My friends will tell me that any message from my father really should be considered too little, too late. And yet, when his name appears in my inbox, I read it right away. My father emails me this single sentence, which, like all of his random musings — about putting air in my tires when the air chills; trying acupuncture on my dog’s arthritic hip; and taking on new responsibilities at work — comes without a subject line: “Your personality fits being in charge, tough, fair and sensitive.”
His emails are filled with odd commas and overlong ellipses, which would make him seem like any other slightly dotty but doting suburban dad if I didn’t know better. Years ago, such a kind exchange — the kind of exchange that goes on between fathers and daughters who haven’t raised fists to each other — would’ve been unthinkable.
The first time he hit me, I was 8 years old. The last time he hit me, I told him I’d kill him if he ever did it again. My byline is a story of endurance: attuning to my father’s moods to dodge a beating; taking fists to the stomach and bearing the lash of his belt when I couldn’t. Friends and colleagues who’ve read my essays are honestly shocked to find that I still speak to my father (mostly over email), that I will even, on occasion (mostly holidays), have dinner at his table. But I’m able to pass the salt to the man who broke my nose because I’ve come to understand him, and with that understanding, I’ve come to accept (though not absolve) him. This trajectory — from righteous anger to pity, even tenderness — has led me out of his footsteps.
Most people conceive of a batterer as a frothing brute, a beast of muscle and knuckle. When he appears in a movie or a TV show, or in book club-ready fiction, he is a walking hair-trigger in Stanley Kowalski’s T-shirt. The title may change from “The Color Purple” to “Black and Blue,” “This Boy’s Life” to “Enough,” but the narrative is similar: The survivor transcends through escape, leaves the monster in the rearview mirror or 6 feet under.
My father was capable of fulfilling that stereotype. He was also capable of a passion and sensitivity that made me feel like the axis of the world. He’d bring me reams of computer paper and boxes of pens; then he’d feign interest in the evening news as he watched me draw. His affection was a bright, living thing, thrumming with heat. I felt cocooned in it. My renderings of Aladdin and the Beast were “superior.” He mailed my drawings to the animation department at Disney.
None of this changes the fact that he’d take off his belt for the smallest infractions: clogging the toilet; overfilling the tub; leaving a cake on the table unattended, an easy mark for the dog. As I grew older, I slept over (and hid away) in houses helmed by fathers who didn’t raise their voices or their fists; who understood that kids are clumsy and laugh too loud, yawn at their homework and roll their eyes. And when I realized that love didn’t have to be the double-edge or the flip side of anything, my feelings for him became a bowstring pulled taut with humiliation and rage.
The arrow finally launched after one particularly vicious beating when I was 13 years old. He left me pulped and twitching on the kitchen floor. Looking up at him, I didn’t see the man who’d lain on my bedroom floor to protect me from the monsters in my dreams. I saw the monster.
If I were the heroine of a Lifetime afternoon movie, my great catharsis would be the night, shortly after that beating, when I stood in that same kitchen and told him that I’d kill him if he raised his hands to me again. I’ve stripped that night down and reassembled it inside my head, and on the page, so many times, and so vividly, that I can still feel the cold linoleum under my stocking feet.
I rarely find the triumph in it. I remember my fear. I remember his face. He looked like he was trying to breathe through a gut punch. It’d be so easy to stop my story there, to loop a tidy bow of victim as victor. But it’s not the complete package. There are other nights, other moments, that turned my father back into a man — a sad, sick man; a man who’d been broken by the yoke of his past; a man who’d shield his child from the monster, even when that monster was himself.
My father didn’t spend his nights in church basements drinking stale coffee and enduring talk of a higher power because he was afraid I could end him. He’d been a boxer, a college football player. He could have obliterated me. I knew this, so I ran away after threatening him. I would call, drunk and screaming, from houses that made Jesse Pinkman’s party palace seem straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. And when I sounded too sloppy, too limp, to be safe, he’d come for me. He’d pack me into the car and help me into the shower (fully clothed, sometimes still in my combat boots), left me for my mother to clean up (as always). I was a tumble of curses and fists, though I was too loose, too weary, to connect with either.
I didn’t know why he sat there and took it; why he’d seemed so cautious, almost deflated; or why he’d started going to what my mother (with her usual aggressive cheerfulness) would call “his nightly groups” until years later. We passed those years in a state of cease-fire. I had no cause to crush sleeping pills in his whiskey, or to cut his throat while he was passed out. He’d swapped his whiskey for psychiatric medications that stole his vigor. He became a dinosaur fossil moldering on the sofa, the brittle remnants of something that had been vicious and formidable.
“The cycle of violence” is a term that manages to sound simultaneously like a clinical diagnosis and the copy under an Upworthy video. I learned it as a college student, taking psychology, sociology and women’s studies courses. Though it gave me an intellectual apprehension of the batterer-as-victim, ripping open the badly healed stitches of his own trauma with every “outburst,” I could only imagine my father wearing his scarlet A: Abuser. Asshole. Alcoholic. The turning point that allowed me to see that he hadn’t been born with malice, that he’d been corrupted before he could even know better, came when my aunt showed me a photo of a little boy in a Little League uniform. He smiles into the camera, though his mouth looks slightly swollen.
