By Kay Whitlock
When we look deeply enough, we begin to see all the ways in which justice and nonviolence—as well as injustice, hatred, and violence—arise within an ever-fluid fabric of relationship. All of our various struggles for social, economic, spiritual, and environmental justice are not parallel and unrelated, but essential, interrelated components of one evolving story about human rights, dignity, liberation, justice, and community.
—Kay Whitlock, In a Time of Broken Bones
Click here to read part 1.
PART 2: Threshold
I called my father and asked him to meet in me in a hometown park in southern Colorado. He still lived in the small stucco house I’d grown up in, a space that I felt still defined me as a child.
My mother was deceased. My only purpose in meeting with my father that day was to hear myself breaking the silence in which our own family fiction evolved. The fiction that we were in all respects, apart from a minor blip or two, a happy family. In reality, we were a complicated and unpredictable mix of good intentions and terrible hurts, at once inflicted, received, and kept hidden from the outside world, sometimes even from ourselves.
Almost eighty, he suffered the multiple insults of Parkinson’s and emphysema and occasional heart problems. His hands and voice shook. I was anxious, too. For once, in a difficult situation, we didn’t verbally attack one another. I simply told him my memories, and how I felt as a child, and how those feelings remained with me. If we ever wanted to have an honest and trustworthy relationship—if that was even possible—we couldn’t go on pretending the abuse had never happened.
My father did not deny anything I said. He said he never wanted to hurt me, that everything he’d done had been out of love, and that—this seemed so out of context—my mother was the best person in the world. He mumbled that he was one of “a lot of guys” who had come back from World War II “really messed up.” He wasn’t full of his usual bravado but seemed uncertain and filled with sorrow.
In the end, there was nowhere else to go in our conversation. I didn’t expect much in the way of response that day. I was still trying to figure out what I really wanted from him, if anything—a task that would prove far more difficult than I could then envision. The next day, I returned to the East.
My father and I spoke minimally, only when necessary. Not long after our meeting, he sent a check for $200, which he could not afford. I signed it over to a feminist group working with survivors of child sexual abuse. One of the therapists asked me if she could send him a thank-you note. Only if you say nothing more than “thank you,” I said. Anything else was between my father and me. She wrote him a shaming letter.
Within a few years, unable to bear the cement canyons of the East any longer, I returned to Colorado, though not to my hometown. Not long after, my father’s doctor told me he had experienced a series of heart attacks and could not be released home without consistent, live-in support. My father had little money. Affordable home health care was far too limited. There were no options beyond my stepping in for a time.
Oh, shit, no. I won’t! I can’t! Fuck this! You can’t ask this of me! No! I wanted to say, “No, you worthless, hurtful old man. Fend for your own damn self for once in your miserable, bullying, dream-killing life.” Why would I coddle a monster? But something inside kept sending a different message: “If you go, you’ll learn something important.” And this voice would not shut up. But where did it come from? All these years later, I’ve finally settled the matter. Noble rhetoric, meet messy, complicated reality. All my activist life, I’d declared for the humanity and worthiness of everyone. My justice chickens were coming home to roost. In the most unexpected, enraging, and inconvenient way possible.
The Home Front
I had no idea what would constitute “justice.” Jail was out; it was too late. Even if it were possible, would I really want to send this guy to a factory for violence and degradation, including sexual violence, much of it committed by authorities, and expect him to come out better? No. Nor could my father make me rich by signing over all his worldly goods. He didn’t have any to speak of. When he died years later, the house I grew up in, sold for $30,000. I could have just left him in the hospital, where they would have transferred him to some lousy, poorly staffed place where he would lie in his own piss and die. But no one should die like that.
Besides, sexual abuse was only part of the story. Given to unpredictable rages, Dad sometimes beat me. Not my mother. Always the kid. (The sexual and physical abuse stopped before I reached my teens.) And he almost always responded with shaming ridicule when I talked about my dreams and hopes. Sometimes, I taunted him, standing running distance away: “You can’t hurt me!” And when he lunged toward me, starting to pull off his leather belt with the big buckle. I ran away. In school and through reading, I developed a verbal arsenal to protect myself, conjuring clouds of words with which to overwhelm and confuse him. I tried to make him feel as stupid as I felt.
From time to time, over the years, my father and I fell into an uneasy peace, but there was no solid foundation to it. Nor could I make sense of the fact that my childhood was never just an unending nightmare of abuse. There also were significant swaths of those growing-up years and family time that I loved. My mother and father were both capable of great kindness, goodness, and fun: she often, with great imagination, and he on occasion. But these moments of genuine goodness and warmth could switch up in an instant. I was not yet able to comprehend this paradox in my own heart, much less in conversation with a parent.
My father was still in the hospital when I walked into our old house. It felt so small, much smaller than when I was a child. The first thing I did was take the loaded .38 revolver out of the drawer of his bedside table where he’d always kept it, unload it, and stash the bullets separately from the revolver on a high shelf in an inaccessible place. Good thing my father wasn’t unremittingly brutal. Had that been the case, I can easily imagine myself in the place of, say, young Bresha Meadows who killed her abusive father. I always knew where the gun was and, before I was eight years old, knew how to use it. This is why I support survivors, subjected to physical and sexual violence, who do defend themselves and other family members, sometimes killing the people who abuse them in the process.
The first thing my father said when he got home from the hospital and after getting settled into bed was, “Where’s my gun?”
Restorative justice folks often talk about justice as a matter of “restoring right relationship.” My father and I had no right relationship to restore. When I came to help, we were often resentful of and angry with each other.
