I’ve taken some time now to contemplate the meeting with my father – our first in three decades. The shock of how things are playing out is dissipating, and I’m beginning to unravel a part of my life – my childhood, in even deeper ways than I was able to in therapy.
Our lives are not solitary, they do not exist apart from the lives of others, and we are affected not only by our own life experiences, but also by those of the people in our lives – even when their experiences appear to have very little to do with us, the impact these experiences can have on our lives is profound.
Amazing things happen when you begin speaking to people you haven’t spoken to in thirty years. The picture of your life evolves; the colors become more defined, the image grows sharper, and the clarity runs deeper. Gaps and missing pieces are filled in, and new understanding emerges. The story doesn’t change, but it grows in wisdom and truth as it integrates the position of others.
Thirty years ago, I made a decision to cut my parents out of my life. I did this based on years of abuse and a childhood experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It was a good decision at the time, the only one I could have made and still know the outcome I have known – the good life I am proud and honored to call my own.
When I turned my back on Pat, I just did it. I left her house and never looked back. She didn’t try to talk to me, nor I to her. She asked me to leave, and I did. It was, in the end, that stark, cold and simple. It was also one of the best decisions I have ever made; we have to get away from toxic people to fully comprehend the negative impact their lives have had on ours.
When I made the decision to walk away from Ed, he tried to talk to me – tried to tell me something – or many things, perhaps, that I wouldn’t listen to, wouldn’t hear. I know they wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time, they couldn’t mean anything then; I wasn’t ready to absorb his experiences as my own, nor would I have been able to understand; I was too young. Still, today I feel something – not regret, but something, for the void he has felt for the last thirty years, a void my absence in his life has caused. I did what I had to do, but today I recognize that my decision was based on less than complete understanding of many things.
He was far from a perfect father, he was even far from a good father – that will never change. What has changed is my understanding of his life during my childhood. We don’t unravel and untangle to place blame, we do it to understand – because within that understanding we find another’s truth, and in that truth the story or our own life all of a sudden makes a lot more sense.
My father has apologized for what he did to me, he even apologized to me for hurting my sister – an apology he would offer to her face if she would give him the chance. He has apologized to my wife for all the pain he caused her as a result of what he did to me … he has taken responsibility for everything he did, and for what it ultimately caused. He didn’t ask me to consider his life or his circumstances while he was raising me, didn’t offer an excuse for what he did – he just stepped up and did the right thing.
But now that we’re talking, the picture of my life as a child has fewer shadows – this is conversation between a father and his son, not assigning blame, but trying to understand …
I saw my parents as MyParents – one entity. I didn’t bisect them, Ed from Pat or Pat from Ed; they were simply MyAbusiveParents. Even though I knew from a young age there were differences in the things they did – Ed would never have left me alone in a parking lot at age 5, nor would he have intentionally left my sister and I alone at an amusement park – abandoning us was a PatOnly trick, I still saw them as a collective unit. And together, they were mean and cruel and abusive.
What I see now is very different. Again, he wasn’t a good father, but she exploited that. We were afraid of Ed because of his anger and his beatings, but she used this fear to her full and twisted advantage; telling us our father had to beat us every month or so so we would behave. She condoned and encouraged his violence toward his children; yes, he did it – and he could have, and should have, made a different choice, but exploiting fear in her children – fear she helped to create – is nothing short of vile.
I can remember being terrified, when Pat would take me to my room and then leave the house, (I was far, far too young to have been left alone) that Ed would come home from work before she came back – and I remember her telling me I’d better hope she came back before he got home so he would never know how bad I really was … of course this was because he’d give me the worst beating of my life for being so bad she had to leave me. How disturbed do you have to be to do this to your child? She was at once my tormentor and my ‘protector’ ….
Ed had no idea this kind of thing was happening – he worked six days a week when I was little, and I cannot and will not hold him accountable for what she alone did.
In therapy, when I once commented that I wasn’t a good person, my therapist asked me why I believed that, and I told him I had been an awful child – a bad kid my mother left alone because she couldn’t handle me, and my father had to beat the hell out of because it was the only way to make me behave – a beating was the only thing I understood. He asked me who told me that, and I replied immediately; “My mother.” As cliche as it is in therapy to blame the mother, it was, in my case, true; deserved, earned and valid. And understanding that she was wrong freed me from believing I was bad; something that was never true – never a burden I should have carried. Not blame, understanding.
Even in an abusive home, where unspeakable things happen, knowing and comprehending who did what is so important to the story. Viewing Pat and Ed as One is unfair … to Ed.
She was cunning and shrewd. She wanted me to hate my father, so she used Ed’s flaws and shortcomings to her full advantage; he hit me and I was afraid of him, so she used that fear – exploited it, deepened it, twisted it – made me believe she ‘spanked’ me so much because I was bad, and if she could make me behave through ‘spankings,’ Ed wouldn’t have to beat me so much.
And then, when she wanted my (and my sister’s) unquestioning loyalty after she divorced Ed, she levied depraved sexual allegations against him — and unfortunately, he made these at least plausibly believable by committing a crime; Lewd and Lascivious Acts with a Minor. I tried to remain neutral in her war against him, but that was close to impossible given his actions and her determination.
She cast herself as the protector, always. Justified every injustice, every vile act, every morally bereft decision by claiming she was protecting me from someone, or something, even more terrible. She twisted my feelings, thoughts and emotions – wrung them like a dish towel – until I was broken and damaged and had no hope of escaping the breakdown that came in 2009.
It took a long time, after leaving my mother’s house, to understand that her thought processes are flawed, her actions damaging and repugnant. I had to separate myself completely not to have my own thoughts and behaviors reflect her’s. I always knew she was vile, but I didn’t understand all of what that meant until I was away from it … and safe.
And I now know Ed was my mother’s victim, too …
When you take the high road – the right road in this case, and never speak ill of their mother to your children – even though you know she misses no opportunity to speak ill of you, you sacrifice yourself in many ways. Ed offered no tit-for-tat, no opposing point-of-view, no salacious accusations to match her’s … he simply waited for her lies and warped psyche to reveal themselves.
In the first few days after our meeting, something about what was happening between Ed and I was gnawing at me – and that relentless, almost disturbing feeling, went back to the Universal Fact: Abusers deny. He didn’t deny anything. What’s more, he didn’t offer excuses or blame Pat … he presented himself as the man he is today, apologized to me and allowed me to reach my own conclusions.
And today I think he is just a man who made some very damaging mistakes – mistakes that deeply hurt people he loves; his children.
I can bisect MyParents, seeing them now as my parents … but I can’t give Ed back the last thirty years. I had to be here today to give him tomorrow. I had to shut him out, raise my family, even get sick to be in this place today … the place that allows me to see him differently than my mother portrayed him, and even separately from her.
If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would never have delved this deeply, asked the right questions, sought the truth or concluded correctly. I would have held Ed, always, to the same standard of accountability I hold Pat – and will ALWAYS hold Pat; much of the damage is a result of abuse she alone inflicted …
What ifs are pointless, and when considering my childhood I wouldn’t know which of many hundreds of what ifs to choose to change the outcome, but … if he hadn’t hit me, and If he hadn’t been guilty of actual sexual misconduct always come to mind. Both costly mistakes that had a profound impact on his life …
especially considering Pat was around to use his mistakes against him, to make sure his mistakes had deep, painful and catastrophic effects on me.