What do you do when you find out that someone you love has done something horrible?
This isn’t a new question. In fact, many people have had to answer this question when a beloved child has committed a crime, or their spouse has done something unforgiveable, or when a close friend or colleague reveals themselves as discriminatory or as a harasser.
It’s one thing to watch all this unfold on the news and weigh in with your opinion, but what do you do when that question stops being rhetorical; what do you do when the question becomes personal?
So far it turns out that my answer is that I struggle with conflicted feelings and pretty much do…nothing.
I wish that I had a better answer than that, but I haven’t been able to move beyond emotional conflict.
Let me explain.
I grew up alternately adoring and being terrified of my father. I don’t think that’s necessarily unusual or novel, because children are so small and Daddies are so tall…no matter how short they are in real life.
I adored my father for his goofy sense of humor and the myriad of silly voices he used to make me laugh. I adored my father because he loved cartoons and would frequently quote from his favorites (of course, doing his best impression of the character’s voice at the same time.) I adored my father because he would cook me waffles or pancakes on Saturday morning so that my mom could sleep in…and so I got him all to myself every Saturday. It was just me, cartoons, breakfast, and my Daddy.
There were anger issues that clouded my joy and gave me a genuine reason to fear my father. He had an abnormally loud voice that he used to great effect when he was angry with me or my brother. He also was quick to strike; far too quick and far too strong for his own good. Nowadays we call that violent, but back then we called it strict. I knew that I had to obey my father because anything less than obedience would be punished, and I greatly feared being punished. Most of the time I ended up grounded or restricted from some privilege, but there were times when my father responded before thinking and used physical punishment. There were several times in my teen years when I immediately knew that my father was out of control and that he was beyond the border of ‘punishment’ and well into the land of physical abuse. I even reported it to the school, but no one did anything. My mother reminded me that I could be extremely difficult and suggested that I try to see things from my father’s perspective. The school counselor…I can only guess that he thought I was being overly-dramatic, and that anyone with my grades could not possibly be having problems at home.
When I became a parent, I began to understand just how frustrating parenting could be. By that time the strained relationship between my father and I had relaxed into the comfort of adulthood. My father spoke to me with respect and I sought out his and my mother’s advice on just about everything related to parenting. I still knew that my father had been out of line with my brother and I many times and yet it no longer mattered as much. The only long-lasting effect of my childhood was that I was determined not to allow any abuse in my own household—not from me or anyone else. I still marvel that my husband married me, especially after I told him that if he ever hit me, that he better not go to sleep ever again. I told him that he better not hurt my babies, either, because there would be no escaping my wrath with.
A wiser man might have backed away from me slowly, never to return. Luckily my husband was just a little crazy in love, and so he stayed. I also imagine that he trusted himself; knowing who he was, he didn’t have to worry because he knew that he’d never raise a hand to me or to our children.
In my late 30’s I went to graduate school to study mental health counseling and learned all about Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI.)** My father sustained a TBI in the Navy when a fellow seaman dropped a submarine hatch on my father’s head. The accident left him with a number of injuries: it ripped off half his ear (that they thankfully reattached) and caused nerve deafness in that ear, and it left him without a memory of my mother and I, despite the fact that we had both been in his life for months and months by the time of his injury. After the amnesia had subsided, the Navy gave my father the choice of continuing in his deployment or taking a medical discharge; my father took an honorable medical discharge so that he could try to rebuild his life with my mother and I. Mostly, that is exactly what he did, except…
Except that TBIs can change your personality, and my father was sporadically violent with his wife and children.
By the time I had completed graduate school for my counseling degree, I understood that my father’s TBI had impacted him negatively. I believed that it had caused him to become violent; he didn’t get to choose the effect that his injury had on him.
I looked back at my childhood—at all that had happened, good and bad—and realized that my father had no choice in how he reacted to stress. When his stress levels became too high he became violent, and while it broke our hearts, he didn’t have any choice.
Until this Christmas, when he lost his temper.
Holidays are extremely stressful for my parents, and my father’s vascular dementia (born of his TBI and a stroke subsequent to a double bypass operation in 2009) has left him volatile and violent. As usual, prior to a major holiday, my father lost his temper and his control, and my mother was his victim.
“Get him out of here!” she screamed at me on the phone, demanding that I take my father home with me to protect her and to give her a break from being his caregiver. “I can’t force him to leave” I told my mother “and if you want to get away from him, you are welcome to stay the night at my house.”
Until approximately 18 months ago, I believed my father had only been violent with my brother and I. I found out that my father was violent with my mother in the summer of 2016. I went on an extended vacation to Europe with my husband and while I was gone my father became so violent that my mother had him arrested for domestic violence. At that point I thought it was an isolated incident born of his vascular dementia.