But something else happened over the months, even the years that followed, when I was there full time and after I left because he recovered sufficiently to live on his own again with better home health assistance. It was nothing dramatic or definitive. “Something else” showed up as little bits of information and insight tucked into ordinary niches and corners of conversation. Conversation with my father. With his older brother. With a cousin, older than I, who had known my paternal grandfather’s meanness. With my maternal great aunt. With some of my father’s old cronies and acquaintances from the years when he was given to public brawls. With extended family members. And some of it showed up as memory of talks with my mother, both when I was growing up and especially when she was dying. Lots of minutiae that eventually began to coalesce into a larger whole.
None of this excused my father’s abusiveness. He remained accountable for that. But all of this apparent flotsam and jetsam began to cohere in ways that helped me begin to grasp the context in which his abusiveness developed, played out, and, eventually, ebbed. It helped me begin to make sense of my own childhood.
I can’t tell you how things began to shift. But they did. Slowly, awkwardly, we began to become caring adults in each other’s presence.
Beyond learning about generations of various kinds of abuse, trauma, and abandonment in my parent’s families that just got kicked on down the line, I saw that my father was the loneliest, most frightened person I’d ever met. And that my mother had stopped much of the abuse, though she never felt able to speak directly about it. She died of pancreatic cancer feeling she was being punished for not being a good enough Christian.
For many years, I told close friends that it was as if my family had booked passage on the Titanic, but I was the only one who made it to the lifeboats. Now I know that none of us made it.
If justice was to come, it had to embrace all of us, and it had to do it in a way that valued our all of our lives. If accountability was possible and transformation was to happen, both individual and collective tragedies must be addressed. And it had to offer the possibility of new, just, compassionate, and generous relationships—especially where they’d never existed in the first place.
Years ago, as part of an invitational “emerging playwrights” program sponsored by the Montana Repertory Theater, I wrote a one-act play called “The Home Front.” It is a surrealistic, domestic drama set in the 1980s or 90s. The main characters wear World War II combat helmets and flak jackets. A visiting director from the West Coast spoke with me after watching a staged reading. “It’s always a fascinating challenge to have an inarticulate male as a lead,” she said, referring to the elderly father (“Jimbo”) in the play. She didn’t mean the character was stupid, ignorant, or mute. She meant he possessed no language with which to describe or even comprehend his own emotions and experiences.
While I did not emerge as a playwright, that director put a name to something I couldn’t. And this helped me understand what happened, I think, during that extended time I’d spent with my father. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. It was only through snatches of conversation about “other things” that necessary truths and histories began to become clearer to both of us.
For instance, I knew from the time I was a child that my father was haunted by his WWII experiences when, as an Army engineer, his unit accompanied Marines to Saipan. Badly wounded, he was sent home. My mother told me he refused to talk about any of it. The only war stories he told when I was growing up were about how he and his buddies got drunk and beat each other up.
One afternoon as my father and I sat on the front porch, he began to talk about how terrified he was on Saipan. About the nightmare of seeing women, some holding their children, jumping off cliffs to their deaths rather than be captured. He recalled the horror of the caves of the island and the violent death they held. For several minutes, memories spilled out, before he fell silent. He didn’t talk about this as if it excused or explained anything; it just needed to be said. A few years later, at a Thanksgiving gathering of my extended family, he unexpectedly began to tell my partner about other terrors related to Saipan. And just as suddenly lapsed into silence.
Several times, without defending himself or asking for absolution, he apologized to me. Let me know, in roundabout fashion, that it was my mother who made him stop the physical and sexual abuse. Told me things that helped me understand some of my mother’s inheritance of chaos and confusion when she was growing up.
I asked about his life, and he began, for the first time, to ask—haltingly—about mine. The question of forgiveness never arose. Rather, this unexpected time with my father became a time of transformation—for him and for me—in ways I will never be able to describe in daylight language. But for me, it is far more powerful than “forgiveness.”
It turns out that everything really is connected to everything else. War, colonialism, prisons, policing, and domination provide the models and norms for abuse and violence and disposability in families, workplaces, and spiritual communities. My fate was connected to my father’s, and his to mine in the most intricate ways, over generations. If abuse and trauma are generational, so are healing and transformation. That’s a huge missing piece of the mainstream dialogue about sexual harassment and abuse and how to end it. But in the 1980s and beyond, I finally began to have a burgeoning sense of what might be possible if we reject the punishing paradigm. That kind of change could crack everything open.
As for my father and me? Well, we continued in unpredictable fits and starts to create a new and better relationship. I visited regularly. He and I still sometimes really pissed each other off.
One evening in 1996, when I was living in Montana, he called. Recently moved to a nursing home after collapsing one too many times in assisted living, he’d been feeling frightened, lonely, and invisible. But this night, he sounded different. His shaky voice also held a note of excitement. He told me about a dream he’d had.
I won’t reveal the details here. The essence was ordinary people who get an unexpected and mysterious chance for new beginnings that are not yet knowable. His dream even came with a title: “The Fingerlings.” When he was done telling it, he said, “Do you think that’s a good story?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “That’s a really good story, Dad.”
“I don’t know why it’s called that. But if you think it’s good,” he said, “I would like to give it to you. You always were the writer and storyteller in the family. I don’t know what to do with it. Do you think you might want it?”
“I love this this dream,” I said.
“I don’t have anything else. Maybe you could do something with it some day?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure I can. Not sure when. But I love this dream. Thank you.”
We wished each other good night, promising to talk again soon. We never did. Two days later, he died. I can’t remember if we said we loved each other. I’d like to think we did.
Click here to read part one of “Threshold: #MeToo, with Justice Complications.”
Download the full PDF of “Threshold: #MeToo, with Justice Complications,” as the two-part series is presented in its original narrative form.
About the Author
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. Her political vision is unapologetically abolitionist. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.