Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Trigger Warnings: mental health, incest, child abuse
Life is odd.
You don’t ask for it to start, or most of the time end. You just happen at some point because two or more people decided you should, and then you have to deal with the consequences of their action. Actions.
As I write this piece, we are January the 14th of 2021. Which means today my father would have turned 72. Just like every year as that date arrives I am filled with a mix of complex emotions. The first one being “the bastard just had to quit at 65”.
My relationship with my father has always been complex and complicated. He was a complex and complicated man, who lived a complex and complicated life, and he wasn’t very good at simple relationships. He always had to add something to make it complex and complicated. Like cheating on his wife, or not paying his employees on time, or changing his mind about irrelevant things but taking 4h to tell you so.
My dad could talk about any topic as if he mastered it. In truth he was the master of speech. He could tell you all about clouds, and cocaine, and how Christianity has destroyed the Roman Empire, and who Général de Gaulle truly was, and how to make a chili con carne, all in the same conversation. Or rather, all in the same monologue, since he didn’t leave you enough time to ask questions or answer unless he himself had decided you should speak right at that particular moment. My dad was basically a University teacher, but anyone who came close enough was his student. He had a way of not pausing, even to breathe. He also had a deep baritone- bass broken voice that was almost hypnotic, so much so that his captive audience only realised they were captive when they needed to go to the bathroom or eat.
Thanks to him I learned to learn. To discern information from bragging, teaching from flirting, conversing from monologuing. I learned to educate myself. I learned to raise myself, since he didn’t do it. Yes, I have a mom, that’s another story, I’m not willing to talk about it, thank you. My father taught me how to think, and think fast, before he moved on to another topic and I lost the chance to learn something. He rarely repeated himself. Even when he did, he said the same thing in a different way. He knew not everyone could follow him, but I could, and he took advantage of my intelligence to drop as much information as he could in as short a time as possible. He taught me the value of listening in silence. He didn't, however talk about himself. What little I know of him is from his behaviours and what my aunt told me, which isn't much considering she lives in a reality all of her own.
My dad also taught me from a very, very young age that my body was not mine and that as a woman it would be expected of me to dress, makeup, and act in ways to please men. I was to be intelligent and educated but soft spoken. I had to keep quiet during men’s conversations, even if the topic was one I knew everything about. I had to, as us French say, “be pretty and shut up”. He never said it, it was just his general demeanour. He just didn’t listen to me unless I was directly addressed, and as I was (taught to be) soft spoken, he could pretend he didn’t hear me at all. I also blame Grandma on this part. She’s the one who dressed me up like a pretty little doll and showed me around. As in: show how pretty and quiet her granddaughter was. I digress.
When I was 4 my father took me on vacation in Tunisia. There, in a fairytale context, surrounded by strangers and nobody to call for help, he sexually abused me in the shower. To this day showers are triggering. When I told you he taught me my body wasn’t mine, that’s where it started. 4 years old, not even safe in a damned shower. And he wasn’t done. I recall several instances of inappropriate touching, even kissing, and for the longest time I couldn’t tell anyone. He called me “my love” and “baby”. He cornered me in an elevator once and his drunken mouth kissed me. I spent the night in the bathroom as it was the only room I could lock. We never talked about it. I took up drinking then, at 13, and spiraled into what at the time they called depression with suicidal tendencies. In truth it was unadressed PTSD with a side of traumatic amnesia that didn't help figure out what was wrong.
Complex and complicated.
Thanks to him I have travelled and seen places I didn’t know existed, I am bilingual and speak another 2 languages enough to not get hungry in the countries they are spoken, I am open-minded and well read. Thanks to him I can write poetry and play just enough guitar to brag about it. Thanks to him I am resilient and resistant. I can deal with hardships in a way most people my age from my social class can’t. Thanks to him I can be cold hearted. Because thanks to him, at least mostly him, he started it, I have PTSD and depression and social anxiety and OCD. Thanks to him I am terrified of making children. Thanks to him, “no” is hard for me to say in an intimate setting unless I fully trust the person I am with.
People are not simple. It’s hard to determine where the person ends and the monster begins sometimes. I don’t believe my dad was a monster, even though he destroyed me right from the start. I believe my father was a broken man, lost in a life he didn’t control, with a body he loathed and a brain he didn’t comprehend.
He was raised by a WW2 veteran and a WW2 Jewish survivor. Lots of PTSD. He himself served in Vietnam. Lots more PTSD. When I say he was a broken man, I mean it. He told me once I was his only reason to live. “Not that I want to die, but you know, if you weren’t here, it wouldn’t really matter to me”. Broken. And by the way, no parent should tell their depressed children that. It put so much more pressure on me.
It doesn’t excuse any of the things he did, as I once thought it did. But it helps explain them. To add to that, he was a small, ginger, thin, pale, smart, Jew in post WW2 France, with an American dad and very few friends. He could have written several books based on his life, but he didn’t want to. And he didn’t tell me enough for a whole book. All I know is he tried to live his life to the fullest, with the poor hand he was dealt at birth. And that he was not meant to be a dad, especially not to a daughter. That might be why he ran away from the previous 2 daughters he had. I don’t know if I’m the lucky one because he stayed. I don’t dare look for them to ask what their life was like without him. I’m too scared of the answer, still.
My dad died of a mix of cancer, emphysema, and mental health issues at 65 years old. The age where he could have finally retired. I have never really known him healthy. But there were ways to prevent his death, or at least postpone it a little longer, and he refused them. That’s why I call him a coward. He refused to fight. He gave up and left me, at 22, broken and homeless, jobless and lonely. For that I can’t forgive him. He didn’t give me time to grow enough to have the painful conversation I’m having with myself here on this virtual piece of paper.
He was a soldier and he surrendered rather than face the consequences of his actions. He ruined his daughter’s life and sense of self worth and then took the first exit. All I wanted was an honest, sincere conversation. All I wanted was to know why. I will never know.
Life is really odd, isn’t it. Anyone can create it. Most people can sustain it. All it takes is one simple action to destroy it. My father, with some help, destroyed my life. I am reaching 29 and am only now starting to build it. Yet he gave me what I am most proud of: my intellect.
So I loathe him and admire him, hate him and love him, blame him and understand him. And I have to live the rest of my life knowing that I won't ever be able to tell him.
Happy birthday dad, may you rot in peace, you haven't earned it but you deserve it.