Though my aunt was several years older than my father, she was much smaller, sicklier as a child. He’d gone to college. She’d gone to typing school. He’d paid her rent so she could live in one of the safer sides of Jersey City. Before I was born, he’d paid her children’s private school tuitions. Of everyone in the family, she was the most like me; her bookshelves groaned under the bulk of so much Dostoevsky. She was the one I’d call when my father had too many “bad spells”; the one who could call him a diminutive, a silly kid’s name, and quell him; the one who’d said that as much as she loved him, she’d open her home to my mother and me if we ever needed it.
So when she said that I should try to understand him, she became (for the moment) a Brutus, closing ranks with all the relatives — including my own mother — who’d insisted that “physical discipline” (to quote one cousin) was “normal” in Italian families, that telling the truth — not feigning another trip on the curb, another knock into a door — was just “snitching.”
These same cousins and great uncles played up my paternal grandfather as an old school, cigar-chomping badass; the pride of the block, the guy who’d even swing at a cop. My aunt told me about a man who used to heat his belt buckle over the stovetop before he’d come into the living room looking for someone to hit. Her voice got thin and shivery, as if she could hear that gas click on. “You’re too hard on him,” she said. “He never let mommy and I get hurt.” She told me that he “made it stop” when he was 16. Despite my pushing, she never told me how.
My aunt took a leather album from between “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” and showed me a boy with my face. Round cheeks and a boxy jaw. Lips that must’ve embarrassed him with their pert girlishness. He wears a cowboy outfit and holds a stuffed horse head on a dowel. He doesn’t smile. He hands a screwdriver to my grandfather, who is frowning as he assembles a dollhouse. I know that frown, a thundercloud slowly thickening. My father’s eyes tell me that he does too. The hands that fold over the hammer seem too small to ever be the hands that will mark his daughter with scars that will not heal.
Too often, I’ve been obliterated by my anger. Every kindness I was shown — by a friend, a lover, even a casual acquaintance — was just a prelude to being dicked over. I approached life with a bristling vigilance, never expecting to do much more than survive. My father had taught me, in word and deed, that every infraction — however small, however accidental — was an insult. Protecting yourself meant biting back, even if (especially if) you gnashed everything around you into tatters.
I made it less than a mile away from my aunt’s apartment before I had to pull my car over. A cresting wave of tears broke down upon me, broke me open. I imagined my father as a boy young enough to call his mother “mommy.” I imagined the first time he got in between his mother and his father’s fists. The first time he took that belt for his sister. He’d never be a child again, not after that first time.
His outlook, his impulses, were not innate, inescapable. They’d been taught to him, just as they’d been taught to me. And I could unlearn them. If his life as a whole, my life at that point, had been a tiny seed’s descent into deep, hard earth, the only way out was blooming.
That boy’s suffering does not absolve the man he became. His bruises will not heal mine. His broken noses will never knit me back together. We are shaped by our circumstances, sometimes shattered but forever changed — and always, always, we are accountable for our actions. Still, the depth of my empathy shocked me: I began to see that little boy in my father — and not in the parts of him that had hurt me. The same boy who’d helped put together his sister’s dollhouse — even when he knew what the inevitable missing part or stubborn nail would bring upon him — remained on my bedroom floor long after I’d fallen asleep.
The threat to end him showed my father how desperate I’d become. Though my aunt never told me how he’d gotten the beatings to stop, I can guess.
I know that my father’s desire to curb his violence is a rare, precious thing; a thing that many other survivors (including my father himself) will never receive. But we will never be the guilelessly loving family I always wanted. I will grieve — will always grieve — when I see my friends post photos of camping trips with their parents; when I see fathers and daughters dancing in wedding albums. On a surface level, my father and I will never get beyond emails and brief exchanges about “Homeland.” But these moments tick on with genuine warmth, and that feels like progress.
Recently, I left my dog with my parents when I went on a day trip to D.C. with a friend. When we step into my parents’ house to pick her up again, my friend makes random small talk with my mother. He does not follow me into the den, where the dog is sleeping at my father’s feet.
My friend and my father exchange a brief hello. They don’t shake hands. Later, I’ll ask him if, after reading my essays and hearing my stories, it was “weird” (as if weird could begin to cover it) to see my father. My friend says that he tries to remember all the kindnesses I’ve described, all the drawing paper and books my father bought me, the times he swept nightmares from my brow.
“Nobody,” he says, “can be reduced to an after-school special.”
My father is like an intricate glass sculpture that has been fractured and tacked back together with silly putty. And those kindnesses — those moments he could be at ease, let me be his little girl — are the parts that never cracked. I call them to mind whenever I’m tempted to simply delete an email or leave a text unanswered.