A few years ago, my aged father stormed into my attorney’s office unannounced. It was a few months after my mother’s death. I’d retained the attorney to look into the details of my mother’s estate. Although my father had requested a meeting — demanded, actually — once I realized my mother hadn’t left me anything, there was no good reason for it. I’d told my attorney to cancel. But since normal rules of conduct have never applied to him, my father decided just to show up anyway, sans his own legal counsel. This maneuver is, should someone decide to litigate, egregious enough to get the offending party’s legal counsel disbarred. My father’s own counsel of the last 30 years is unsurprisingly a native son of the same twisted incestuous academic community as my father. His father, also named Herb — surname Solomon— was one of my own fathers closest friends. I knew said attorney vaguely as a child; and I knew to stay away from him — as did many. As a young teenager, my father’s attorney, Mark, raped a little girl. His family paid off the girl’s family. In exchange, they agreed to forego prosecution. The loving daddy, my father’s dear friend, spent his son’s adolescence and adulthood bragging openly and shamelessly at family gatherings about his son’s sexual prowess. How do I remember? The last time I heard him do it, I was in my late 20s. At my father’s 60th birthday party.
In my counsel’s legal chambers, my father handed my attorney an envelope with a card for me, told him he could read it if he wanted to. He said, according to my attorney Erica is a fine writer.
When my attorney told me this, I felt my stomach muscles tighten. I know what those words meant; and I know what I was supposed to believe they meant.
Then my father left. To put this in perspective: my father was born in 1924. This means, in 2019, he will be 95.
I have not communicated with my father or any of my family of origin for that matter, save my little sister when she was dying in 30 years.
I asked the attorney not to send the card. But after a year, curiosity got the better of me.
The paradox of childhood abuse is this: you do not want to believe the physical reality, to say nothing of the psychological truth of what is happening. Did that night-time beating last night really happen? Did my father just ski off down the mountain calling me a whiny cunt intent on ruining his skiing while I lie here with a broken leg? Did he really just give my telephone number to the man who tried to rape me? Did he really feloniously put my name as a ‘dependent’ on his tax return when I was in graduate school, so that I lost my scholarship?
These are your parents, these are the adults after all, and they are supposed to take care of you. If they don’t love you it must be because there is something wrong with you. Nothing bad could be happening here. We are all a happy family. Mommies are for loving. Yet you are all too familiar with what occurs at night, behind locked doors, in the shadows, at the purlieus of family life which, interestingly, outsiders never witness. The in-home shrink’s office where my beatings took place. The bathroom where my little sister was molested by an uncle. The post-Thanksgiving bedrooms shared with my elder sister and a young cousin, whose father had trained her to suck his dick. He came in. We watched her do it.
Without having to ask I knew no teacher-friend-other-parent-doctor would ever believe me if were to tell them what was going on. Mommy and Daddy violent? Mommy and Daddy enabling child molesting relatives?
They are both shrinks. She’s a psychologist who works with autistic children. And she is married to Daddy, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a professor at Stanford. They have the heft of professional and institutional legitimacy squarely behind them — entire amassed armies of acceptability. I was just a screwed up kid. In 1960s, suburban post-WWII America, the spirit of faux blanc realism was as pervasive as air. There was no such thing as an evil parent. I was the problem. Something was wrong with me. I didn’t love them. I was evil, not Mommy, not Daddy.
Back to my father’s card. It’s a recycled-paper Greenpeace greeting card. Very politically correct. A happy polar bear rolls across the front. “Missing you” reads the caption. Herb writes that a friend of his told him about some stories of mine, which he’d come across on a Web site called Cowbird.com.
“You are a fine writer,” my father reiterates in the card. “Where can I read some of your other writing?”
Herb’s card does not mention contents of the stories, that many — probably those shown him by his good friends in Palo Alto — involve him, and his and my mother’s violence and sadism towards me: the pernicious physical and mental torture leveled at me on an almost daily basis starting about the time I learned to walk; how I experienced my parents as a child, and how I’ve tried to cope with some of the consequences of what they did. Herb says he’s tried to write too, about the village where he worked in Kenya, about his experiences in WWII, and about my bushbaby — the last of which he admits to failing at.
