When my daughter Cassidy was tiny, I used to sing her an old Mountain Goats song, “Cubs in Five.” I liked it because it was quirky and witty and lo-fi in the ways I liked my music back then. I liked it because it was a fun bedtime song.
I didn’t keep up with the Mountain Goats much after that. My tastes zigged one way, I guess, and the band zagged a different way. But Cas rediscovered them in high school. I’d hear unfamiliar tunes coming from her room, and some had that familiar John Darnielle nerd wit. I heard the chorus to “This Year,”—I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me—and I thought, “Yeah!” Exactly the right amount of clever and righteous. A rock anthem that’s funny. Cas kept telling me I should check them out again, but I never could quite get around to it. I had so much else going on.
After she went to college my dad got sick, and I took care of him, and then he died. During his last year he told many stories. About Coast Guard rescue missions pulling stranded fishermen out of the North Atlantic. About whorehouses in Sapporo, jailhouses in Italy, ship fires in the Antarctic ice. But I never got the courage to ask about the stories I most wanted to hear.
I wanted to know about the memory I had of him slamming my mother into a wall when I was three years old. I wanted to know about his court martial for fighting, for kicking a man in the head and almost killing him. I wanted to know about the night he smashed in our door when my mother came home with her boyfriend.
And I wanted to tell him a few stories he didn’t know. I wanted to say my stepfather beat my mom and me, and I kept it a secret because I thought Dad would kill the guy. Because he was that kind of dad.
I texted Cas a few weeks after Dad died and asked her where I should start with The Mountain Goats. I got a two-word response: Sunset Tree.
In “Broom People,” the second track of The Sunset Tree, there’s a clue to what’s coming. It’s subtle, but if you’ve lived through a childhood like mine, you recognize it. It’s code.
Friends who don’t have a clue,
Well meaning teachers…
It jolted me. I paid closer attention.
The third song kicked in: “This Year,” the one I had heard from Cassidy’s room ages ago.
I drove home in the California dusk,
I could feel the alcohol inside of me hum,
picture the look on my stepfather’s face,
ready for the bad things to come.
And I realized John Darnielle was just like me. Normies don’t make this shit up, and when they try, like non-alcoholics who try to write about alcoholism, they get it wrong. Because they might know what it looks like on the outside, they might know the clichés and the Lifetime movie versions, but they don’t know. Not really. Not how it feels.
Darnielle knew. I could tell.
He knew why I drove too fast to escape the step-family house of pain. He knew about getting wasted and playing video games for hours, punching things, finding a girl, just one girl to grab onto who would make it okay and not ask stupid questions about why I was never anything but angry or sad.
And the chorus—I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me—in the context of living with an angry stepfather, was not just a rock anthem. It was a prayer. I knew if I could make it out of town, make it to college, I would survive. But I wasn’t sure I would.
When we lived with my father, he was the only dad I’d ever known. I have his name. I loved him. He carried me on his shoulders. He hugged me when he got home from work, his hands smelling like engine grease, his breath like beer.
My dad, as far as I remember, never hit me. He hit my mother. He did worse things to my mother, some I know only a little about. He tried to kill her boyfriend and laughed about it to his dying day. Near the end he told me that he’d contemplated killing her at one point.
And within that climate of violence, I learned survival skills. I learned to block things out, to shut down my emotions. I knew how to read the tenor of the house, how to listen for raised voices when I came in from playing, how to scan my mother’s face while she cooked dinner to see if she was smiling or wiping tears. And if the house felt dangerous, I learned how to disappear. Into the TV. Into music. Into books.
I didn’t understand how drastically wrong my childhood was until I was older and realized what kind of dads other kids had, kids who knew how to play sports, how to make friends, how to trust people. Kids who weren’t overwhelmed by the fight or flight instinct every time somebody looked at them funny.
In “Dance Music”:
I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
while my stepfather yells at my mother,
launches a glass across the room, straight at her head
and I dash upstairs to take cover…
My stepfather, like most stepfathers, was not there all along. He came later, after I had started forming as a person, had developed my own ways of living and my own skills at surviving. He was like an invasive species introduced into the fragile ecosystem of our post-divorce post-alcoholic family. He was invited into my life, and I was expected to live in his home, under his rules, with his anger, and I knew, intuitively, that he did not owe me anything at all.
