Fitness at 40+
The Emotional Debris from an Abusive Father
I don't know how to characterize my father's abusive behavior, but it still haunts me today.
When I was 27 years old and married to an abusive husband, my father, who had been dead nine years, came to me in a dream and said, “Leave him, he’s not good enough for you.” I woke up and thought about how many times my husband had banged his fist into the wall out of frustration and how many times he’d insulted me; and the morning after my dream, I started divorce proceedings. On my own, I never would have had the courage to kick him out, but the dream empowered me.
There’s another dream I remember about my father. I don’t know how old I was in the dream, though I think I was about 13. Unfortunately, it’s a nightmare that stays in my mind like wet sand clinging to my body. In it, my father is on a small island about a half mile from shore, and he beckons me to join him. I jump into the water and swim out to the island. He is waiting for me. And then the dream gets foggy and hazy. I know he’s naked. He guides me into a little shack on the island. Does he pull off my bathing suit? I only remember that he does the unspeakable, but because he is my father, I am forced to yield.
It is more than half a century later and I wonder if it really happened or was it only a dream. I think back as far as I can. My father was a tall man, about six foot two, with hands as big as baseball mitts. We lived near the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, and every weekend my parents, my two sisters and I would all go to Bayley Beach and swim. My father had a pair of swim trunks that didn’t fit. They were beige with little designs of green and brown, and always — whether he was lying on the beach towel or standing up — about two inches of his penis hung past the bottom of the pant leg. Was it on purpose? Was there a reason my mother never said anything about it? And there was another thing, too. On weekend mornings, when we all usually hung around eating breakfast and reading the newspapers, his penis was always exposed in the open flap of his pajamas. I always tried not to look.
One time, when I was about eight years old, my father was sick with jaundice. I don’t know where my mother was, but my older and younger sisters, all of us separated by 18 months, were sitting on the floor of my parent’s bedroom upstairs playing cards. My sisters and I were fully clothed, but my father was completely naked, his legs splayed. I thought at the time maybe he had to be naked because he had jaundice and it must hurt. It was back in the days when doctors made house calls, and suddenly the doctor, who had let himself in the front door and walked up the stairs, was standing in the doorway. The moment my father saw him, he jumped up and threw on a pair of shorts. I don’t remember the excuse he gave the doctor, but I do remember the doctor looking at him very strangely.
There’s another thing that crawls around in my memory like a trapped bug in a spider web. I still don’t know if it was real or another bad dream. In their bedroom, my father slept in a double bed and my mother slept in a single bed in the corner. She said it was because he moved around in his sleep, but now I wonder. When we were sick or scared, we were allowed to sleep in the double bed. One time, I was sick, lying in my father’s bed. My mother was asleep on the other side of the room. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember my father pushing me down toward his legs and making me perform oral sex on him. Was it another bad dream?
One thing I know is not a dream, and I remember vividly, is that when I was around 15 we were all having breakfast one Sunday morning at the dining room table. My mother was in the kitchen cooking, and for reasons unknown to me, the kitchen door was closed. My father beckoned me to sit on his lap. I did as I was told, and suddenly he fondled my breasts. I was appalled but afraid to say anything. As he touched me, he said quietly, “Oh look at all the milk we could get out of those breasts.” As much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t tell my mother because she’d had two mastectomies and I knew it would have made her feel bad. I told a shrink about it a few years later, who insisted my mother had to have known and purposely closed the door. I don’t think so.
I later found out that my father was an alcoholic and a manic depressive. Twice in his life, he had been through shock treatment. When I was 18, he was supposed to go in for another round of shock treatment, but he decided he didn’t want to go through with it. Instead, he committed suicide by jumping out the window of the 14th floor where he worked. When he died, I didn’t think about his abuse because I was heartbroken and in shock. But emotionally, something broke that day, because I’ve been married and divorced three times and have a difficult time keeping any relationship going with a man.
I recently googled incestuous fathers who’d had contact with their daughters. A study found five distinct types: sexually preoccupied fathers who manifested sexual interest in their daughters from an early age; fathers whose interest began when the daughter approached or reached puberty; fathers who used their daughters for gratification while fantasizing about some other partner; lonely and depressed men for whom the abuse satisfied urgent needs for closeness and comforting; and fathers who used the incest to express anger toward their wives for perceived neglect, abandonment, or infidelity.
I don’t know which type of abuser my father was. What matters is that it was inappropriate and his behavior has haunted me throughout my life. Worse, unfortunately, it will always be a part of who I am.