I must have been four years old when my dad taught me to count to one hundred as a creative parenting solution for convincing me to eat peas. Once I had it down he told me to tell my teacher the next day at school. When I did, my teacher looked at me and said, “You’re not ready.” I’m fairly certain my father called the school after I told him what she’d said because it wasn’t much later that I was allowed to thread one hundred numbered beads onto a long string.
I was probably the same age when he taught me to ride a bike. I remember the day he took my training wheels off. I was scared but my dad helped me be brave. My bike was pink and shiny with plastic ribbons streaming from the handles.
After my mom and sister disappeared my dad and I lived alone together in a small mobile home, which was generally fairly unkempt. One Saturday we left a tin of muffins sitting out overnight. The next day, when we returned home from church, my dad picked one up and took a huge bite out of it. I gasped, horrified, when I noticed that the muffin was crawling with ants.
“Daddy that has ants all over it!!” I screeched. My dad, who must’ve been famished to have missed this, glanced at the muffin casually and, cool as a cucumber, said, “Oh. So it does.”
And he set it back down on the tin. He finished chewing and swallowed, then went to change out of his church clothes. I’ve been horrified by all bugs for as long as I can remember, and I always understood that my dad’s lack of reaction to them was a calculated attempt to vanquish my fear.
My dad bought me a Super Nintendo soon after it was released and played Super Mario with me almost daily for a time. Later, he gave me an N64 with Super Mario 64 but he never played that one.
Throughout grade school, my dad made sure I was in every gifted and talented program available. He made a big deal about how smart I was and told every teacher who would listen that I taught myself how to read when I was three. I’m fairly certain that he once got a teacher fired because she made me cry.
I remember my dad as implacably mild-mannered. While my stepmom loved to stir up drama with incendiary language, my dad had a knack for diffusing tense situations with a simple sentence. And the best part was, he was almost always on my side.
“Why am I always hungry?” I once asked my dad, sobbing. “I hate myself so much because I’m so fat and yet I still can’t stop eating.” I’d endured my stepmother’s snide remarks about how much I ate and backhanded compliments about my body for years at that point, and my baby eating disorder was about to bloom.
“You’re not fat,” he said, looking down at me with sad eyes. “And you’re hungry because you’re growing. It's normal for growing girls to be hungry.”
The dad I’ve just described is the same dad who called me “[his] little girl” until I was in my twenties. He’s the dad who placidly ignored my stepmother’s comments about “girl toys” and “boy toys” to get me a remote control car and, later, a skateboard. He’s the dad I went to when I was confused, hurt, or upset to seek his patient explanation for why the world was sometimes horrible.
It’s impossible to imagine that this dad could do the slightest bit of harm to anyone, especially a child. But people are complex. And the person I’m writing about wasn’t always like this.
“It’s stuff like that that makes me want to burn their school down,” he said to me once as we were driving home from a college football game. It was the first and last I can recall attending as a child, and I was very confused about why my dad was so angry but I knew that our team had lost. I must have been eight years old.
When I was in the fifth grade, my dad and I made plans to build an oxyhydrogen generator for fun. We went to the hardware store and bought most of the supplies. Then I lived with big PVC pipes under my bed for at least two years after that. I’m fairly certain we threw out all the pipes during one of our moves.
As I got older, it seemed that my dad stopped diffusing my stepmother’s vitriol less and less. I assumed that he grew tired of arbitrating between us as he produced fewer and fewer comforting words and more neutral shrugs.
Confusingly, my dad never took me on any college tours or gave me any money for college applications. This was in direct opposition to the many times he’d told me I could go to any college I wanted.
The first time I voiced a dissenting political opinion I was sixteen years old. “How is it fair,” I asked, “that we get to live here [in the United States] and tell other people they can’t come here? They just want a better life for themselves.” We were driving somewhere alone, so we were likely headed to a used electronics store. “Because it’s our birthright,” he said simply. And he refused to elaborate. I sat in the car while he went inside.
One of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen my dad do happened that same year. My step sister Becca* and I walked to and from the school bus stop daily, passing a group of grade-school children along the way. This group of younger children, who outnumbered us, liked to amuse themselves by attempting to force us off of the sidewalk, bumping into us, or trying to trip us. As the oldest person involved, I advised my step sister to simply ignore them, which resulted in us playing an unacknowledged game of chicken as we blithely gazed at our phones when passing these children.
One afternoon after our school bus had driven away, a pickup truck abruptly pulled to the side of the road and a middle-aged man jumped out and ran up to us. Alarmed, Becca and I backed away quickly and I looked around wildly for another adult, or any witness, but aside from the three of us the street appeared to be empty. I was absolutely terrified. “Do you think it’s funny to bully little kids?!” The man demanded. Heart hammering in my throat, I looked behind us in a wild attempt to discern to whom he was speaking.
“What?” I said, stupefied.
“I know you’ve been bullying my kids every day. Do you think it’s funny to pick on someone smaller than you? How would you like it if I picked on you?!”
