By Erica Kaufmann
My mother wanted children so badly.
She tried and tried, but she suffered from an ovarian cyst in her 20s and, with only one ovary left, it seemed that her body would never allow her to conceive. When she finally became pregnant with my sister, she thought it was a miracle. Less than two years later, she had me. Shortly after that, she went through early menopause.
My father, however, never wanted children.
My mother’s pregnant body disgusted him, and he refused to touch her while she was expecting. If she went to pass him in the hallway of their little apartment, he’d press himself up against the wall and shrink back in repulsion. My mother was so happy to be pregnant that she simply ignored it.
She figured that once the child was born, his fatherly instinct would kick in. Besides, she had one healthy, beautiful daughter and another on the way. She was thrilled.
A few weeks before I was born, my father’s mother died. From all accounts, she was a mean woman who despised almost everything and never had a kind word for anyone. She drank until her liver failed and her blood turned to poison. I, my father insisted, was the reincarnation of this maternal terror, sent back from beyond the grave to plague him.
He never accused me to my face of this offense, but when my mother admitted it to me a few years ago, it wasn’t a surprise. In fact, it helped explain why he seemed determined from the beginning to tear me down: his attacks were actually acts of revenge.
Dad was a drinker, too. He started in the morning, and by early evening he would be passed out on the couch, three or four 40-ounce bottles deep in Milwaukee’s Best.
I remember having a birthday party in the eighth grade, and feeling ashamed when a friend pointed to the line of empties along my kitchen floor: “Hey, check out what Erica’s dad is packing.”
We fit into the stereotype of an alcoholic family: Dad was drunk, Mom the Enabler, my sister was the perfect child who held up the public face of our family, and I was the scapegoat.
I was harshly criticized and blamed for crimes I did not commit, and branded a liar when I protested. “You’re just so much alike, you and him,” Mom tried to explain it away. “You’re both so stubborn! And you both have such hot tempers. That’s why you butt heads so much.”
Throughout my childhood, I was compared to him over and over again. How could I not start to believe it?
Despite everything, I was fiercely loyal to my dad in my earliest years. Cyclically, my parents would have huge fights, usually over money.
Dad rarely lowered himself to work; he invented a brain tumor that he claimed was so agonizing that he was unable to hold a job. He had to stay home to drink in order to numb the pain, yet refused to see a doctor, until the cancer inexplicably disappeared several years later. “It must be a miracle,” he told my mother, sneering.
After one of these fights, Mom would flee for the night, checking into a hotel room in the nearest city. My sister would go along, but I would stay home with Dad. I felt sorry for him, and didn’t want him to be alone. Sometimes he would take me out to dinner and tell me how bad he felt, and I believed him.
The next morning Mom would come back, and things would go smoothly for a few weeks, until the next blowup.
Over time, persecuted day in and day out, I came to despise him. Yelling back only got me into trouble, I learned, so I trained myself to stifle my emotions and instead I would laugh at him—he hated that; it literally made him jump up and down, as if he were the child.
My second weapon was a laser beam of loathing, and I perfected it. Dad would scream at me and I’d stay quiet, narrowing my eyes and silently chanting, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.” It drove him wild. “Stop that!” He’d shout, putting his purple face next to mine, eyes bugging with fury. “I know what you’re thinking and you better stop it right now!”
By the time we were pre-teens, my sister and I were begging Mom to get a divorce.
She’d insist that she loved our father. When their arguments inevitably escalated to violence and he nearly broke her arm, it was actually a relief. He turned up the next day, still drunk and unrepentant, and refused to leave.
We had him arrested, and my parents finally separated for good.
Mom always wanted us to talk about Dad. We’d tell her, “We’re fine; we don’t want to talk about it.” Maybe admitting that he’d hurt us seemed to give him power that we didn’t want to concede.
But I wasn’t fine.
At 17, I’d lock myself in the bathroom and cry and scream; hit my fists against my chest; bite down on the palm of my hand.
I wished I had the guts to cut myself. I fantasized about it, seeing my hot blood ooze out of a fresh cut. I wanted to hurt on the outside like I hurt on the inside. I wanted physical proof of my pain.
Like my father, I tried to numb myself with alcohol. I had my first drink at 15; by 19 I was drinking myself to sleep every night. In college, I kept a bottle of cheap whiskey in the drawer of my bedside table. I would probably still be drinking to excess if it weren’t for my partner.
Turns out I’m gluten-intolerant (Irish genes, on my mom’s side) and by 24 my regular medicine of beer and whiskey was making me very sick. My boyfriend told me, “If you don’t stop drinking, I have to leave you. I love you, but I won’t watch you hurt yourself like this.” His words cut me, and I stopped.
But there was still an ugly stack of cinder blocks around my heart.
For many years, I felt incapable of real love, believing I was fatally flawed. I told men who pursued me, “You don’t want to be with me. I’m crazy. I’ll just hurt you.” I lived in fear that I was just like my father, as I had been told so many times. I didn’t want to let anyone get close to me. I didn’t want to feel.
One poor boy, a good friend, confessed that he loved me, and I found myself so angry with him. I lashed out, maliciously, and drove him away. We never spoke again.
Finally after college I allowed myself to have a serious relationship. But all that unacknowledged hurt kept seeping out of me, soiling it. Almost anything my partner said was an attack, even something as innocuous as, “You ate all the leftover enchiladas?” First I’d apologize, profusely. Then I’d get angry: who was he to make me feel guilty?
Then I’d want to flee, to leave him, just like my mom fled from my dad, running away to cry all night in a cheap motel. Then I’d come crawling back, feeling worse than ever, wanting my partner’s love, needing him to tell me that what I’d done was alright.
Even worse, the chant of hate I’d wielded against my father, at some point, I turned against myself. I’d catch myself lying in bed, sitting in my desk at work, or looking in the mirror, thinking, “I hate you, I hate you.” I imagined putting a gun in my mouth and blowing out the back of my head, a million pieces of my brains and skull flying everywhere.
It seemed like such sweet relief. My mind was so noisy; I craved the silence of death.
It was just this past winter that another traumatic event for my family triggered the old feelings of pain and betrayal. With my head clear of booze, I could see, for the first time, that I need to stop and look at all the fucked-up shit that has been swirling around inside me for decades, locked away.
When we were little children, my dad would come upstairs to play the guitar and sing us to sleep. Buzzed, he would sit on the edge of my bed and say, “You can never love me as much as I love you.” It was a sick thing to say to your child and, moreover, it was a lie.
I realize now that my dad hates himself.
In his warped mind, he may believe that he loves me. But as an adult I’ve come to see that he doesn’t know how. I’m just an extension of his ego, a thing he plays at loving, bragging about me in the bar, showing me off to his friends and proclaiming loudly how much we’re alike.
I’m not like my father. I have the strength to face my abuse, the wounds I suffered from his wrath, and the wounds I’ve inflicted against myself. Today I feel deeply sorry for him. He threw away his family for the sake of fear, fear of confronting his pain and mistakes. I doubt he will ever allow the truth to surface.
I’ve made a conscious choice to face my past and feel it, so I can finally let it go. And I have to admit: it sucks. It hurts like I’m a teenager again, locked in the bathroom, crying alone.
But I know I can get through it—I already have. This time, I’m changing my old mantra. Now, when I look in the mirror, I say something revolutionary.
“I love you.”
Editor: Dana Gornall