In the summer of 2014, I wrote a book called Life of a Manchild. It was a book that explored the fractured relationship between me and my father. I put into words some of the most painful memories from my childhood and considered the ways in which those memories may still be affecting me to this day. Ultimately, the conclusion I arrived at (right or wrong) had been that nearly all my problems as a 26-year-old man stemmed from my father’s denial of his drunken self-destructive behavior and abusive attitude towards my mother that he so often displayed in front of me and my siblings in the house we grew up in. I believed that if I sat down and took the time to tell my story, it would make me feel whole again and in turn save me from being the selfish, self-loathing, inconsiderate drunken asshole I could feel I was becoming. It was a plan designed at breaking the cycle – a measure to ensure that my future spouse and children never experience all the needless suffering that was unconsciously inflicted on me at the hand of someone who experienced his own share of needless suffering from his father without ever calling it into question and coming to terms with it.
Collective familial denial is a bitch. It’s a total mindfuck. It’s the twisted spin an addict puts on reality that everyone under his sphere of influence is implicitly required to adapt to so he or she can keep getting away with what is objectively considered totally unacceptable behavior. It’s a shared invisible pathology reinforced on its subjects primarily by anger and violence at the hands of the addict and secondarily by the subjects’ internalized fear of anger and violence. The terms of each unspoken agreement may vary but they’re universally guaranteed to cause a whole lot of confusion, isolation and silent suffering. As it was in my house, anytime anyone had anything to say about my dad’s drinking or the way he acted towards my mom, he was indignant. How dare you tell him what he can and can’t do in his house that he paid for with his hard-earned money? He didn’t wanna hear it. And to deter us from questioning him in the future, we were shut down by his anger as he growled that he didn’t have a problem, that everything’s perfectly fine and that if we thought otherwise, then something was wrong with us.
As you might imagine, this would be very hard for a child to comprehend. Because you know last night that you saw daddy call mommy a stupid ugly fat-ass cunt before he shoved her into the wall and didn’t give a shit that you were screaming and crying and now today he’s acting like he’s your best friend and wants to take you over to the park to hit some baseballs. You begin to doubt the validity of your emotions. You begin to question your interpretation of reality. You feel guilt and learn to dislike yourself for being mad at someone so benevolent and so caring that wants to do something so honorable and wholesome like give up his free time to teach you how to play baseball. So you try to shake it off, telling yourself that maybe it wasn’t so bad and you grab your mitt to go play ball. But the anger you feel towards that person is still alive somewhere inside you. And for good reason! What you saw was not okay and should not be tolerated. But since your anger wasn’t allowed to be expressed naturally as it should have been, it was instead suppressed in your attempt to be a “good kid,” has now morphed into what we call resentment and is finding its way out of you in the form of passive-aggression. And now you’re acting like a snotty little bitch of a kid in public to your seemingly perfect all-star of a dad while you’re playing ball and after a while he gets sick of it and goes, “What’s your fuckin’ problem?” and you – knowing you’re not allowed to broach the subject of what happened the night before because, officially, it never happened – shout, “You! I hate you!” and burst into tears. And incomprehensibly, he starts mocking you, calling you “crybaby sissy boy” – his favorite nickname for you that stings like a branding iron, leaving a mark that’s just as permanent.
It’s absolutely maddening. Over the years, I’ve doubted myself so deeply thinking that maybe, as my acquiescence to my father’s version of reality had always indicated, that none of these things ever even happened. Like I’m a very sick person who made all these things up in my head and was clinically insane and needed to check myself into a mental institution. Because it’s always seemed that way. I remember trying to talk about it to my friends in grade school one time when we were walking around the neighborhood and they just shrugged it off as, “Nah, your house doesn’t seem that bad.” End of discussion. Or when I was an emotional teenager working with my dad washing windows and feeling the need to cry out in pain but unable to articulate the situation as it was and blurting out to his fireman friends/coworkers that “My dad’s a fuckin’ drunken piece of shit asshole” – an assertion to which they’d responded with austerity, treating me like some kind of ingrate and telling me not to talk that way about my dad because without him, I wouldn’t have a home or food or the job I was working or an education which are all valid points. I’ve always understood that. And I’m grateful for that. I’d never accuse my dad of being a lazy-ass or someone who didn’t provide for us. That’s never been what this is all about. I know he’s a good guy and I know we have a ton of happy memories together. That’s why this is so complicated. That’s the reason why I end up thinking there’s something wrong with me – because most of the time dad is a good guy. But sometimes he’s not. Sometimes he’s really terrible. And he’s never apologized for it. He’s never even acknowledged it or acknowledged my feelings about it. He just keeps doing it over and over. And all this built-up resentment from being ignored and rejected prevents me from enjoying the good my dad has to offer. And that’s the real fucking shame of it all. So I figured the only way I could simultaneously prove to myself that this shit actually happened and that I’m not fucking insane and to once and for all rid myself of all this hatred and suppressed rage I feel towards someone I love that have been tarnishing my soul and eating me alive from the inside all these years was sitting down and writing it all out as clearly and precisely as possible. So I did it. And it was not fun. It was a very painful exercise in self-discovery. I cried recalling memories from my childhood and I cringed analyzing the subsequent immaturity of my own behavior as an adult. It nearly killed me to work all that stuff to the forefront of my consciousness and bear the brunt of it.
