Writing truthfully about my father: An act of resistance, an act of love​ ​

"This is everything I was afraid of and more": My father's response to my memoir, and why I wrote it anyway

Published July 27, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Allie Rowbottom (Little, Brown and Company)
Allie Rowbottom (Little, Brown and Company)

“This is everything I was afraid of and more,” my father says after reading a draft of my book. “I’m practically suicidal.” Over the phone, the distance between us, his voice is thick and muffled, like he’s smothering himself. But I hear the word suicidal with a gruff clarity that makes my heart pick up and palpitate, floppy as a decked fish, flailing for air. In some ways, I’ve been waiting for years to hear him say this out loud.

My father has many times hinted, but never overtly said, that by writing about my life I would bring about his death. I hate to hear him say these words, but now that he has, now that they hang in the air between us, I’m surprised by how calm I feel. I am relieved, I realize, that my dad’s negative reaction to my work, which I’ve feared for years, has finally come to pass. Maybe now I can stop fearing it, I think, maybe now I can finally heal.

He’s particularly troubled, my father says, by a portion of my memoir in which I write about what he terms “the dark days,” the period of time after my parents divorced when my father fell into financial ruin, emotional despair; the period of time during which I developed an eating disorder to cope. Even the years that followed, during my mother’s long battle with cancer, my long stint as her caretaker, are unmentionable in my father’s mind, dangerous for the angry guilt they trigger in him. He doesn’t want to go there, he’s said any time I’ve asked. He’s never inquired about my pain, my recovery or lack thereof – to do so would be so painful for him, he suggests, that it might end his very life. For the most part I have accepted his limitations, the fragility he’s projected. Our mutual silence has been a pact, a condition of our relationship, and I’ve agreed to it, keeping my writing separate, a part of my life and livelihood my dad knows about but which neither of us mentions. I’ve done this to protect him. I’ve done this because I’ve feared that faced with my words, my experiences and feelings, my father will kill himself.

I’ve known that the imperative to protect my dad — to protect all men — by diminishing myself, my body and voice, has been engrained in me by the patriarchy against which I must rage. I’ve known that what’s stayed secret between us has kept me from truly healing. But what does one do when the actions necessary to self-knowledge and self-actualization, not to mention career, life dreams and financial security, come at the expense of one’s last living parent? What does one do when the truth of one’s emotional interior is so frightening to their father, that he says it may lead to suicide?

The answer, I suppose, is that one finds a way to assign responsibility where it is due and move forward. The answer is, one protects herself. I’m doing it right now, as I did when I sent my dad my book, as I did when I wrote it, chronicling my experience on the page, saving myself through writing, despite the painful fear of what the work I produce might lead my father to threaten or create. Facing this fear is the most challenging work I have ever done.

My dad and I end our phone call abruptly when he says he has to get dinner on the stove, then hangs up before I can say love you or even, goodbye. That I never said these words haunts me as the days pass, as the worried texts and voicemails I send go unanswered.

What would my mother say? I wonder now, especially because the book I have written is yoked to her experience, her life story and that of her mother’s before her. Something comforting, I imagine, about boundaries. “He’s lashing out,” she’d say, rattling off psychobabble about narcissism and telling me how full of shit he is, how much he loves me beneath all that shit, how much he wants to support me, but can’t, because of so much shit. She’d talk about the years she tried to save him, to prevent his threats, his outbursts, his angry silences, by stifling herself, a dynamic that sometimes seemed like the foundation of their marriage, a dance they did with no conclusion.

Even after the divorce, the dance continued. She watched from afar as my father’s life fell apart without her, (a development he blamed her for), watched me, twelve years old and shell-shocked, ducking falling rubble. She yearned to save us both, then, and spent hours on the phone with her friends, hours in her therapist’s office, figuring out how to salvage only me, remembering her boundaries. These boundaries, she taught me, were essential to my freedom, to creating the life I wanted despite my narcissistic dad; these boundaries were essential to making art. I have tried to remember her lessons, though it has not been easy.

