Visiting the Demons of My Past, Part 1
"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, January 2007
A letter to my dying father
I did this event called the Radar Salon recently, a new series hosted and curated by Michelle Tea where two writers (in this case, me and Bucky Sinister) engage in conversation while Michelle asks questions. At one point, Michelle asked how we were both able to be so vulnerable in our work, and I'm not sure exactly what I answered, except that later she asked what we were looking forward to, and I couldn't think about anything except what I was most fearing: deciding whether to visit my father, who I haven't talked to since I confronted him 11 years ago about sexually abusing me -- he's now dying of cancer. I'd just written him a letter, and at the event I said -- in between sobbing -- that I just wished he could say that he sexually abused me, because it would actually make it easier for me to go on living, and he's going to die and what good will it do him to have not acknowledged anything. I usually don't cry like that -- especially not in public -- and it was an incredible moment of public vulnerability where I actually felt supported, both by Michelle and Bucky -- and the audience. It's so important to reveal the violence, the trauma, and the struggles to survive -- and I'm hopeful that it makes me stronger to do so.
So I've decided to visit my father, even though he will almost surely give me nothing that I ask for, and almost everything about the visit will probably be horrible. But I've decided to visit him, because I can't decide to visit him after he dies, so I might as well do it beforehand.
Here is the letter that I wrote to my father:
October 11, 2006
It surprised me, after so many years of wanting all traces of you to disappear from my life, but when I first heard that you had cancer, I started fantasizing about ways that I could save you, maybe by offering health advice that you might not seek out-- acupuncture, meditation, guided imagery. Then I started thinking about all of these mundane things -- like talking about publishers with you, the differences between this one high-end lefty publisher with the gorgeous square books and the other one moving into their territory, plus oh the drama of working inside the whole disastrous publishing machine. Most people aren't that interested in publishers, but it seemed like something you might like to hear about. That's when I realized that, even after 11 years of not talking to you, I still held some hope that maybe you would come to terms with sexually abusing me, that you would finally admit it and then perhaps we could have a mundane conversation about publishers.
There is no question that, as a psychiatrist, you have had access to absolutely any possible way to come to terms with sexually abusing me, more resources for dealing with your abuse than almost anyone in a similar situation. Instead, like most parents (and psychiatrists) who sexually abuse their children, you have chosen to deny it. You even contacted a “false memory syndrome” specialist, someone whose job is to assure abusive parents that their children are confused at best, that their memories can be dismissed and discarded, that it's never too late to cover up the violence in order to bolster the status quo.
I know that an abusive family is like a boulder landing on a glass of water -- even if you succeed at lifting the boulder, what is left to drink? When I confronted you, I was certainly aware that you might very well never accept the reality of your abuse, and that I might never again speak to you. Still, I continue to feel angry and disgusted (and yes -- sad and abandoned) by the ways in which you have chosen to maintain a veneer of “respectability” at all costs, including the loss of any relationship with me. I am grateful that you have respected my request not to contact me unless you could say that you raped and molested me, but sometimes it shocks me that you haven't been able to step out from the comfort of denial in order to face the reality of your abusiveness.
Especially now, when you may not live for that much longer.
Sometimes I resent that I have to be the strong one -- even here, against all hopelessness, I’m attempting to facilitate your epiphany that may never come. I am not strong, I am falling apart -- my body is failing me -- you know that. The smallest activities are painful -- chopping vegetables, sitting in the wrong chair, holding the rail on the bus, walking one block too many, carrying a bag. Writing more than a page by hand is enough to make my wrists, arms, shoulders and neck burn, my whole body aching afterwards. Bed is a place where I can sometimes stay, but it fails to nourish me -- many days I'm so exhausted that just leaving the house can be completely overwhelming. I have a strong will, otherwise I would have been dead long ago from the wounds you enacted. I'm strong, but I'm falling apart.
I learned will from surviving you, shutting everything inside even when it pushes back. There are other ways of showing strength. I am still learning them.
Some people, when dealing with a terminal illness, decide to make dramatic changes in their lives. That is what I'm asking from you. I'm not asking whether you love or miss me, whether you feel miserable or guilty. I'm asking you to hold yourself accountable for the pain you have caused me, the pain you continue to cause me, the pain that sometimes I'm worried I won't survive. I'm asking, once again, for you to acknowledge that you raped, sexually abused and molested me. I'm asking you for this because it would make it easier for me to go on living.
