DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #55: The Empty Bowl

By

Dear Sugar,

I could be worse. That’s one of my father’s favorite sayings. We’d be watching television and see a story about a man beating his children, murdering his family, locking them away: I could be worse. It was as if the mere existence of vileness and depravity could exculpate him of any wrongdoing.

He never hit my mother or me. He didn’t rape me or threaten me. These are the first things that come to mind when we think of child abuse. But while my mother would have left him if he lifted a hand against me, words—painful, horrible words—were allowed, though physical harm was not.

So instead of bruises and scrapes, I suffered from internal pain. My father is a narcissist: controlling, vain, volatile, and charming. If I wasn’t cheerful enough he didn’t want to look at me and I was locked in my room for days; if I made a joke he’d yell and curse at me for being insensitive. My room was my sanctuary, my books my closest friends. I could never be perfect enough, and yet I tried so hard to make him proud, to make him care. He was my dad after all.

I never had anyone to talk to about it. I couldn’t fully trust my friends, and my mother was too busy pacifying my father to realize how much it hurt. My mother and I were the only ones allowed to see that side of him. Counseling was out of the question, and extended family visited seldom.

He disowned me twice. They were over small things, slight disagreements that led him to denounce me as his child. When he decided that everything was fine again, I was expected to accept his change of heart—no apologies (unless they were mine), no further mention of the incident. Each time, I let my mother convince me to give him another chance.

But three months ago he went too far. He betrayed my mother, and in trying to support her, I was subjected to an angry diatribe. I was a fucking bitch for finding out about his infidelity. I had no right to invade his privacy. He, of course, doesn’t remember it. I, however, will never forget.

This time, I disowned him. I moved out (at twenty, I’d been staying at home for the summer). I’ve ceased all contact. And though my mother is more understanding of my position than she once was, she’s still trying to fix that broken relationship. While I know I could live happily without my father, and that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been since he’s been gone from my life, it’s like I can never fully escape him. My mother constantly talks about him, how he’s changed. She wants to know when I’ll be ready to be around him again. It’s hard to explain that I really don’t feel anything anymore.

In spite of my mother’s claims, my father is still trying to control me, still so consumed by his image that he disregards my feelings. He found out that my therapist—an understanding, kind, and sympathetic counselor—was a woman he worked with and insisted I stop seeing her. Yet another attempt to keep me isolated, away from any outside support. Still, my mother is pressuring me (sometimes unconsciously) to make it work. But I no longer trust him, no longer trust my judgment when it comes to my father.

We will never have a good relationship, but is it right for me to sever it completely, Sugar? So many people insist that family is too important, that it is my duty to forgive the man that gave me life. He’s the only father that I have. But is it worth the pain, the self-doubt, and the depression?

Could Be Worse

Dear Could Be Worse,

No, sweet pea, maintaining a relationship with your abusive father is not worth the pain, the self-doubt, and the depression. In cutting off ties with him, you have done the right thing. It’s true that he is the only father you will ever have, but that does not give him the right to abuse you. The standard you should apply in deciding whether or not to have an active relationship with him is the same one you should apply to all the relationships in your life: you will not be mistreated or disrespected or manipulated.

Your father does not currently meet that standard.

I’m sorry your dad is an abusive narcissist. I’m sorry your mother has opted to placate his madness at your expense. Those are two very hard things. Harder still would be a life spent allowing yourself to be abused. I know that liberating yourself from your father’s tyranny isn’t easy or uncomplicated, but it’s the right way. And it’s also the only way that might—just might—someday lead to a healthy relationship between the two of you. By insisting that your father treat you with respect, you are fulfilling your greatest duty, not only as a daughter, but as a human. That you stopped interacting with an abuser as powerful as your father is a testament to your courage and strength. You have my respect.

I haven’t had parents as an adult. My mom died when I was about your age and my father (also an abusive narcissist, as it happens) wasn’t in my life since I was six. I’ve lived so long without my parents and yet I carry them with me every day. They are like two empty bowls I’ve had to repeatedly fill on my own.

I suppose your father will have the same effect on you, darling. In some ways, you’re right: you probably won’t ever “fully escape” your dad. He will be the empty bowl that you’ll have to fill again and again. What will you put inside? Our parents are the primal source. We make our own lives, but our origin stories are theirs. They go back with us to the beginning of time. There is absolutely no way around them. By cutting off ties with your father, you incited a revolution in your life. How now are you going to live?

I said you were strong and brave to stop communicating with your father because you did something many people can never do. You set a boundary. You decided that you will not be mistreated and you acted upon that decision. That choice was born of anger and hurt. The territory beyond it is born of healing and transformation and peace—at least it is if you’d like to have a smashingly beautiful life.

What I mean to say, sweet pea, is that you’ve left your father, but your relationship with him isn’t over. It will take you years to fully come to terms with him (and also with your mother, by the way). There is so much work to do that has to do with forgiveness and anger, with acceptance and letting go, with sorrow and even perhaps a complicated joy. Those things do not move in a direct trajectory. They weave in and out of each other and wind back to smack you in the ass. They will punch you in the face and make you cry and laugh. You say you will never have a good relationship with your dad, but you don’t know. You will change. Maybe he will too. Some facts of your childhood will remain immutable, but others won’t. You may never make sense of your father’s cruelty, but with work and with mindfulness, with understanding and heart, you will make sense of him.

