Untwisting Normal: The Power of Divorcing My Father
What some parents don’t want to remember their children can’t forget.
I’ve turned fifty, yet the child within me can’t help but remember.
In a small house in Arden, North Carolina in 1964, my mother tried to wake my father from a deep nap on the living room couch. Beer likely fueled that nap. I would soon learn even one or two lubed the gears of violence within that beautiful man.
But I was too young to know that then. I was a little past three years old. This ranks as my first memory of childhood.
My dad sprang from the couch, straddled and pinned my mother to the floor, and beat her so hard with his open hand her head thundered off the hardwood. She fought him, hard. Screamed for him to stop. I joined her. My cries fused with hers from where I stood, no more than six feet away, in some flannel pajamas. I remember the noise of his hand against her face. I remember the snap of her head. The blood. I don’t remember wounds, but I remember a spray of blood.
My mother soon lost the battle but won the night. She was athletic. Still is. No matter his strength, she rolled him off of her and crawled straight for me. I remember her arms, strong under me. She scooped me and ran. A bedroom, in this memory, became our nearest sanctuary with a door. I’ll not forget the feel of my mother’s hands on me, searching, I suppose, for a source of that blood. She eased down the roar of my tears and the throb of my heart and made me feel everything was all right, even when it wasn’t. Her face was red, I’ll not forget that. It wears crimson in my mind to this moment. I knew he had hurt her, terrified her.
But, she stayed.
Not far away, my parents soon built a new home on a cut-down old apple orchard in Weaverville, North Carolina. An aunt and uncle gave them the land just a few steps from their back door. It was a sweet life, having the feather-bed assurances of family as a neighbor. My father should have thrived, at peace with himself and my mom. He did, at times. Other times, he did not. He lived on a tire swing of the heart – swaying between the graces of a truly gentle man and beer-steeped rage. Sober, he was sweet, kind. Drunk, he lived low. He was mean and ragged, and didn’t seem to care that my mother and I knew it and suffered for it. He attacked her by the throat one night, vowing to kill her. I remember a chair exploding in that one. He threw it, and it crumbled into shrapnel against the hearth. I took charge then. In my underwear, I ran devotedly down the driveway to ring the back doorbell of my aunt and uncle for help. I was four.
But, again, she stayed.
I was four also when he left me alone at a little league baseball game to go off drinking with some lads he’d just met. I walked home. It was clear, from what came up in her eyes, he hit my mother hard and square in the heart with that one.
She raised hell with him. But, she stayed.
By the time I was seventeen, about to leap from high school to college man, he took a drunken swing at me, his first. He did it because I wouldn’t stop harassing him about the bottle of high dollar whiskey he poured into his mouth, and our lives, each night by then. He swung at me because I was fed up with feeling the threat of him haunt the air of the house, and my psyche, even when he wasn’t there. He missed. I made sure of it.
She stayed. I left.
My mom objected little when I moved in with my aunt down the driveway. I had only two weeks before I was to leave home for the independence of college life. But two more weeks with him were far too many. Somebody had to do something.
I did it. I divorced myself from my father.
My mother later told me she me she feared what the Bible said about divorce, so she had stayed. She stayed because they were building a life she didn’t want to surrender. She feared humiliation, failure, and how each can run like electric charge through the tongues of a small town. She stayed because he vacillated. He kept swaying between that gentle man she loved and the lunatic drunk she couldn’t recognize, and that was her normal. A twisted, jagged norm. It was her normal that he broke every dish in the kitchen one night, vowing to blow up the house. After that one, she had to talk me out of attacking him in his sleep. She stayed because it’s hard to change. Hard to bend the twists out of that normal. Easier to stay in the cage you know than run for the uncharted ground of freedom.
But because I finally ran for that freedom, things changed.
It took a few days, but my father sobered enough to realize I was gone. Gone for good, on every level of the catchphrase. Divorced from his toxicity. My mother describes him rolling on the floor of the kitchen, yellow as a banana with whiskey withdrawal, wailing. Screaming. He cried as if Death had hold of both ankles. He wanted, finally, to live. He wanted his son back. He wanted to take back the violence and what the mind-crackling threat of it had done to our peace.
