Coming to Terms With an Abusive Father

The author and her father in 1968

The author and her father in 1968

Over the years, I came to the realization that the things I did for my life to be better were the exact things my father considered “disrespectful.”

Recently, an item popped up on Yahoo!News about Candice Bergen. It was an item I’d read before — about how her Father, Edgar Bergen, ventriloquist to Charlie McCarthy — had left his daughter out of his will. Bergen, it seems, felt it proper to leave his estate to his dummy rather than his daughter. The item suggested that the reason for the elder Bergen’s actions was his anger at Candice’s wild life in the 1960s, something the old man never allowed himself to forgive. And for one of the few times I found myself able to relate to someone like Candice Bergen because I, too, was left out of my father’s will.

It seems so strange to look back at it and think, “Oh, yeah. the crazy old coot disowned me,” or even to think of myself as the “black sheep” but I guess that’s what I am. The disowned daughter. The irredeemable black sheep. Five years on from my father’s death the question remains: how much do I really care about the money or his “legacy?”

The answer: none. Not one bit. Mostly because he never contributed much to my life in the first place. I don’t have all kinds of fond memories of my father going places with us or doing things as a family. Most of the time, during my childhood, he sat in his big, black recliner, smoking cigarette after cigarette, shrouding himself in a cloud of thick gray smoke.

I think that’s what I remember most about him. Just sitting there, in his tee shirt, smoking.

There’s so much more that happened that made life with him a totally miserable and bizarre experience. One fond memory is of my father’s Friday night ritual. He’d take a shower, shave, put on some cologne, get dressed and go out. Without my mother or me. When I asked, “where’s Dad going?” she told me “he’s going to the movies.” OK. I thought maybe he needed to go see a grown-up kind of movie, one that was Rated M or R. After all, he never accompanied my mother and I when we went to a Disney movie.

My father did this for several years, always going out on a Friday night. After a while I got up the courage to ask my Mother what kind of movies, and she told me “pornographic movies.”

It was the ’70s. Porno movies were pretty popular. Still, he would prepare for his evenings out as if he were going on a date. Which was far more than he ever did on the rare occasions he went out with his family.

Later, when I was old enough to understand who it was that went to porn theaters, I realized my father was one of those men who sat in the dark in his trench coat. That’s a pretty sad thing for a kid to know about her father. There were other things about him, things I learned over the years and after he died. Things that were confusing, irritating, disgusting, and very frightening.

One of those things had to do with my desire to go to college. I didn’t bring the subject up to my father. By the time I was in high school, I knew better than to try to talk to him about anything in my life. He wasn’t interested. That was clear from his lack of interaction with me and my mother. So, I told my mom that I wanted to go to college, and that if I got accepted in my sophomore year, I could graduate in my junior year and go to college a year early. When I mentioned this plan, I heard:

— Why would you want to graduate a year earlier? Don’t you want to graduate with the rest of your class? (Not really.)

— Your grades aren’t good enough. You can’t get into college. (Maybe, but easily remedied.)

— We don’t have any money to send you to college.

— Financial Aid? What’s that?

To which my father added “Nobody’s gonna give you money for college! You ain’t no Rockefeller!”

Again from my mother,

— I forbid you to go to college unless you major in mathematics or nursing.

Forbid me.

This dogged me for most of my life. I could not understand how a parent could possibly forbid a child from wanting to get an education.

As I later learned, so much of what my mother told me had nothing to do with her own feelings and everything to do with my father’s attitude about women and about education. Over the years, as I continued to press my mother on the question of why they didn’t want me to go to college, I finally got the truth.

— Because your father didn’t want to you to go to college.

Later, my Father would lie to relatives and tell them, “I paid for that Smith education.” In fact, I attended Smith on a full academic scholarship.

He didn’t pay one dime for my education. Ever. My mother’s legacy, and the legacy from my Aunt Julie’s estate paid the loans I took out for my room and board. But the cost of the education itself came from my hard work, not my father’s bank account.

 ***

Over the many long years, the number of slights, nasty comments, and insults dished out by my father are simply staggering. And always my mother made one excuse or another, one apology (he doesn’t mean it) after another, one lie after another (he doesn’t show it , but your father loves you.) Even as a married adult, I was not immune to his insults and ire. There was a time when my ex-husband and I arrived for a visit and he came out of the house, big smile on his face, and yelled “Wow! You’re fat!” (his favorite insult.)

To which I responded, “Yeah, but at least I’m not old,” which was really the only way to get back at him. He hated the idea that he was turning into a foul-smelling old man who peed on the bathroom floor and spit tobacco wherever he pleased.