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When I finally reach my father, he is even angrier than before. “Why am I always the bad guy?” he yells. “Has everything about our relationship been a lie?” I cower in response, rushing to assure him no, to control the damage I’ve done, to protect myself from him, to protect us both from his past actions, the anger they make him feel, the despair lurking behind it. And as I do so, doubt creeps in — was it really that bad? Was I overreacting? — as it always does when his voice trumps mine. In that moment, I wonder if it’s worth it, publishing this book, telling my truth, forwarding my career, if it’s going to cause us both so much pain.

There’s another truth I need to honor, I think then, panicked and afraid, and that is my love for my dad. I love him with an ache deep as lifelong hunger. I’ve never thought of my writing, no matter how blunt or honest, as coming from any place but this core of love. But maybe I was wrong.

In "The Art of Memoir," Mary Karr writes that she doesn’t waste time writing about people she doesn’t deeply care for, even if the relationship was, or still is, complicated. Neither do I, nor do I think that writing of any genre that sets out to lambast its characters is likely to be good. To write honestly always necessitates showing angles: light and shadow. Maybe I have failed to do this. Because though I’ve known my work would upset my father, though I’ve feared and avoided his wounded reaction, I’ve hoped he would see the love in it.

Julie Buntin, in “On Making Things Up: Some True Stories About Writing my Novel,” writes of her mother’s response to her book, "Marlena," which Buntin’s mother initially saw as a violation, even though it was fiction. “The daughter part of me shatters,” Buntin writes of her mother’s response, “sees this as a failure that will change our relationship forever.” But, she writes, “The other part of me, the part of me that belongs to no one, is registering the burn marks on the stove, the spray of toast crumbs and coffee grounds, is thinking of my mother’s pride, the perfectly clean stoves in all the homes of my childhood, is hearing her and thinking the worst thing I could do is write this down, knowing, even as I think it, that I will, and when I do—here I am!—my voice will override hers again.”

Which is to say, as Buntin so expertly does, that the impulse to write the most shameful, emotional, true, will always push us writers, because we know that shame and sadness and fear and careful observation create the material that carries the most heat and exposes the most truth. Exposing truth, rather than reiterating fact, is what makes writing powerful. It is also what gives us personal and professional freedom.

Facing our fears, rendering our trauma despite the chorus of voices urging us to stay silent, is how we make peace with it. “Don’t avoid yourself,” writes Melissa Febos in “The Heart-Work,” “The story that comes calling might be your own, and it might not go away if you don’t open the door. I don’t believe in writers block. I only believe in fear.”

I don’t believe in writers block. I only believe in fear; these are the words I tape to my keyboard after those first phone calls. I am in the last editing phase of my book. It is a make or break moment, a time to write the trauma that defined my past; a time to ignore the shattering child part of myself that aches to protect my father, and grieves the impossible bind I am in. I want to free myself by writing and to shield him by keeping the secrets we once shared. But the two are at odds with each other. I know I have to choose myself, my story, but it feels like I am sacrificing my dad, betraying him; I can’t yet see that writing honestly of my own experiences could never be a betrayal, not for me, not for him; it could only ever be a liberation for us both.

Shortly after I submit the draft, I reach my father. He’s still in a bad place, he says, but better. He agrees to meet in person to discuss the book. My copyedits will be due soon, I tell him, asking for notes on what he’d like to change, fact-check, discuss. He arrives in my kitchen with a yellow legal pad and the fat brick of paper that is my manuscript clutched to his chest, held over his heart like a shield.

“I want you to know,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table, his voice restrained, choking down a yell, “that everything I did back then, I did to protect you.” He’s talking about the dark days again, the money he lost, the money he borrowed and never returned, the lies he told, the angry words he spoke of my mother, all, he says now, in the service of protecting me. I believe he believes this; at the same time, I work to remind myself that just because a man says he is protecting me, does not make it true.

