Note: As in previous posts, it makes more sense to start at Part 1 for greater understanding of the overall context. All content is based on my perspective as an adult remembering and reflecting upon my childhood experiences. Any commentary on what may have been the thoughts of experiences other parties involved is, admittedly, conjecture, on my part. In addition to my original writing, I’ve included text and social media exchanges that resulted from informing/asking my father about posting this excerpt since they serve to illustrate the dynamics of our relationship.
During my early adolescence, several major events occurred that impacted my relationships and personal sense of security. I won’t spend too much time delving into these but will attempt to explain how I understand their effects, individually and collectively, through my adult lens. They are key plot points in my life story and may resonate with some readers in a way that may help them heal from their own trauma.
When I was still in elementary school, my biological father (no longer referred to as “Daddy Michael” by this point but just, “Dad”) established a relationship with my stepfather’s sister, Suzann, who was 16 years his junior. For a kid who already felt strange, trying to wrap my head around the bizarre turn of events that turned my “aunt” into my stepmother, was virtually impossible. My father, though in our lives on occasional weekends, was pretty much estranged from my sisters and me. Dad provided the down payment for our new house from an inheritance he’d received and made arrangements with Mom and Ken to live with us for a limited period of time while looking for a new place. I don’t remember being aware of the relationship between them until after they moved in but I later learned they had been “together” for a while prior to her graduation from high school. He was her date for her senior prom and a framed picture from that event was always displayed in their living space once the relationship was public.
I remember looking at that picture often- my father in a tuxedo, long beard and hair graying at the temples and Suzann, a 17-year-old high school student, with thick glasses and the feathered hairstyle so common to girls in the late 70s. He was thirty-three years old in that photograph. Adding to the confusion was the relationship I had known with her prior to their romance. She was our “Aunt Suzann,“ the youngest of Ken’s four sisters, whom we had known since we were toddlers. She babysat for us when we were little and was more like a peer than our older aunts.
Initially, I thought she was fun and cool- a teenager who taught us racy songs and helped us put on silly shows in our childhood bedroom. Once she and Dad were a couple, though, her role became more parental and our relationship definitely changed. I no longer trusted her and wondered if her attention toward my sisters and me was just an act of manipulation, designed to get her closer to our father. As an adult, I no longer see Suzann as the primary actor in the situation, recognizing that she was too young to have a rational understanding of what was going on. I can relate to the idea that she may just have been seeking love and security- someone to protect her.
To this day, it is challenging to have any substantive conversation with anyone in the family about the nature of their relationship and, it seems, there is a good deal of denial on the part of everyone involved that their union originated in a really fucked up way. Removing any of the family connections, this is a clear case of an adult male engaging in a wholly-inappropriate romantic & sexual relationship with a much-younger woman. Since they have now been together for nearly 40 years, most of the family seems to rationalize their union as having been “good” because they’ve maintained it for so long but I still have issues with it.
A couple of years ago, I wrote my father a letter that included my feelings about their relationship and its impacts on me and my sense of connection with him. In it, I explained that it feels to me like virtually all of his parental instincts were directed at raising Suzann, rather than his three biological children. Emotionally, financially, and physically he has always provided for her, while my sisters and I have, predominantly, been treated as an unwanted and unwelcome burden. Perhaps this characterization is too harsh and my feelings are unfairly distorting his intentions. Whether or not this is the case, the observable fact of the matter is that my father has chosen to live in a way that has had demonstrable, adverse impacts on his children and his relationship with his wife is a core element of his lifestyle.
While I am certain he has a tremendous amount of guilt about his life choices- guilt he has expressed in moments of vulnerability and stress- it has not significantly changed his behavior and it’s highly likely that he will go to his grave without meaningful attempts to reconcile with us, despite my attempts to facilitate such a reconciliation. I have made peace with it, to the extent that I accept my limitations in altering anyone else’s perceptions or behaviors. My father is a product of his own thoughts, actions, and experiences and is not obligated to change. I have the right to think and feel the way that I do and know that it is probable that my thoughts and feelings will continue to evolve over time. I’m fairly certain, however, that I will continue to recognize how profoundly dysfunctional this situation has been and how it has shaped my understanding of interpersonal relationships throughout my life.
