If Violence is Love, then Where is the Love?

My dad hit me only once.

It wasn’t unusual, per se, because my family certainly believed in corporal punishment. I have no recollection of the event whatsoever because I was a toddler when it happened. I only know it happened because my mom told me. She wasn’t even there; my dad told her about it. After it, my mom said, my dad cried as he confessed to her and said he would never hit me again. My mom told me this when I was in high school or college, and I remember wondering what was so special about me that he never wanted to hit me again.

I’d watched my father bodyslam my brother, WWF-style, onto the dining room floor. I’d witnessed him choke one of my sisters, her back slammed against the living room wall. I’d seen him lift my 200-pound sister off the floor and send her body sailing all the way across the living room. I’d watched him referee a fight in our front yard between my other sister and a neighborhood girl, who literally kicked my sister’s ass as our dad looked on.

He never would have done any of these things to me. What made me different?

I was his youngest child, had by his second wife before he was formally divorced from his first. I thought that maybe that was it: I was his baby, the one to be treasured and held more closely than the others.

But he and I both knew that wasn’t true. He kissed, hugged, and tickled my teenaged sisters while I looked on, wondering when he was going to play with eight-year-old me that way because it would actually be appropriate at my age.

Then I thought about it the other way: he never wanted me because I was the product of his home-wrecking with my mother.

But that wasn’t true either. Though he wasn’t divorced from Wife #1 when I was born, he was separated because she was a drug addict who frequently abandoned her own children.

When I was 30, it dawned on me that violence was a way to make my father’s children feel accepted and make him feel needed.

From early on in my life, he taught me little skills that my mother held off telling me, hoping she could keep me closer longer. My dad taught me how to put on my clothes, how to cross a street, and how to manage the steering wheel from the passenger’s seat (should I ever find myself in need of said skill). Reliving these memories while writing my memoir awakened me to the possibility that my father wanted me to not need him.

He wanted to make it so that I wouldn’t attach myself so much that I couldn’t drive away and leave him, that I couldn’t go to college and learn more than he ever knew, that I couldn’t travel the world. He wanted me to live without him, which was living fully and happily.

But that still didn’t answer the question of what made me so special that he knew this from that first and only moment of violent contact?

I think he had a vision. Honestly.

My father was a spiritual man, a jackleg preacher, as they’re called in the South. He might not have truly been on the Straight & Narrow, but he pontificated from the pulpit and made himself and the congregation feel good for at least two hours every Sunday morning. This allowed my father access to another realm, not one of his world, but of the next.

I think he saw me and my three sisters, especially, in the future, in our adult lives. I think he saw them as unhappy, empty, and listless. He saw me as thriving, prosperous, and healthy. It might have bothered him to not see all of his progeny having great lives. So he wanted to change my sisters’ path, beat inspiration into them as they grew. He didn’t know that this would actually stunt them, and that it would inadvertently fulfill the prophecy that he had feared. As he watched the inevitable unfold, I think his made him jealous of me and of his vision of my future.

I think what my father saw for me is coming true. I’ve been married for almost five years, all happily. I’ve got two degrees from a prestigious Washington, DC university, and the flexibility to turn to a career in writing from one in finance and maybe back again. I don’t have kids yet, but I hope, when they do arrive, that they’re sensible and reasonably well-adjusted, with a more comfortable life story than mine.

I am confident that my father was intimidated by what he saw in his three-year-old daughter, whose hair grew slowly and who had big eyes and brown skin, just like him. Because of that fear, he rarely ever touched me after that fateful spanking, not even to hug, kiss, or tickle me, and much less to discipline me. In fact, he didn’t connect with me at all.

When my mother left him and took me with her when I was nine, he never called to see how I was doing in school or see if I needed anything when I joined the band or tennis team. Actually, he called me twice, once when I was 16 (and I said that I was “busy,” busy being angry at him for not calling me) and once when I was 24, following the 2010 DC Snowpocalypse, but after almost all the snow had melted, so even if I had fallen into an eight-foot mountain, my frigid corpse would have been found on the grass by then.

I spent 20 years wondering what was wrong with me, why we couldn’t be like a normal dad and daughter, then spent 10 years trying to diagnose him with various mental illnesses from my psychology textbooks.

At 31, a year after my dad passed away from colon cancer that had spread throughout his body, I realized that the fault lie with both of us. We were both afraid of his vision for me. Instead of embracing my successes together, we tiptoed in opposite directions away from each other after mumbling accomplishments and a corresponding obligatory, “I’m so proud of you.” I was afraid that he would feel like a jerk for not loving me better, and I think he actually did feel like a jerk for not loving me better, but felt that it was too late to turn back.

