned to the fact that a lead balloon will not become gold. Fact is, people who cannot appreciate you for who you are are not worth your time and you cannot change another person. I recognize that 1.) this man is my father and 2.) if he was a Harry Potter character he’d be a dementor.
For my earliest years my Dad’s meathooks were sunk deep into me, even more so because there was a genetic link, an easy portal for greater control. Not only did I belong to him, his child, his human property, but I seem to have won the veritable genetic lottery. I was near to him on a biological level, a “spitten image” sort of child. He gave me my hair color and eye color and the same freckles that he has. Our similar lips and noses, our bottom teeth crooked in exactly the same spot. We even have almost identical feet, mine the smaller girly version. If we stood in a room together you’d immediately know he was my Dad. I couldn’t be anyone else’s daughter. Our brains even work much the same way, with similar interests and similar skill sets, except (and this is what I have learned is a big exception) I can cry at sad movies and mean it while his empathy switch is broken. He can easily discern others’ emotions and mirror them but his real feelings appear to be quite shallow, stunted, immature, and selfish. This “feelings” issue is the main big difference between us, and it is a chasm leaving us worlds apart.
“So, what’ve you been up to?” my Dad asks, sounding like any other father who wants to be part of his children’s lives. My Dad sure does come across as friendly, smart, a little shy but happy to chat, an ordinary sort of handsome, and enthused to get to know you though. It’s easy to fall for but I can’t. It’s unsafe. He often does these cute bumbling Dad things while trying to be cool, like using slang words wrong or discovering emoticons and then unabashedly peppering his texts with them. It’d be nice to be able to appreciate and lightheartedly laugh over stuff like this but because his interactions are designed for infiltration, not discovery and connection, I don’t really feel like it most of the time. I dodge the question.
I get off the phone and decide that instead of calling my Dad I’ll send him an email instead, just lay out what I have to say in written words. There’s no reason to go easy. There’s no reason to be harsh. Maybe there’s no reason to even try, but I am. It’s my final attempt and is straightforward, unadorned. He responds much like I expected he would and essentially makes the difficult choice for me. Reading what he says takes me on a bit of a trip down memory lane as well. There’s so many ways to say “you’re defective and nobody loves you” and there’s so many variations of it that I’ve heard many times over from him. In his email back to me I clearly see the outline of the monster of my childhood, mask off, skillfully looking for soft fleshy places to dig in his claws.
Here’s my letter with his responses (slightly redacted for privacy) so you can see what I’m talking about:
After I got off the phone with you yesterday I felt drained and a little sad. That’s often how I feel when talking with you.
Drained?? Why? The conversation didn’t seem tough or stressful to me. Maybe you have some underlying guilt?
After our conversation yesterday I though about the idea of giving you another chance to be my Dad. I want to give you another chance because you are my Dad. But I don’t think you want another chance as in a chance to be a better person and show the love you really feel to those you previously mistreated and neglected. Instead, you want to be able to come in and rewrite the story, particularly the story of the past, because that’s what you were trying to do on the phone. While you can certainly go rewrite the story for anyone who wasn’t there (you will likely succeed as you are a first-rate spin-master, better than Bill Clinton) you can’t rewrite the past for me or Mom or the other kids, because we were there and we know the truth.
Hmmm…The truth is what it is. I talked with [your sister] yesterday, and she certainly doesn’t see it the same way that you do and not the way that you described to me. I’m not looking for a “rewrite” as you call it or even another chance. I chance at what? I would be lying to myself if I agreed with you reconstruction of events. Anyway, I am interested a simple father-daughter relationship. That’s all. If that is too difficult for you, then let’s just move on about our lives. There are too many other people in my life who love me and are worthy of my time. You can be one of them, or you can sequester yourself. You decide.
And, no, I don’t see past events the way that you do. You are a very volatile, violent, and negative person. You rudely talk over people and get upset when people do not share your perspective. When you lived at home, many times I had to intervene between you and your siblings. You would resort to violence if your siblings did not do what you wanted them to do. I would often have to tell you, “Keep your hands off of my kids!,” but you had a knee-jerk reaction and continued to bully and abuse them.
