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Intro(retro)spective II: Violence, Family, and Loss

Natalie Merchant – Crazy Man Michael (2003)

When I bought Natalie Merchant’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, three or four years after it first came out, I was still speaking to my father.  I rarely saw him, since I’d put most of a continent between us, and I never bothered to call him, because the odds that he’d answer, or call back, or even have the same phone number he did last time we spoke were slim.  He never left messages when he called; he said it was too expensive. Sometimes he wouldn’t call for six months or more at a time. Sometimes he’d call and very quickly start into haranguing me about my financial choices, or my siblings, or some crazy theory he had that pushed all my buttons, or just explain how every single thing I said was wrong and I ought, somehow, to know better – and he’d refuse to stop until I hung up on him with a “Dad, I love you, call me when you can talk to me reasonably.”1  Still, we spoke.

Most times it wasn’t that bad.  Most times I played the role he’d trained me to play, like the expert I was, and whatever he said, I either supported or found a way to deflect, unless he wanted to argue, in which case I would put up just enough spark to make him happy, but not one ounce more.  The part of me that loved my daddy, and wanted his happiness more than my own, ran my headspace and my voicebox during those conversations, while the rest of me hid in some interior room of my personal memory palace, boxes and furniture piled up in front of the locked door, listening at the keyhole and fretting, until the conversation was over.  And I knew he loved me, and I knew I loved him, and I thought that meant that whatever he wanted, I should find a way to give.

I adored this song back then.  I’d listen to it over and over and over, until I was breathing through the song, until I was tasting through the song, until I was dancing through the song – but I never let myself think about the song.

************

Five years ago or so, my sister told me that my father had sexually abused her, frequently, when she was a child. We wept, I assured her that I believed her, we talked and talked about how it affected her (and about how knowing affected me). We didn’t talk much about how much I wanted to kill him when I found out – the murderous, righteous wrath I felt – but it was there, and it was acknowledged. She wasn’t ready to tell the world – she needed me to keep her secret – and we told ourselves we had ever so many good reasons not to tell. Some of which were to preserve our own sanity, some to preserve what ties we still had with him and with our other paternal relatives, some because we thought no one would believe us, some (the strongest of the reasons we could face) because we were convinced that he was different now – gentler, more moral, less dangerous – and that if we spoke out, all we’d do is ruin his new family.  The new family that was everything to him, and him to them.  Who were we to do that?  And all of our justifying didn’t matter anyway, because she. Just. Couldn’t.  And I wasn’t going to betray my baby sister.  The one that I’d mothered while my mom was working 60 hour weeks to feed us, the one who was trusting me with the most secret secret she’d ever been burdened with.  The one who’d bear the brunt of his anger if the secret was told.

We didn’t tell ourselves it was because we were afraid of what he might do.  We didn’t tell ourselves it was because of who he might hurt. We told ourselves it would be okay, and that we would know if he was still like that, and of course if he had been, we would’ve told, but he wasn’t, so we wouldn’t.  We hid our faces from the truth.  We didn’t dig deeper into any of it.  We wept. We consoled each other. And we waited.

I listened to this song a lot during those first months of knowing, and I finally did think about it. Some. When I could manage it. And I cried more.  And I raged.  One time, when Jaybird criticized someone else by comparing them negatively to my dad, I went from zero to furious instantly, threw a plastic freezy mug off our front porch into the street where it smashed, screamed imprecations at him, and terrified the both of us.

I felt trapped.  I knew what I knew.  I knew things I couldn’t bear to face knowing yet.  And there was sweet fuck all I felt I could do about any of it.

***************

Just a couple years back,2 my brother got married. I’d been on the verge of giving up on my dad for months before the wedding. The strain of pretending was getting to be too much even for all-time-champion-dissociator me, and he’d given me a pretext to get out of talking to him, without risking him knowing that my sister had told, by treating me worse almost every time we talked. He was unpredictable, cruel, relentless – to the point where I’d often end up in tears during the call, not just afterward. Even my best “good daughter” persona wasn’t able to keep doing what I was asking of it.