In “Lion’s Teeth,” the narrator catches the lion asleep in his car and decides this is his chance. He climbs in and grabs hold of the lion’s tooth and just, well, holds on. As if this solves anything. As if this is a way of bringing things to an end. As if you could possibly beat a lion like this. As if you didn’t still live under his roof. As if the lion wasn’t going to wake up and be really pissed.
In come the cops, they blow torch the doors,
I start wailing, the lion roars,
There’s no good way to end this, anyone can see,
There’s just great big you, and little old me,
And we hold on for dear life, we hold on.
Right before my high school graduation my stepfather and I finally got into it, two fistfights in fifteen minutes. It started with me accidentally spilling a plate of spaghetti on the floor. It ended with him nursing a damaged shoulder—I’d tried to bash in his skull with an old-school Panasonic boombox and missed—and me outside crying, blood spilling from my mouth onto the street.
In came the cops. They cuffed him, stuffed him in the patrol car, and came back to talk about pressing charges. I was eighteen (barely) so if there were going to be charges they had to come from me.
There really was no good way to end this. There were consequences.
If I let him off, they would uncuff him and we would go back inside to, what, finish dinner? If they arrested him, he would bond out and come home, and we had nowhere else to go. And by the end of the summer I would be away at college. Who would protect my mother then?
(This sidesteps the issue of whether I was protecting her at all, or whether I was even capable of protecting her or whether a child should ever be put in the position of protecting their mother from her husband in the first place, but I digress.)
I started to cry again, which split my lip back open, raining salty showers of blood and tears onto the driveway again. They say the human body is mostly water, but really it’s all pretty much salt once you get it in your mouth.
The cop looked at my lip. “You’re gonna need to get stitches on that.”
I nodded. I looked at my mom.
“Okay. Yeah. I’ll press charges.”
“Pale Green Things” ends the album, and appropriately it is about forgiveness. I think about forgiveness a lot.
Darnielle’s stepfather died before The Sunset Tree was released. My stepfather is still alive, in fact still married to my mother. He’s a gentle old man and he takes loving care of her even as they are both approaching eighty.
My story is mine to tell, mine, and yet there are other people involved. I don’t know how to navigate this.
Like, I remember the look on my stepfather’s face the first time he saw my infant daughter, his granddaughter, Cassidy. He squealed and giggled and ran to pick her up. He squealed and giggled, with joy.
The stepfather of my high school years was under immense pressure. He doubled the size of his family at the economic bottom of the 1970s, and he was not wealthy. And the mother of his own children had died all too recently. There was pain enough in that household to go around.
And I have not been without sin myself. I have resorted to violence as an adult. I have at times been under great stress and wanted to hurt people, and have broken inanimate objects to divert my anger toward something that felt no pain.
I understand him, I think. I feel compassion. And yet. To forgive. What does this mean? Is it an active thing you do? Does forgiveness clear the decks of resentment, of fear? Or is it a process? Is it something you recommit to every day? Can you forgive without implicitly condoning? Even now, if he raises his voice in a certain way, I flinch.
But the first time he saw his granddaughter, he squealed with joy.
I have to tell this story about the man who did these things to my teenage self, and yet that man doesn’t really exist any more. He’s not dead, like Darnielle’s stepdad, but he is not exactly walking the earth in that form any more either. My stepdad is a sweet old guy. We love each other as much as stepfamily can, I think.
I turned it over in my mind
like a living Chinese finger trap.
The only way out of a Chinese finger trap is to stop pulling, stop fighting, let it just fall away.
The Mountain Goats end this album with forgiveness. I’m not there yet. I’m still finding my voice. Not everybody wants me to write this. So bear with me and back up a few songs to “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” a harrowing song of violence, which turns, on the last line, barely upwards. Just slightly defiant. Triumphant.
Held under these smothering waves
by your strong and thick veined hand,
but one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land.
This essay is me wriggling up on dry land, in print, in public, for the first time. Probably the first tetrapods were eaten by predators, or died in the hot prehistoric sun, gasping alone on the sand. But to breathe the air that one time. To inhale. And then to exhale. And to not die from it.
It’s worth the risk.