When you were kicked out of the house, it was because you were once again hitting on my children. When I verbally confronted you, you physically attacked me. I could have been brutal with you, but I was gentle. I gently let you know that you were not capable of physically confronting me and being successful in doing so. After that altercation, you were told to leave the home, and your mother supported that decision.
The truth is what I wrote you in the letter I sent you last year, the one you responded to by saying you were done with me. At the time I received it I decided it was for the best. The truth is when you are not in my life things are calmer and better. You mostly bring drama, negativity, and discord in addition to constantly triggering memories of the abusive things you actually did in the past with your perpetual attempts at rewrites.
I learned a long time ago that it is very difficult to convince a mentally-ill person that that person is indeed mentally ill. However, for the record, you have a serious mental illness, the same one I see in your Aunts… They too always want to exaggerate the truth and point blame at others. You rewrite events just as they do, and then after awhile, you believe your own lies. Your siblings have discussed this with me. Again, they don’t see events of the past as you do. I am at peace with all of my children except for you. If your life is so much calmer without me in it, then so be it. I’m not begging to have a relationship with you. If you want to have a pity party and blame me for every negative thing that every happened in your life, that’s your perogative. I’m sure that it wouldn’t be hard to find a sympathetic psychologist who will listen to your single side of the story, agree with you, and take your money. BTW, you’re the one who has brought in the drama, not me.
That’s the thing. You can’t have a rewrite. You can’t have a do-over. You can’t have you not be an abusive Dad. You were an abusive Dad. You were such an abusive Dad that I developed delayed-onset PTSD and was in counseling for two years. That’s right. It’s what soldiers have. Living with you growing up was like living in a war zone. I used to be so terrified of you. I have a pinched nerve in my back and a “bum knee” because of all the times you grabbed me by the hair or face and slammed me into things as a teen. My diaries from when I was a girl have numerous instances of things like you throwing a drink at me and telling me you were done with me, wanted me out. I was 13.
Again, I’m not looking for a rewrite. I’m at peace with myself, and I vehemently disagree with your recollection of events. I NEVER abused you in any way, and if you have PTSD or some other mental ailment, you need to look elsewhere for the source. Also, for some time, I’ve known about your counseling… I know about it because your siblings brought it up to me…some of them are concerned about you. Let’s just go down the list, so that you can be enlightened. [Your sister] told me that you cursed at her and hung the phone up on her the last time you both talked. She tells me that you do that all the time, especially when she does not agree with you POV. [Your brother] doesn’t want to go to the beach trip [that your Mom has planned] next month because you’re going to be there. He finds you to be opinionated and bossy, and thus, not pleasant to be around. Don’t believe me? Ask him! [Your brother] also finds you opinionated and condescending. He can’t stand talking to you either. Don’t believe me? Ask him!
You see Heather, you’re the problem, not everyone else, and not me. You’re obnoxiously rude and loud, and even your own siblings don’t find you a very pleasant or positive person to be around. Don’t believe me? Ask them!
I find your story about having a pinched nerve from abuse from me absolutely ridiculous. You remind me of [my sister]. You hyperbole is soaring above the clouds. You are only kidding yourself and perhaps your psychologist. Those who know you and who grew up in our house know better.
Despite this, I am sad to have to confront you with this stuff. I know it is painful for you. Still, as much as I’d want to have a decent father-daughter relationship, to know what one’s like, I don’t and its because of this. I understand that you might not be in a position where you can admit the level of abuse you caused in our family, the level of selfishness you exhibited over the years, but what I can’t tolerate is someone trying to rewrite what happened. What happened happened and you can’t rewrite it. It is there. It is there if we never speak of it again and it is there if we have some official meeting or go to family counseling and talk about it. But you try to erase it. When I told you a little over a year ago why I wasn’t inviting you to my graduation, this is how you responded. [By saying ‘I’ve had enough of your half-truths, lies, and disrespectful attitude. Let’s not waste each other’s time. I promise not to bother you again. If I see you in person, I will be cordial, but I’m done with you, Heather. Goodbye’].
