So this will be a difficult post. It’s also going to be R E A L L Y long and somewhat rambling, so if you feel like skipping it, I won’t be upset.
It’s complicated. Very complicated.
You have been warned.
I don’t follow the practice of glorifying the dead. I also don’t go out of my way to disparage those who’ve passed.
That said, I had a few different options for direction here. I’ve written versions of this post in my head dozens of times, yet now that I find myself actually bereft of my father, none of those imagined posts work.
For my dad’s enemies: this won’t be the tell-all you want.
For my dad’s acolytes: this won’t be the adoration you want, either.
Now that I’ve determined to make no one happy, on we go.
Part the First
I loved my dad with an unholy passion as I grew up.
Dad was the one who seemed to understand me. He shared my love of the fantastical – he gave me my first Tolkien books, and together we devoured Dracula: the Series and watched Dr. Who together weekly at 3am, the only time PBS showed it.
He introduced me to vampires and elves and aliens and gods. He told me bedtime stories featuring a mixture of tales that birthed my love of spliced genres. He had Br’er Rabbit (I know. We’ll cover Song of the South shortly) cutting the Gordion knot. He found biographies of strong women (missionaries only, but that’s another topic) and read them with gusto and many voices. He brought bootleg VHS tapes of Star Wars back from Tokyo for our enjoyment (and I promise I don’t do bootleg these days, creators).
He even found little stuffed Gizmo plushies, and instead of just giving them to us, ducked under the table and had li’l Gizmo peeking up over the edge, squeaking, and choosing us to love. It was pretty sweet.
So we covered the good stuff. Let’s tackle the bad.
Part the Second
We lived a distinctly bifurcated life. The things I loved (Dark Crystal, Star Trek, etc.) could never be shared in public.
My dad was a pastor. As most of you know, a large portion of Christian subculture is very weird about entertainment and appearances, and my upbringing was no exception.
If you weren’t conservative and a devout worshiper at the altar of Ronald Reagan, you weren’t a Christian. If you believed in Jesus, you had to believe in a hard-voiced, cruel version who would never have helped the poor or needy.
In church, we were well-dressed and well-behaved, equipped to throw out-of-context Bible verses like bombs at any situation, and far too holy to play He-Man with my friends.
But I loved He-Man. I thought I understood why I had to keep my hobbies in the dark; I thought, because my dad told me, that if I shared these things, somehow that would ruin my testimony for Jesus. I love Jesus – the real Jesus. I’d never want to hurt or shame Him, so this was a terrible idea. I obeyed.
All our fun came with a heavy sense of shame.
For years, my family balanced that uneasy dichotomy, but it couldn’t last. Hypocrisy grows like black mold, and it only gets heavier.
One day, out of the blue, I was not allowed to watch He-Man (or She-Ra with a “good witch” in it, zounds!) anymore. One day, I was not allowed to watch Smurfs because Papa Smurf had stood on a yin-yang symbol, or something that petty. Suddenly, all the things I associated with fun and secrets and my dad might actually be evil, teaching me hidden paganism and/or some kind of feminism, which in my home was demonized.
Dad even threw away our bootleg Star Wars VHS tapes because they were “teaching us Buddhism.” That hurt.
The public church-face had successfully invaded our home life – but dad had already taught me the example of hiding things I liked (even ice cream was a secret pleasure, which we scarfed quickly in the car and hid the wrappers), so now I just had to keep those things secret from him, and all would be well, right?This isn't a confession post, so I won't go into everything, but being taught implicitly and explicitly to hide what I enjoyed because it was sinful (but also allowed as long as I did holy things in public) was messing me up in the head. A lot. Click To Tweet
The word for this is hypocrisy, and I was taught by the best. Boy howdy, I needed the therapy I eventually got, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Long story short, my amazing friends stuck with me as I worked through all of this, and somehow still call me friend today. I don’t hide myself anymore – but let me tell you, it cost me.