Fifteen months after completing Life of a Manchild, I printed up a copy and wrote a very personal note to my dad on the inside of the front cover and the first couple pages thereafter which I read aloud before handing it over to him. The note said:
“Dad, I don’t know where to begin. Uh, I love you. How’s that for starters? I love you and I’ve always loved you with all my heart. Do you know that? I hope you do. But maybe what you don’t know is that there’s an injured part of me that’s never been able to understand why my hero always felt the need to alcoholically destroy himself in front of me over the years. I just could never comprehend why someone I believed in would dislike himself and his life so much that he needed to get blackout drunk all the time. And it’s a wound that’s never quite healed.
Do you know that I hate window washing? And gutter cleaning too? Did you know that I never really gave a shit about my student loans either and just used that as an excuse for why I kept coming back home? All these years, I’ve been too terrified to move on and start my adult life. It’s not because I feel like I’m incapable of starting my own life, but it’s just because I love you. And I’ve always wished you would realize that and then maybe start loving yourself as much as I love you. And I’ve never been able to say that to you even though I’ve wanted to for as long as I can remember.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I let my life turn into a complete fucking disaster. It was just one drunken fuck-up after another – doing shit I’m ashamed of, getting involved in fucked-up relationships. It was completely fucked. And I hated myself so fucking bad. I carried so much pain and anger around and I never learned how to deal with it in a healthy way and thought I could drink it all away but it never seemed to work. Then I thought I could run away from it by taking these trips to foreign lands but that didn’t work either. No matter where I went, I just kept drinking and kept hating myself and kept doing the same shit over and over and over…that is, until last summer when I decided to take a good hard look at my life and started writing this book.
I cried so many times writing this book. I really cannot express to you how much I hate who I’ve allowed myself to become. I’m a fucking asshole. And I can’t stand who I am in these pages. And that’s nobody’s fault but mine. But in writing this book, I’ve also had to come to terms with the events of my childhood. Yes, these things happened and the pain is very real. But I’m twenty-seven now. And I need to let it all go once and for all so that I can start my life and start building happy, healthy relationships with people – something I’ve desperately wanted to do my entire life but have never been able to do. Because I’ve always hated myself. And people who don’t love themselves can’t build loving relationships with other people.
Writing is the only healthy way I’ve ever found to deal with my out-of-control emotions. So, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it, there’s some shit in this book you’re not gonna like – plain and simple. It’ll probably be as rough for you reading some parts as it was for me to write ‘em. But it’s all real. And even though it feels scary out here like I’m all naked and vulnerable, this is what it’s like to step out of denial. This is how I’ve come to terms with the reality of who I am and the choices I’ve made.
I also need to let you know that I’m moving out in a month or so. I’m gonna see if I can start a life in Colombia. And although I’ll always be your son, I will never be returning to this house as your child ever again. A guest? Of course. But child? No. It’s time for me to leave childish things behind and take responsibility for my own life. That said, it’s time for you to take responsibility for learning how to work a computer so you and I can videochat.
Thank you for all the opportunities your hard work has provided me with over the years. I love you and always will.
-Your #1 son”
He had nothing to say at the moment so after handing him the book, I left to go calm down. My hands had been shaking. My heart was pounding. It’s not every day you take a stand against something that’s upset you your entire life.
My dad said nothing of the book in the time leading up to my big move to Colombia. I took off in January of 2016 and as fate would have it, I couldn’t cut it as an English teacher down there. Feeling a failure, I moved back home later that year and sunk back into the same old, same old. More than a year had passed since I’d given that book to my dad. He still never said a word. One day out of curiosity I asked my mom if he’d ever mentioned anything about it to her.
“Yeah,” she said. “He read it.”
“He said, ‘Well, that’s his interpretation.’”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I had to hear it from the man himself.
One day in the not-too-distant future it’d been just me and him sitting across from one another at the dinner table. I try to avoid being in this situation as often as possible because my dad goes to the bar every day and eats his dinner afterwards when he’s all buzzed out and the only thing he ever wants to talk about is either sports or who was at the bar. And I always nod and give a courteous, “Oh yeah? That’s cool.” even though I couldn’t give less of a fuck and feel like shouting in his face.
“So,” I began the confrontation, “mom told me you read my book. How come you never talked to me about it? What’s up with that?”
“Yeah, I read your book,” he grumbled.
“Yeah? And? What’d you think?”
“You got some imagination,” he said.
“It’s all bullshit.”
“I don’t understand. How can you say that?”
He didn’t have anything else to say on the matter.
“Tell me about it. What’s bullshit? I don’t understand. Make me understand.”
“Why won’t you talk to me? Can you ever once just be real with me? I’ll never understand why you’d rather keep everything to yourself and lash out at your family instead of opening up and letting us share your burden.”
“What happened to you as a kid in your house? What did your father do to you?”
He’d just finished eating the food on his plate.
“When things were good, they were good,” he said standing up to go walk over to the sink. “But when they were bad…it was tough.”
After washing his dishes, he bid me good night and he went downstairs to go do his Sudoku puzzle while watching ESPN before bed. And everything continued on as it always had.
-February 18, 2018