11 Jun The struggle to forgive my father: ‘The emotion I associate with him is dread’
OPINION: The last time I spoke to my father, he said “good for you”. I was 32, and it was only the second time I recall him giving me any kind of praise.
The first had been at my wedding the previous year. “It’s the only worthwhile thing Mulk’s ever done,” he’d said.
But before I could respond, that time I did not yet realise was the last, he had already hung up.
I have not spoken to my father for over a decade since. We hadn’t really spoken much before then anyway. There were long periods, after our parents’ bitter divorce, when he would stop speaking to my brother or me without any explanation. When he did speak to us, it was to admonish or belittle us.
We were expected to call him every Wednesday after he left the family home. If we were even five minutes late, he would berate us for being such lazy, inconsiderate, ungrateful children, asking why he bothered working to pay for our school fees and child maintenance, when we clearly did not deserve either. He would tell us how disappointing we were, how we’d never amount to anything with such attitudes, how our “manipulative” mother was poisoning our minds and making such useless lumps of us. We would say nothing for fear of making it worse.
And every Wednesday, that familiar, sick feeling of apprehension would rise the longer the phone rang, until he answered.
“What do you want?”
From time to time, my father would say, apropos of nothing: “Sometimes I wish you hadn’t been born.”
I took some solace that he usually said “sometimes” – even as I cannot for the life of me ever imagine my children not being born. But despite constantly wishing I was someone else, I never wished he was not my father. Perhaps I could not conceive of anyone else as my father because he dominated my life and thoughts and dreams so profoundly.
In the same way we often return to the same thoughts or conversations, or painters repeatedly paint the same subject, or writers keep writing variations of the same story, there is an archaeology of desire. If you dig deep enough, through the ruins of every relationship before the others, you eventually get to the heart of the matter: the shifting quicksand on which that desire is founded – and founders. For years I was drawn to father figures or lovers who always ended up exploiting my desperate need to please them as I replayed the same fraught relationship over and over. When I reflect on those failed relationships, I can see not only how I often thoughtlessly cast aside the love of good people to pursue the capricious affections of those who resembled him – emotionally distant, secretive, materialistic, scarred by difficult relationships with their parents – but how many of them resembled me at that time, too.
Although I could not imagine anyone else as my father, the longer it is since my father last spoke to me, the more imaginary he has become, fixed the way the dead remain however we remember them, their flaws erased or magnified.
The emotion I associate with him is dread. I was terrified of him for most of my childhood, the way his temper could change at any moment, without warning or provocation. By the time I was in my teens and bigger than him, he did not try to beat me as he did when I was a child, but instead constantly cut me down to size. It was all those little cuts that hurt most, pointing out how stupid I was. How lazy. How untrustworthy. My terrible posture. My ugly skin. My bald spot. I ended up believing him, and that angry, unremitting voice in my head I always thought was his, sounding more and more like my own.
I would try to drown it out with drink and drugs. Despite being desperate to be loved, I was distrustful of and disgusted by anybody who degraded themselves with me. And because I cannot remember my father ever telling me he loved me – even after he had hit me, which was often the only time he hugged me – I had no idea what love actually was. Even now, all I see, as I always do in the mirror, are the flaws. I can never appreciate any successes I might achieve; and I am often stricken with terror at happiness being snatched away from me, ensuring I can never really enjoy it. All I hear is that snickering reminder that whatever I did – and, most of all, who I am – is not and will never be good enough.
Everyone in any family ends up playing out the parts written for us by everyone else. The black sheep. The golden child. The tyrant. The martyr. According to those supposed to know us best, we’re always saying this or always doing that, as though that is all we ever do or can ever be, even though we can be all of these – parent and child, tyrant and martyr – at once.
TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY
Despite being a despot at home, my father could be generous and charming. I was always being told how wonderful he was, how accomplished he was, how respected he was. Especially by him, but also by his colleagues or staff, until they fell out. You would think I might remember – even treasure – those rare moments he wasn’t cruel. But I cannot, because at any moment his mood could turn, and that brief respite would be swept away as if it had never happened. Those extravagant promises would be blithely broken; those grand gestures followed by spiteful acts; and it was my – or my brother’s, or our mother’s, or everyone else’s – fault for the consequences.
Because he always told me how wrong I always was – and because, despite the visceral vividness of many memories, much of my childhood flickered in gas-lit shadows – for a long time, I could not be sure of what I remembered and what I might have imagined. How entangled they are, memory and imagination, and what little space they often leave in their tight embrace for anything like truth. Now, my father has become a kind of bogeyman for my children, who did not know he existed until they started asking why their mother had a father, but I did not. He was just as imaginary growing up. Aren’t all our parents, even as their lives away from us and before us are inconceivable?