We sit for seven hours, rising only to pee and to refill our water glasses. My father does most of the talking, telling me stories about himself that have little to do with the time period in my book. I do my best to go with it, asking questions, listening intently, trying to piece together the deep meaning behind each story he shares. By the end of the day, he’s softened. “This is your art,” he says, as he orders the pages, rises from his seat and stretches, looking relaxed, nonchalant, nothing like the despondent man he’d been hours earlier. In the moment, everything feels normal; I feel heard, loved, protected.

But after my dad returns home, he reverts to anger, and once again we have the conversation, sit face to face across the table. This time, I urge him to go line by line with me, reviewing passages he finds painful. I’m surprised by what he dislikes: my use of the term “day trading” as it pertains to the way he invested and lost his money; the word “rage” as it pertains to his anger. That’s it? I think, these easy changes? We can work together to pick words we both agree with, I say, but he hesitates when I offer, changing the subject. “I’m a f**king fraud,” he says, putting his face in his hands and speaking through his fingers. “I’m worried,” he says, “that if the stress of all this doesn’t flat out kill me, it’ll make me sick.”

No matter what I change, I realize then, he will say this, threatening to leave me, to trade my words for his eternal silence. My writing might kill him, he says, but I realize then that I can choose to see it differently, to imagine that my writing, my book, the story I tell in it, the secrets I refuse to keep, the threats I refuse to cow to, might somehow help my father face what scares him, might somehow help him heal.

My mother once said that one person changing in a family system often forces everyone else to do so too. I was 20, in treatment for disordered eating, OCD and drug abuse, grappling with all the mechanisms I’d used to mask my pain. My mother came to family sessions with me; we healed together. “This will be a good opportunity for your dad, too,” she said, “should he choose to take it.” He didn’t. But now, after our initial conversations, as weeks and then months pass, as my dad’s pain and anger over my book persists, he tells me he’s become frightened by himself, tells me he knows he needs help. He finds a therapist. He starts to speak of his own trauma, his childhood abuse, a lifetime of unexpressed pain. “It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he says to me on the phone, “but it’s good, I know it is.”

This is, it strikes me now, the best possible outcome for my writing, for any writing or testimony. Stories are guides for ourselves and for others. Especially now, as women feel safer speaking of their experiences, breaking the web of silence woven over us by patriarchy, the impulse to protect men, the impulse to privilege them, then men will have to do the same. And this is a good thing. Although women understandably want men to listen, bear witness and attempt to understand, ultimately, the goal of collective healing will be for us all to liberate, express, heal.

This is what I hope my memoir will be, both for myself, and for others: a liberation, an expression of women’s voices across space and time, and a reclamation of the labels and beliefs — hysterical, unstable, in need of protection — historically leveled against us. In expressing these voices, I have peeled the dressings off my father’s many untended wounds, and he has lashed out in pain and fear of the ugly truth of what’s gone unhealed. In the months to come, I am sure, other men will do the same, reaching out to threaten me because I am a woman brave enough to write, especially because I am a woman brave enough to write about other women.

I’m sure this will frighten and confuse me, too. I may doubt myself, or cry, or question my own reality, which is, of course, the point. But by telling the story of my pain and silence, the story of other women’s pain and silence before me, I’ve learned that change occurs and healing begins only when we break the silence and begin the difficult conversations. Doing so is complicated and hard; it is work. But it is also freeing, an act of resistance, an act of love.

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By Allie Rowbottom

Allie Rowbottom received her BA from New York University, her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Memorial Barthelme Fellow in non-fiction, and was awarded the Marion Barthelme prize in creative writing. Her work has received scholarships, essay prizes and honorable mentions from Tin House, the Best American Essays series, the Florida Review, The Bellingham Review, the Black Warrior Review, The Southampton Review, and Hunger Mountain. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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