For me, the photos of the injuries Adrian Peterson inflicted on his young son stirred a particularly difficult memory: In it, I stand at the foot of my parent’s bed, frail and blond. Behind me, my father utters yet another masculine grunt of exertion. The belt licks my bare skin, and the pain is alarmingly severe — something of a surprise for a preschooler who’d grown accustomed to losing count after forty lashes. The edge of the belt rips a gash, and a slick of wetness forms on my back. I plead: “Daddy, stop! I’m bleeding!” He goes on chopping, not missing a beat. With each lash, I grow more certain that this is the time that he will go on long enough to kill me.
Thirty-four years later, that memory remains as vivid as if it had happened this morning. The images loop through my mind; I shake and pant like a wounded beast, my ears ringing and my heart racing.
The horrific beatings didn’t begin until my parents joined the Baptist church and gave up drinking.
My parents were not stereotypical child abusers. Sure, both were reared in what many would now consider abusive homes, and when they met they were both alcoholics. But the horrific beatings didn’t begin until my parents joined the Baptist church and gave up drinking.
Prior to becoming born-again, my father would whip my brother and me much the way his father had beaten him: snatching his belt from his slacks in a fit of pique and then raining lashes until his tension was relieved. It was a pastor who taught him the “right” way, which involved beating his children for the tiniest transgressions, reading scripture before, during, and after punishment, and the necessity of continuing and escalating until his children were reduced to submissive, plaintively whimpering heaps.
My parents divorced and my father left the state when I was fifteen.
As an adult, I didn’t speak to my abuser for more than ten years. I spent my late teens and early twenties in intensive group and individual psychotherapy. By my mid-twenties, I’d hit my stride; it seemed that I’d finally found a way to work around the emotional and psychological scars of abuse. But a chance encounter with a secondary trauma caused the flashbacks and nightmares to return — this time, so severely that I couldn’t function personally or professionally. Clawing my way back to normal would cost me six more years.
My thoughts turned from contemplating suicide to plotting to murder my dad.
Before reaching that point, I despaired. In the grip of a terrifying madness, my thoughts turned from contemplating suicide to plotting to murder my dad. Sometimes, I pictured it quick and bloody; I’d pulverize his skull, splashing brains and bits of bone on the ceiling. Other times, I’d imagine revenge served with frosty deliberation: I’d keep him chained up somewhere, so I could return each moment of pain and humiliation that he’d burned into me.
I tracked him down by calling companies that sold supplies related to his trade. When I’d located him, I drove for hours to sit in my car, observing his habits. He worked for himself, out of an isolated woodshop in the back corner of a mostly unoccupied industrial park. He was by himself all day, every day. There were power tools. It would be perfect.
When I entered his shop, my father was hunched over a sawhorse. I could have pounced, but for the first time it dawned on me that my father was much smaller than I was. In high school, he’d been a competitive swimmer and for years he’d maintained the swimmer’s muscular physique. But since I’d last seen him, he’d shriveled to the size of a scrawny lad of thirteen. Hearing a sound, he turned, his face registering surprise when he set eyes on me. He wore magnifying glasses, like an old man.
Pinching a smoldering cigarette from his lips, he started to speak.
My father resembled Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow. There were blackened stumps where he should have had teeth. His black hair was baby-fine with scalp showing through. Grubby with sawdust, his clothes hung as if draped on a skeleton.
Later, I would work out a map of his pathetic transformation: he’d splattered a testicle by hot-dogging a dirt bike into a tree and, over decades, the resulting diminishment of testosterone caused his temperament and his body to change gradually. He lost his facial hair, then his muscle mass, and finally the entirety of his libido. Self-employed and without health insurance, he neglected himself until his teeth rotted away. Unable to eat, he lived on nicotine, Pepsi, and coffee, supplemented with Ensure. Once, he described how he’d used a mirror and woodworking tools to extract the broken shards of several of his own teeth.
He’d gone from being my mortal enemy to being just an old woodworker whom I could trust with the terrible truth about my dad.