Part the Third
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention three things.
One: my father was raised in a horrifically abusive home, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, which I know affected many of his choices.
Two: my father had an engaging personality and a quick mind, and though I don’t think he meant to, he ended up forming a cult. (His acolytes will now be very angry and defensive with me. That’s okay. I made my peace.) With this cult, from the pulpit, and in our home, my dad could do no wrong.
Three: even with all of this, my father tried very hard to create a home the opposite of the one he grew up in, and in some ways, he succeeded. His father told him he was an accident and unwanted, so my father told me I was wanted, planned, and prayed for. His father never said he loved him, so my dad went out of his way to say he loved me. His father never gave him approval, no matter what he did, so my dad constantly praised me….
Well. He praised me in front of other people, at least for a while.
He did not praise me to my face. To my face, I was never good enough.
He tried to be fun and kind about it at first. When I was tiny, I’d clean my room, and he’d come in on all fours as the “room cleaning bloodhound” to bay and howl at any spots I missed. Turns out I always missed spots, and so I was never good enough.
When I was older, he’d look at what I was writing, then say it was okay but (a) not as good as Tolkien, and (b) possibly sinful in appearance to other church people, and (c) why couldn’t I just write Christian fantasy instead?
When it turned out I had musical talent, his focus for my life narrowed to laser precision, but even in that, I could never be good enough.
His desire is how I ended up in college for music when I wanted to go for writing. It’s also how I ended up taking a double major with the second a Bachelor of Science in Bible – so I could please him. Neither of these was a thing I actually wanted.My dad was everything to me. He was never wrong. He knew everything. He was my safety net, my oracle, very nearly my god. But when I went to college, everything fell apart. Click To Tweet
Part the Fourth
College is often a breaking point for those who have not yet found their voice. It’s a chance for exposure to alternative viewpoints, to new facts and life-changing information, to people so different from those previously experienced that we are given a clear-cut choice: either we choose to disregard those who are different and diminish their experiences into something sub-human, or we adapt our own worldview, accept that what we believed was wrong, and change.
As I said, I have VERY patient friends. They put up with my insanely heartless statements (“You’re only gay if you were raped” actually passed my lips at one point, and I am SO ashamed of that utter horseshit) gently corrected me, talked to me, and showed me things I had never seen before.
Did you know Jesus is more about love and helping people than about distant and impersonal judgment? I didn’t know that until I got to college. The Jesus my friends showed me freaked me out. He wasn’t judgmental. He wasn’t unkind. He didn’t deride the poor and underprivileged. Who was this guy? What was going on?
My dad ignored all of this when I tried to explain it. He laughed, made fun of my friends (“feminazis,” he called them), and ended those calls apparently certain that I would never budge from the things I’d been taught.
Rejection from my finite god plus the absolutely insane work ethic he’d given me led to bad things. Maybe it was the stress. Maybe it was because I’d never really been taught how to take care of myself. Whatever the cause, I ended up with diabetes and other health issues, and nearly flunked out.
I was not okay. Sleep was useless. I couldn’t remember anything. My grades slipped, and I lost all my scholarships.
Weeping, I begged my father to let me come home. He laughed.
I’ll say that again: He laughed. My father told me I could “turn tears on and off like a water faucet,” and told me I could not come home.
I was not okay. I should have gone home.
I have good friends. Really good friends who are still friends. They took me out of the dorms and pretty much kept me alive, fed, clothed. In spite of the depression I’d plunged into, I was able to finish that year, but I didn’t finish well. So now, on top of all my confusion, I was deeply ashamed.
I felt like I’d failed all my potential.
One more thing I should also mention was happening during this time: my father had worked all my life to villainize my mother and make himself look good. Now that I was edging into adulthood, studying bits of psychology, and actually being exposed to the world, I had the horrible realization that my mother was NOT the monster I thought she was. Not even close. She acted like an abused wife (no, I did not put two and two together yet), suffered from depression, and loved me very much – and the moment I changed the way I communicated with her, our relationship sweetened into something truly precious.