On some level, I’d been trying to find a way to get out of talking to him ever since I found out – especially after he broke about the 1000th last straw my other sister had, and she’d stopped talking to him for good.  I knew I was hurting my other sister, by not rejecting him for his extreme verbal and psychological abuse of her at that time, especially given that she didn’t know about the secret I was keeping.  I also knew that if I did cut him off, I might not be able to keep my mouth shut about exactly what a terrible person he was and exactly everything awful he’d ever done to us. The dam might break. I told myself I was trying to get through till after the wedding, I guess. I didn’t want to provoke him into something right before such a special day.  I loved my brother; I knew what my father was capable of; I thought it was okay to wait.

About a week before the wedding, my dad called to tell me he’d fallen off a cliff and suffered a traumatic brain injury.  It was a painful call, full of tenderness.  We both wept.  He told me I was the best of all of us, and I bit my lip to keep from screaming at him for being a manipulative jerk. I took a deep breath, and said kind things instead. (All the screaming stayed in that interior mental room.)

The injury kept him from attending the wedding.  That phone call was the last time we ever spoke.

It was a beautiful wedding.  Full of family. Full of joy. Full of love.

*********.

A week or two later, my sister called me to tell me my dad was in jail. That he was accused of molesting his stepdaughter.  That he had been calling her and pleading with her to help him, leaving messages that she of all people would know that he would never harm a child in that way.  That she couldn’t bear to have these conversations, but that she also couldn’t bear knowing he was in jail, not getting the brain-injury-related medical treatments, not even having his glasses.  She was afraid he would die.  She was also afraid that if he did, it would be her fault.

A lot of stuff happened that week.  I’m not going to rehash all of it; this post is long enough and I have a lot of trouble not checking out when I try to remember it, anyway.  But by the end of the week, he was in jail, people who weren’t us had taken care of the medical issues, only one of my beloved aunts and uncles had stopped speaking to me, my sister had blocked his number and started thinking about how to move out of the apartment that was still partly his … and almost everybody we were closely related to knew at least something about what he’d done to my sister.

At some point in the three months after that (another time in my life I can’t properly convince myself to stick around for remembering), I had the idea of listening to this song.  I thought it might be comforting.  Instead it was yet another thing that made me throw up. (I got really sick of throwing up that year.)

*************

A year or so after the brain injury and the wedding and the jail time, I got past my reasonable fear of therapists and started seeing one.  A while after I started seeing her, it started to help.  A while after it started to help, I started boxing up or throwing away every last damn thing that connected me to my father, most of which had been hidden under the hoarder-level mounds of clutter that started accumulating when I found out what he did to my baby sister.3  Not too long after that, I started along a path towards being able to maintain a steady awareness of my worst memories of my father, instead of dissociating it away.4  I’m sorry to do this to you, but I’m about to tell you some of the things my father did; any obvious trigger warning that you can think of probably applies to this list.  These aren’t all the things, nor even all the worst things. They’re the things I’ve learned how to say, so far.  I feel a bit weird about saying them here, but I also think the specifics matter.  I think the specifics need to be shoved out into the light.

— He called us every kind of name.  He screamed at us.  He took delight in making us feel small, in hurting us.  Mostly emotionally, but also by teaching us to “defend ourselves” and then being amused when he hurt us in the course of it.  None of this was an everyday thing, but neither was any of it particularly remarkable.  The year I was 14, I fainted EVERY morning when I got up.  The doctors had all kinds of theories, but “the stress of not knowing if someone is going to expect you to tease and joke and be sunny and winning over breakfast, or if they will instead be cruel to you, maybe scream at you, before you even get a chance to say good morning” was not one of them. They didn’t know he was like that.  They never asked.

