Here is a letter I have written to my father. I will share it with my therapist today. It will not be sent to my father. The letter was written to help me get in touch with the feelings appropriate to have toward one's abuser. Names of people and places have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Less than two years ago I had a shocking experience. It bothered me a lot. I was in Denver for a week looking for a house for Marie and me to buy. Our realtor took me to several houses. I liked one that was on a hill south of the city. It had a nice view.
Cindy and our grandson Isaac were out here in Denver during that week also. They came along with us to see this house. Isaac is an independent little guy and he was exploring the house on his own. Since Isaac and his family lived in St. Louis at that time, I was eager to spend some time with him. I also wanted to take pictures of him to show Marie when I returned home to Nebraska. So when I saw Isaac take off, I trailed him around the house, taking pictures of him. I guess he didn't remember me from our visit to St. Louis several months before. In the last picture I took of him I was the only other person in the room. I didn't realize he was afraid. He must have been trying to get away from me. Finally he got into this closet but couldn't get any farther away from me. I was stunned by the look of terror in his eyes. I knew I would never hurt him. I love him. I'm his grandfather. But he didn't understand that. He just reacted to what he thought was danger. He was afraid. I left the room immediately. I felt terrible. I didn't want Isaac to be afraid of me. My mind raced back more than 50 years to when I was Isaac's age. I saw myself, instead of Isaac, with fear in my eyes. Fear of you. I've never been able to tell you before how afraid I have been of you. I've never been able to tell you how much you have hurt me. I've never been able to tell you how wrong I feel you treated me and how I'm still trying to get fixed up today from what you did to me. It's not good for me to keep all that fear and pain inside. I need to tell you, even though I don't know how to do it, and I don't know if I can tell it with as much feeling as the wrong you did to me deserves.
I'm sure I wasn't always afraid of you. In the first pictures I've seen of you and me I don't see any fear in my eyes. I look happy in these pictures. I like to think that's a look of pride on your face as you're holding me in those early pictures.
But something changed fairly soon, Dad. It was you. You set an atmosphere of fear in our house. I think every child should respect their father, but, Dad, you did wrong things to cause us to be afraid of you. I was so young when you beat me up with that 50 pound sack of potatoes after Ralph broke the window accidentally when we were playing with records, letting them sail threw the air. Somehow I knew that as soon as you came home and spotted the broken window, I was going to get in trouble. I still remember you banging on me with that heavy sack. Why did you do it? It was just an accident. And I took responsibility for it, even though Ralph is the one who actually threw the record that broke the window. No one deserves to be beat up like that. No one deserves to begin a life of fear at such a young age.
And this one totally mystifies me. The laundry barrel. You've still got it, 50 years later. A couple of years ago I decided I needed to face some of your weapons of terror. So I went into your laundry room on one of my visits with you and Mom, and took a picture of it. There was the barrel, just the way it looked to you as you looked inside it. You used to put me inside it.
I hadn't done anything wrong. I know that for sure.
Then you would put the lid on it and hold it down tight.
Why, Dad? Why? Remember how I would beg you to let me out. I pleaded with you. But you wouldn't let me out. I was terrified. Dad, do you know how it feels to be terrified? It feels awful. It was totally black in the barrel. I didn't know if you would ever let me out. I felt hopeless. It was panicky. I'm still claustrophic today and I'm sure my sessions in the laundry barrel helped contribute to that.
If I ever saw someone doing that to one of their children today, I would report them to the authorities. I wish someone would have reported you. But there was no one to report to. And would they have believed us?
You know, I still get feelings of panic today. I've sometimes blacked out, fainted. Sometimes my world turns black, I'm so afraid. I remember that that happened when I got to go out on the basketball court and play for a few minutes in a game. I was so afraid.
Dad, were you trying to make me into a man, a brave man? If so, I don't think that was a good way to do it. It sure didn't have a good effect on me? Did you get some kind of morbid satisfaction from torturing me in the barrel? Can you remember that I would finally say "I love you, Daddy"? Is that what you wanted? Is that what you were trying to get me to say? If so, Dad, I sure didn't feel any love. That would be a terrible way to try to get your son to love you. I didn't hate you, Dad. But I did learn to be very afraid of you. I felt really confused and off-balance much of my life. You would take care of me whenever I was sick or had some other need. But you couldn't take care of my need for safety, something I needed most. I never knew when you were going to do something bad to me.
I remember how you would beat Mom. At least once you banged her around so much that her glasses got broken. I remember that. It's like a nightmare in my mind. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was too small. And if I had tried to protect Mom, you probably would have hurt me too. I remember how confident and poised she was when we were young. But you not only broke her glasses, Dad, you broke her.
Now that's something I feel angry at you about. There's no way you should have treated Mom like a thing. You broke her, Dad. It's not right to do that to a person. She is a valuable person, but you took so much of her life away from her. She turned into a mouse. Now she can't even remember the bad things you did to her. I'm glad she can't, but we're right to still feel angry about how you treat our mother.