Over the remaining months of 2016, I learned that my father had been violent with my mother a number of times since his stroke in 2009. Then, in early 2017, I learned that he had been violent for 54 years, ever since his brain injury.
When he lost his temper just before Christmas 2017, I decided to ask for the truth.
I drove to my parent’s house and picked up my mother, who was obviously injured. As I drove her to my home to spend the night, I encouraged her to go to urgent care. “No…they’ll call the police.”
“I know” I said, “but you need to get a record of this.” She refused. She refused medical help and police intervention, whether at her home or mine, whether in her town or mine.
Knowing that I couldn’t get her to report the crime, I decided to ask her to share the truth with me.
“Has he always been this way, or did it start after the Navy dropped a hatch on his head?”
That’s when my mother told me about him grabbing her by the hair because she said the wrong thing while she was pregnant with me; all this happened long before the Navy injured my father’s brain and destroyed the hearing in his left ear. All this happened long before a submarine hatch changed his ability to control his temper. She told me stories about his volatile behavior when they were dating and shortly after they married.
It had always been this way. His accident in the Navy had nothing at all to do with his violent behavior.
Anyone who has been to seminary knows what the term “back formation” means.
After Jesus died, the disciples went back into the Old Testament and found many verses that seemed to predict the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Their recognition that these verses predicted the birth and death of Jesus, even though they were previously thought to mean something else entirely, was labeled back formation. “Back formation” was the disciples looking at the Old Testament scriptures, realizing that these verses had greater meaning after the death of Jesus had made that meaning evident.
I am in the grip of back formation with my own childhood.
Suddenly everything that I remember has a different meaning, a different implication, a different way for me to understand it. Where I had painted all my father’s behaviors in the light of his brain injury, suddenly I have to admit that he has willfully chosen his violence, both before and after the injury, because he willfully chose violence before the injury ever happened. I can no longer excuse my father’s behavior.
The hardest part of this has been to admit to myself that I am that child. I am the child of domestic violence. I lived in the household that was under the sway of the cycle of domestic violence. I am the product of a violent home, and it was not a mistake that no one could control. My mother chose to stay with a violent man, and my father chose to be violent of his own free will.
I am that child, and it breaks my heart because I had freed myself from that burden when I believed that it was all just an injury that no one chose, that no one wanted.
If I am that child, then I have to admit that my mother choose to stay, and my father choose to beat all of us because that’s what he wanted to do.
What do you do when you realize that someone you love has done something truly horrible?
I have struggled with this every since December 20th, and I have discovered that I have no way to resolve the pain I feel with the love that I feel for my father.
My mother couldn’t let herself stay away from my father for long; she headed home only 18 hours after leaving and swearing that she was going to divorce him. I let her go because I could not allow myself to codependently try to control her behavior. As much as I wanted to keep her safe, I had to let her make her own choices.
Shortly after she left, I started myself baking my father’s favorite cookies. I found that I couldn’t stop myself from baking his favorite cookies and doing things to make him happy, even after I realized that he willfully chose to beat us for over 50 years.
The Christian in me wants to rejoice that love is stronger than sin and violence; that love is greater than disappointment and sorrow. The Christian in me reminds me that this is exactly why God never gets sick and tired of forgiving humanity of all our failures; because love doesn’t count the wrongs, it simply loves.
The child in me just wants to know when I’ll finally be safe and not have to be afraid of what will happen to my Mommy if I’m not watching over her.
I have no way to resolve this, but I am beginning to understand why Camille Cosby hasn’t divorced Bill Cosby, or why Gayle King struggles to understand how Charlie Rose could have done something so despicable when she admires him so much.
I cannot stop loving my father no matter how hard I try, and I don’t think that’s going to change, no matter how appalled I am at the reality that he continues to beat my mother, who I love very much.
I wish love was not so powerful, but I have no way to escape its gravitational pull.
This is why I haven’t been able to write for so many weeks. I could not admit this to myself or to any of you. Thank you to everyone who supported me in writing these words, knowing how they would reveal my family’s private struggle and pain. Thank you for giving me permission to tell the truth when the truth is so difficult to bear.
Just as love won’t let me abandon my father, love won’t let me abandon the truth, and the love of friends will bear me through the pain of speaking this truth to all of you.
Without love we would all be doomed. With love we will all be in pain and be comforted, all at the same time. It’s a strange, strange conundrum that I am deeply grateful for.
Thank you for letting me speak the truth. I can only pray that it gives someone else the freedom to speak their truth. To that end, pray for all those who live under the shadow of domestic violence, please. We need your love, your patience, and your help.