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Heavy Meddle: Struggling With The Sins Of The Father

A daughter wants her father to be honest with her about his history as a sexual harrasser. (Erik Witsoe/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
A daughter wants her father to be honest with her about his history as a sexual harrasser. (Erik Witsoe/Unsplash)

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

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Hey Steve,

I’m in a complicated situation with my parents right now. I’m 30, and have been working my way through therapy for three or four years now, dealing with persistent trust and commitment issues that plagued my relationships in my younger 20s. You will likely not be surprised that much of my digging has led me back to the topic of my less-than-ideal childhood. Both of my parents struggled with alcohol abuse, and we moved a lot when I was growing up, every couple of years, and always very far away. These moves were destabilizing to me, and they were compounded by the fact that even as a child, I knew on some level that the moves were because of my father’s job, or occasional lack thereof.

Recently, at the behest of my therapist (and in an attempt to have a better understanding of what happened that caused so much of our family's instability), I did some digging into public records around my father and discovered some really dark stuff. Specifically, that he lost at least one of the jobs that caused us to move because he’d sexually harassed co-workers and clients at the workplace. I found this information readily enough from a reliable institutional source, as my father had a fairly high-profile job, but it came as news to me, since my parents worked in concert when I was younger to blur out the details, and recast the whole situation. Specifically, we were told as kids, and then continued to be told into adulthood, that my father had made “a mistake,” but that he was also pursuing new work out of a desire to have more time to spend with us, as his previous job kept him away at work too much.

Steve, I am really grappling with anger about this. I know that, as a 12-year-old, it might have made sense to keep the particulars of my Dad’s crime from me. Kids don’t need to know everything. However, to cast it as a “choice” strikes me as a blatant lie. Furthermore, this narrative continues into my adulthood. In recent years, when I’ve attempted to re-open the subject with my father in order to reach some understanding or resolution around it, he’s reiterated the fact that at least “one of the reasons” he decided to leave that job was to spend more time with my siblings and me.

So he seems committed to that story. And my question is: how do I continue to have a relationship with this person? As of now, my father is still in my life. He did not sexually abuse me or my siblings. He sends me birthday cards and text messages and encouragement. He is far from perfect, but he really has changed his life around (also through therapy when I was younger), and I feel he’s a good guy for the most part these days. At the same time, I feel that our relationship is so hollow and strained with this lie growing right in the middle of it.

How can we reconcile? Is there some way I can approach him that is less likely than others to trigger his shame and anger? I want to have a relationship with him. I want to forgive him. But how do you forgive someone who refuses to be honest with you about what he has done wrong?

Sincerely,
Sad Daughter

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Dear Sad Daughter,

I can understand why you feel betrayed. Your parents haven’t been completely honest with you about a mistake — or really, a series of mistakes — which your father made, ones that led to a lot of instability in your life. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that they weren’t completely dishonest. They did tell you that your father had made a mistake, after all, rather than attempting to whitewash his firing. They did not go into details at the time, because you were 12, a decision you can understand. But now that you’re older, and beginning to reckon with painful aspects of your childhood, you want them to set the record straight.

In an ideal world, they would do so. Your father would stop fronting and come clean about the whole mess, and take responsibility for his role in it — maybe even ask your forgiveness. And maybe, in time, he will do so. But for the moment, he can’t get there. And I doubt that confronting him about his actions, and/or what you’ve learned about them, will result in the kind of open-hearted reckoning you’re seeking.

You’re certainly welcome to try. You have every right to tell your dad how much his deceit upsets you, and how much it’s interfering with your efforts to re-establish a bond of trust with him. I’m all for sharing feelings rather than forcing them to ricochet around inside you.

But I also think, Sad Daughter, that a large part of your work resides in recognizing your father’s weaknesses and accepting them. I don’t mean simply his sins of the past, but the part of him that remains unable to fully confront those sins. Your letter makes it clear that he has changed his life for the better through therapy — I assume this means that he’s in recovery from his alcohol abuse — so there’s some reason to believe that he may reach a point where he’s able to have a more candid discussion with you about the events that caused so much discord all those years ago.

And while I completely understand that having your father own his “really dark stuff” would help rebuild trust with him, the tough thing to acknowledge is that it wouldn’t undo the pain and the sense of chaos and dislocation that marked your youth. That work can only be done by you, with the help of a therapist. The rage you feel right now is entirely understandable, but it’s a defense erected to keep you from feeling the sorrow of your childhood.

The place you want to get to with your dad is a place of forgiveness. His honesty in confronting the past would help with that. But it’s not the essential ingredient. I wouldn’t give him that power. Because the truth is — and this is why you wrote me, I think — that power resides within you, within in your courage and your capacity to summon mercy for the flawed man who raised you.

Onward, together,
Steve Almond

Author's note: Sexual harassment is alarmingly common in our world. Which means, presumably, that our letter writer is far from alone. Anyone who can relate to her situation is encouraged to offer your take. Please do so in the comments section below. That would be lovely. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is a writer. His new book, "Bad Stories: Toward A Unified Theory of How It All Came Apart," will be out in March 2018. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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