Over the years, I came to the realization that the things I did for my life to be better were the exact things he considered “disrespectful.” I refused to call blacks “niggers” and Puerto Ricans “spics.” I didn’t stay married. I didn’t have babies. I wanted to do something with my life, like get an education, which in his eyes was the worst thing I could ever do.

Because to get an education was to do better than him. And if I was doing better than him, I was somehow showing him up, or looking down on him, a Man.

I a woman, had the temerity to go out and get more than what he could give me. My education would make him look inferior, and that was the worst thing that a female could ever do to this white male.

I tried to tell him that my education had nothing to do with him. That it was about my future, because I was going to be around long after he was gone. He didn’t care. I was not doing what a woman was supposed to do, and for that I was persona non grata.

 ***

There were more secrets that I would find out from relatives, several years after his death. They were things I sort of knew anyway. Friends were allowed over only at certain times and for limited amounts of time. Everyone had to be gone by the time my father got home. Actually, it was better if they didn’t come over at all. Birthday parties didn’t happen. Sleepovers didn’t happen. We didn’t associate with this family or that family in the neighborhood. We didn’t have dinner guests or company other than my mother’s family. Sometimes even they were not allowed to visit, depending on my father’s moods.

There was always an elephant in the room, a skeleton or two in the closet, a mood to watch out for. I learned to taste the air before I made a move, to become a master of disguise, someone able to hide in plain sight.

Out of sight, out of Dad’s way, out of the path of Dad’s criminality and insanity.

Eventually, I understand where some of this behavior came from — that my father experienced neglect and perhaps outright violence as a small child. He was the unwanted child of a teenage mother, no birth records. By the time the Depression rolled around he was abandoned to his grandfather, and at 12 shipped off to the Civilian Conservation Corps. From the CCC, he went off to fight The War, and stayed in the military until discharged in 1963. Not honorably discharged. Just discharged. There was, as I understand, some incident that got him discharged. Of course this was never openly discussed. But he’d served in two major wars and a “police action” which was what they called the early days of Viet Nam.

With all of this, it’s safe to say that he suffered at least from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and possibly some brain trauma from the poor nutrition, neglect and violence of his childhood. From the viewpoint of some theoretical omniscient narrator, he’s easy to see as a tragic, twisted character from a Southern Gothic novel — perhaps one by Faulkner — someone to be pitied more than reviled. But I wasn’t reading a book. This was my life. To survive, I had to learn to feel nothing for him.

 ***

And that even applies to the whole estate situation as well. I won’t bore you with the entire story of my father’s will, but suffice to say that all of the proceeds from his estate, as well as the house and all its content, went to my sister. There was no mention of me at all in his will. It was like he didn’t have a second daughter.

At first I was pissed. I spent years in therapy and blamed my mother. I felt, too, that I was entitled to at least half of the proceeds of the sale of the house. My sister at first seemed to agree to this. Within a year, however, she had changed her mind, announcing she had no intention of selling the house. Ever.

How did I feel about that? Of course I was disappointed. And then I was angry. But I think I was more angry to find out that my father had lied to members of my mother’s family about paying for my education. Not only had he decided not to acknowledge me in his will, he wanted people to believe he was responsible for my later in life college education.

Going to college. Which, out of all the things I did or didn’t do, angered him the most.

Could I have fought my sister for a share of my father’s estate? Sure. There was, though, another choice: simply cut ties and move on. I chose the latter. There wasn’t much to divide up anyway.

In December, we’ll be coming up on the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. He died on the 21st. And I got married on the 24th. I’m sure this is another thing that, even in the beyond, pisses him off. And you know what? I don’t care.

I know who he was, what he was unable to give, for whatever reasons, and so I am unconcerned. I’ve let it go, moved on, and am living my own life. Like Candice Bergen, who made herself a cool $25 million for her work on Murphy Brown, I’ve worked to make my own (although not $25M. Yet.) Money can buy a lot of great stuff, like new cars, a new wardrobe, a bigger house, and plastic surgery, but it really can’t buy a great education or peace of mind from living a life unburdened of bigotry and a feeling of inferiority. In that sense, I am, despite being disowned and disinherited, very satisfied with my life indeed.

Tish Grier is a writer and longtime blogger living in Easthampton, MA.  Even at middle-age, Tish is still a girly girl who enjoys blogging about fashion and beauty.  She also writes essays about her formerly dysfunctional life and wants to let everyone know that things change.  You can read her at High Fashion Average Woman. Tish is also a contributor to Midcentury/Modern on Medium.

Image courtesy Tish Grier

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