I had no real idea who my father was before he was my father. Not just because of the failings of my imagination; or because, even when I lived with him, he was hardly ever around, always at work; or because when he was home, he was shut up in his study not to be disturbed; or because he had no close friends and no longer spoke to most of his family in India, from where he and my mother had emigrated, soon after they’d married, in the early 1970s.
My father always refused to talk about his past. Once, when I asked him why, he said he had tried to tell me when I was two or three, but after I got distracted, he vowed he would never tell me anything further. And he never did, apart from a handful of stories he let slip when he was drunk, the fragments taking on even greater significance because I could only imagine what was missing. I cannot be sure how true his stories were. Which is not to say they were lies, but because for him, believing they were true made them true. And you could never disprove any of the stories he told, especially about you, because if you did not remember it as he did, then clearly you were the one who was making things up, even if his version, like his mood, could change at any time.
Because I did not know anything about who he might have once been or why he became who he was, I did not really have any idea of who he was, and, thus, no clear idea of who I was either, even as he constantly reminded me he was my father, and without him, I’d never exist.
There are always two sides to every story, if not more, depending on who is telling it, and why. As British historiographer Keith Jenkins observed, all narrative is a kind of fiction, and there is far more to any story than is ever said.
Doubtless my father would say all this is all nonsense: made up, fabricated, a farrago of lies. The word he used most was “integrity”. He was a man of integrity surrounded by idiots and liars and cheats. The wreckage of personal and professional estrangements he left behind him – all because of their duplicity, their jealousy and stupidity and, sometimes, their racism – belied his own unimpeachable integrity. He prided himself on it, as much as he derided me for lacking it, as though his integrity could not exist with anyone else’s, least of all mine.
But perhaps “integrity” meant more than even he meant it to mean. Not just in the sense of what he perceived as the truth – whatever that was at any time – but his own self, whatever that was. My father was as much of a man as the car he drove or the clubs he joined or the positions he held. He was always pulling his collar to show us the brand of shirt he was wearing; he was always telling us how good his scotch was; how expensive his shoes. But if you stripped any of those away, who would he be?
I wonder if that was what frightened him most of all: that without any of these things, he might be no one.
JUST LIKE HIM?
Money was the source of my father’s pride and the cause of his anxiety. He measured love in the cost of the gifts he received, and regard in the wealth he or others had. He was always boasting about how much he earned, even as he demanded restitution for money he felt he was owed. He would scream at waiters or shop assistants over the smallest mistakes on the bill.
It was usually money that provoked him to stop speaking to either of his siblings for years, reattaching himself to one after cutting off the other – just as he did to my brother and me, making us at any time paranoid about our precarious standing or jealous of the preferred son. And it was money that ended our relationship, such as it was. It is a long, complicated account, the details of which I am still unsure, as my father refused to explain and, by the time it was resolved, had stopped speaking to me.
When our daughter was born, it occurred to me I was two years older than my father had been when he became my father. And when she started school, it struck me she was the same age I had been when he left my mother. She looked so small, and vulnerable, and happy, and innocent. Had I ever been as small and vulnerable and happy and innocent as that? Had my father?
Some of the stories he did reveal were how badly his father had treated him growing up in India. Always called him “the accident”. Always favoured his elder siblings. Once took them out to buy shoes, and bought his brother beautiful Oxfords, and him effeminate Mary Janes, laughing at him as he limped home. I knew even less about my grandfather’s life than my father’s, and although I loved my grandfather, I could also believe he had been cruel to my father, even as my father told me his last words to him before he died were “I’m proud of you, son”.
Despite everything, when the time came to share the news of the pregnancy, I hoped – against all hope – that for all his failings as a father, my father might redeem himself as a grandfather, as his father had – or at least be better to my children than he had been to his own.
When he was drunk, my father would play Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle. It’s the story of a man too busy to spend time with his son, who replies at every rejection that he’ll grow up just like his dad, until his son grows up too busy to see him and the father realises, as he hangs up the phone after their last conversation, that his son has, indeed, become just like him.
I was long petrified that my flawed character was not just formed by my own unhappy childhood, but knit from my father’s toxic personality. That that contamination was epigenetic, in the way trauma survivors’ children can physically inherit their parents’ damage – the way, if you listen closely to the tape of a tape of a tape, you can still make out the original discordant tune underneath the hiss. That, echoing Philip Larkin, I might still f… my children up, even if I didn’t mean to, passing on that deepening misery to them.
But I hoped that we could start trying to mend that broken melody, even as telling him about the baby was also as much out of duty as all those birthday and Father’s Day and Christmas cards I’d sent over the years. I felt that old shiver of anxiety as the phone rang.
“What do you want?”
