The Thread: Fatherless


My rage came early. So early, in fact, that I have a hard time remembering when it came. I didn’t have the word rage, or the concept of disappointment. All I knew was the lack, the ache, the burning question: why.

I sat by his shoes at the door, tracing the blood stains, the unknowable shapes, animal fat, sinew. My father was a butcher, and his shoes smelled like raw meat and linoleum, iron and Lysol. His shoes carried him out the door every morning and back home to us every afternoon. He worked in the same pair of shoes until they broke, and then he got new ones. I can only picture one non-work pair of shoes that belonged to him: Kelly green Converse hi-tops that he’d kept since boyhood.

The thing about my dad was he was there. Physically, that is. A constant presence on the couch in the afternoons, from the time I got home from school until 8 or 9 p.m. when he would go to bed. He ate dinner with us always. He cooked it about half the time. He was there, but in another way he was gone, always gone. It wasn’t a violent leaving, not messy, searing, no sound. But he was gone, vacant behind his eyes, staring into a place I couldn’t see. The combination of physical presence and emotional disconnect made me feel crazy. Crazy for noticing, crazy for wanting, crazy for raging at the lack.

When I read the title of T Kira Madden’s forthcoming book, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, I assumed she grew up without a father. To my surprised delight as I read, her father story much more closely resembled my own. Madden’s father was alive and involved to some degree in her life, all of her life, until his death in 2015. But in her childhood, he was a presence defined by his absence. His physical absences were more notable, as he had another family and Madden was the product of her father’s affair with her mother. She was his secret daughter for years.

Madden writes about how it felt, being kept a secret daughter. After he separated from his first wife, Madden’s father moved in with her and her mother. But when his other children would come for visitation, he locked all their belongings in one room. “I wonder, still, how he explained our locked room,” Madden writes. “A boiler room. An extra closet. A secret Narnia. A reclusive roommate. A door to nowhere.”

In my house, I was not the secret behind the door. At least, the child-me was not. My father was the secret, his interior life mysteriously more compelling than me, his child. But the door remained between us just the same. Where did he go in the afternoons? To what other dimension, to what other dream?

My father’s leaving may have been facilitated by drinking. I was too young to count beers or track bottles in the recycling. He didn’t seem drunk to me, but I had no reference for drunk fathers. His glassy eyes probably had something to do with the pot—his brown, ceramic bong on the coffee table next to the couch. Even today, the smell of marijuana is both a comfort and a disappointment to me. Walking into the house after school, I’d know he was home, and know without seeing that he’d be asleep on the couch when I closed the door.

To open the meat department in our local grocery store, my dad started work at five in the morning. He was done in the early afternoon, blazed by 3 p.m. when I’d be walking in the door. If I brought friends home, I would shuffle them past, into the kitchen or my room where we could have some privacy, but also where I wouldn’t have to see his prone form mocking me, even in his unconsciousness, from the couch.

He was tired, exhausted from an early start and long day at work. But I still wanted him there, wanted acknowledgement, wanted something that said I mattered to him. At eight or nine years old, I told my mother that I hated marijuana. I would think about my parents being dragged off by police, not knowing what my brother and I would do. I credit that image to the D.A.R.E. program. Officer Potts came into our classrooms and told us about the dangers of drugs. When he talked about marijuana, he described reactions I had never seen but had no evidence to disprove. He called pot a gateway, and he was in uniform. I believed every word he said. He encouraged us to tell him or our teachers if our parents ever used drugs or left drugs around the house.

I didn’t tell. I was a better secret keeper than that. But I did complain to my mother.

The thing I hated about pot, really, was the way it facilitated my father’s sleepy exit. But it helped that I had a police officer’s scare tactics to blame. My mother stopped smoking around that time; my father didn’t. I told my mom for years that dad should stop.

She didn’t disagree with me, but she wanted me to make my own case. At the time this seemed unfair. I was just a child, and he was her husband, her responsibility. She was the one who had the tools to fix this problem, the language to explain it, and the agency to make some kind of ultimatum. All I had were feelings. All I had was this ghostly, smarting emptiness where my father should have been. That unnamed lack burned in me for years, and by the time I was a young woman, a teenager, I had forgotten that it was my dad who was supposed to fill it.

I looked to him, as all children look to their fathers, for self-definition, for validation, for protection, for veneration. Our fathers are our first objectifiers, or at least they might be. All around me, I saw girls look to their fathers for their identity, and the fathers who were present, engaged, responsive, bequeathed it.

I can still see the faces of the fathers I coveted as a child. Margot’s dad, whose thick mustache reminded me of Tom Selleck, swinging her around in the afternoon sun. Jessica’s dad, who called her princess as he pressed his wrist to my forehead, checking my temperature. April’s dad, who bought her everything she wanted from the Troll book orders, and sometimes spoiled her friends by association.