— He sexually abused me when I was a child, sometimes in physically painful ways. My chronology, so far back into my childhood, is fuzzy, but I know that some of the things happened when I was seven. Some of them happened when I was younger than seven.  When I was older, he stopped sexually abusing me physically (as far as I know), but he still kept deliberately leaving his hard-core porn magazines around where I would find them. And after puberty, he would regularly wake up one or the other of his daughters by standing over our beds and screaming at us that we were not wearing enough bedclothes and pyjamas to be decent, we should cover ourselves better, etc.  We woke up to this.  Sometimes multiple times in the same week.  I’m still haunted by trying to NOT wonder what was happening right before we woke up.

— Starting around when I hit puberty, he literally chased me out of the house, any time I made him angry enough.  He would lock me out every time.  I’d often be outside for an hour, sometimes for a few hours, until my mom figured it was safe to let me back in. Sometimes this happened in the winter.  Once it happened in the middle of a heavy snow. Once it happened after I told him to stop talking about gay people like that and then came out to him in the course of the ensuing argument. (Right before he chased me out of the house that time, he told me I was lying to win said argument.)  I don’t know how many times he chased me out of the house when I was a teenager, but I can remember a half-dozen of them clearly, and at least another dozen as “I know this happened, but they were all so alike and so unpleasant that they blurred together.”  Every time it happened, he was screaming at me.  Every time it happened, I felt the way I had when I was seven years old and he kicked me out of the car and then drove away and left me crying on the sidewalk. Most of the times it happened, the thing I’m about to tell you next had already happened first, and I remembered that thing.

(This is the worst one, I think.  It’s okay if you can’t keep reading.) When I was thirteen, I got into an argument with him about something, to distract him from the rage he was expressing at one of my siblings, and he flipped out.  He chased me into the bathroom/laundry room. I locked the door behind me as I fled, and he broke the lock and opened the door.  He pinned me into the end of the long narrow room and towered over me, screaming.  He raised his hand, and I reflexively flung my open hands in front of my face to protect myself.  He grabbed me by the throat and choked me.  I thought I was going to die.  After what seemed like forever but certainly wasn’t, my mom came in and told him he had to stop, and I collapsed to the floor.  He shoved her aside and stomped into his bedroom, and I flung myself up and ran out to the front step.  Then I got angry. I made myself come back in the house and get the phone, and I laid down on the couch.  I was shaking with anger, and exhaustion, and fear.

I was going to call the cops.  He was a small-time drug dealer.  There was hashish in the house.  They would’ve come out and found it.  (Or at least they would’ve tried – but the thought of an armed stand-off really didn’t occur to my thirteen year old Canadian self, plus usually if my dad was really violent, afterward he would shut down so hard that I figured I had a window of shutdown to work with, one where he wouldn’t even try to stop them from finding the drugs.)  I knew – or I thought I did – that hash possession in those kinds of quantities would get you a serious jail sentence. And unlike domestic violence, it wouldn’t be a he said/she said.  My dad, I knew, ALWAYS won if it was he said/she said.  Hell, I was pretty sure no one in the world would believe me if I tried to really say what living with him was like.  But hash, that was open and shut, and located in such a way that it was really obviously nothing to do with anyone but him.  My mom used a lot of different arguments to talk me out of calling the cops that night.  But the one that worked best was when she said she was terrified he would kill one of us, eventually, if I did.  That one worked because I could see how terrified she still was.  That one worked because I knew it had taken all of her bravery to save my life in the first place, and I couldn’t ask her to give more.  That one worked because I didn’t want my dad to kill my mom, or my little sisters and brother, and I knew she was right to say he could.  And I was sure if he wanted to, no one would get in his way.