On a more mundane level, I would also like for you to ensure that I have enough money to meet my basic needs for the rest of my life. That is something I know you can do, but the most important thing is that you acknowledge that you sexually abused me -- I want to make that clear. I don't think this is a lot to ask.
In any case, I would be dishonest if I didn't say that I would like to see you before you die. Obviously, our conversation would be much richer if you decided to admit that you sexually abused me, but that is your choice.
I haven't yet figured out the parameters of a potential visit, and I will be in touch. Please do not write to me at this point unless it is to acknowledge sexually abusing me.
Exiting the train in this nation's capital
Here's the scene upon exiting Union Station at 1 a.m. on an incredibly rainy, disgustingly humid evening after finishing an 88-hour train ride: a uniformed police officer maneuvers himself on some kind of high-impact scooter that consists of a pogo stick and two big wheels with some kind of motor that prevents it from ever falling over. This cop is here to direct the taxi stand -- of course, he is assisted by a uniformed security guard who stands by as the cop shouts out destinations, various neighborhoods in DC, and then whoever wants to go to that area rushes forward and attempts to enter a waiting cab. The cop knows some of these people, probably commuters from New York or Boston or workers in the station, one of them is even practicing sign language with him during downtime. When I finally get in a cab, I smile at my fellow passengers, business travelers or law students who turn away like they can't believe I'm trying to chat with them -- they continue talking about how late the train can be. After I open the window a crack and the car goes through a huge puddle, splashing me just a little, I laugh and turn to the guy next to me to ask him if he got wet. He says: no, but good thing you didn't open the window any further.
A sample phone conversation with my mother
My mother: what do you think you might say to him?
Me: I don't know, but I need to talk to him alone.
My mother: I don't want you to say anything too damaging.
(What I don't say here, but I should have -- HE's the one who has damaged ME).
Me: he's dying of cancer, what am I going to do -- kill him?
My mother: I just feel protective of him right now.
Me: that's interesting, because you've never protected me.
My mother: it's not a matter of choosing him over choosing you.
Me: of course not, because you've always chosen him.
Seeing my father for the first time in 11 years
I'm on my way to the hospital -- I wasn't planning on visiting my father until I'd rested for at least a week, but now everything has accelerated and he's incoherent and drugged out on pain medication and maybe dying very soon so I'm heading over to the hospital after just two days. Earlier I'd left a message with my mother, asking her and my sister to meet me in the lounge so that I could go into the room by myself. Before, my mother had argued about this, but after my sister arrived and told her not to try to control everything I guess, she'd relaxed about it. Although then I get a message on my cellphone while I'm in the car, my sister says there's someone there now on 24-hour watch who isn't allowed to leave the room.
I think of turning around, but I might as well go anyway since I'm almost there. I kind of feel like talking to my father anyway while he's passed out, although not with some random person sitting right there. When I get to the hospital, it takes a while to find the right building since it's all a big maze. Then I'm in the right building, snapping a few pictures for maybe a photo essay: the inside of the elevator, the bathroom that looks kind of like a jail cell which is the place from where I'm calling my mother again. Bathrooms are comforting -- even this one that looks like prison because of the metal sink, it's my own space right now once I've shut the door. I ask my mother if I have to walk by the room to get to the lounge, but no the lounge is right by the entrance.
I snap another photo, take a few deep breaths, and leave the bathroom. I go to the nurse's station: could you tell me where the lounge is? But it's right there -- only three uncomfortable chairs, my sister and my mother in two of them. My mother looks disheveled and distraught, and Lauren, my sister, looks very polished. Oh, this long hug with my mother, that is where I'm holding everything in my body, which is what my sister says to me later -- since it's something that I told her -- though she points it out in a different place, when the nurse is basically saying that my father is about to die, that all they can do now is give him pain medication since the cancer has spread everywhere and especially to his brain, which explains his disorientation. Lauren thinks I'm holding everything in at that point, which is maybe true though what's more notable to me is that this isn't a safe place for me to cry or anything like that, this place with my mother and sister who have not acknowledged my father's sexual abuse -- I mean, my mother completely denies everything, and has gotten much closer to him since I confronted him; my sister says she believes me and she believes him, so it’s no surprise that she’s never even asked him anything about it.
Anyway, they go to get food and eventually I look briefly in on my father, who's passed out on a bed, his hair longer and grayer than I remember, face squared off from wasting though he looks vaguely relaxed. Back in the waiting room or the lounge they call it I guess, I feel kind of peaceful and exhausted. Later, I look in again -- this time my father's jaw is tighter, his features more angry like I remember them.