My dad met a woman, and now he has abandoned me

How do I deal with the loss of a father who's not really gone but just changed?


Cary Tennis
August 3, 2005 11:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Basically the sad saga begins with the divorce of my parents, about four years ago, after 40 years of intermittently happy marriage. Fast-forward to two years ago. My father tells us that he's dating a woman 20 years younger than he. (He is 65 at this point; she is 45.) Her story seems a little hazy: She's a professional pet sitter who recently moved to town, I'm not sure from where; further, she is about to be evicted from her apartment (something to do with the pet-sitting business); and so after they've been dating a couple of months my father announces that she's moving in with him.

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I'm skeptical, and concerned for my father, as are others in the family, but I try to be supportive. We meet the girlfriend and, although she is flaky, she seems well meaning, and we all get along reasonably well. They come over and help my wife and me with some house projects, like painting, and we all have an OK time.

After that, things get truly loopy. We find out my wife is pregnant. Obviously we are delighted, and my dad's girlfriend (we have probably met her a total of four times at that point) seems to show what I consider an excessive interest in the pregnancy: She buys a video about how to calm infants; she creates this creepy pregnancy book featuring a picture of my wife that she has painted flowers and fertility symbols on; she wants to play a lead role in organizing a baby shower for my wife; she e-mails each of us once or twice a day with quotes and observations.

In retrospect it all seems creepy. But at the time I just figured that she was a bit needy -- that, having no children and being estranged from her own family, she was trying a bit too aggressively to latch onto ours. However, that benevolent interpretation soon changed. At one point, in a conversation with my father, my wife referred to his girlfriend as "his girlfriend," and the girlfriend lashed out with this paranoid e-mail spelling out why this was an enormous slight to her. At the baby shower she made a point of telling my wife that my sister (who had come up with the idea for the shower, and had flown in from the opposite coast for the occasion) had nothing to do with the shower. Afterward she called us to berate us for not thanking her and my father enough for the shower.

At that point I wrote my father a nasty e-mail saying I thought there was something seriously wrong with his partner, and my sister got in a heated argument with him about the situation. In response, my father and his partner wrote me, my sister and my wife a series of bizarre letters in which we were berated for abusing them and shunning them. Particularly galling was the fact that the girlfriend wrote my mother a series of hostile letters, apropos of nothing, attacking everyone in the family.

At no point did my father ever step forward to suggest that this activity was inappropriate or acknowledge that it was hurtful. Every time I met with him, including in several therapy sessions, he defended his partner's behavior and insisted that all the harm had been done on our side -- and make no mistake about it, the "sides" were well ossified at this point. After that I decided that not reaching out was best; every interaction with them seemed to lead to intense pain. We got another long letter in which they demanded we give back a number of gifts they had given us over the past few years. And they wanted us to pay money for the time they had spent on our house projects. I didn't respond to any of it.

Finally, several weeks ago I called my father and asked to get together. Up until this point he had never seen our baby (now 14 months old), nor expressed any interest in seeing him. My main goal in seeing him the hope that, in some constellation, we could all get together and he could get to know his grandchild. He and I met, and we had a good, emotional conversation in which we both expressed a strong desire to reconcile. He also told me that he's moving to the other side of the country, so this desire for reconciliation took on increased poignancy. I apologized to him for my part in the whole scenario, and offered to apologize to the girlfriend. The next step, or so I thought, was for him to call and set up a time to meet the baby. Needless to say, that never happened. He asked for a second meeting, at which point he reiterated that we needed to return all the items delineated in the letter. According to him, reconciliation could take place only once we took that step. I left in the middle of our conversation, furious. This type of reversal on his part -- first expressing a desire to reconcile, then coming back with a series of embittered demands -- has become characteristic of my dealings with him.

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I packed up all the items he requested (all except a few things we had since gotten rid of) and dropped them off at their house. The same day, we received five hysterical messages from the girlfriend naming all of the items she felt we still owed them.

That's about the gist of it. I've left out a few excruciating episodes for the sake of brevity (not that I've been all that brief). It's hard for me to imagine ever having any kind of a relationship with my father as long as he's with this woman. On the other hand, she seems to have crawled inside his very soul, to the point that I no longer even recognize him as the kindhearted person I used to know.

Heartbroken and Angry as Hell

Dear Heartbroken,

Darn, man, that's a tough situation.