Even though I knew all these things, and even though I didn’t think I had any choice, after I found out what happened to my little sister, and again after I found out what happened to my stepsister, I blamed myself for not having called the cops in that one moment.  That one moment before I let my mom talk me out of it, when I had what felt like moral clarity, when I might have called.  I don’t blame myself, now. I blame him. I blame the fear.  I feel protective and forgiving of that desperate thirteen-year-old girl, not angry.  It took a bit longer to get to, but these days I also feel fiercely protective and forgiving of my tiny, bird-like mother, whom my dad occasionally threw around like a ragdoll, who was mostly entrapped by all his abusive terrorizing, but who still stood up to him that night and saved me.  And yet, and yet: every time I read in the news about one or the other person who “should have called the cops,” there’s a split second where all that healthy, sane feeling falls apart and I’m thirteen and trying to figure out what the fuck to do, all over again.

********

With the passage of time, I eventually started being able to listen to “Crazy Man Michael” without throwing up. I even started to feel less alone when I listened to it, and to be able to sit with my feelings while I did.

The tragic thing about my dad is that he really did love us. I’m sure he still does. I know people don’t literally divide out into fractions, but our experience of him was divisible. 50 percent of him was a normal, loving, kind person. Someone thoughtful and intelligent. Someone who loved teaching and would answer “why” questions long after anyone else would’ve thrown in the towel.  Someone who had a goofy sense of humor. Someone playful.  Someone who was exceptionally good at communicating love, and safety, and a sense of meaningfulness.  That 50 percent was more or less the best dad in the world, or at least one I liked better than anyone else’s dad.  But another 30 percent or so was deeply messed up – sick, and twisted, and greatly in need of various kinds of help he was never going to ask for.  And that last 20 percent? Black, murderous poison.  Anathema.  Something far more dangerous, far more evil – yes, evil – than the vast majority of us can imagine being.  Something that seems like it *should* be akin to throwing freezy mugs into the street, or deliberately hurting someone’s feelings because yours are hurt, or even something as dreadful as losing your temper at your kid and slapping her that ONE time and you will never do it again – even if it takes you five or six nevers for never to stick because your own shit is so messed up.  Something that seems like it should be the same sort of thing, only much worse in degree …. Except that it isn’t, actually, much like any of those things at all.  And over the course of a human life, that 20 percent anathema is going to matter more than the other 80 percent.  Way more.  Exponentially more.

That was my dad.  I guess it *is* my dad, though I usually end up thinking of him in the past tense these days. And even now, even as insulated as I am against him because of the fear that I could slip and fall back into letting him hurt me, explaining that breaks my heart.

The problem we had with my dad, all those years, was that we needed help.  We needed forceful intervention.  We needed a safe place, free from retribution, after the forceful intervention occurred.  We needed comfort and healing once we were safe.  And we KNEW none of those things were available to us.5  And that knowledge made us utterly insane.

We were fine enough on the outside, most of the time.  We passed for normal.  But on the inside, we had to submit to his strange version of reality to survive. We tried every kind of strategy to placate him, every kind of lie to ourselves (and by extension others), every coping mechanism known to man … and at the end of the day, he never changed. It never became safe. It’s not really safe to write this.  But he’s old and he’s sick and he’s banned from this country and he isn’t any good at keeping track of pseudonyms, so the cost-benefit has changed.  My needs have room enough to matter.  The things I want to be better in the world can matter.  I can choose to believe that he can’t hurt us any more, even though he isn’t dead yet.  It’s not the same as it was when I was nine, or twelve, or seventeen.  Do I sound like I’m trying to convince you? I’m really trying to convince myself.

***********

In the midst of all the tumult of the year after my dad went to jail, I ended up sitting on my front porch, drinking with a couple of twenty-somethings.  The front porch of this house is its own weird kind of sacred space, and so eventually the talk turned from the goofy stuff to the hard stuff.  Two of us were talking about all the reasons we could never have called the police on our fathers.  How it was unthinkable, unimaginable, dangerous, seemed immoral at the time, and besides it wouldn’t even have worked.  The third kept saying, firmly, “You ALWAYS call the police.” We tried to brush her off. We figured she didn’t know. We figured she’d never had to deal with anything like that.

Turns out, she knew.  Turns out, she called them a lot more than once. I won’t say more than that – her story is hers to tell, as is my other friend’s, and I feel weird about sharing even that much of it, that vaguely – but I will say that, as far as I can tell, her answer is the wiser one of only two that ever work.6  With my dad, the only thing that ever gave any of us enough space to get out of the trap – him being in jail – only happened after my stepmother called the police.7 But people die every year, trying to call the cops on scarily violent men instead of appeasing or avoiding them.  People die, trying to stop this particular madness.

A lot of people die.  A lot of people get hurt so bad that they wish they could die.  And that’s without even getting into all the reasons cops might be almost as scary as the dangerous person is, or, rationally or not, even scarier.  So when I think about this problem, the problem of terrifyingly violent people who are not always terrifying, who competently cover up their rage, woo spouses, raise children, keep their criminal records clean, pass psych evals, get jobs where they’re in a position of trust – and yet who are capable of being so abysmally violent – the people who won’t change if they get sober, who aren’t just in need of some frank talk, therapy, and meds to make it so they never hurt anyone again – the people who live among us, love some of us, value their connection to society, and yet could so easily commit murder … When I think about this problem and try to figure out what the fuck I even might posit we’re all supposed to do about it, I always find myself at a loss.

This song doesn’t answer my question, although it does give me comfort these days, when I’m consumed by the need to know. But maybe one of you can answer.  Maybe you can’t, but you just want to talk about your own personal experiences surviving violence.  Maybe you have questions for me, or want to reach out because you know me, in this weird internet way, and it’s easier to read something like this if you’re allowed to talk to the person afterwards.  I’ve closed comments on this post, for what are probably obvious reasons, but I set up a temporary email address at mariboumaribou [AT] hotmail  DOT com. I can’t promise I’ll answer your email.  I can’t even promise I’ll read it soon.  But I’ll be awfully glad you wrote me anyway.

______

Image credit: wikipedia user Billy Hathorn under a CC-BY 3.0 Creative commons license.Notes:

  1. I first developed that trick my sophomore year in college, as a way of feeling safe enough to get a telephone again, after a single beautiful year of not talking to anyone unless I called them.  Years later, I learned that hanging up with kindness is standard therapist’s advice for dealing with people who won’t respect conversational boundaries. []
  2. I’m fuzzing out the dates, because, irrationally, it makes me feel safer, so I apologize that the math won’t add up. The sequence is accurate though. []
  3. I’ve finished clearing out our bedroom and our library, now, and the most emotionally volatile parts of the kitchen.  It’s harder than you might think. But I have hope I’ll get through the whole house sometime in the next couple of years. []
  4. I didn’t “recover” any memories, really.  I just stopped tricking myself out of not admitting to anyone, even myself, that I had them and/or what they meant.  I’d occasionally admitted some of them to other people in the past, but then I managed to avoid admitting to myself that I’d done so. Because that would mean admitting that I had them to admit. And if this set of sentences confuses you, well, imagine what it must be like to live that way. []
  5. They weren’t. Trust me.  There’s a whole thing about how we went to family counseling and the first counselor blamed everything on my mom’s PMS, while the next one was too afraid of my dad and refused to keep seeing us, and another whole thing that’s all statistics and facts and court histories from where I grew up… but just trust me.  We weren’t ever going to be safe if we told back then, when he was in the strength of his prime and had no criminal record.  We just weren’t.  We were wrong about whether anyone would believe us – there are people I still love who absolutely would have – but not about the physical danger involved. []
  6. The other one is time; the success rates for that one seem even lower, and the risk of death is just as high, if you count victim suicides. []
  7. He pled out to time served – about half a year. []

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Maribou is a voracious reader who also likes to watch, stare at, and listen to stuff. Occasionally she makes stuff, too. She works in a small liberal arts college library, and shares a house in Colorado with her husband Jaybird, five cats, and what looms ever closer to ten thousand books. ...more →

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