At 32, I finally told my father off

I spent years being the family confidant. Now that I've asserted my independence, why are they all so mad at me?

Published April 19, 2005 7:05PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a happily married mother of two. When I was growing up my parents came to me and told me their feelings about being in an unhappy marriage. This started when I was 11, with them both coming to me separately and expressing their feelings of anger, hostility and unhappiness with the other. I always listened and commiserated with them. This seemed to give them some comfort. My father was emotionally abusive and a bully. I am the oldest child and my position as confidant to my father seemed to confer some special protection and status.

My sister, who is 18 months younger than I am, has always been very competitive with me. She has always been this toxic black shadow around me. At my most happy moments her anger and aggression are always unleashed upon me.

During our teen years our parents' marriage was growing uglier by the moment. I was much in demand as the therapist. By the time we were in our early 20s my dad's health had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer work. His bullying became worse because no one would stand up to him for fear of killing him.

In our late 20s and early 30s my sister and I set about creating our own families. My father's dependence upon me seemed to always be increasing.

After the birth of my second child I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and went into therapy. When I realized the depth of my rage toward my parents I was shocked. I stood up to my dad when I was 32. I angrily told him I didn't want to be his confidant anymore. I refused to be bullied. I had my own life to live and children to raise.

My family reacted with extreme anger and hostility toward me. My sister, not surprisingly, was the most aggressive. She told me what an evil person I was and that I had set out to destroy our dad.

Six years later I am slowly building a tentative relationship with my mother. I take my children to visit my parents every year. It is always very stressful to me. My father has little to do with me (this suits me very well).

My sister keeps saying that she would like to have a friendship with me. I don't believe her. I feel she is an insincere person. I also feel that she means me harm. How should I handle this?

Marsha Brady

Dear Marsha,

I think the specifics of this question are better left to your therapist. I can only commiserate with you in general about the difficulties of long-held family feelings.

If I were your therapist, or even a good friend, I would ask for details before suggesting a course of action: What kind of harm does your sister mean to do to you? What happens when you converse? Does she say mean things to you, or is it more than that? But, as I say, I am neither therapist nor close friend. I am only a writer, a blind one at that, feeling about the edges of a sculpture.

I do know from personal experience, though, speaking as just one soul to another on the proverbial park bench, that when anger is unearthed, life can get crazy. I remember when I first "got in touch with my anger"! In retrospect, the episode seems comical, but at the time there was only the power of my anger, its authenticity, its delicious certainty, its freshness, the great satisfaction I felt in unleashing it! I felt that I had the right, at the moment of that discovery, to launch my anger skyward in all its Technicolor vulgarity and raw, raking, screeching, scratching, bellowing fury. It seemed indeed a life-or-death matter to let everyone know just how seriously I regarded my discovery -- especially those lucky few toward whom I harbored stinging and long-nursed resentments! Ah, the first time is always the sweetest, no? And what happened as a result? More bad than good, I am afraid. I had no devices to temper it, no way to channel it or shape it, to give it the color of my culture and my nature; it was raw like an oil gusher in a Texas field, blackening everything around it for days until a crew could affix an array of valves and diverters.

So it was with my revelation, as I imagine perhaps it was with yours!

The dawn comes and the wreckage appears: Look what you have done with your anger! Look at this mess of broken furniture! Look at how your friends, family and co-workers regard you now, not with new admiration and respect but with unanticipated scorn and lasting hatred! Why should that be? Did you not simply express something that you had discovered about yourself in good faith under the expert guidance of a professional therapist? Why are they so mad now? Why don't they just express their anger the way I expressed mine and get it over with? But no, there's this apparent desire to actually hurt me! Anger with them seems to be not just an emotion but a motive of sustained action (that is frightening, isn't it, as though you'd disrespected a gang member?). Surely you were right to let your father know how henceforth you would no longer tolerate his abuse! Why should its expression have such lasting consequences? Especially on your sister, who is not directly affected anyway!?

So it goes, as the stranger on the park bench says. As to the particulars, again, I counsel you to reengage your therapist, as much will depend on facts that you have already divulged to him or her. More than that, I counsel you, above all else, to have patience as things unfold, because unfold they will, in their own surprising manner and at their own glacial, infuriating pace.

(Lest I seem utterly blind to my own shortcomings, let me note that as I read this over I do realize how bland it sounds, filled with easy generalities: Sure, time heals all wounds, etc. Sorry if it seems that way to you, too; I just really feel the best course of action is to pursue this with your therapist, and that the real work, and the real progress, will depend on specific, well-considered actions over the course of the coming years.)

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice.
  • Make a comment to the editor.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked