False witness

My ex-wife took our daughter away, and she's telling lies about me to her new boyfriends.

By Cary Tennis

Published May 20, 2004 7:45PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My wife and I recently split up. She took our daughter back to the United States, and I stayed here in Europe. I miss my daughter dreadfully, but I can't move to the U.S. just yet.

My wife and I split because she decided she did not love me anymore, and that her romantic ideal was out there waiting for her. After much arguing, I got into her e-mails and saved messages and read some shocking things. She told one paramour that I had struck her and that I had tried to force myself on her sexually. She told another man that she had five miscarriages while we were married, when she had only one. At least only one to my knowledge.

To be with my daughter I would have been willing to keep going, but I don't think it would have lasted. How could someone who claimed to have loved me at one time say such horrible things about me? What was in me that led her to fantasize about my doing such things? I am also concerned about the impact my wife's attitude toward me will have on our daughter. She clearly despises me on some level. I will see my daughter twice a year for the foreseeable future. My wife's immaturity and her willingness to lie about me give me pause in making too many demands for fear she will make it difficult for me to see my daughter. I'm scared for the future and I feel terribly alone.

Lonely Dad

Dear Lonely Dad,

It often happens when I read a letter that I feel something is missing, but I don't know what; I'm puzzled in a puzzling way; I have to puzzle out what puzzles me. In your case, what's puzzling is that instead of a story, there seems to be only a situation; I see a still-life, an aftermath. If I were an actor, I'd be asking: What's my motivation in this scene? What's my backstory? So as I struggle to intuit what the underlying conflicts might be (it's a little like reading Robbe-Grillet!) I see you sitting alone in a room somewhere in Europe or Japan, stirring a drink, perhaps of instant coffee or some strong local tea, listless, depressed, wounded, somehow a little deadened by recent events. Perhaps you are Jack Nicholson in "The Passenger": stripped of identity, seeking someone else's. You must be feeling something but you don't know what it is; something happened to you like a blow to the head but you can't remember exactly; you keep repeating this to strangers: Your wife left and took your daughter and you don't know why; she's telling lies about you to other men and you don't know why. She says she had five miscarriages and you don't know why.

What you don't say is that even though consciously you know you're innocent, you feel responsible for what has happened. "What was in me that led her to fantasize about my doing such things?" you ask. It is this unspoken sense of guilt, perhaps, that makes you so circumspect and leaves me so baffled. I am baffled, frankly, by the absence of any information about your emotions or your motives, or the kind of work you're doing, or your age and race, or why you are away from the United States, under what circumstances you got married, how old your daughter is, what your relationship to her is like, what your marriage was like, how you took it when your wife said she didn't love you anymore, and what options or potential solutions you have considered.

This silence about the facts of your life feels like either depression or smoldering anger. If you're smoldering with anger, perhaps that would explain why she told other men you'd hit her: She knows about your anger, even if you don't know. It's almost as if she's acting as the freight agent of your own unconscious, arranging, through her evocative lies, for the forwarding of its dark and awful contents. Likewise with her tale of the five miscarriages: Perhaps it's a twisted but telling metaphor: Here are my repeated failures to bring new life into the relationship -- although it's also possible she did indeed have five miscarriages but was afraid to tell you because of your smoldering violence, your emotional silence. Perhaps she was secretly afraid of you.

So I say to you, O wounded man: You have to go to war. You have to take arms against this sea of troubles. And to take arms against it, you have to see it for what it is. This sea of troubles is something of your own making, but again, because you speak so circumspectly, I can only guess. If I were you, I would present myself to a medical person with some expertise in psychology, and try to find out if I might be clinically depressed. If it does turn out that you are depressed, then that will be the enemy you take arms against.

You've made a start by stating what you feel right now: You feel alone and fearful for the future. Loneliness and fear. Loneliness and fear. You can use your loneliness and fear like a life raft, to float out to the middle of the lake and find the rest of your feelings.

Let me just make one or two examples. Fear of the future, for example, is something many people feel. One way to combat it is to become more vividly conscious of the present. When I am feeling fear about the future, for instance, sometimes I will sit down in a quiet, sunny place and just breathe through my nose for a while. It might sound silly, but I find if I sit still for a few minutes and just breathe, say, for 10 minutes, I start to notice what is around me; I start to look at the leaves on a flowering shrub, say, or the birds wheeling by high overhead, or the branches of an old tree, and these things seem to grow in significance and power, as though they, and not my worries, were what is real. I find after a while that I am no longer focused on whatever calamities may await me in the future.

When it is over and I am forced to return to what I am doing -- writing, for instance, or cleaning the house -- even though I experience a little sense of regret, as though coming down off a drug, I have still benefited from that brief time of vivid presence, and my confidence in the future is restored because I know I can return to that state of luminous, calm optimism merely by repeating that simple technique of sitting still and breathing.

Loneliness is something else again. While anxiety about the future is a mental state that can be changed by changing the focus of consciousness, loneliness is a real hunger. No matter how you think about it, you're still hungry. Loneliness can and ought to be fed, so be with someone. I know in a way that not just anyone will do, but sometimes you have to make do; you might not be able to eat exactly the meal you want; nonetheless, when you're hungry, you have to eat something.

When you say "lonely," though, I sense you are also saying that you are grieving for the loss of your wife and daughter. That is something different; being with people won't cure you of grief. Only grieving cures grief, and even that is not entirely true: To say that grieving cures grief is like saying living cures life. It's just the verb of the noun. It's just that grieving is what you do with grief, as breathing is what you do with breath, as bleeding is what you do with blood.

If you are lonely, go and be among people. If you are grieving, grieve. See a doctor and find out if you are clinically depressed. Make a detailed survey of your landscape. These are my prescriptions for you, my shocked and bereft expatriate.

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Cary Tennis

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