My father did not like that.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I’d not known my mother this way before, and I treasured that time, but she and I had one consistent point of contention: my dad.
“Your father is a great man, and someday you’ll understand,” is one of the last things she ever said to me. Yes, it still hurts.
I was slowly realizing a lot of the things dad said and did were simply not right – even if they were hidden in the dark. Seeing Song of the South for the racist thing it is caused another rift; dad loved that movie, and would not not see what was wrong.
But I was no longer okay with his casual racial and sexual slurs, with his jokes about LBGTQ, with his jokes about monkeys (yes, in reference to black Americans). I struggled with truth, with questions about the person of Jesus, with what it really meant to be a good person in this twisted world.
Dad had betrayed me badly. When I asked for help, he gave none; when I tried to introduce empathy and kindness, he threw them away. I tried to let it go.
Then, toward the end of my junior year, he informed me he was starting a church in California and I was supposed to come and be his music director.
This meant dropping out of college. And because my dad wanted it, and dad was the still voice of God, I did.
I intended to go back to school (and in time, I did – and graduated after having earned a 4.0 for that final year), but this move shocked everyone, especially the people who had fought so hard to help me make it that far. This choice looked crazy, and it was.
I tried to build the music portion of his church into something special. I worked my ass off. I pulled 80-hour weeks (that is not a typo), doing all the arrangements for different instruments, conducting and singing and playing piano when I couldn’t find a pianist.
I was striving for excellence to glorify God and to please my dad. I was also burning the hell out.
In time, my choir asked for a break. We were putting on a mini concert once every month, and they were tired. So I went to my dad, said we were all tired, we all needed a break.
His response: “Nonsense. They just need motivation. From now on, you’ll have them perform every Sunday.”
I choked. We only performed once a month; these were volunteers, not professionals, not full-time musicians.
Dad would not back down. Again, I’d laid myself bare because I was being crushed, and he’d responded by adding more weight.
Needless to say, most of the choir quit. I went from about 20-odd folks to 5, and it amazes me those 5 stuck around at all.
Part the Fifth
Again, this is not a confession post, so I’ll skip a lot for now. I will just mention these things:
- When anyone in the church office felt like attacking me to enhance their own position, my dad believed them. I had to go to great, crazy lengths to prove I was “earning” my meager pay.
- When that church split and fell apart, dad did things like printing out private emails from folks who were now his “enemies” and sharing them. I disagreed with this practice. In response, he fired me and publicly threw me off the family ministry board.
- When it turned out I could not have children – that my body just created miscarriage after miscarriage – his focus switched to having “grandbabies” no matter what, and rather than give a flying rip that I nearly died from hemorrhaging, he yelled repeatedly that I had to go to a fertility clinic at once. I did not go.
- When I dedicated my second book to my dad, he responded with anger because his conservative friends might think he was into something “sinful.” I left the dedication in.
It got messier from there. We argued a lot; it was all over things I could now see were deeply important, like the fact that I was no longer doing music professionally because I knew that wasn’t what I was called to do. I was supposed to tell stories, and with my husband’s support, I finally was.
I learned I didn’t have to work myself to death. A pastor in Seattle showed me that even Jesus said “no” sometimes and rested, which meant I did NOT have to work all the time forever. It meant God had not asked me to do that, and I was killing myself for nothing.
I also learned God had never asked me to debase myself as a woman.
Deep breaths, me.
This was a big one. Discovering what the Greek really said about women in the Pauline writings blew my mind – and made me very, deeply angry. I had been cutting pieces off myself as a woman for years because I thought God wanted me to do it. Now, I knew it was only humans asking for that – and they had no right.
They had none. And my anger over this one has yet to fade – but again, that’s a topic for later talk.