Speechless, I shook my head slowly in disbelief. While I tried to gather my words, Becca piped up from behind me, “We don’t pick on your kids, they pick on us!”
The man sneered in disbelief. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do know that I spoke next, offering to have my dad give the man a call. He handed me a business card and drove away. I walked home in a daze, relieved to be alive and enjoying the anticipation of my coming vindication. My dad had never failed to defend me before. Surely this time would be no different.
But it was. After recounting the afternoon’s events to my father and dutifully handing him the business card, I watched my dad walk over to his computer and load up a map website. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.
“I’m looking for a new route for you to take.” He spoke with his back to me, dispassionate.
“But you’re going to call him, right? You have to tell him that we didn’t do anything wrong.”
“How do I know you didn’t do anything wrong?” He asked, turning around to look at me.
“Because you know us! You know me! Do you really think I’d bully little kids?!” My incredulity was rising along with my heart rate. Was my dad actually assuming my guilt?
“I don’t know what you do when I’m not around,” he said. And he started printing out a map.
“You have GOT to be kidding me!” I yelled. My teenaged righteous indignation was in full swing. My fists balled at my side, I continued to berate my father as he got up from the computer and went to sit in his recliner, near where Becca was seated on the sofa.
“This is absolutely ridiculous!” I followed him to his recliner. “These kids try to mess with us, we ignore them, and we get punished by having to walk a longer route??! What kind of justice is that?? What kind of lesson are you trying to teach your children?”
“Maybe you’ll learn to stay out of people’s way,” he said.
Becca piped up from the sofa, “We weren’t in their way, those brats were trying to get into our way!”
At this point, my dad stood up from his recliner and walked past me to place his hands on each of Becca’s shoulders and scream directly into her face. To be completely honest, I was in such a state of shock that I don’t remember what he screamed. But I do remember how small her body looked in his hands. How her back bounced off and on and off of the sofa and her head ricocheted along with her body as he shook her.
I had never seen my dad do that before. I had never seen anyone do that before, except on TV.
“STOP!!” I screamed. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!” I had tears streaming down my face and Becca was sobbing where she sat. My dad turned and looked at me, silently, then returned to his recliner.
“Let’s go, Becca.” I said. And we ran away, although we brought nothing with us. I just grabbed Becca’s hand and pulled her out of the house and we marched around our neighborhood, commiserating furiously until our confusion and outrage turned to exhaustion and hunger and we returned home for dinner.
By the time I’d decided to move out at seventeen, my dad seemed more like a stranger than ever.
The disheartening lack of faith and energy he’d put into me during my last years living with him were echoed in the inconsistent birthday calls, many of which were initiated by my stepmom who would put him on the phone because “he [wanted] to say hi.”
But still, I loved my dad and spoke about him fondly to my friends. I loved to tell them how eclectic his interests were - from Star Trek to musical theory to sustainable energy. I loved to tell the story about the muffin. And I loved to say that I was like my dad.
I had the vague idea that something was wrong with him, but in my late teens and early twenties I was much too preoccupied with my own goals to devote much brain power to my dad’s problems.
When I visited him in my late twenties, the fact that my dad was struggling with something was upsettingly obvious. But I still wasn’t sure what was eating him. Depression? I wondered. Low self-esteem? Maybe he just needed someone to display confidence in him, like he’d displayed confidence in me when I was little. I bought him a FitBit and offered to help him set up a YouTube channel for his music. I told him that his music was so beautiful the world needed to hear it.
When my youngest step sister Jane* called me to tell me about the abuse, she could barely get it out. Her voice was trembling with terror. “Your dad ... molested me. Pretty bad.” It sounded like the words were literally choking her.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that kind of accusation. The first time, I was ten or eleven years old and I could not wrap my mind around what I was hearing. I chalked it up to a lie, or a mistake, and buried it as an unexplainable phenomenon. This time I experienced the same sensation, but my big adult brain possessed the capability to open my big adult mouth and say big adult things.
“I had no idea.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You should pursue justice.”
The following months I walked around engulfed in a blinding rage so white hot it seemed to numb me. I opened my mouth many times to tell my husband, but the words choked me so I didn’t tell him until many weeks later. I began drinking heavily, and I would sob with confusion and rage, unable to utter the question consuming my mind: Did my dad molest me too? Did I bury the memories?
I lay awake at night for hours, daring myself to delve deep into my earliest childhood memories, exploring the murky depths of my mind for something I did not want to find.
It’s not easy to mentally re-form Dear Old Dad as a monster. When I hear myself talk about it, my voice sounds cold and alien and I experience the illusion that I am watching my dream self instead of experiencing my living self. I live with the uncomfortable dissonance of knowing something is true that doesn’t feel true.
Before I discovered my mother’s letter and heard my aunts speak on The Vanished Podcast, I enjoyed the occasional thought that it might not be true. “If this turns out to be false, I will eat so much crow,” I said to my husband once. “I will publish a public apology letter to my entire extended family.”
I relished that idea.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.