“I think you’re the better person to take that on,” he writes.
He would like to be in touch, to show me some of his writing. He can show me his, and I can show him mine.
“Why not?” he writes.
Having never contemplated his own responsibility for my flight from family of origin in the first place, he’s neatly exonerated himself. Of course he’s not culpable. My experiences are my own problem. My perceptions of whom my parents really were can be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of my peculiar nature.
My father lives in the abyss of narcissism. His very being engenders the void. I remember the feeling of oxygen rushing out the moment he entered the room, as though the pressure lock in a spaceship had broken open. Any room. All rooms. His ego was a giant Hoover. All vanity. All a fraud. All aught.
I can now see from the pellucid vantage point of fifty years and fifty million miles, he has never been anything but a mediocre man who bullshitted his way into a status job after the War. He is and has always been desperately jealous of real talent: that of his colleagues, his patients, and his superiors. But the very idea that the reviled child, the Bad Daughter, be more talented than he? No. Impossible. So what is his solution? He’s going to entice me by appointing himself my managing editor.
Herb has told my attorney that if I’m ‘in need of funds’ he’s willing to supply them — even though my mother did not leave me anything.
The offer, I know, is so that anyone who reads the card — perhaps my attorney, perhaps Herb’s good friends — will be taken in by the irresistible con of this career psychopath — dear old Herb,”such a dear sweet man” was how one of his old friends — a creative writing teacher of mine — once described him.
What he really wants, however, is for me to sign a paper which his lawyer has prepared — it requires a notary’s seal, no less — declaring I will not go after his estate. He knows, and I know — and he probably knows that I know — in California, where he has lived for the past over half century, the law is glaringly clear: if a person — any person, even an heir by law, as I am — is deliberately left out of a will, there is nothing to be done. The courts have been punctilious and unrelenting in their findings in lawsuits brought by omitted relatives against multi-billion-dollar estates. That is wealth of the kind Herb would like to think he has. His demand for my signature was just another little act of sadism. Just for grins.
I have described him during the last few decades — to people who have insisted on some sort of characterization — like this: “Hannibal Lecter, in a 1967 Chevy station wagon.” Mostly, though, for the past 40 years I’ve said only “I don’t talk about my childhood.”
All the same, for the most fleeting of moments, I am two people. A tiny filament tugs at me. I wanted a Daddy too. I would have loved to fill the psychospiritual gulch where “Daddy” is supposed to be. My former husband’s late father, John Rex, was a man I loved and admired and whom I felt loved and admired by. For about ten years, John Sr. filled some of the ‘father’ void for me, although I was already an adult. When he passed away in 2003 at the age of 94, I was at his bedside.
I am definitely supposed to fall for Herb’s ‘I’ll be your Daddy’ seduction. It used to work, fifty years ago when I was a child, desperate to be loved. If, like some hungry young porpoise I were to leap at the evident gift of fish tossed my way, I’d find myself dangling at the end of a barbed hook, bleeding to death. Herb dangled lots of things: love, tuition money, respect. I’d fall for these taunts and my other siblings must have fallen for them too and he’d haul in fodder. He ate his children.
Children are notoriously unsentimental; and among these, I’ve been told by people who knew me as a child and teenager, I was exceptionally hard boiled. If there is any rejoinder to be made to Herb’s card, I’d have to say: “I wrote it when I was five.”
As a child of five, I was sent to a shrink, who asked me to draw a story. I don’t recall whether the assignment was ‘about your parents’ or ‘about your family.’ Since I could not yet write, I drew a multi-frame narrative I’ve reproduced since for numerous therapists. I’ve reproduced it here. In case explanation is required, here it is:
Frame one: Raging father, passive mother, isolated child.
Frame two: Raging father throttles the child. Mother stands by.
Frame three: Father has eaten child. Crying child inside father’s belly. Everything much better. Mother smiles. Father smiles.
Frame four: Child grasps knife she has concealed, and cuts her way out of the father’s belly.
Frame five: Father rages as he bleeds. Mother sews up the wound with a needle and thread. In her corner, child holds aloft the instrument of her liberation.