father figure (you can’t forget what you never knew)
When my oldest daughter turned 12, my father took her out to dinner for her birthday. He had never done that before (they’d never been anywhere without me before) and she was thrilled: her grandfather wanted to take her out for a fancy dinner. Her mother’s father wanted to get to know her better! She was bursting with happy chatter as she got dressed. She even re-read her favorite joke book to brush up on some one-liners.
The next time I saw him I asked, “So how was dinner?”
He pressed his lips together and looked at the wall behind me. This is how he talks, as though he’s on a mountain top, absorbing the full panorama and describing it for those who cannot see. After a long pause, he shook his head and said, “She’s completely neurotic, isn’t she.”
And that’s all he had to say about it. My charming, clever, astonishingly magnificent bright light. My daughter. My baby.
My father contributed to my education. He didn’t pay for it all, but he definitely helped. A check would come in the mail; there was rarely a note but sometimes the check would come wrapped in a trifold article ripped from a magazine with key points underlined.
Unlike many fathers, mine has always been there for me, full of judgment about what I should be doing with my life. If I wanted advice, all I had to do was call. And even when we don’t speak for months he lingers like a shadow in my life, the judge in his robes sitting somewhere in the balcony, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if he’s nodding his head or pressing his lips together.
My father’s pockets contain cash in a money clip, a thin black organizer marked with clips and rubber bands, a handkerchief, a fingernail clipper, and some loose change. I know his lips become a flat line when he disagrees and the trumpeting he makes in his throat to sound the impending dissemination of advice. I know how he folds his hands and his socks and a letter in three equal, razor-edged parts to fit into the legal envelope.
My father moves through life with slow deliberation, inhabiting his body like an alien wearing a flesh suit, as if the real him is holed up in his head, pushing buttons and pulling levers to make the rest of him go through the motions. His heart is a pump to push the blood from here to there, his legs are a useful means of navigation, and his arms fill their sleeves, but the only thing that really matters is what’s going on upstairs.
I can’t figure out how he fits in this puzzle of my memories. He doesn’t really fit in here, between the part where I talk about bodies I have known, men I have slept with, and the man I’d eventually marry, but he also doesn’t not fit here either. The fact that I don’t know how to fit my father into the story is a perfect illustration of how he is in my life.
“What’s a neurotic?” I ask my friend, who happens to be a psychiatrist. I already know what the word means, but I want to check my understanding.
“Oh, it’s an obsolete term, no longer in the DSM. It used to refer to a personality disorder as opposed to a psychotic, someone with a severe mental disorder.”
“So it’s an old-fashioned way of saying someone has problems. Normal problems.”
“Or that they they’re anxious, when anxiety is a common reaction people experience for many reasons. Plus, it was most often used to refer to women, which makes one wonder about what we were really talking about. Women and Jewish people.”
Maybe neurosis is normal. Maybe it’s normal to understand your father more than he understands you. Consider all those years I was still developing like a crude photograph in a dark room while he was busy in the spotlight. If standing under someone contributes to understanding, then I was in just the right spot.
My father has been a victim of women all his life. His mother was overwhelming, his first wife (my mother) was angry, and his second wife was emotionally unstable. To him, women are dependent and delicate and liable to explode, psychological black holes, and if you get too close, they’ll suck and swallow until there’s nothing left. He never wrote it on the wall but I got the message: You can’t be yourself around women because they’ll freak out or use you up or throw you away so you have to pretend.
For one year, I lived with him and his new family, although he was rarely home. One day, my stepmother and I were fighting; I can’t remember why but I do remember how she loved to fight. Was it boredom or a need to connect? Was she angry at me or life in general? For whatever reason, the fury lit her face like a bonfire and she’d scream and rage and keep coming at me until I lost my temper, too. When my father came home and saw us he didn’t stop to ask a question he just threw me down, grabbed me by both shoulders and slammed me into the tile floor, over and over, with this eerie expression on his face, a blank, flat-lined rictus that scared me more than anything else. I never slept at that house again.