You even beat up our dog, Duke. Dad, you were a monster when you lost your temper! Poor Duke! I can remember him yelping him in pain as you would bang on him the Isaace way you banged on me. Duke yelped. But I never did. When you would bang on me, I just tried with all my strength to protect myself, especially my head. You would bang on my head, my ears. It hurt, but I never cried. I can't remember why I didn't cry. Maybe it was because you had said, "Don't cry, or I really give you something to cry about!" So my cries stayed inside, if I even thought about crying.
Yes, Dad, you were a monster when you raged and beat us up and made us so afraid. Your face would get so dark and mean. You looked evil. And it was evil what you did to us. It was unloving, selfish of you. You controlled everything in our family. The feelings of the rest of us didn't count. Just your own feelings counted. Sometimes you acted so childish, so manipulative, so demanding, using your temper or the threat of it to control us.
You have many wonderful qualities, Dad. You are so generous. You are talented. I remember with great fondness going to bed and hearing you play the accordion or guitar. Everyone knows how well you play the guitar. Everyone knows how much feeling you put into it. You could entertain people so well with your music. I liked that. But sometimes I also thought about you, "You hypocrite! You look so nice right now. You are so charming. If others only knew how you treated your own family!" Dad, I'm angry at how you treated us. I'm angry that you beat on us and put us down so much. I never felt safe around you. I knew you were always watching. You were alert for every little mistake. You didn't miss a thing. And you always bawled us out for making mistakes, or stumbling, or not being strong enough to do something you felt we should be able to do. I'm angry about that because I now have those kinds of feelings about myself. I often don't feel very good about myself. I put myself down when I make mistakes. I'm not sure I'm a valuable person.
I can't ever remember you telling me that I did anything well. My brother-in-law says he remembers that at the end of one summer when he and I had gotten a lot of fish you told me that that was pretty good.
Do you remember how you used to tell me that I was "cold"? You would try to hug me, especially like when I would leave home to return to college. I would let you hug me, but you could tell I was holding back. Dad, my body was trying to tell you something that I couldn't tell you in words? Those Isaace arms that were trying to show me that you loved me and were going to miss me were the Isaace arms that beat me up. I couldn't trust your arms. I couldn't trust you.
One of my most difficult moments happened one days during the big tides and the clam diggers were driving down onto the beach to get clams. You always tried to put obstacles in our truck grooves in the sand near our cabins to keep the clam diggers from messing up our "road." One day I put up obstacles for them also. Mike D. said to me, "Al, you're just like your Dad!" Oh, that stung. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I have not wanted to be like you, Dad. Oh, yes, I want to continue on your gift of saving our village and family history. I want to keep telling the funny stories you told. I want to be generous like you are. But there's no way I want to beat people up, with my hands, boards, oars, or words as you have done, especially to your family. But I have carried on anger, Dad, just as you have. I've lashed out at people when I have felt they have wronged me. I thought I was better than you because I never hit anyone. There's more than one way to hit people. Words hurt too. That old saying just isn't true, "Sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me." I'm working on changing, Dad, but it's not easy.
I wish you had worked harder at it. You would go through your temper cycles. It was so predictable. You always had remorse a few hours after you raged and hurt us. You would always come ask me for forgiveness. And I would forgive you. After awhile I gave up on you, though. I knew you wouldn't stop. Even though you said you were trying to change, even though you told me you prayed asking God to help you not lose your temper, you didn't change.
Do you remember how I tried to get help for you when I was in the sixth grade? We were headed to California to visit Mom's parents. Remember how we used to listen to that radio program where Dr. Narramore would talk about how people can change. He would invite people to get counseling help. He had a counseling center near where Grandma and Grandpa lived. I wrote to him, secretly. I was scared. I described to Dr. Narramore how you acted toward your family. I asked him if he thought that counseling could help you. He wrote me back. I got the letter. He said that he believed counseling would help you and that they would be glad for you to work with them. I did that to help you, Dad. Remember how I told you about about Dr. Narramore's letter? I encouraged you to get counseling help. I assured you that no one from our village would need to know that you were getting couseling help. But you refused. You said, "I can do it on my own."
But you couldn't. Somewhere along the line I guess I gave up on you. As I got older I looked forward to getting out of the house, even though I was shy and afraid of other people. I remember one day not long before I flew from Anchorage to St. Louis for college that we were working at the net racks. You were badgering me as you often did. I don't remember what it was about. But I didn't like it. Somehow I just blurted out, "Well, you won't have me around much longer to treat like that." I didn't keep my feelings in, as I usually did—it wasn't safe to share my feelings. I don't know if it was even safe to have feelings. I was looking forward to freedom.
