When I was a little girl, my favorite room in our house was my father’s study. Furnished with a wall of scientific books, an old Macintosh, and a leather recliner, it had an air of intellectualism that I tried to absorb through osmosis. In the evenings, my dad and I played a mix of chess and Carmen Sandiego on our family computer, which in the nineties had so many pieces it required its own multi-compartment cabinet. On the weekends, I’d peer in through the cracked door to find him reading National Geographic or David McCullough. One wall held a giant topographic map of the world in striated shades of aqua and beige. My eyes lingered over the places I found most mysterious: the horn of Africa, the southern tip of South America, and the dark blue depths of the Mariana Trench.
My father was the arbiter of knowledge in our house, especially of the geopolitical variety. In fifth grade, he prepped me so well for the geography bee that I won the county—a media coup in Central Illinois. A photo of me smiling and holding a globe ran in the local newspaper. I even got to go on the radio. In science classes, I racked up piles of extra credit by memorizing and labeling each individual part of the human anatomical system, which I gleaned from my father’s medical books. By high school, my dad was completing my physics projects for me at a college level.
But as I aged, I began to turn away from our nerdy little den and into my own foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking, law-breaking mess of teenage delinquency. My father became not Dad the Great, but “Da-ad” the Ultimate Embarrassment. Dad the Lecturer. Dad who had no right to tell me what to do. The once constantly ticking mind of a curious child had transformed into an anxiety-ridden thought factory that required palliative deadening. I started smoking pot regularly but still managed to get good grades—with Dad’s help. When we stopped getting along altogether, he hired an outside tutor.
By seventeen, I began to struggle emotionally, and my father completed my college applications for me. He applied only to programs that didn’t require an essay—and his safety schools became my salvation. Back then I planned not to go to college. I was spending more and more time with Jack who was dealing weed. My parents disliked him based on the fact that he had a criminal record, but they weren’t aware of the level to which they should have been concerned. Neither was I. But then again, my father was the only man I really knew.
Jack was the size of a linebacker and a year and a half older than me. As a juvenile he’d already amassed a history of violent charges for fighting with other guys and putting his fist through a window. Since I’d always been on his good side, I never thought much about it. Once at school, I complained to him about how my childhood friend’s older brother, who had terrorized me since I was little, had given me a hard time during gym class. The next day, he approached me in the hall and apologized, which I later learned had been Jack’s doing.
“I made him get down on his knees,” he told me after school.
Jack’s dad owned an appliance business, but he lived with his mom, who had no job that I knew of. He wore the kind of boxy T-shirts and fraying jeans of someone life hadn’t handed much in the way of privilege. I couldn’t picture my friend’s brother, having only recently transferred from a private school, clad in chinos and expensive sweaters, down on his knees, his face nearing Jack’s size 13 Timberlands. Half of me was terrified, and the other half thrilled. I felt flattered, protected—taken care of, even.
I spent all of my time at Jack’s house, although I usually refused to disclose my whereabouts to my parents. That is, until he finally exploded on me. I don’t remember much from that time period, as any memory not clouded by PTSD evaporated into a bong hit.
I do, however, recall having an argument with my dad in my bedroom that I assume had something to do with Jack. I’m not sure what about—only that my father sat on my bed and cried. His shoulders shook, a wave of emotion rose, and then tears came out of his eyes. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with such a display of caring. I didn’t think I deserved compassion, nor did I know how to receive it. It was much easier to turn away from him and continue down the path I thought I’d chosen for myself.
I was a freshman at the University of Illinois when George W. Bush was first elected president. I hadn’t voted. If anyone asked, I would say it wasn’t a popular election, and I lived in a blue state. The truth is I was lazy and stoned, and my method of transportation had been recently stolen when I attached my U-lock to the metal rack but forgot to also secure the bike.
For someone surrounded by corn and soybean fields, the events of September 11 were surreal. I experienced it like an apocalyptic movie, so far removed from my actual reality that it didn’t have the power to scare me. But then again, I didn’t fear terrorists; I feared my ex-boyfriend breaking into my apartment, like he had done to my dorm the year before. I basically checked out, treating the first four Bush years like it was a stoner flick—by eating Chinese takeout and doubling over in laughter at presidential zingers like “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
I wasn’t ready to engage with the world again until 2008, when at twenty-six, I finally registered to vote so I could support Barack Obama. I’d identified something in him that reminded me of my father. He was an intellectual with daughters who saw himself a citizen of the world. He was Ivy League educated but answered questions in a way anyone could understand. He used colloquialisms like “oughta” and “folks” and seemed genuinely interested in doing the right thing for people.
For election night, my father had given me a handwritten table of states and their corresponding number of electoral votes so I could tally them by hand, a tradition he’d started as a sixth-grader in 1960. When Obama won, I was elated. Finally, a president I felt proud of—and safe under. I hadn’t been old enough to fully process Bill Clinton’s presidency. I only knew my mother, who despised philanderers, referred to him as “Slick Willie.”
For me, Obama was a complete departure. No scandal, no stupidity—just countless public displays of thoughtfulness. I trusted him so much that over eight years, a complacency cloud rolled in where the apathy had once lived. As reproductive rights were slowly being chipped away in conservative states, I did nothing. When Donald Trump, the antithesis of female empowerment, began his campaign, I thought no one would vote for him. I figured even if people weren’t horrified by his actions or policies, at the very least they’d see he had primarily his own interests at heart. But I was the one who failed to see—he was precisely the kind of man they were looking for.
