It's June, Wedding season, and today is Fathers day. The hallmark channel is marking the occasion with a couple classics, father of the bride 1-2 with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. I love both of these movies by the way- despite all the reasons I could pick them apart- they are in their own way charming and classic.
I remember watching these as a kid and teen- because they made me laugh and because I figured it was a formative education and preparation for dealing with my own father who was unabashedly the pitchfork, shotgun, that will always be my baby girl type. I also watched all the endearing moments between father daughter and hoping that despite the craziness I could have that love and a meaningful wedding with that bond. I also hoped for the supportive normal environment from my family, that they would be excited and happy for me.
I know it's difficult to talk about. I think that it makes people uncomfortable when I am so open about my experiences with childhood abuse issues. I think it also makes them uncomfortable with how adamant I am about my feelings regarding these experiences. Saying that my father is an asshole and abusive brings about this deer in the headlight look that seems to read "oh my, how shocking, how horrible that she could say such things". They look at me as if my rant couldn't possibly be warranted- they fall back on our cultural ideals about parenthood and that supposedly unbreakable bond between parent and child. They fall back on the things they were told, that there was no way a mother couldn't lover her baby, that a father even if absent must have a space in his heart for his child. The fairy tale goes that no matter how far, or how long, or how many mistakes have been made, that there is love to be found in a parents heart. There is always hope for reconciliation, no wrong is ever to great for true love to conqueror.
I used to be my Daddy's little girl. Like Annie Banks in Father of the Bride we would shoot hoops, he would take me in my radio flyer wagon to the doughnut shop every Wednesday when I was very small. He refused to see me growing up, often referring to how he could hold me in one hand when I was a baby. And yet like Annie Banks I too grew up, but unlike me she got to keep her special father daughter bond. Mine was broken by all the behaviors that were not loving, even though they seemed to coincide with a few that were. Increasingly it seemed like I was peeling back layers of issues. I'd find one only to peel off another. Sometimes the good moments mask the horrible ones. And when you are raised with thinking your experience is normal, the horrible is dismissed. But when you wake up and realize that the balance is off, and the good moments don't in anyway justify the experience of the bad, it's like waking to a strange world, a bizarre nightmare. You begin to horrifyingly peel back the layers as you start to ask the really difficult questions.
True parent love didn't come through, it didn't save the day and rescue our father daughter bond. My dad didn't get to be Father of the Bride. I did try. We hadn't been speaking at the time since I had sent him a letter requesting discussion of his abusive and controlling behaviors. I didn't know that some of those were sexually abusive experiences. My memories had already been dismissed and shoved under the rug, and everything normalized. I tried to call him but only got voicemail when I got engaged. I knew he would probably be additionally upset with me because I broke tradition and my husband did not ask his permission for my hand. In his world ruled by patriarchal, male, christian tradition that was disrespectful and thwarting his authority. In my fathers world the ways things worked is daughters are under a fathers rule until they get married, and they decide if and when they can get married and sometimes to whom. It sounds really bad when you say it out loud, but the way it works it is much quieter in it's application. It's very normalized and sometime's even subtle. But it's there, that's the way things are in such families and subcultures like mine. I didn't get a call back, that would have been acknowledging me in some way. Instead I got an e-mail saying congratulations and sounds like you have found a nice young man. It was punishment for calling him out on his behaviors and not following tradition. When I finally spoke to him we discussed my letter. He said he did not respond because he did not feel that it needed responding too. That and other things is how my father got himself uninvited to my wedding.
The lack of understanding and the desperate need to believe in the parent child bond came from relatives who were of course horrified that my dad wouldn't be Father of the Bride. Though as with the type of responses I still receive, people aren't horrified because of the things my father has done, and how much he has damaged the father daughter bond. They are horrified because of how I am saying those things out loud, they are horrified that a child would ever say such things about their parent- because they are parents. One relative took it upon themselves to cite scripture based "truths to me" about my situation. They said that I was to honor and respect my father. Again everything was about how I was reacting, how I was drawing boundaries, and how my father and the family felt. It was never about what he had done, that didn't make them uncomfortable or upset them- my talking about it did. They didn't cite any scripture about how parents should treat their children, or acknowledge that there was even an ounce of reasonableness to what I was saying and the boundaries I was drawing. At best this particular well meaning relative noted that they knew my father "could be difficult" but he was my father and he loved me. Maybe. Maybe once upon a time he loved me, but apparently not enough. His own personal issues consumed him and that is not some fairy tale curse, that is reality.