I experienced more freedom the first summer that David worked me in my fishing boat. I was so proud of him. He worked hard and didn't complain. And he enjoyed working with me. See how happy he looks in this picture.
I wanted to have a new kind of life where my life had been so miserable as I was growing up. I wanted him to be able to fish with his father where he could be safe, both physically, but even more importantly, emotionally. And you know what? I experienced greater safety through giving it to my own son. Later, I wrote about it in my poem "Safety's Smile":
I'd had enough safety. I wanted free.
I broke water and struggled to the surface
gasping for the air of baby security.
A toddlerhood later that protection expired
and I was pulled to the water again.
Our boat kept us safe from the sea.
But it was a strange refuge,
drenched with derision and dread.
I tired of being so wet,
so, opting for water again
I escaped into the liquid chill.
There's three minutes to numbness and fifteen to death.
I died, and found safety, drifting numb for a boyhood.
A manhood later my own son arrived
and spotted me floating.
He boated beside me, smiled safety,
and said, "Come aboard, Dad!"
He reached for me and I took his hand,
emerged from the chill,
and smiled freedom and safety at last.
Dad, that's what I needed from you all my life, safety. And affirmation. How I needed to know that you thought I was OK. But you never let me know that. I still don't know if I'm OK. When I think about it logically, my head tells me that I am. But I often don't feel that I'm OK. I really don't want to make it sound like I'm better than you. I'm sure there are ways that you are a better man than me. But one thing I've really tried to do is affirm each of our children. I have complimented them on jobs well done. But I have also complimented them on being the kind of person that they are.
Oh, how I needed to hear both things from you. Do you remember how I recently asked you, as I was leaving your house after visiting with you and Mom, if there was anything you were proud of me about? I remember it well. You seemed to be caught off guard by that question. You hesitated a bit and then you said, "What you stand for." I kind of knew what you were referring to and it helped me. But I think I asked you if you could explain it a little. I could tell that you had some tender feelings then as you said that you were proud that I have done the kind of work I have and that I have maintained my belief system. What you said was meaningful to me. Thanks.
I wish I could have told you a lot sooner how you have hurt me. But I couldn't. It wasn't safe. It just wasn't the kind of thing done in our family. It never crossed my mind. And if I had told you, you would have taken it as me rejecting you as a person. You would have said something like what you've said about Cathy, my sister-in-law, when she has told you that she doesn't like the way you treat Mom. "She doesn't like me."
Do you remember the summer that David flew up to Vancouver by himself to fish with the family up there? It was one of his most difficult summers. Our children knew how you had treated Mom and me. They loved you, but they didn't like your behavior. David wrote us about one bad experience he had with you. He as working with you fixing fishing equipment. Some other workers had done something you didn't approve of and you said to David, "I should hit them on the head with this hammer." David was brave enough to tell you calmly, "Grandpa, that's not a good thing to say." You said something like "Huh?" So he make it clearer, "Grandpa, it's not a good thing to hit anyone on the head with a hammer." And you then thought you were putting David in his place by responding, "Be quiet. You need to respect your elders." It was difficult for me to read what David had written. But how I admired his courage. I knew he was angry for the way you had treated me. He could have let all his anger out on you, telling you that he knew how you had abused me, and that it had made things difficult for me and our family. But he held his tongue. His summer basically ended then. He had had enough.
Dad, David was right to be angry at you for what you did to me. Marie, my wife, David's mother, is right to be angry at you for what you did to me. It's difficult for me to feel that Isaace anger, but I know it's right of me to do so. At least I know it with my head. And when I get angry at others, I sometimes remember that I'm getting mad at them when you are really the person I should be angry at.
You and I like a picture of us four generations, you, your mother, me, and David. I was so proud to be able to show Grandma and you my son, David. I'm glad that he got to meet both of you. I hope that David' son, Isaac, can meet you someday, but I hope that Isaac will never again have the look of terror in his eyes that he did when I took that picture of him. Isaac looks so much like his dad. And David looks so much like me. But I wouldn't completely trust you to treat any of my children or grandchildren with safety and respect. I was afraid when Marie worked with you in your boat when we were first married. I assumed that you would bawl her out, perhaps frequently. I wasn't sure but what you might even hit her. And *that* would have made me very angry. I would have told you so. No one deserves to be abused as you have abused people, especially your own family. You deserve the anger that we feel for how you have abused people. And I'm a person, although I have often felt that I am not a person—something I need to talk to my counselor about. So you deserve my anger, even though it is still hard for me to feel it toward you for how you treated me.
I often dream about you, at least since my first years of being in therapy. I struggle in my dreams now. At least I struggle. I'm learning in my dreams to stick up for myself and not let you abuse me. I feel guilt and confusion in my dreams when I have to report you to the police. I don't want you to have to suffer for what you do to others. But I don't like suffering for what you did to me, either.