When a family member, particularly a parent, begins to act unpredictably, it's deeply upsetting. One can neither please such a parent nor cogently defy him. Meeting his demands will not necessarily bring harmony, nor will defying him result in principled disagreement. He has become a moving target, a cipher. The man you thought you knew has disappeared. In a sense, you have lost your father.

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When one's father is lost, one must go into battle. But as if to compound the problem, your father is not actually gone. Rather, he is under a spell, neither present nor absent but transformed, made a stranger to you. As you say, it is as though his girlfriend had crawled inside his very soul.

The confusion of such a transformation is bedeviling. There is no clear enemy. There is no cage from which to free him, no ropes to cut.

So this will be a special kind of battle. You must fashion a special weapon. This special weapon will be in the form of a tale. The tale may free him or it may only free you. It is hard to tell.

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To fashion this tale, you will need to gather sticks in the woods -- well, actually, since you probably don't live in the woods and sticks are relatively useless today for finding fathers anyway, what I mean is that you will need to hire a private detective and talk to the psychotherapist some more. That is what we do these days instead of gathering sticks in the woods. It's just as good, actually.

I am serious. I suggest you hire a private investigator to find out if this woman has a criminal record and/or a record of being institutionalized for mental illness. Find out everything you can about her -- where she comes from, who her family is, whether she has any children, whether she owes any money, whether she has any ex-husbands (angry or otherwise), whether she owns property and has owned property in the past, whether there are automobiles registered in her name, etc. Get the whole dossier on this charming former pet sitter. My guess is that she has some kind of personality disorder. And she probably has left considerable wreckage in her path -- if her path can be located.

Having learned as much as you can about this woman, I then suggest that you once again visit the therapist whom you mentioned that you and your father had met with together. I would ask this therapist to help you fashion the tale that is going to free your father, or at least free you. What does the therapist call this bewitchment your father is under? If it is not the casting of spells, what is it? Perhaps the therapist will understand what you are after and be able to help you, or perhaps not; the therapist may be clinically competent but lack a poetic soul. At any rate, in that way you can at least gather more sticks.

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Here are the kinds of tales you might fashion: She is after his money. Or they are madly in love and it's none of your business. Or she is sucking his blood and you have to save him. Or she has captured him and is punishing him as an effigy for her own father, and he is a willing accomplice. Or she is manipulating him as she always wished to manipulate her father, and he is manipulating her as he always wished to manipulate his daughter. Sometimes one person victimizes the other, and sometimes it's mutual hypnotism, like two vampires embracing, each neck hosting a pair of fangs. You keep trying out tales, as though fashioning weapons, until you find one that can break the spell.

Here is something further to consider: It is possible that your father is getting from this relationship something of incalculable value to him. What could that be? Perhaps after 40 years of, as you put it, "intermittently happy marriage," he is having some wondrous moments of rejuvenation.

It is also possible that he is punishing you, that he has been furious at you for years but it was an unacceptable, demeaning, shameful kind of father fury, something base and of necessity repressed for which this woman has now created an avenue of expression.

I'm just guessing. But isn't it possible that much long-repressed animus is now surfacing through her as a conduit, and that with her cunning she knows exactly how to channel that animus, perhaps in a sexual way -- because animus can return with great emotional and erotic power? I know you don't want to hear this, but it's possible, basically, that they're having really amazing sex. How could your father ever admit that he has fallen for a woman who's certifiably deranged but who does something for him erotically that is so vital he's willing to throw away his whole family, his reputation, his money, his security, his peace of mind for it? Distasteful in the extreme, I know.

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All these possible narratives are merely weapons of disenchantment; they are weapons for you to use to disenchant yourself and possibly to rescue your father. Depending on which one you choose, you may follow your father and try to bring him back, or you may simply choose to disenchant yourself.

Say you were to decide to go into battle, to recapture your father and bring him home. You would need to get the couple separated long enough so the spell wears off. What would he do if you said you were taking him on a long drive and you just didn't turn back? Would he call the police on his cellphone? Would he get physical with you? This route would require much cunning and deception.

But what if you decide, based on all you have learned, that you must simply let them go? Then how do you go on with life? How do you live through these things? You keep talking about it even when your friends are sick of hearing about it. You talk about it some more. Maybe you find a group of people who have all lost their fathers in different ways, and you meet every week to tell the latest horror story. And then afterward you go out and eat hamburgers or pizza. And that's how you get through it, week after week. You just keep talking and talking until it finally goes away.

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