The Duggar family are not alone or isolated in how they see such behavior. My supposedly modern evangelical christian family saw my fathers issues as behavior issues, heart issues, spiritual issues. Not only would they similarly believe in handling such things in family or in church- they would also believe in victim immediately forgiving the behavior. I think they would say that they are not excusing it- that they are saying that he has issues. But the manner in which they talked about these issues was in the same way you would talk about a dog having behavioral issues. It's like saying yes he peed on the rug, but he's a dog, and he still loves you. But we aren't talking about an accident, or a mistake that is at the level of peeing on a rug. In fact it's not on the level of many other behavior issues. And similar to the Duggar's family and spiritual communities beliefs about the victims needing for forgive- well meaning members of my community have horrified me with how they believe what happened is partially my responsibility. It's not as blatant as the literature from Gothard etc. that the Duggar's ascribe to- but it's still there. I was told that I had always been a sensuous child. I hope you find that statement as appalling and horrifying as I did. But there it is, the idea that the victim- even a child is partially responsible for someones decision to abuse.
I don't know how to change the perspective that children who criticize their parents aren't just ungrateful or hateful. I don't know how to change how uncomfortable it is to hear survivors talk about abuse. I don't think that people need to hear every horrible detail, but simply saying that my father is abusive doesn't deserve the immediate assumption that I am ungrateful or hateful. Just because you might be a parent, and are horrified to think your child would ever say something like that about you, does not mean that the mistakes you are scared you have made are on the same level as the mistakes both my parents made. Those who are parents sometimes seem to look as if they feel weak in the knees when I discuss my parents in such terms. I can almost see them processing as I speak; they think about all the mistakes they have made and that they are afraid that there one beloved child could accuse them of being abusive. Most all parents, even abusive one's do not want to think of themselves as a bad parent. So when I say mine are it's almost as if they suddenly feel pity for them. They put themselves in my parents shoes because they know that they wouldn't want to be seen as a bad parent.
You know what? I don't want to be seen as a bad child. The truth is no child wants to be accused of being bad either. But I would not be as likely to get the same pity or empathy. But I didn't grow up being dedicated to hating on my parents. I grew up wanting to be Annie Banks, I grew up wanting to believe that my fathers bad behaviors were irrational and bad in the same ways as the lovable George Banks. But I wasn't the one who robbed myself of shooting hoops the night before my wedding, and being my daddy's little girl.
So today as you watch the hallmark specials and laugh, or if you are celebrating fathers day; and you run across a woman or a girl who shakes her head and says her father is an asshole- please try to understand. Try looking at her as George Banks would look at Annie, see the little girl, the young lady, and then the woman she is- or will be.
Look at her realize that she grew up wanting to see her father as her hero, that she grew up with hopes and dreams even amidst abuse. She didn't grow up ungrateful or thinking her father was an asshole. It's far more likely that this is a really sad realization that she- like me slowly came to. A sad realization and understanding that she didn't break the father daughter bond- that would be easy- if its your fault you can fix it. But she didn't break the bond, and I didn't either. She like me might have had to come to the sad and heart breaking realization that our fathers are not a bumbling, yet loving George Banks.
Try to consider that we are telling the truth, and that it would take more than a Nina Banks moment to make our fathers solemnly promise anything; including changing their behaviors or owning up to abuse.
Try to understand, because behind our words, calling our fathers an asshole- a woman or girl like me have had to realize that we won't have those special Father of the Bride moments, or any other such father daughter moments. And on top of that we are working through even more serious hurts, and trying to heal.
It's June, Wedding Season, Fathers day, and also today is Lithia- the Summer solstice. While Father of the Bride made me a little sad in-between all its humor, and I feel sad about fathers day- I will try to focus on the fact that Lithia is all about sunshine and things blooming. And while women and girls like me are resilient, bloom and grow, we always appreciate a little extra sunshine in the form of kindness and understanding. We don't really stop being Annie Banks, we just have had to take a different route to create the supportive family and friend structure we need.