After his second divorce, my father called to tell me about an exciting woman he was dating, how she had dark hair and brown eyes and a sexy Southern accent and she’d just bought a beautiful set of sheets and duvet for their love nest. The local newspaper in our small town had just run a story about her and his voice shook as he read it aloud over the phone. The headline referred to her as “The Black Widow” because apparently, when she’d come from Texas, she’d left a mysterious wake of dead husbands behind. My father didn’t know what to do. He was afraid to face her alone, so I went over to his house to help him break up with her. I helped her pack her things and stayed late to make sure she didn’t come back that night.
I have always tried to not be big, angry, or emotional in my father’s presence. I hold my tongue because it’s my responsibility to protect him from myself. The idea is if I act small, happy, and unwaveringly stable, if I don’t criticize, listen, and do what I’m told, my father might keep me around.
In my earliest mental picture of my father, he’s behind a camera. He was a young lawyer elbowing up the ranks to partnership and wanted his desktop family portraits to represent him in a certain light. He’d lose his temper, yelling at me to stop fooling around, sit still and smile, so there are many photographs of me looking sad and surly. I see those pictures and remember his disappointment. That is the range of his emotion: approval to disapproval.
I was 6 when my parents divorced. They tried various therapists first. One suggested they have a physical fight to solve their problems. There was a mat on the floor for the grappling. My father won. Was anyone surprised? My brother and I went to live with my mother.
Money was tight. My father and his new family had plenty but my mother, and us kids by extension, had none. I had few items of clothes and one new pair of shoes a year but one thing he’d always spring for was the est training, aka the Erhard Seminars Training, a cultish thing founded by the self-help guru Werner Erhard. est’s primary goal, or the one I gleaned, was to train participants to take responsibility for their own lives. I was 8 when I started and, before I moved away from home at 17, I had taken the training at least three times and had done an intensive stint at an est boot camp, from which I emerged with an actual buzz cut. I learned to take responsibility for myself. I was trained to say “I” instead of “you.” The trainings were expensive but the fact that my father paid made it invaluable to me– proof that he cared and that I mattered.
He always said that after graduation, I had to get out of the house if I wanted any of his support so at 17, I was sleeping on the dining room floor of a shared apartment in San Diego and working at Dunkin’ Donuts when I wasn’t in class at SDSU. I didn’t have a car so every day, I’d put on my striped uniform and walk a mile up College Avenue. Sometimes, I had to be at work at 6 am and other times, it was almost midnight when I got off . Every time I walked to and from, men would pull their cars over to the curb, lean over, and ask me how much. Old men, skinny men, handsome men, brown men, frat boys, ones in big trucks, sleek sedans, and station wagons, they all turned the same mask of apathetic lust toward me and offered me a ride. At first, I’d tell the guy no thanks, and if he insisted that it was just a little ride, I’d point to my Dunkin’ Donuts name tag and raise my eyebrow, hoping he’d get the hint. If he didn’t, I’d scream at him to fuck off or I’d have him arrested. I’d kick the car and scream, “My father’s a lawyer. He will fry your ass!”
When I was invited to join my dad and his new family at a spa for spring break I was excited, but the Murrietta Hot Springs turned out to be a cult run by a control-freak guru-type. When I was not cooking in the kitchen with the resident women with their long skirts and long hair tied up in cloths and packs of children playing underfoot, I was expected to attend lengthy group therapy sessions where it quickly became clear that my father and stepmother suspected I was no longer a virgin. I hadn’t been a virgin since I was 16, the year I tried to live with them: I had lost my virginity on the hill behind their house although it didn’t feel like I was losing anything at the time and they hadn’t noticed and never asked about it before, but suddenly, in this cult with its strict rules about behavior, their faces had morphed into masks of concern. I was administered some herbal pills and tinctures to cleanse my system and in session after session, group leaders lectured and pressed me to confess.
In the middle of the night, I awoke feeling sick. I ran to the toilet and spent the rest of the night purging my guts. When I didn’t show up to breakfast the next day, my little brother came to find out why and told the others the message that I was sick, but no one came to visit or keep me company. I lay on the bed drifting in and out of sleep and nausea, paranoia and self-pity, wondering if they had poisoned me to break down my defenses or if this was some kind of karmic punishment for my refusal to bow down. The room had a dusty maroon carpet and windows that wouldn’t open. There were no books or television so I lay there thinking about Hugo, my boyfriend in San Diego, and how he seemed to be pulling away, how I had no home to go home to. I wondered if they had brought me to the cult to leave me there and teach me a lesson.