I hope you have the guts to do it.

After my mother died, I wrote a letter to my dad. I hated him by then, but there was a bright crack in my hate that had been made entirely by my mother’s love, into which my father could have slipped if he’d changed. In the letter, I told him my mother had suddenly died and also that I had always hoped that someday we could have a relationship. I said that in order for me to do that, he first had to explain to me why he’d done the things he’d done when we’d been together.

Sometimes I imagine my father opening that letter. It was nearly twenty years ago and though just about everything in my life has changed in those twenty years, my imagining of my father receiving the letter with news of my mother’s death has not. In my mind, he cries softly at the news. He realizes his three children are now orphans and here’s his chance to make things right. Here’s his chance to be our dad. It’s not too late. We need him now.

But he didn’t realize that. Instead, he got drunk and called to say that I was a stupid, lying bitch and that our mother was a whore who tainted our minds and turned my siblings and me against him. I hung up without saying goodbye.

Seventeen years passed.

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Then one day the phone rang and there it was: my father’s name on the tiny window pane of my telephone. I was sitting at my desk writing. He’s dead, was my first thought. I believed his third wife was calling to tell me that. I didn’t pick the phone up. I sat and watched it ring. I watched my father’s name disappear and then listened to the message a few minutes later.

It wasn’t my father’s third wife. It was my father. “This is your father,” he said, followed by his first and last name, in case I didn’t know who my father was. He told me his phone number and asked me to call him.

It took me a week to do it. I was done with him. I had filled up the empty bowl of him over and over again. I had walked barefoot across a bunch of crap carrying it in my hands. I hadn’t let anything slosh out. I didn’t love him anymore. I only remembered that I had loved him. So long ago.

I dialed his number. “Hello,” he said—his voice so familiar after all this time.

“This is your daughter,” I said, followed by my first and last name, in case he didn’t know who his daughter was.

“Do you watch Rachel Ray?” he asked.

“Rachel Ray?” I whispered, barely able to speak, my heart racing.

“Rachel Ray, you know. The cookbook writer. She has a talk show.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

And on it went, the most flabbergasting conversation I’ve ever had. My father spoke to me as if we spoke every week, as if nothing that had happened had happened, as if my whole childhood did not exist. We chatted about low-fat recipes and poodles; cataracts and the importance of sunscreen. I got off the phone fifteen minutes later, utterly bewildered. He wasn’t delusional or ill or giving into age-induced dementia. He was my father. The man he’d always been. And he was talking to me as if I was his daughter. As if he had a right.

But he didn’t. Shortly afterwards he sent me a chatty note over email. When I replied I said what I’d said in the letter I’d written to him years before—that I would consider having a relationship with him only after we spoke honestly about our shared past. He replied inquiring what it was I “wanted to know.”

I had come so far by then. I had healed. I was whole. I was happy. I had two children and a partner I loved. I wasn’t angry with my father anymore. I didn’t want to hurt him. But I couldn’t pretend to have a relationship with him if he refused to acknowledge our life. I was prepared to listen. I wanted his insight, to know what he thought, and also to see if by some wondrous turn of events, he’d become a different man—one who could at last be my dad.

I wrote the most generous, loving, true, fearless, painful, mature and forgiving letter of my life. Then I pasted it into an email and press send.

My father’s reply came so quickly it seemed impossible that he’d read the whole thing. Here’s what his email said:

You are the same bitch as I ALWAYS knew you to be. You have NOT hurt my feelings, only freed me of responsibility. Do not EVER contact me again. I am SO glad to finally be rid of you!

I didn’t cry. I laced on my running shoes and went out my front door and walked through the neighborhood to a park and up a big hill. I didn’t stop walking until I got all the way to the top and then I sat down on a bench that looked over the city. It was the day before my 39th birthday. I always think of my parents on my birthday, don’t you? And I imagine it in the same way I imagine my father getting the letter I wrote to him after my mother died—it doesn’t change, no matter what happened afterwards. I can conjure my mother and my father so clearly on the day I was born. How truly they must have loved me. How they must have held me in their arms and thought that I was a miracle. They must have felt pure and immaculate and beloved. They must have believed they could be better people than they’d been before. They would be. They knew they would. They had to be. Because now there was me.

So it felt particularly acute to sit on that bench the day before I turned 39 absorbing everything my father had just said. I had that feeling you get—there is no word for this feeling—when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified.

Why is there no word for this feeling?

Perhaps because the word is healing and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’d been before. Like we have to be.

It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place that you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them. That you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them. That you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them.

That’s what I did the day before my 39th birthday. I filled the empty bowl of my father one last time. I sat for so long on that bench looking at the sky and the land and the trees and the buildings and the streets thinking: my father—my father!—he is finally, finally, finally rid of me.

Yours,
Sugar

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