Seeing his condition, the fire drained out of me: there was simply nothing tempting about the thought of battering such a withered, miserable thing. We had a brief, awkward conversation, during which he mumbled a vague, unasked-for apology. His “sorry” seemed sincere, but it meant nothing to me. I wasn’t pining for reconciliation; we had no relationship, and we never had. The thought that we might had never even occurred to me.
Over the next several years, whenever the flashbacks or depression became especially severe, I would go visit my father at his shop. It was soothing to see him hungry, lonely, all but destitute, and in constant physical pain. We talked like a couple of strangers. Over months and years, I shared each memory of abuse and explained how it continued to have a constant daily effect on me.
My father never defended himself. “I remember something like that,” he’d say; or “I don’t recall, but it sounds like me.” Sometimes he’d relate my experiences to a memory of his own childhood: “I remember that feeling of just giving up. Being so defeated you can’t even cry anymore.”
I began the slow, painful process of translating my memories of abuse into print. My father was the first person to read every chapter and article. While smoking and sipping coffee, he would pore through each small sheaf of paper three or four times then fax the pages back to me with circles on the typos and notes in the margins. Like me, he had an analytical mind with a deep appreciation for symbol and nuance. We both hoped that my writing could spare other families the tragedies that had befallen ours.
He was free of any need to justify, defend, or minimize the wrong that he’d done.
My abuser proved the depth of his repentance over the five years that it took to finish my first novel. He was free of any need to justify, defend, or minimize the wrong that he’d done. He never asked me to lie by omission on his behalf. He’d become a better person — so much better that he was ready to stand up and publicly condemn his own former actions and beliefs. He kept the cover of my book on the wall in his shop, so he could brag to his occasional visitors about it.
His willingness to change was an incredible accomplishment.
In the last year of his life, we spoke on the telephone every day. I called him by his first name, never hugged him, and avoided him completely on Father’s Day. I didn’t love him, but he didn’t expect that I would. There was too much pain and too little good in our shared past. Yet, at some point, he’d gone from being my mortal enemy to being an old woodworker whom I could trust with the terrible truth about my father. I no longer felt any need to punish him.
That was also his accomplishment.
At some point, he got a hernia that required a minor surgery that he could not pay for. I dug up his service records and enrolled him for the VA benefits that he’d earned through his service during Vietnam. During his first doctor visit, he listed me as his medical surrogate and detailed his wishes: he didn’t love his life, though he was in no hurry to die. He’d lived as a hermit, and he hoped to die at home, alone. His greatest concern was that his passing not cause anyone any trouble or inconvenience. He didn’t care what became of his body, which he referred to as a husk.
He died of a sudden heart attack last September. Ironically, he passed away on the morning that I wrote the final words of the final chapter of my novel. I’d rushed to fax the pages to him before he left for work, but it was already too late. At the time, another article about my upcoming book was going viral. He bought a smart phone and signed up for email for the first time in his life. When he didn’t answer his phone for a couple of days, I assumed he was having a problem figuring out the new equipment.
A friend told me, “Feelings will bubble up.” They didn’t.
His body went undiscovered for days, finally bursting open. A grown nephew and I had the job of hauling the gore-soaked foam rubber mattress out of his apartment. The stench was unbelievable, and hordes of fat, black flies buzzed everywhere. Later, my brother and I arranged a cremation and paid our father’s final bills. We sold his tools and put the rest of his belongings on the curb. There was nothing in his household of sentimental value.
As we finished emptying the deceased’s tiny two-room apartment, I asked my brother, “How are you doing?” He shrugged, an expression of woeful indifference that mirrored my own feelings on the matter.
A friend told me, “Feelings will bubble up.” They didn’t.
My father was born in a holler, down in Tennessee, and he spent his later childhood in a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit. He raised his own kids with what he considered to be old fashioned, tried-and-true discipline, following the advice and example of his community, his parents, and his church. Ultimately, he came to recognize and own that whipping his children had been a terrible mistake. Unfortunately for our family, the realization came far too late.
Image via anieto2k.
This article has been updated to reflect the author’s consideration of reader comments on his essay.