“I’m, ah, just ringing to let you know that, um, we’re pregnant. We’re expecting our first child –”
“Good for you.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
I do not know what response I was expecting, but as the hang-up signal trilled, I did not expect that. I hoped he might see the call for what it was – an offer to put the past behind us, to start anew with this new life. It was his first grandchild. I had done my duty. I would leave it to him, so punctiliously concerned with form, to do his.
WHAT DOES THAT MAKE ME?
When she was born, that beautiful, wondrous child, I realised that although you could be any kind of “ex” – an ex-boyfriend, an ex-husband, an ex-whatever – you could never be an ex-father. Just as they will always be your children, you would always be their father. And at the moment she was born, I knew that was who I was now, and who I would be for the rest of my life.
What does that make the man who always reminded me that without him I would never exist? And what does that make me?
I have not seen my father for years now. I had often wondered, though, how I would react if I heard he was dying, or had died. Would I suddenly feel sorrow and regret for the years we had lost? Or what we had never had? I have friends who, after their parents – whom they had resented their entire lives – had died, became riven by an even greater grief than if they’d had a good, loving relationship, in the way we often grieve most for what we wished we’d had. But I long ago abandoned the idea we would ever have that deathbed reconciliation or reckoning you read about in books or see in films.
The human heart, though, is unfathomable. Not long ago, I heard he had died.
How did I feel? Surprised.
Not just hearing that he had died, but that, rather than grief, I felt relieved, as though my life could finally begin. For most of my life, I only thought of myself in relation to him. How I could never be who he wanted me to be. How I could only ever disappoint him or enrage him.
Then, a few days later, I found out he was still alive. And it came back to me how, when I was very little, he would keel over, pretending to be dead. Time and time again, I would rush to him, horrified, until I realised he was playing dead, and he slapped me for not caring if he was.
Graham Greene observed that childhood is the bank account of the writer – and as a writer, it is probably the only account I have never overdrawn. I know all too well that the things that sometimes make me an adequate writer are very often the very same things that make me a less than adequate person. When I am not writing, that same neurotic, controlling obsessiveness can suppurate, making me oversensitive and fixating on inconsequential things, and I will catch myself doing or saying something he would have, hating myself as I do it, hating myself even more afterwards. It is then I see anger, both his and mine, for what it really is, and I am reminded, especially by my wife’s patience and grace with me, what real strength it takes to be gentle and kind.
So I keep writing – not to say anything, but to survive (as ironic as that sounds from a freelance writer). In trying with my pen to loosen that Gordian knot of imperfect memories and repressed emotions, I can almost see, in the revisions and between the lines, something that almost resembles the truth, or at least almost feels like it.
And perhaps my father was right. Perhaps without him I could not have existed. Without all that fear and unhappiness at home, would I have ever sought such refuge in books? Without always being alert to the capricious changes in his moods, would I have ever been so sensitive to the tone of things unsaid? And without constantly being told I had no right to speak, would I have ever tried to in writing?
As I have gotten older, I have wondered if Anna Karenina’s opening lines – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – are not quite as true as they might sound. I have lots of friends with fathers like mine, or worse, many of whom have transcended their traumatic childhoods by forgiving them. Would forgiving my father and forgetting everything he did unburden me, and heal this wound that can often still cut to the quick when I least expect it, all these years later?
But how can you truly forgive what you have forgotten? And how can I forgive everything I do remember?
OVERCOMING MY SHAME
As I keep discovering since my father last spoke to me, the human heart is also as resilient as it is unpredictable. I can, sometimes, even feel sorry for him – his blighted childhood, his thwarted life, his unyielding struggle against everyone else leaving him alienated.
He never gave us much, and, pained by the memories of the few things he did give me, I threw most of them out years ago. The one thing I did keep was a framed saying he presented to me on my birthday, just before I left his house, and had to return my key.
“When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him. When you see an unworthy man, look within yourself!”
I do that every day. He may be to blame for my unhappy childhood, but everything else is mine alone. But if anything, it is the one thing I was once most scared of that made me who I am today – or at least inspires me to become who I hope I can be.
Being a father.
That, even more than writing, has helped me overcome the shame and pain and anger. For most of my life, I had always hoped I would be loved enough to be redeemed. But since I married my wife and our children were born, I realise it is loving them that inspires me to keep trying to be kinder, gentler, stronger.
I am far from the World’s Best Dad – whatever that Father’s Day mug says – and I always remind my children I am not perfect: anything but. Although I try to be as open and honest with them as I can, there are as many things I can never tell them, as I would never say to them. Still so young, how can they comprehend everything I am still struggling to make sense of? But I hope, invoking Larkin again, what I leave them won’t be the shabby heirlooms of repressed resentments from a dark, distant past, but love. It is the only other worthwhile thing I will ever do.
* Author’s name has been changed.
This is an edited extract from an essay published in the anthology Split – True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings (Ventura Press, $33), out now.