When I regained my strength, I found them by the pool. The therapy sessions continued and although I never gave them the proof they were looking for, it was clear that they all believed I was somehow ruined. When it was over, I took a bus back to San Diego. I went home to my dining room floor and my job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was all bitter, bitter without sweet, all seeing without being seen. When I talk about my father, my words feel black and bloodless, thoughts truncated to fragments, feelings chopped, but inside my body they ring like a gong: gong, gong, throbbing with the long, hollow fullness of significance. My hands grasp the air for a connection. Where is the love? Who will hold my hand? How could these shards ever fit together?
They do. They just do. Pieces come together, they find their way.
Lying in bed, I can’t sleep. John rolls toward me in the darkness. “What’s up?”
“I’m upset,” I reply. “I care and I don’t give a goddamn. I can’t help it.”
“It’s not like this is a legitimate diagnosis,” he chides. “Your dad isn’t exactly an expert in psychology.”
“I know. He’s an ass. But still, part of me can’t help wonder if he’s right. The other part wants to scream ‘fuck you’ and kick him in the stomach.”
“I like the second part better.”
“When I’m around my father, I feel neurotic.” I roll to face the window. “‘Neurotic’ is my new favorite word.” John puts his hand on my hip. “But really, what he meant by that word doesn’t matter. It’s that he said it to me about my baby. It’s the dislike and disapproval buried under the word. Did he forget who he was talking to?”
My tears make me angry. I’m angry because I’m sad. I’m sad because I know he didn’t forget. I see him looking at the wall behind me while he talks. He talks as if he’s on a stage, addressing a faceless crowd. You can’t forget what you never knew. I mull over this for a long time. John holds me while I cry.
I cry because I suspect that somewhere inside my father, locked behind that righteous mask, there’s a tiny creature trembling with fear, eyes screwed tight and fingers shoved inside his ears. Although I will never know for sure and I have no idea why, I suspect that his cell is double-locked and bolted for his protection. Nothing can get in or out and he sits there, both feet pushed against the door, wondering why he feels so alone.
to read this series from the beginning, press here
I love your fiction, essays, and poems, but your “memoirs”, especially this one, make me sit and read with my mouth hanging open like the dullest of country rubes. The lack of any common sense by your dad at the story’s beginning, the cult-training, the women in his life after the first divorce, are just amazing stories. I know by the way you write about them that your kids are wonderful special people, but of course to have your Dad actively seek one out for what should have been a mutual treat for them, then say anything negative, that’s just awful. He’s “dead-on” in his evaluation of women, though, in the paragraph starting with “My father has been a victim of women all his life.” 😉
Perhaps you’ve heard this or definitely thought it yourself, but certainly one would think you could achieve “writing success” (in the narrow view of book sales and fame and income and all that) by simply collecting and expanding the memoirs you’ve written to the blogging world. Then could come the fiction books. A mercenary view of getting published, no doubt, but many “classic” authors started that way. Dickens published stories and serialized his novels. I can’t immediately come up with other, better examples, but it happens. Not everyone goes the “To Kill a Mockingbird” route. I don’t know why I got off on this tangent, Anna, but I know you would like to be “traditionally published”, and you deserve to.
I took some courses at SDSU also, but it was the one in South Dakota.
Oh, and as for “neurotic”, I think “Woody Allen” might be an answer, maybe?
Kevin! Thank you!
Writing the memoir stuff is the hardest and the easiest. Hardest because of the exposure, easiest because it is propelled by emotional jet fuel. Maybe if I could cloak the memoir in fiction (“All Persons Appearing In This Work are Purely Fictional!!! Any Resemblance To Real Persons Living Or Dead Is Completely Coincidental!). But it’s probably too late for that now, huh?
I have no idea what got me going on this memoir thing, but it just keeps coming. I vacillate between embarrassment and curiosity. Have you ever written about your family/past?
That was unclear I think; what I really mean is that a dictionary definition of “neurotic” could perhaps just say “see any autobiographical Woody Allen movie”. Or something.
If I could have Woody Allen’s job, I’d be a very happy woman. Happy and mildly paranoid, I suppose.
Your writing is powerful and beautiful. So are you and so are your daughters. Brilliance can be missed when hearts are not open but that does not negate the brilliance does it?
No, it does what it does whether anyone is watching or not. xoox!!!
Pow. Felt the impact of this right in the stomach.
Feels very lonely on both sides- yours and your dad’s. I think your suspicions about the tiny one inside him are very likely right… and I feel great compassion for you both. Once again, I am astounded by your ability to capture such complexities of human relationship and experience in your writing, and so beautifully, with such raw honesty. Love you, GITH.
I know! The stomach, right? Ugh. (And xoox to you. XOOX!)
Oh Anna, sometimes I really just can’t think how to express all the thoughts and feelings I have after reading your pieces like this. So I just hit “like” and let that — inadequately, incompletely, inconsequentially — do the job.
“Liking” is nice! I’ll take a “like” any day. xoox!
Oh Anna. What an incredible piece of writing. Keep at the memoir stuff. It may be hard, but this is so moving.
I really have no words to give, or at least none that are good enough for this piece.
So I’ll just say – this is heartbreaking. Thank you.
Helen! And suddenly I’m a sadist, pleased to have broken your heart. Thank you!
That was a show stopper. Your father sounds so chilling in an absent minded way. The dinner with him must have been painful for your daughter
You know, I don’t think she noticed. At least not consciously. And I don’t think I’ll ever leave her with him again. And if it ever becomes conscious, I’ll let her read this and we’ll be neurotic together.
I know! Ugh. *Whew!*
This beautiful post makes me think back to growing up under the influence of my father, who was as uninvolved in my development as yours was involved. Despite the difference, I am still partly the result of what he taught me (or didn’t teach me), and have always had to cope with that. I think that no matter the parenting style, the stamp left behind never wears off. Thanks for such a great essay.
Undoubtedly, my daughters will be damaged by me, too. Someday, when they’re grown, I hope we’re friends so we can hash it all out. Thank you for reading!
What remarkable writing!
Thank you, Susan!
Oh Anna, this piece was so beautiful. The voice, the story, the everything. I read it last night before I went to bed and fell asleep with all good thoughts about the power of really great writing. (and I don’t use “great” lightly; this piece was fantastic)
I’m so glad you think so, Teri, because this one was a killer to write, and I felt none of my usual confidence when I called it “done” and pressed publish. This memoir stuff is so freaking hard. Why didn’t you tell me? (Oh, you did!)
Flat-out amazing. Thank you. And I loved the tidbit about “neurotic” being a word that people usually use to describe women…I’d never thought about it that way, but it’s true, isn’t it?
When my friend told me that, I had a little aha moment. Aha!
What a contrast between the piece you wrote about your mother—all entangled connectedness—and this one about your father. Both so powerful, chilling in opposite ways.
Memoir, please. Snap to it.
I’m snapping! I’m snapping! xoox!
Very complex piece…daddys and our relationships to them are indeed very defining moments in our lives. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and precise descriptions of what your father was like as you were growing up and how his interaction with your daughter mirrored those moments from when you were a girl.
“Mirrored” exactly. Though it’s much clearer from this angle. Thank you for reading!
this is beautiful, and heart-shattering. sometimes I wonder how there are as many intact adults walking around. there was so much love withheld. here’s to giving that love now that we’re parents ourselves — as well as we can.
Sarah– thank you.
I tried but could not figure out how to leave a comment/recommendation on your post about fiction for a book about math that my kids thoroughly enjoyed: The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Fun!
My fingers are resting on the keyboard, but I do not know what to write. Phew! Oh my! Fuck! What the fuck? Fuck him.
And more importantly, you are beautiful, you are brave and you are resilient. Your daughter is a perfect and unique being. And I can not wait to meet her!
Thank you, once again, for sharing your writing, for sharing you & for sharing your experiences. I hope that getting it out there in the form of pen to paper or keyboard to screen (or in words in general) helps the ongoing healing process.
Je t’embrasse fort,
As soon as I figure out how to juggle these balls I’m fumbling, I want to see you and catch up face-to-face. Do you think we could really break the surface tension between internet and real life? Can we do that?
