Dear Dad, We’re Done.
Parents are supposed to love you unconditionally. They are the ones meant to treasure and support, without condition or reservation. To forgive, and to treat with kindness and respect. They are those we expect will protect and cherish us. Is this not the given we all assume and long for as children? What does one do though, when this is far from the case?
My mother knowingly married my molester. What then unfolded was a litany of parental alienation, emotional terror, as well as frequent verbal, sexual, and physical abuse, perpetrated by both my stepfather and his son onto me over years. This, however, is not that story. Instead, it’s one of the choice made to willingly sever all ties with my father.
That decision, one and the same with enduring the questioning stares, eyebrows raised, and skepticism that seems synonymous with revealing it to others. Our culture is not one that tends to be open, inquisitive, nor understanding toward those who make the decision to break up with a nuclear family member, particularly a parent.
Instead, our culture tends to assume such a choice as cruel and unethical, no matter how cruelly or unethically said family member may treat us. Where any potential for concern or curiosity might have lain otherwise is instead, often dismissed with simplistic sentiments such as “but they are your family.”
It’s hard to identify the most serrated among the scattering of blades leading to the cutting of contact with my father. Let’s pick one up and examine its edge, shall we? At the age of eleven, my dad said that if he had to choose between me and the girlfriend whom he had been dating for mere months, he would choose her. This sentiment aptly recorded in my childhood journal.
My first memory of him: chasing me through the house as a child, my most cherished doll clutched close. Running, breathless, cowering into a corner as his shadow swallowed me whole. My mom screaming from downstairs that she was calling the police.
Following my parent’s divorce, every other weekend, my brother and I would spend time at his home. After tucking Spencer into bed, my father would ask me to come into his room “to talk.” This always concluding with his drawing close to my ten, then eleven, and then twelve-year-old face, screaming. My entire being trembled, breath suddenly absent as he smashed a fist onto the table, shouting. The skin of his smooth head, shone as if slickly oiled, colored a vivid pink as though filled with heat. His small eyes, bulging behind the lenses of his glasses. He was so ugly and mean. And oh, how I yearned for him to love me.
“You are fucking crazy, just like your mother.”
“I have no respect for you.”
“Are you crying now? Awwww, she is crying. Isn’t that too bad.” This particular remark conveyed in sneering contempt and mocking. His speaking of me in the third person, while I sat directly in front of him.
These ear and heart splitting monologues becoming par for the course during our bi-weekly visits, continuing over the course of years. The most unforgettable of the bunch, though all were branded into me, was at the age of eleven when my father asked if I was having consensual sex with my molester because I wanted to live with my mother.
For years, I took to heart all my dad’s cruel words, carrying them like a book clutched to chest. One etched full with his words of hate, sinking themselves into both my psyche and soul. Crazy. Insane. Pathetic. Unlovable.
Over the decades of my life, I’ve tried to toss such off my shoulders, to pretend that I don’t care, that somehow I am “stronger than that,” though this has been a great heartbreak of my life. The fact that, while my father would argue vehemently against the claim, and while we are culturally conditioned to believe such a thing as inconceivable, he doesn’t now and has never loved me. His actions making this plain.
As Susan Forward, Ph.D. and author of bestselling book Toxic Parents writes, sometimes it really is impossible. There are people, even biological parents, with whom you cannot communicate, no matter how hard you try. Some parents will twist your words and motives, lie, refuse to listen, accuse, scream, break furniture, and make you feel crazy at best, while at worst, homicidal. It took me thirty-three years to both learn and accept that my father fell into these descriptors.
In early adulthood, I moved to Europe, a long-term dream realized, though the nastiness and perpetual tear-downs continued from afar. There was the unsolicited email, detailing my numerous perceived failings. I was “flakey”, “unmotivated”, and “foolish”, to name the overarching themes. Having “left a good man who loved me” in ending the marriage to my first love (a man he met no more than a handful of times), and of how unreliable and foolhardy I was for having up and left a “good job” to “gallivant around Europe.”
During a Skype session while living overseas, my father began to randomly describe of his “tiring of keeping in touch over distance” with me. He remarked of generally finding it “pointless and exhausting.” Warning that he might eventually decide it “isn’t of interest any longer.” This is how a father spoke of his feelings on maintaining a relationship with his own daughter, to her.
Contrary to his perception of my decision, the emotionally deep, supportive, and close-knit friendships I made while living in Europe changed me in powerful ways. These were friends who jumped at the invitation to spend time in my company, who were riveted listeners, who hugged me and held tight. Many of whom I remain in close touch with today. For this aspect alone, the move was worth it. In a nutshell, my time abroad culminated in one of the most character altering and growth-inducing chapters of my life. These loving connections experienced, drawing into stark contrast most of what I had settled for and assumed as “love” throughout my life thus far. Previously, I had taken love in word to be synonymous with actual love. It wasn’t until these awe-inspiring relationships that I realized, it was more. Love (or not) is seen in behavior and action.