The people following my dad became increasingly weird. I could see how their mania was hurting him, making him believe his own hype, but I couldn’t get through to him or any of them that something was terribly wrong – and yes, that includes family.
I realized my father was a narcissist. I don’t know if he always was, but he certainly had become one by then.
I learned that God never wanted us to hide or be hypocrites, and knowing that, I started to really analyze what I believed. And that’s when things really started to heat up.In 2008, I broke completely with my conservative roots and voted for Obama. Then I made the mistake of telling my dad. He. Blew. Up. Click To Tweet
I showed him why. I walked him through all the reasons, biblical and sociological, but he only grew angrier. The threats were terrifying; he’d cut me off, the rest of the family would cut me off, I was no longer his daughter, blah blah blah.
I wept. I raged. I wept again. But in the end, I had to do what was right – and in my understanding, as I was growing in empathy and faith, voting for McCain would not be right.
I lost my family for months, and I never lived this decision down. He brought it up every holiday, every phone call. He made sure to tell anyone who would listen that I was liberal – a worse word to him, somehow, than any racial or sexual slur.
I also never regretted it. For the first time, I’d decided not to hide.
Part the Sixth
My dad eventually calmed down enough to talk to me again, but it was never the same. I loved him; I never stopped loving him. I believe he loved me, too, but he no longer knew how to show it because I wasn’t playing the game.
He couldn’t manipulate me into singing in public anymore. He couldn’t boast that his children were “raised on Limbaugh” (gods, that makes me cringe) because I had gone very public about voting for Obama and arguing about abortion. He couldn’t boast about my writing because his conservative friends would not approve of my topics. He constantly brought up that my greatest “disappointment” for him was my decision to vote not-Republican.
We ended up without much to talk about.
He pushed me further and further away. Then in 2012, my mother died, and my father got even weirder and more reclusive. He hid more secrets and dove publicly further into the far-right machine. He used racial slurs about our president, joked casually about murdering Muslims in cold blood, and made gay jokes as if they were the height of humor.
I could barely handle being with him, especially in public. Restaurants were unbelievably embarrassing. His fans had somehow grown even more fanatical, making it impossible to discuss my dad in a rational manner.
My dad no longer wanted to know how I was doing. He didn’t care about health issues or dreams or what I was working on. I wasn’t making music, I wasn’t making grandbabies, and I persisted in pulling away from the political far right.
Should I have cut him off? I honestly believe that for me, the answer was no – but I also know I had the absolute right, and anyone who would have chosen to cut him off would not have been wrong.
We talked all the time, but we never said much. And then about three years ago, dad asked for help with his computer, and hadn’t realized he’d left some stuff up that explained to my husband and me exactly why dad was having so much trouble.
The dad I knew when I was a child really seemed to be gone, with one major exception: he still lived two very different lives. It is not my place to explain that private life, so I won’t do that here – but he zealously and recklessly engaged in things he preached against, and it was a dichotomy that that was tearing him apart.
I ache for him. He hid more than I ever imagined; we tried to show him that we would support him and love him even if these truths came out, but no matter how we tried, he never felt he could share the truth we’d accidentally stumbled across.
When he died on January 5th of this year, it hurt – but the thing is, I’d already lost him years before.
I grieve. I grieve that he’s gone; I grieve that we never were able to resolve things between us. I grieve that everybody he knew told me how proud he was of me and my writing, when he never said those words to me. I grieve I didn’t “daughter” well enough that he ever felt he could trust me with his secret struggles.
I grieve that he never broke free of that hypocrisy and just lived as himself.
So as I said, this is complicated. I miss him badly, but the dad I miss has been out of my life for a long time. Now, he’ll never come back to it.
How do I feel? I have no idea. I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m oddly relieved. I want more time, I’m glad our battle is over, I desperately wish all had been resolved.
I’m here. And I’m still writing. And I’m still not hiding my life.
No regrets. Never give up, never surrender. “Excelsior” is the word of the day.
I just wish I’d found a way to help him before he died.