Wow, what a difference in your relationships with mom and dad! I really wanted to send a fist through my screen and knock him down… sorry, he’s still your dad, I know. From your telling, ‘you still feel neurotic around him’, I’m guessing you are still in child mode and have not really confronted him for being a prick? My dad was an aloof, disparaging, affection miser, prick too. Too bad he checked out before I shook off the fear and took him to task for it. I’ve always wondered what our relationship would have been like if we had resolved our issues. You hint at some understanding of what makes him tick… fear, tiny, locked room. Do you know more… how his father treated him? Obviously he has been searching for answers/direction with his interest in EST and the hot springs Guru. Why does he look at things the way he does. Having said that, I don’t try to shrink my mom’s head to see why she says things that piss me off so much. But maybe if I did/you did, we’d be better off. I know that after all this time a large percent of my reactions to her are Pavlovian rather than truly incited by her. And I wish I could do better with her for her grandson’s sake (he sees none of the bad stuff that I do). But it’s so common now for me to react and it’s so easy too. Trying to understand her motivations and perspective (they way I do everyday in my sales job) is just too much work. It’s also hard to admit that whatever we are, to some extent, is a product of what they are and how they raised us… the good and the bad. I remember we thought EST was some weird cult, but if it had anything to do with how you write, it can’t be all whack. I hope I will deal with this before she dies. She’s getting pretty old now and I’m running out of time. Somehow I feel that if I do it will ease the issues my son and I will likely have one day. Maybe I’ll make a list of all my bad and all my good traits that I think came from her. Maybe that will be a start.
No matter how much work I do, my father can still plug me in every time. This is because I still have hope, so it isn’t really a bad thing. I’d rather be a teary optimist than a righteous pessimist.
My father always has the correct answer– that’s his thing.
I wonder if est has anything to do with my writing– I’ll have to think about that one, Todd. I do think that it, along with all the rest, have sharpened me and given me an edge that comes through in my writing. But my mom has a very sharp edge, too, so who knows what the cause is.
Your last paragraph really says it all, cuts to the bone. I suspect that you are absolutely right about what’s buried so deep inside your dad. And he’s the big loser for it. Much of the behavior you describe reminds me of my older half-sister, who I think always considered herself my surrogate father. (long story, there.) I am lucky because I have simply been able to walk away from that relationship, believing that we choose our friends, we’re stuck with relatives. But that escape route is much more complex when dealing with a parent. Your daughter is lucky to have you as her parent to help her deal with this troubling family legacy..
This, BTW, was heartbreakingly beautifully written. Humble, honest, angry, sad, you got it all in there so eloquently.
I have had to set boundaries with people, too. It started when I was pregnant with my first– some clarity finally kicked in about who was good to be around and who was not. You know you’re a real grown-up when you start taking care of yourself emotionally, I guess, instead of hoping others will do that for you. (Although I don’t even know what I mean by “real grown-up.” Sounds silly if you think about it.)
How about growing-up? It’s a process. 😉
all the complex stuff has been said, so let me deal with just a simple matter: loved “To him, women are dependent and delicate and liable to explode…” liable to explode – a thousabd visions.
This living thing is certainly a messy business. Thank you for reading.
When this post came through my email and I read the title, I put of reading it for a while. Fathers. Man, that’s a hard one. Your father and my father have nothing in common, they are nothing alike. And they are exactly the same goddam man.
I love your writing, and I admire your honesty. I can’t write about what’s close to home. I just can’t go there.
I think you’re dead on about your father in that last paragraph.
When life is stranger than fiction … and there are eggshells on the floor… and bare feet…
This is a remarkable, heartbreaking story, Anna. Beautifully written.
Cut to the core by this, Anna. Whoa. Whenever I read your memoir posts, there’s always so much to be said, and yet I’m speechless. So I’ll just tell you… I’m on a mission to read all the words of yours I missed while I was away. And I may have to revisit this another time.
You could have been describing my father.
I like the way you write …, a lot.
Anna- I am new to your blog but I feel as if we have been friends for years. Thank you for this, you may be simply telling your story but thousands of souls are connecting to you. This piece left me in tears. xx