I hate how cruel, dismissive, and bullying my father is. I hate his abuse. His ugly fury. I hate the way I let him hurt me. I hate that I wish he loved me.
And yet, he is there in the melodic, smoky twang of “Man in the Long Black Coat,” sounding from my iPod. Much of the time, selected and chosen for this very reason. I think of him whenever I play croquet. Simpson’s references are synonymous with laughing with my dad.
Reading, our mutual passion. I often long to reach out and tell him of the life-changing and poignant things I’ve read as of late. One of his favorite authors, Stephen King, from whose stories we enjoyed numerous discussions. Those conversations, coming to my thoughts whenever seeing a Stephen King book or recommending one to a friend. In teaching friends “Janitor,” the card game we played for hours at our camp on Lake Superior throughout my childhood, he is there. Playing the piano, my ability to sound out songs by ear, this is all my dad.
He is present within the volume, passion, and happiness with which I sing to the entire song “I Need You” by Linda Rondstadt and Aaron Neville upon it playing forth from my speakers. One of the songs we delighted in singing together when I was little.
“I need you, like a fly needs a plane.
Oh, I need you like a ball needs a game.
I need you, like a pool needs a cue.
Need you, need you, need you, I need you.”
For years, I neither wanted to accept nor see with clarity who my father is. It was too deeply painful. Coupled with the emotional abandonment and lack of protection and love I felt in the home with my mother, I stuck it out, yearning for a breakthrough with my dad that would never come. However, like a detective adding up the evidence, eventually, the truth could no longer be dismissed.
His shift from DWI lawyer to one who defends online child predators was one of the more shocking. I can still remember his comment a couple years ago over the phone. “I’m going to have to get this little girl up on the stand. She claims he rubbed her tits. I just need to prove she’s lying.” The little girl of whom he was speaking, younger than ten years old. Fury coursed through me. That little girl was me. Sexually abused by the man my mother would go on to marry. My dad, suing her for custody years prior, outraged and apparently terrified on mine and my brother’s behalf. Now, my father defends these men.
For the entirety of my life, the truth of who he is has glared, no, shouted, as he did in my face for years. Amidst much hope, I routinely alternated my approaches and responses to him. For years, silently accepting his cruelty, abuse, and rejections, head down and shame burning in my heart. Shaking like a leaf in his company, too fearful to speak up.
Then, I found both my voice and courage. I ceased accepting his nastiness or offensive, upsetting behavior and instead, began speaking up. And each time, I was met with anger, dismissal, and disdain.
“Brooke, all you do is chide me.”
“I am so sick of you giving me shit all the time.”
“God, Brooke, do you have a chip on your shoulder for me.”
After thirty-three years of accepting the status quo, hoping for change, sporadically standing up against him, praying for a shift, or, that he might simply begin to love me and show it, I gave up and stopped speaking to my father.
I let him go. At least I told myself I did. Until my brother disclosed that he had brought me up over dinner five months after I cut communications. Spencer was excited about the recent self-publishing of my cookbook, exclaiming over this to my dad and stepmother. The curt response of my father was, “yeah, well, we wish her well.” Moving on and hands washed clean, all it took for him to discard and write his daughter off entirely was her pulling back.
It’s interesting that his marriage, from what I know, is rocky, emotionally unhealthy, and not especially happy. He doesn’t have a single true friend. Half his family doesn’t even enjoy his company. My dad is an alcoholic. Most of the relationships in his life are stormy, strained, neither emotionally deep nor close or frequently, even ceasing entirely.
Accepting that this is who my father is, and that really, he was only ever such in title and biology, it’s a pang that never fully goes away. A mere stand-in for any semblance of true fatherhood or real love. A cardboard cutout of “dad.” And because of who he is in character and heart, if he weren’t my blood relative, I would never have had anything to do with him at all. While it gives me anguish to admit and acknowledge such a painful truth, it is simultaneously freeing. A gust of bracing, fresh air rushing through me in the admittance of this terrible truth.
In these months of silence after cutting contact, I waited for him to come towards me. To reach out and inquire as to why, to potentially apologize, to make clear some semblance of concern or sadness at the loss of communications. To miss me.
Instead, though, there has been a blasé and almost complete disinterest. A reaction one might display on removing, say, oregano from one’s diet. The most unnecessary, unmemorable, forgettable of ingredients.
Meanwhile, I’ve built a life encompassing healthy, supportive relationships of peace, warmth, trust, and joy. I’m surrounded with love. My romantic relationship, an emotionally deep and close one that’s full of luminosity, support, and tenderness.