It is clear to me now, that I have been repeating a pattern in my own love life that involves being attracted to and involving myself with men who are fundamentally insecure and emotionally distant. Men who judge me as “not enough” or “too much” and are rarely able to appreciate me or see me as a peer and partner. Men who seek control over me because they haven’t healed from their own painful childhood experiences. This was the case in my 20-year relationship with my ex-husband and each of three long-term relationships I’ve had since separating from him in 2012 and subsequently divorcing. It’s not very surprising that I would have normalized power imbalances in romantic relationships since that’s what I was used to and had observed my entire life. Normalizing dysfunction, however, only breeds more dysfunction. As I’ve sought to repair and restore my sense of self as a whole, healthy, and valuable person with authentic connections and significant gifts to share, my “dad stuff” keeps coming up.
In my most recent conversation with my father, I called to thank him for sending me some money to help get me through this pandemic & quarantine period. Money has also been a dominant theme in our relationship which I’ll get into more later. I asked him if he’s had a chance to read any of my blog posts, to which he replied that he’s not sure how to navigate through the site but that he’d read “some of it.” I explained that I was planning to post my reflections on my relationship with him and my thoughts and feelings related to his relationship with Suzann. I wanted to get his permission before I posted so it wouldn’t be a surprise. He said I could do whatever I want but went on to say he didn’t understand what the big deal is. Everything had “worked out” with them and us. Why did I feel the need to dredge up past issues and write about them publicly?
This led to an increasingly hostile exchange in which I tried to explain why it is important for me to process my past experiences in a way that may assist others in processing theirs and allow us to have a more substantive understanding of each other. He became defensive and angry when I spoke of feeling neglected and unwanted as a kid and how I think our current relationship is superficial and imbalanced, which led to an abrupt end to the conversation. He texted a short time later saying he did the best he could and evidently doesn’t have whatever it is I want. He ended the text with “I love you.”
I replied in text:
All I want (all I ever wanted) is for you to listen and try to understand my perspective. I don’t expect you to like all of what I have to say but it is important for me to say it so we can have an honest relationship. I can’t do superficial bullshit anymore. I don’t want to have to pretend that I am completely over everything that happened to me as a kid and the subsequent impacts – especially when there’s zero accountability on your part. I feel like you still see/treat me like the teenager who made a string of “bad choices” without acknowledging that my behavior was significantly impacted by circumstances beyond my control- including your parenting choices. At the same time, I get the sense that you want me to completely understand your choices based on the circumstances you were dealing with as an adult and a parent. It may be hard to hear but the truth is that none of the 4 of you were adequately prepared for parenthood and that had significant impacts on all three of us girls. I was, and still am, the most intellectually and emotionally sensitive of the three of us and I think that has prompted me to do more work on myself and invest differently in my own healing. I am a survivor, not a victim. I will be honest with you, even when it’s hard. If you aren’t able to deal with it, that’s your choice. Love is a verb, Dad. It’s in the doing.
Later that evening, his wife posted the following publicly on Facebook:
“Life is full of trauma. We are all products of parents doing their best. If you want to blame today on episodes from 30 years ago, you might be a major part of the problem. Life isn’t full of hand outs. But it is full of opportunity.”
Several of her friends responded, without having any sense of the context, affirming her statements. I was angry and indignant at her hypocrisy. She has literally enjoyed a lifetime of hand outs and has made hundreds of references to the mistakes of her parents over the years and how they affected her. I posted the following comment:
“Since this post is a very thinly veiled reference to my attempt to have a genuine conversation with my father about my healing process and desire for an honest relationship, perhaps you should consider not making it about you…?”
She replied, “trauma makes us or breaks us”
I commented, “I find that sentiment meaningless.”
Then she wrote this:
“Let’s not make this public. I know at this time that your father had at least as much or more trauma and is still healing. Good intentions are never good enough for some. It’s not about me but the stress of a very anxious human I have loved for more than 40 years. His health and immune system is my main concern. If wanting his sanity and good health is selfish, then so be it.”
