I’ve written about how my politics, my work as a journalist, and my life as a lesbian led me to the quest for goodness, but I’ve never explored the deeper reason I’m doing this. My journey didn’t begin a year ago. It started one day more than 20 years ago when I was sitting in a psychotherapist’s office in Kansas City, Mo. It had been a harrowing session, one of a series of appointments where I recounted the physical and emotional abuse my father inflicted on me.
The session is nearly over. I feel feverish, head hurting from crying so hard. I pull myself into a sitting position on the therapist’s couch, look at her after an hour of avoiding her eyes, and ask: “Was my father evil?”
She doesn’t answer immediately, and I think, yes, she’s going to tell me he was evil, and yes, she’s going to confirm that it’s OK for me to finally, blessedly hate him.
“You’ll have to answer that for yourself,” she says.
I’m furious. The answer is obvious, isn’t it? But then, why did I even raise the question? Looking back, I now think her answer was brilliant. Maybe it’s the only answer that can ever be given to that kind of question. I’m not saying there is no answer, or that there is no good or evil or right or wrong, but that to allow someone else to answer that question for me would have been to put my understanding of evil (and good) and my understanding of my father and myself in a box. I may well have never found my way out.
For me and many other people, issues of good and evil are not academic. These questions roil around inside of us, whether we’re conscious of them or not. For those of us who have done something we believe is wrong (Isn’t that everyone?) and for those of us who have been victimized (and once again, no one gets out of this life unscathed), understanding goodness may be as important as knowing we need vitamin C to survive. Without vitamin C, our bodies can rot away with scurvy. Without understanding goodness, our hearts and souls can be eaten away.
Was my father evil? And conversely, was he good?
My father was a man who believed in integrity. The sanctity of a man’s word was important to him. He often spoke about how he hated his job as an art director in an advertising agency because doing right was the last thing anyone in that business worried about. My father also railed against the inequities of the world. He cheered the Civil Rights Movement, which was not a popular position at the time. He taught my brother and me to hate racism. Are these not the attributes of a good man? But he also committed crimes in his own house.
Shortly after I started therapy, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. Even though I had barely begun to cope with my feelings, I knew I’d lose my chance to confront him if I didn’t talk to him immediately. When I call and tell him I want to visit, I say only that I need to talk. We agree to meet at the apartment where he lives alone. My mother divorced him years before.
He smiles as he opens the door. I walk in and sit with shaking legs. He says he is happy I’ve finally come to visit, and then I tell him that I have to talk to him about what he did to me when I was a child, and that I need to say how much he hurt me. I tell him what I remember; he denies it all.
But this is a different father than the man I knew as a child. The father of my youth would have met my trembling words with anger. I might have been in danger of assault. If I had talked to him when I was young, he would have been drinking because he was almost always drinking when I was a kid. That father – so young when I was born – also hadn’t been arrested for drunk driving. That father hadn’t finally limited his use of alcohol. That father also hadn’t received what amounted to a death sentence from a doctor.
As I sit in my father’s chair, I remind myself to breathe. My muscles are so tight they hurt. I should leave, but I want something more from him than a denial. My father looks out the window, and then he talks as if this were any chat on any day. He tells me what he thinks of the Lions chances this year. He talks about his work as an artist. And I respond, following him from subject to subject, wondering as I do why I’m engaging in this ridiculous conversation. I comment on coaching staffs and NFL prospects. I tell him his apartment looks nice.
“Do you know about blackouts?” he asks abruptly. “When they arrested me for the DUI, they made me go to a course on alcohol abuse, and they told us about how you can blackout from drinking too much. You don’t even know what you’re doing when you’re in a blackout.”
I’m silent. Is he making excuses?
“I never knew that before,” he adds, and then says it’s supposed to rain soon.
A few minutes later we’re talking about how he is painting again for the first time in years. He describes his latest project, and then interrupts himself and looks at me more directly than at any other time during the conversation. “I want you to know, “ he says softly, “that if I had ever done anything like you said, I would be very, very sorry.”
Was my father evil?
I know his childhood was strict and that sparing the rod was an unknown concept to his parents. I’ve heard whispers of worse things than a spanking happening to him. I know his sister suffered from schizophrenia, and that he struggled with emotional issues all his life. I also know that he looked like he hated every second of existence, except for the one, sweet week every summer when we went north to a cabin on a lake.
Was my father evil?
He did evil things, but all these years after I first asked that question, I believe I finally know the answer: Dad was not evil. He was wounded, he was struggling, he was out of control. And yet at the end of his life when he was confronted with a daughter who told him what may be the worst thing a father can hear from his child, he listened. He didn’t strike back at me, either physically or verbally. He merely listened, and he made the best apology he could.
A few months after that conversation, my father died. He was 60. I turned 59 in April. I look at life differently these days. I do not forgive my father for what he did, and I do not excuse him, but after all this time I think I’m beginning to understand. Dad was a good man who couldn’t figure out how to be good.
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