But he couldn’t.
I share this because I’m not alone. These same strains of violence haunt homes and hearts of people you and I know, right now — down the street, across town, across the pew. If you’re reading this within a home or relationship that makes you anxious, afraid, hopeless, you are not alone.
I share this because to stay in violence is to play Russian roulette with your relationship, and with your children who live with it. Your children know. You may believe they’re okay because he never hit you in front of them. But they know.
And they will remember. I am proof.
I share this to get you to go.
Leave. Don’t wait. But leave safely. Seek the services and kind secrecy of a women’s shelter, whose caring professionals and volunteers will help you escape with your life, with your children’s lives. They will help save you and your children from having to remember another act of domestic war.
I am an advocate now. Having grown up trapped in my parents’ too-often violent marriage I am called to say even a single act of violence in a relationship is a deal breaker. Break away. Go. Get safe, and run. Run for your new life in peace.
I’m a rare and fortunate witness. Most men who see the violence I saw actually become violent adults. Their parents’ twisted normal becomes their twisted future. Counselors will tell you I’m an outlier. I did not see the rest of my life through the lens of my parents’ marriage, or my father’s tragic behavior. I saw peace instead. Peace, and the man I wanted to become — not the one I had lived with. But don’t expect this of children raised in witness to violence. To keep your children living in it, seeing it, is to risk raising an eventually violent adult. There’s a world of psychotherapy evidence to support this.
There is nothing so strong as a truly gentle man. I want every abuser who reads this to remember that. My memories are an abuser’s reminder: Violence — with words or hands — is permanent. You don’t get to take it back. Your legacy will live with it, even beyond your epitaph. Your children and the mother of your children can not erase that violent streak of you from their hearts and minds. To this day, if someone just drops something in a thud against the floor in my house, it shoots adrenaline through me. Shocks me full of the old feel of the home I grew up in. I know, it makes no sense, this far removed. But domestic violence is, after all, a dreadful nonsense all its own.
Now, here’s the good news.
My father and I more than reconciled. After I left him, determined never to see him again, he hit bottom. It was a low bottom, hard and cold as the floor of the grave that soon awaited him if he hadn’t stopped looking for peace in that bottomless liquor bottle. But he did stop. The man I eventually went home to – and it took a while — bore virtually no resemblance to the sometimes ferocious, broken man who had attacked my mom and assaulted the atmosphere of our home, for my entire life.
I forgave him. I deeply love him and respect the change he chose for his life. But that became possible only after I quit him. Staying would have enabled him to carry on his torment and die in its wreckage. In staying, I would have kept expecting God to be a puppeteer, a mortal magician, not the great God who expects us to live in faithful motion.
Einstein said it well: Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is insanity. Trying to live with my dad, endlessly begging him to change, was my well-intended folly. When I ceased to make him my problem to solve, he embraced a faith that changed him from a poster boy of a major social problem into a truly beautiful man.
Yet he worried, right to the edge of his death, about the harm he’d caused. He could not forget either. Guilt rattled him. Neither he nor I nor my mother could take that away.
But I speak here for both of them. I am my father’s surviving voice, and in many ways this is his ironic love letter to the world. On his behalf I am called to emphasize that a man who hits women is a broken man, in need of repair work only he is responsible for getting done. He is solely accountable for figuring out how to respect himself and harbor authentic love for others. My sweet mother realizes this now. She wishes she had held my dad accountable by leaving him long before I did. I recently heard a wise minister say there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that justifies violence in the home, and that it’s never God’s will for someone to live with such violence. I believe my mom finds comfort in this truth now. I hope you do as well.
This is the truth of my memory. In it, you’ve caught sight of the child well-hidden behind the man many of you watch on television. That child rooted in violence has grown into a gentle man, whose present days abide in peace.
If yours do not, I pray the lessons of my past open doorways to your future. It bears saying here again: Leave. Seek safe shelter, knowing that leaving creates a dangerous time for abused women. But go. Divorce your entire life from violence and know the peace I have known.
Such peace is a foretaste of authentic love. And such love is what you deserve.