Now, at thirty-seven, I know many different father stories, and many adults who hurt in the place called Dad. I know some had fathers more present than mine, and some had no fathers, or fathers who were abusers. And sometimes, I hear about fathers who kept slippery secrets, whose love was undebatable but lacking or hard to see. These present/absent fathers whose imperfect performances of fatherhood left their children smarting, unable to say why or how they had been hurt exactly. Unable, without many years of therapy or self-discovery, to understand why they ached like they had been abandoned while knowing they had not been. Those fathers who lived on the other side of a locked door, in a room of their own making.

Our subconscious mind, steering us toward safety, doesn’t always hit the mark. Protective habits, meant to help us survive, sometimes overstay their usefulness. Sometimes these habits operate in the background, a programming we are too young, too new, too unprocessed to understand. So it was for me, as I became increasingly attracted to father figures and my hormones kicked into overdrive. I began to notice, to want, to think about fatherly people when I laid on my belly at night and clenched against the pillow between my thighs. Love and attention got tied to desire, which became a thing that thrilled in my body and made it hard to breathe.

My love and my longing translated into my wanting. Anything to slake the hole, anything to fill it, to smother the pain and the rage that I no longer felt or could recognize, but which smarted inside me like embers. Hot like a fire blazing on the other side of the door. Hot like longing, longing like a weapon.

My father could wield a knife, separate animals by their joints. He knew the anatomy of things from the inside, animal secrets, where the bone was softest, or the tiniest sinews were. Butchery in the 1980s wasn’t a glamourous trade, at least for him; there were no foodies with charcuterie plates elevating his work. There were the meat packing machines, the rolls of stickers for the Styrofoam and plastic wrapped trays. There was the bandsaw and the paper hats and the long white aprons that covered his front side, and the afternoon shopping trips with my mother and brother where we’d find him for a few minutes and laugh.

As a teen, I learned I had the power to captivate grown men with batted eyelashes and precocity. Hello, fathers. The number of seductions grew, and so did my list of men who I wanted to father me, who stuck their tongues in my mouth instead. As I became adept at finding them, I gained confidence in my superpower that subverted what I had been told about good girls. The truth was, I used those girls as a foil, and my simmering, glowing need was made covetable in relief. It felt good to be bad on my side of the door. This is how I became that girl with the exhausting list of stories of myself and older men. Lawrence, my Humbert-like Shakespeare teacher, was the only one who got caught.

Even as I write that, I hear my own braggadocio. So let me also say: I was a damaged girl, a wild, searing, open girl. I loved like that, too. Over and over, I have given my heart and my cunt to people I wanted to daddy me, even if it was only in my fantasies that anything happened. Though of course, many things did happen with some of them. Even in my twenties and my thirties, nothing made me as wet as a father’s desire for me. To be clear: Not my father’s, a father’s.

Women are never perceived in this world as whole. We are born of ribs, we’re told, fed and raised on our own objectification. We are good girls, white-socked legs crossed, thighs like impenetrable doors, or we are loose and easy, swinging off our hinges in the wind. We are treated, as the Italian feminist collective Revolta Femminile put it in 1970, as if we are “adjunct for the reproduction of humanity, bonded with divinity, the threshold of the animal world, a sphere of privacy and pietas.”

No wonder little girls struggle to perceive their true selves. We are born into the system that diminishes us, that treats us as vessels of sexual satisfaction or of unpaid domestic labor, or both. And even the Margots and the Jessicas, the girls whose fathers seemed to see them more than mine saw me, even those girls are not bequeathed full selfhood. Even they must live in a world that does not treat them as if they are full of potential. Instead girls are incitement, or vessels for patronage. Instead we are abused and blamed for loving our abusers. We learn how to love what we must do to survive.

When I was thirty-five, my dad died. His sudden death was unexpected, a complete shock. I woke up one morning in the middle of the night to my mother calling over and over and over again.

Daddy’s dead.

This month marks the two-year anniversary of his passing. Pulmonary embolism was the phrase I was given, though we didn’t have an autopsy so the diagnosis remains unconfirmed. A blocked door, permanently closed. The details don’t matter so much as the result, which is that I am fully fatherless now, although parts of me had felt fatherless for years before he died. The physical has at last caught up to the emotional, the absence is complete. In the wake of his death, I grieve the loss that can never be fixed, the little girl’s loss. The child on the other side of the locked door.

I have to be my own father.

And if I may father myself, and mother myself, then I may birth and raise myself into something new.

I won’t pretend this makes me happy. The smarting vacancy, the rage, the lack, the open wound of loss, followed by the complete loss and grief; this is not my dream. I still want a man who picks me up and places me on the pedestal of his affection, and tells me what I am to be for him, to him. Some part of me, underdeveloped and left alone too often in the afternoons, craves that kind of love; a thing I have been taught to want. I can reteach myself.

I create myself, raise myself. I am mine.


Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.


The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.

Marissa Korbel is managing editor at The Rumpus, and a critically acclaimed essayist. You can also find her writing at Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. She lives and works as a public interest attorney in Portland, Oregon. Marissa tweets @likethchampagne. More from this author →