No, what you share is NOT painful for me at all because none of it is true. There is not even a modicum of truth in it. You were treated well as a child. You just don’t appreciate your parents. You rant against your mother and I with your friends because you like playing the pathetic victim. That is your identity. That is why you did not want me at your graduation. My presence would have been an awkward juxtaposition to the sob story you have told your peers at Brandeis. Keeping me away was your solution. It’s more your loss than mine, and perhaps you will see this one day.
Now your friends have moved on, and where are you at? You’re still in the Boston area with no solid job prospects… It’s always someone else’s fault and never yours? Right, Heather? And, you say things are calmer with me out of the picture? You have my sympathy.
And, just to let you know, I have been there for you… I was there for you when you were debating between going to either Brandeis or Texas A&M. I was there for you when you were registering as a freshman at UNO. Anyway, somehow you always comeback to this supposed ogre when you have a need, and like a good father, I am there for you.
Therefore, YOU decide what you want out of this relationship, if anything. If you don’t want a relationship with me, fine. Your choice. I will respect it. If you do want a relationship, you’re going to have to work a bit harder at being honest, You’re going to have to make an effort. Again, it’s your choice. I have nine other children, and they all appreciate me much more than you do…
When my children come to visit or when I visit them, we all have a good time, and we all get along. Why can’t you be that way? Why are you always at odds with someone, and especially me? You need to do some serious soul searching.
…You talk poorly about me and your mother, yet now you want me to believe that your mother sides with you. She’s a fool if she does, but that’s her perogative. However, I’m not going to let you slide. You’re an adult, so please start acting responsibly by HONESTLY confronting your past. Right now you’re delusional, and everyone in the family see it.
One last thing, your advocacy against homeschooling is akin to Don Quiote [sic] chasing windmills. The paradigm for homeschooling has changed from when you were a child. There are many resources now available for parents and children that were not available when you were school-age. Furthermore, empirical data from the litereature supports the efficacy of homeschooling, so you’re fighting a losing battle. Here’s a bit of advice: Find something worthwhile to advocate. Anti-homeschooling ain’t it.
To read what my Dad had to say, all written down like that, felt as if some deep poison was being drawn out of me, that a painful infection had come to a head. While human beings are thankfully very resilient creatures and wounds often heal in ways that can seem downright miraculous, the emotional marks from child abuse definitely do cut much deeper, last much longer, and leave more hidden shrapnel than the physical ones. It’s hard to explain but emotional abuse often functions rather like a cold sore I think. Once you’re exposed to the virus you’ll always have the latent infection but symptoms likely won’t appear unless you are weakened from stress. In difficult times I still have his voice floating around in the back of my head telling me vicious things, leaving me secretly wondering if nobody really likes me, thinking that I may actually be as substandard as he says I am, deserving of the revulsion, beatings, and shunning he has given me and swears I deserve.
I considered my Dad’s lies, twisted together artfully with bits of arsenic-laden truth, formed into the kind of masterpiece of lashing out and low blows that he is so good at creating. Some of them struck a nerve but all of it was still just disturbingly, blatantly the work of someone with narcissistic tendencies and it made me feel ill. Growing up, I knew of no other way of exercising authority over children in your care than by wielding violence and authoritarianism. I had never seen another method modeled. I did beat up on my siblings and I still feel shame about that today (and have since asked them for forgiveness), but the idea that I was just naturally violent, some “bad seed,” is so incredibly offensive.
There’s this southern saying – “don’t wrestle with pigs because you’ll both get dirty and the pig won’t mind” that I figure explains pretty clearly how I feel about things. As a girl I was stuck in a pigsty so I grew up with pig-wrestling being normal. My Dad taught me well in this department and when I got to a certain age I put those same skills to use in breaking free from him. I didn’t know what caused his empathy problem but I knew what burned him up and so I wielded it like a weapon, fought fire with fire. Hurting him was the best way to cultivate his avoidance, make him withdraw. He might have had the meathooks and the power, but I adapted his skill of finding and exploiting people’s vulnerable areas and I used it against him. There are plenty times our dialogue went something like this:
Dad – “You’re a fat disgusting slob and no man will ever want you.”
Me – “Fuck you Dad, why don’t you go get a job.”