Accepting each other for who we were probably would have done us a world of good. If he had not been afraid of who I was going to become, and if I hadn’t been so set on his changing that I lost hair from psychic stress, both of us could have enjoyed my—and therefore, our—successes even more.

I can’t change the past, as much as I want to. All I can do is learn from everything my dad taught me: the tag goes in the back, look both ways before you cross, and, in reverse, the car’s butt goes in the direction you turn the steering wheel.


Why I Write: Memoir Edition

Last week, I had lunch with a friend, who asked me how my writing was going. I told her that it was going well; that I have over 60,000 words and 185 pages; and that she should read my blog, like my author Facebook page, and follow me on the Twitter. She laughed at the last things (but I hope she actually does them!), and also asked, “Why are you writing your book?”

I didn’t have to take long to think about that. I said, “I want fatherless kids—people who didn’t grow up with their dads or who just aren’t close to them—to know that they’re not alone, and that they’re okay, too.”

Plenty of authors have written their “Why I Write” stories. I’ve read George Orwell’s and some of Joan Didion’s. I haven’t gotten around to Stephen King’s, mostly because he freaks me out a little, but I intend to get to his one day, too. I think writers put their purpose on paper because it helps to focus them. Writing is stressful as hell because it’s a mental activity, and the mind is a battlefield. Writers constantly face inner demons and voices that tell them that their work will never be good enough for people to want to read and that they should be doing something else with their lives. (Okay, maybe only mine say that. I feel like George, Joan, and Stephen had/have made enough money that they could/can shove dollar bills down their demons’ throats to silence them.)

Last week, in my memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, I got some really valuable feedback on the first three chapters of my book. I’m writing a very close narrative, meaning that I use the voice I used at the age that I was during that time period (so, I use the vocabulary of a four-year-old for parts in 1989, a 14-year-old in 1999, and a 24-year-old in 2009, for example). The consensus was that I executed the voice of a young child very well, but that more adult voice and reflection would be helpful to ground the reader and to add tension in the plot. (See! Isn’t that some really constructive feedback?) I was so grateful for the criticism because I want to know what my readers are thinking, but I spent the whole week daunted, wondering how I was going to implement it while staying true to my own style. I got to the point where I questioned if I should really be writing this book at all. Would people get my message or would they think it’s just relatively well-written garbage?

Luckily, that’s when I had lunch with my friend. I felt empowered just by saying my reason for telling my story: I want fatherless kids of all ages to know that they are okay, that they are lovable, that they are enough.

“That’s a noble mission,” my friend said. “Now, stay focused on it.”

And that is why I wrote this post, to remind myself of who I’m writing for, and to make my mission public. I probably won’t be salve to every person who has been hurt by their absent father. I won’t cure the “stereotype” of rampant fatherlessness in Black communities because the problem is bigger than me (Side note: I heard recently that fatherlessness in this context has become a “stereotype,” implying that is not a real thing. I, and actual data, beg to differ. It’s not everyone’s experience, but it’s happened to enough of us to be considered disconcerting, at the least).

But I hope to make some people feel like they’re okay. I survived, and I know others who have, and our lives aren’t complete shit, so there’s hope for every fatherless kid out there. That is the story I’m going tell, regardless of what the voices say to me, because it is the truth.

Get a Room!

If you’ve tried to be productive in a coffee shop, especially one in New York, I bet you came away $50 broker, full of bad coffee and pastries, with all of one page written after a few hours. So, I bet you also know that Virginia Woolf was right: to write, one has to have money and a room of one’s own.

I refuse to write at home unless UPS or FedEx forces me to. At home, I have the comfort of my couch. There’s a television there that plays a circuit of mostly garbage daytime talk shows. There’s a cabinet full of snacks, and a refrigerator that usually houses more wine and beer than eggs and milk. There’s also the floors that perpetually need to be Swiffer’d, the bathtub that could use a rag ran around its ring, and the glass decanters that could go for a good Windex-ing. And by virtue of my living in the ‘hood, inevitably, there is an argument between two neighbors and incessant sirens outside my window.

Therefore, as much as I love my home, in order to think, I cannot be at home.

I think Virginia mentions money not as a way to say that only rich people can write, but that a good space comes with a cost.

I am a member of the Center for Fiction in Manhattan, and I frequently use its writers’ studio. I LOVE the Center because, while I am writing memoir, I was raised on fiction, so the organization supports a cause that I can get behind. It also provides workshops and talks for writers and readers, encouraging literacy and intellectual dialogue.

The writers’ studio is usually full of people doing exactly what I should be doing: writing.

I got the studio to myself one day! It’s usually full.