In Obama’s first memoir, Dreams from My Father, published in 1995 when he was just thirty-four, he writes about what he learned as a community organizer:
The self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions, people carried with them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
Having a president with the desire to scour the hearts and minds of the people was a privilege. It’s part of what made the following election so traumatic—especially for those whose specters of terror bore any resemblance to the kind of hate incited by Donald Trump. I assumed Jack must have been thrilled by his victory, a fact later confirmed by his Facebook page. When we dated twenty years ago, he introduced me to ethnic slurs I didn’t even know existed. At the time, I attributed them to shoddy upbringing. I didn’t understand that when any person is degraded, regarded as subhuman, that violence is an inevitable conclusion. My ignorance was a product of my privilege, both of which contributed to my complacency. This is not meant as an excuse so much as an admission. The same socioeconomic structures that protected me had failed him and countless others.
But money alone did not save me. When I was sixteen and dating Jack, I got pregnant and needed an abortion. Had I not been able to access that basic service and escape being tied to him for the rest of my life, I might not have had the opportunity to go to college, have a career, move away to a city, and live the life I thought I deserved.
In the fall of 1999, I sat in the cab of Jack’s blue truck. I was seventeen with long, bottle-blonde hair just a few shades too yellow. He was crying; his pack of Marlboro Reds was leaning against a cupholder. The tears were real, but the motivation behind them manufactured. He intended to manipulate me into not showing up for a court date. The state had pressed domestic battery charges against him on my behalf. Even though I’d fallen for him—the first person to love and comfort this new unlovable, uncomfortable teenage version of myself—I was able to determine the tears were a con job. Once he realized he’d lost control of me, his demeanor changed. He got a new girlfriend yet continued to stalk me until he went to jail.
In order to dissect the situation afterward, even with years of buffering, I needed to separate myself from the events. Engaging in a post-mortem, an understanding of why this had happened, required me to have compassion—both for myself and for him. Cognitive empathy, understanding the reasons behind why people do things, and emotional empathy, feeling bad for them, are two different things. I can empathize with his life circumstances, the fact that he grew up in a pattern of severe family violence, substance abuse, and misogyny and still despise the belief systems that led to his actions. Similarly, we can empathize with the circumstances that lead others to make certain choices—and still oppose their language, policies, and rhetoric.
In politics, neither side cares to know the struggle of the other—we fear even the struggles within ourselves. Similarly, we avoid complicating the narratives we’ve already settled on, leaving the most difficult territory untrodden. I hadn’t sought out stories about the people displaced and deported during the Obama administration or innocent civilians killed during drone attacks simply because I had already settled on a mythology about the man. Allowing oneself to become disillusioned with a system threatens the very belief structure propping it up. This is all to say that I don’t believe any of us can move forward without acknowledging where we’ve failed.
The day my ex-boyfriend was scheduled to face a judge for his crimes against me only my mother accompanied me to the courthouse. We were assured our presence would be enough to prompt a guilty plea and that I wouldn’t have to set foot in the actual courtroom. My father was notably absent, working out of his second office two hours away. Perhaps he didn’t know about the court date or only thought it had to do with the vandalism of our car. Or maybe my mother never told him. Back then, I still carried the shame of being a victim. I thought I had driven my boyfriend to hurt me, that I wasn’t worthy of love. Only years later did it occur to me that my father really should have been there.
When I was thirty-three and living in New York City, my husband and I separated briefly. I was reckoning with all of the hurt from my past, and he had his own issues to overcome. At the time, I didn’t know it would be temporary.
In the first week, my father, sixty-five and living with my mother in California, flew in to keep me company. I cried in his hotel room. I cried at his hotel gym. I laughed briefly as he pretended to struggle with tiny weights— then a giant sob overtook me again. I had taken time off of work to get my affairs in order, and my dad was like a friendly ghost in white tennis shoes and socks, khaki shorts, and a backpack, following me around the city in case I needed anything.
What I needed most was a distraction. But to have my sadness witnessed by my father, who supported me wholeheartedly and asked nothing in return, validated it somehow. His mere presence filled in part of my emptiness. All anyone really wants is to be seen and heard, and yet we avoid seeing and hearing others every day. Even among families, there are limits to what we can expect to receive from others. Sometimes we’re left carrying our own stories, like oceans inside of us—pasts we cannot kill with neglect like some under-watered houseplant.
A week or so after my dad came to console me in New York City, I went to stay with my parents for a week in California. Emotions were rolling high, and my mother brought up the topic of my high school boyfriend, Jack. It was a wound in our family that had not healed, mostly because no one wanted to talk about it. The next day, after my father and I bought groceries, we were sitting in the Safeway parking lot, the sun beating down on the hood of his dark blue sports car.
“I didn’t know he hit you,” he said.
My mother had told him the night before. For some reason, I thought it was what had made him cry that time in my room. It had always made me feel worse—the idea that I had both caused my abuse and upset my dad in the process. In retrospect, he was probably just worried about me because he could actually imagine what kind of future I might be losing.
We traveled home in silence, the Pacific Ocean visible from the road. Tears fell from behind my tinted glasses, which had transition lenses, just like his. Although mine were a more fashionable pair, I’d chosen them in a kind of secret nerd solidarity.
Neither of us knew what to say.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.
Excerpted from A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man by Sarah Kasbeer. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kasbeer. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Zone 3 Press.