Back then I’d often get beaten but today my Dad’s vitriol is accompanied only by impotent rage rather than patriarchal power. I guess nobody ever taught him that that’s where this stuff would bring him. He thought he owned us. Patriarchy was a lie for him too, after all, selling him on a version of life incompatible with human nature, setting him up for a loss. Even the bible said “provoke not your children to anger.” There’s a reason for that.
Quiverfull parents are constantly talking about “training up your children in a way that is right,” but what about when you train them up in a way that is wrong? It’s not that they will never depart from it. It’s that it’s a heck of a lot of work to do so. My violent tendencies and skills with “verbal artillery” are a bit of an embarrassment today (I was prone to being quite foulmouthed and vicious to anyone who crossed me for a number of years) but I know they are also the way I started to win battles growing up, ultimately escaping my Dad’s clutches as a girl, and helping bust my family out of his little cult of personality. For years I was angry about it though, feeling that in forcing me to fight a fight that no child should have to, that he’d given me a “dark side” that I’d otherwise not have had, compelled me to grow a clunky set of armor that’s since been hard to shed. Still, I’ve found that being a different person today, playing a different role, and learning to navigate the needs of peacetime, while sometimes difficult, is in so many ways such a joy and a relief. I am also so thankful that despite my Dad’s attempts to keep me under his control, reliant on him for everything, education and life experiences bottlenecked in his ham fist, that I managed to get out and the situation has long since changed. Today I’m living my life, working on things that I’m passionate about. I have my education and my siblings are all doing well, engaged in their own versions of the same. I may have hated having to fight for it, but at least I won that war and can move on.
One bible verse I always liked was the one about forging swords into ploughshares. The verbal artillery is that sword, a set of fighting tools, a bag of bombs that I no longer need. So while I could easily have reengaged, gone back and said “actually asshole, Don Quixote is spelled with an “X” and he ’tilted’ at windmills,” knowing it would burn him up and I could say “point for me,” I didn’t. There was no purpose in it. It was a lose/lose sort of conflict from the getgo, a call for more pig wrestling, and because it could never be more than that I chose to cut my losses and quit playing a losing game.
Considering the circumstances, I don’t really know if I had any other viable option than the one I went with, or if I should have seen another way, might have best decided to do something else. It is always a deeply personal choice about what kind of role to give your parents in your adult life, even if you make a decision to cut one out, but too often people don’t see it that way. You get a lot of advice.
I’ve had many people over the years tell me that I should try to “make it right” with my Dad, but the thing is if I’d been able to I would have done so years ago. Today I can’t really tell you whether or not I did the right thing by telling my Dad not to contact me anymore or if there was even a “right thing” to do in such a wrong situation. What I do know is that different people handle abusive parents different ways. For me this was a last-ditch thing and not exactly voluntary, but as I am a grown woman now, it was thankfully an option that I was able to exercise, one that had not been available when I was a vulnerable child, and one that would not be available to me if a Christian Reconstructionist worldview, like my Dad used to dream of, was implemented on a large scale. So I took a deep breath, closed the steel door, and shut him out of my life. The monster is gone. I feel a bit sad and rather relieved. He cannot hurt me anymore but I still have an unspecified “loss of family” feeling, an unfulfilled wish for the Dad I always wanted to have. Sometimes mourning something you never had but still felt a deep need for is the saddest, weirdest kind of loss I guess.
I wrote my Dad a goodbye letter, more for my own closure than for his and now I am moving on, still healing, still learning, still working on the homeschool issues, still speaking out about child abuse and educational neglect, still addressing the toxicity (to men, women, and children) of an extreme patriarchal worldview that some people are still disingenuously or mistakenly pushing as bringing family happiness.
So if you have a Dad that you are estranged from or who is not fully participating in your life today because of being indoctrinated with these sorts of ideas, know that you are not alone and it is also not your fault. We can’t choose our parents and we can’t fix them. You just carry on as best you can.
If you do have a father who loves you for who you are and treats you with care, by all means go give him an ugly necktie, a card, or at least a hug, a phone call, something today.
If I had one I imagine that that’s what I’d be doing.