He makes evident his love for me at every turn, whether in listening when I speak with focus and attention, to surprising me with a homemade multicourse meal on my birthday comprised of all my favorites, to standing up for me against others when needed, religiously reading my work, routinely stretching his comfort zone for me, and offering to fly my brother to visit when he was struggling.
My friends, loyal, supportive, insightful, and kind. They care deeply for me, as I do them. This, obvious in their responsive listening to WhatsApp audios I send them and volleying back almost immediate responses, in their enthusiasm to spend time with me, in their empathetic listening and warmth, in the fun we have together. This love made plain when Judith, one of my dearest friends from Germany, flew halfway across the world to surprise me on my suffering a significant leg injury which resulted in surgery from a skiing accident. An illustration of one particularly powerful example.
I’ve resolved in the last several years, though now more concretely and resolutely, not to live a life that entails abuse in any form. I’ve grown to love myself, to exercise strong boundaries with others when need be, and to stand up for myself. This has taken time, counseling, and intentional, mindful effort. It’s also continually a work in progress.
All while I grapple with sometimes feeling as if I am part of a shameful group. That band of outliers who have experienced parent loss by choice. Estrangement by conscious decision is rarely discussed in our culture. This is a problem. We need to talk about it, as it’s an important issue with which more people grapple than we realize. We need to purposefully seek, create, and build support for what is often a necessary choice for many. People who have suffered such a loss deserve to know that they are not alone. In actuality, far from it.
There are those, more than we know, who have lost either one or both parents, by means of safeguarding their own physical or emotional wellbeing. And self-preservation is never a shameful thing, nor is letting go of someone who harms you emotionally or physically, family or not.
This choice, for those who must make it, will be one of the most difficult of their life, and thus, it’s crucial not to shame those who have. And calling it a “choice” is imprecise, as the supposed choice is frequently one between enduring harmful toxicity or searing loss.
Yet, our culture tends to gape at and even blame those who make such a decision. We frequently cast suspicion and point fingers at the now adult child, asking subtly blaming questions such as, “how could you cut them off? But they are your parent. You couldn’t have solved things with him or her? Made it work? Been the bigger person and let things go? Why couldn’t you try harder?” I’ve heard these, as well as sensed them on the unspoken lips behind certain facial expressions. And then, the single worst remark of the bunch: “you will regret it someday.”
It’s a question I dread, the inquiring of my parents. “So, what about your family? What are your mom and dad like?” For months, I dance amidst details, alluding vaguely though evading concrete revelations, this holding out until I have grown sure of and close to a person. Because how does one wrap up such a truth, in a neat, no frills box which will close the lid on interest of further questions? This is something with which I routinely contend.
Most readymade answers offer half-truths, merely a sliver of what is the much larger picture. The majority of responses will fail at satisfying the one inquiring. “I don’t have a dad,” leads people to assume he is dead. “My father and I don’t speak” opens a gaping mouth which will hunger for more, often leading to the condescending and judgmental, supposed well-meaning opinions people will then offer, unsolicited. As if from their limited vantage point, they surely know best.
We cannot choose to whom we are born, with who we share blood, but we can choose with whom we surround ourselves. And the devastating truth is that for some people, their blood relations are those who are most harmful.
Instead of condemning, judging, or doubting, we need instead to extend a hand and empathetic heart. To respect, validate, and support those who face such a tragic truth. You cannot know what a painful, heartbreaking choice this is unless it’s one you’ve had to make yourself.
As one of the people who falls into this camp, it’s taken the entirety of my journey thus far to face this necessary reality in full. And even now, within my heart, I will never let him go entirely. I may have removed him from my life, yet still, like a mirage in the desert, he appears to me in memories and moments, often around corners where I least expect.
I recall our Saturday afternoons spent in his small, bright kitchen. Myself, my dad, and my brother making homemade cinnamon applesauce. The smell of spice filled the air as he handed each of us a spoon, urging us to taste.
I remember our highly anticipated adventures to White Park where, with bucket in hand, we would hunt for frogs and turtles. My dad, cheering me on from the shallows as I waded in to show him how brave I was. “Look at your sister, she’s the frog catching queen. She isn’t afraid to jump right in!” A thrill shooting through me whenever nabbing one, turning to search for the pride and excitement reflected on my dad’s face.
I am ever aware that my father walks the earth. He is out there, living. Just a phone call away. I imagine him, know what he looks like, and can hear his voice in my mind if I so choose. He is there, ever waiting in the wings of countless memories.
I’m both relieved not to have my father in my life, and yet long to call him. To hear his voice light upon hearing mine through the receiver, to have him exclaim “Sweet Pea!” his longtime nickname for me. That then, everything would be okay. I ache to have it all be different. And then I remember. He wishes me well.
Brooke English was lured into a love affair with the written word from the age of five months and hasn’t turned back since. To date, Brooke is a ravenous reader and a fervent writer. You can find more of Brooke’s work and further information at www.brookeenglish.com.