Well, heck. It’s not like I’m cynical. I’m not. It’s just that the following letter is the letter for today, which means the one for the Thanksgiving holiday, where families typically get together and feast, is a letter about a pretty jerky and self-involved dad.
So I’m not trying to indicate that all families are bad. Lots of people have wonderful families. I love my family. But for all those out there whose families are a source of pain and embarrassment and fear, I’d just like to remind everybody that a lot of us have to make our own families, and we do, and that’s what we’re doing in all our online communities and at work and with our friends and all that. We’re making our own families. And some are big and transcend boundaries and some are small and congregate on street corners, but there’s something great about just being with people, so I will just say it, because I am not really cynical: We are family.
Have a good holiday.
Oh, P.S., I almost didn’t run this letter because it had all lowercase and I had to put in all the uppercase, All by Myself. Poor me. Come on, people, there’s a shift key.
Growing up, my dad was verbally and emotionally abusive. He became physically abusive toward my brother but stuck to mind games with my mother and me. In eighth grade, my mom finally got up the courage to leave (thank that great spaghetti monster in the sky) and take my brother and me out of that hostile situation.
In the time between my mother kicking him out of the house and us leaving for a new town, my dad would spend our visits sobbing and playing sappy love songs (forever ruined for me: Harry Nilsson’s “All by Myself”). He’d say, “Were you kids really afraid of me? I would never want you to be afraid of your own father.” Even at 13 I understood his behavior to be completely lacking in sincerity. I knew my fear of him was a tool he used to keep us subservient and was kind of insulted that he’d think I was too dumb to realize it.
After he refused to pay child support for my brother and me, lobbed ridiculous allegations of adultery at my mother (she is a saint), and dragged us all through a five-year, financially draining divorce, I told him I’d had enough.
At 18 I wrote him a letter (via snail mail) asking him to stop contacting me. I explained that his role in my life was not positive, healthy or beneficial to me and, until he could acknowledge his previous poor behavior and become a positive force, I had no room for his negativity in my life.
He wrote back immediately saying how sad it was my mother had brainwashed me into hating him (it is to laugh) and included a photograph of him with his girlfriend’s kids. He explained that it was OK that I didn’t want him around anymore — he had a new family that loved him. That letter, though painful, was proof to me that my father is not capable of healthy, adult, even human emotion and that I’d done the right thing.
Over the last 10 years he has mostly obliged my request to not contact me, though he still sends the occasional Christmas/ birthday/ national disaster email or card. After Sandy hit he emailed to ask if I’d made it through the storm OK. My first thought was, How do you know I live in New York? The tone of these messages is always manipulative and incredibly self-centered, i.e., “I don’t know what I’d do if you were in those twin towers. How would I go on?”
Frankly, his ability to co-opt a national tragedy and turn it into a pity party for himself is quite amazing.
A friend asked recently: If my dad died, would I be able to feel a sense of closure? Would I regret not speaking to him? My answer is no. I don’t believe he is capable of apologizing in a way I’d find acceptable and I don’t believe, going forward, we can have any kind of relationship. The letter with the new family photo is just one example of the many inappropriate things that have transpired since the split. I could tell you about his abusive relationship with my brother who became a homeless heroin addict, or the history of mental illness in his family that no one will acknowledge or treat, but really I just need to know what to do with the emails.
Though I’m OK with the idea of never speaking to or seeing him again, every message in my inbox from him still sends me back to that angry, teenage, fatherless space. It makes me question my relationship with my great boyfriend, angry at my mom again for not being able to protect my brother and me when we were young, and frustrated that, after all these years, he still can ruin my day. I guess I don’t know what to do. Set up a way to send the emails directly to the trash/spam folder? Again ask that he stop contacting me? If I reach out again and ask for no contact should I explain that I’ve forgiven him, in as much as I can, and that our relationship is forever over?
I would like to live in a black-and-white world, but I understand there are gray areas. I feel like this is holding me back in my personal relationships and would love any insight you can offer.
Dear Fatherless Child,
Basically you have to shrink your dad down to the size of a green pea. There are ways to do that.
One way is to always call a friend. Never read his letters alone or he will grow. Call a friend. Point to the screen and say to your friend, “There is an email from my dad and I don’t want to open it!” Maybe opening it with a friend and reading it aloud will work. Or maybe you will want your friend to read it and delete it for you. Just don’t be alone with it. If you are alone with an email from your dad, he will grow to the size of a zebra. You don’t want that. You want your dad to be the size of a pea, and somewhat shriveled.
Your dad is far away. You have a big world full of friends who are close by; you have a family you have created for yourself. That family is big. Your dad might come into that world, but your dad is small.
Your dad will try to make himself big like a zebra because he’s so narcissistic and self-involved, but if he ever gets that big, then you have to make yourself even bigger, like a whale or an elephant. You are big when you are with the people who love and support you. You are big when you are with your chosen family. And mainly you have to keep your dad shrunk down to the size of a pea.
Also, work in a group or one-on-one with a therapist, not just a little bit but a lot. You have to do it a lot, like lifting weights or studying anthropology. So make shrinking your dad a major focus and involve others in the project. Don’t pretend you can handle it on your own. You can’t. If you could, you wouldn’t be writing to me.
Talking helps. Being with others helps. Just say out loud that you are concentrating on shrinking your dad down to the size of a green pea. The smaller he gets, the less afraid you will be of him.
So those are the two things I suggest: 1) Never read an email from your father while you’re alone. 2) Get a program together where you are continually making yourself big and making your dad small. You have to do it all the time, because you make your dad small one day and he gets big the next day. That means sharing with people every day what’s going on with your dad, what size he is, where he is in your world, if he is present or absent, if you are fearing him or dreading him. Let people help you. They will.
One day your dad will be so small, you can barely see him. Then you will be surprised because even at that tiny size he can still scare you. That’s the weird thing. That’s why you have to shrink your dad every day, and never alone. Never “All by Myself.” (And now, thanks to you, I’m going to have that song in my head, and so are a lot of other people. Oh, well. We can do the same thing with that song that we are doing with your dad: Just concentrate on shrinking it down until it is very, very small.)