The studio atmosphere is quiet and library-like, but not so stodgy that you can’t eat a sandwich without people glaring at you. Mostly, there is an unspoken respect for the craft of writing, and being in that environment every day for the past three months has been invaluable. There’s just something about being around like-minded people who are trying to accomplish a goal similar to yours. It’s allowed me to bust out 175 pages and 60,000 in less than half the time I thought those milestones would take.

Window seats, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Sure, it’s not free, but the cost is minimal if you think about how many cups of tea and the number of pastries I would have had to consume by now, jumping from coffee shop to coffee shop. And while I respect entrepreneur-friendly spaces like WeWork, the cost is prohibitive, even for most entrepreneurs, so the Center is way more than I bargained for.

There’s quite a few spaces like this in the NYC area, including The Writers Room (the OG of writers’ studios in the city) and Paragraph, though both of them have more stringent membership requirements and/or higher prices than The Center for Fiction. For my friends in Washington, DC, there’s Writers Room DC in Tenleytown and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

I highly recommend anyone working on a serious project seek out a special space to complete it. And for those who have full-time jobs, many of these spaces have post-6pm hours, so there’s no excuse not to live the writer’s life.

So, get a little dough, then get a room, for goodness’ sake.

30 is the New Black

The year after my father’s death turned out to be the best year of my life so far. It had nothing to do with my father no longer living and everything to do with my turning 30 just two weeks after his death.

I had never been so excited to turn a certain age. I knew I would get my license when I turned 16 and that I would “start drinking” when I was 21, but I was so much more thrilled to turn 30 because I knew it would afford me something priceless: confidence at a magnitude that I had never experienced.

High on that rush of confidence, last summer, I quit my job. I told my colleagues that, even though I enjoyed the work we did investing in private equity funds, I was leaving the company to think about what I really wanted to do with my career because I didn’t quite fit in at the firm. I was not lying to my colleagues, but it is more truthful that I left because my work situation started to remind me of my childhood.

As a kid, I looked on as my dad hugged, kissed, and tickled my older sisters while failing to acknowledge that I was sitting in the same room. I metaphorically tiptoed around the house, not wanting to make any type of ruckus that would incite my father to violence. I felt relieved when I didn’t have to talk to him after he and my mom separated because talking to him reminded me of how inadequate he made me feel and made me wonder why I wasn’t good enough to be loved by him.

At work, I looked on as my white male colleagues with bachelor’s degrees were assigned my post-MBA level work while I was told to be more “engaged.” I metaphorically tap-danced for my firm’s partners so they wouldn’t be incited to include a small mistake on my performance review and, therefore, lower my bonus. I was relieved when I didn’t have to work with certain partners, who spoke to me in such a condescending fashion that daily I had to remind myself that I graduated from Georgetown twice, so I must possess some amount of intelligence.

But then I remembered that I was 30. I was not an eight-year-old little girl who couldn’t help herself anymore. I had already been mistreated by my father. I had been made to feel as if I didn’t belong in my own home. Most importantly, I had already been to high school; I didn’t participate in clique politics when I was 16, and I was certainly not going to do it at 30.

So I walked away from my job (and steady income) with the confidence of a 30-year-old woman, to honor my self-worth. I decided to write a memoir about my relationship with my father, which I hope will help heal others who have or had an emotionally abusive or distant parent.

By the age of 30, I had traveled to ten countries. I had seen Cuban cigar vendors hustling in Mexico, danced to “Black music” with Italian boys in Rome, and been the first dark-skinned person encountered by some Inner Mongolians who were also visiting Beijing. I knew that I deserved respect from my father and my bosses because each person I met in every part of the world deserved my respect, and I am just as much of a person as they are.

To me, 30 was the real beginning of adulthood, when I finally saw that I am just as valuable as others.

Thirty meant setting aside the mistakes and habits (mostly alcohol-related for both) of my twenties, and stepping into who I really am. It meant walking with confidence in flat shoes because my knees were screaming, “No more heels, for the love of God!” It meant not being ashamed to leave the house without make-up because I know that every stripe I’ve earned is beautiful.

Thirty was a crown. Thirty was a shield. Thirty was a bullhorn through which I spoke up.

I was a little bit sad to let 30 go, but, of course, I want to keep living life, to see how much more like a bottle of fine wine I become with age. Thirty-one has been lovely so far. As I write my memoir, telling the story of life with my father and how I came to forgive him for abandoning me, I feel the seeds of 31’s confidence growing in me already. Just the other day, I refused to let a man “not see me” in line at a deli since I was there first. It’s something so small, but so vital, to just say, “I was here first, actually,” with a friendly smile. Suddenly, the world is on your side when you remind it that you’re there and that you matter.

Thirty was phenomenal, but my friend’s mom says, “Life begins at 50.” I cannot wait.