I said, “Sure. Let’s not make this public.” with an eye-rolling emoji.
The next day, I wrote the following text to my father:
I’m sure Suzann told you about or showed you our Facebook exchange from last night. It’s abundantly clear that what I’ve been trying to express to you is not being interpreted as intended. I’d like to be clear that I have done and continue to do a lot of personal growth work and I’m very happy with the person I am. And I know that the vocation I’ve dedicated myself to has real and lasting value. It’s the personal healing work I’ve done that has allowed me to be honest with myself about my own unhealthy patterns in relationships and to repair the emotional and psychological damage I sustained in childhood. I had no power or personal agency except in rebellion and other attention-seeking behaviors- which seem to remain the focus of your perception of me. Being honest with you about how I experienced my childhood is about my own integrity NOT about blaming you for my life not being what I want today. I am very much at peace with the life I’ve built and who I’ve become. I am a survivor, educator, artist, & healer. I have had beautiful, deep relationships with hundreds of people of all ages from all walks of life. I feel pain around our relationship because I feel emotional distance and unresolved conflict between us. It’s not about right or wrong, good or bad. Those binaries are harmful and prevent real communication. This COVID situation, the recent deaths of two of my program alumni, and my current work in therapy have brought up a lot of stuff for me. As your daughter, I want to be able to talk with you about my memories & feelings without having them minimized, deflected, compared, intellectualized, or rationalized. I have a right to my story & to express it honestly. I am very sorry and empathize deeply that you didn’t have an emotionally satisfying relationship with your parents. That sucks. I get it. That’s why I’m so insistent that our relationship not be superficial, transactional, or power-imbalanced. I’ve been asking you to reflect on what you’d like our relationship to be. If it needs to be comfortable for you at all times, that’s pretty unrealistic, given our history. I need you to decide whether or not you are willing to work through your discomfort in order to know me for who I am now and build from there. I am not the insecure and depressed teenager who didn’t do the “right” things because I was so fucked up from the harm that was done to me. I am a grown woman who has accomplished remarkable things. I’ve founded programs and [an] organization to empower & educate teenagers and I’ve been deeply engaged in social, environmental, and political change movements for over 20 years. I’ve raised a wonderful kid of my own and helped raise hundreds of other people’s kids. I’ve consistently shown up for friends and family when they’ve needed me. I do really hard things and stretch myself everyday. I don’t give up on myself or other people. I’m worth really knowing. I’m worth listening to. I forgive you for all the things you did and didn’t do in the past. But I will not accept the status quo in our relationship moving forward. That’s where I am with our relationship. It’s up to you whether you can accept me as I am or not.
It’s a long one. I know. I think I’ve been trying to say the same things in ever more explicit ways to get through the wall of misunderstanding. About six hours later, I received this text from Dad:
“I’ve been unable to respond. Lots of deleted messages. Call me tomorrow if you want. I will try to listen to whatever you have to say. I am truly sorry for your trauma. I will do my best to listen with an empathic ear.”
I replied the next day:
Hey. Thank you for that. I think it may be best to take a break from talking and just sit with things as they are for a bit. I hope you understand that I only raised the issue of my past trauma in the context of writing about my experiences and my healing and wanting to make sure you were fully informed before I publish any details that involve you and Suzann. The conflict emerged when we both became defensive and emotionally reactive. I have a therapist to listen to my reflections on my trauma. I’d like you to accept that I experienced those things and they affected me but it’s more important to me that we are able to have authentic communication in our relationship now. I just want you to see and hear me as I am today & try not to dismiss my ideas as naive or my feelings as immature because of our history and the power dynamic between us.
And that’s were we left it, for now. I am confident that I am not the only one who has struggled to be seen and understood by a parent and I am sharing this in order to let others in similar situations know that you are not alone. Power plays out in all of our relationships, to some degree, and I think there’s value in naming it. As Mr. Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”
I welcome your thoughts in the comments or feel free to send me a message through email or contact form.