Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

8 day s ago I found out that Stephanie and I were going to have a baby. Since then I have been thinking a great deal about the following: why am I so angry with you, why do I distrust authority figures and every person who loves me? I have come up with some answers and though they will be painful for you to hear I have to write them, whether you read them or not is up to you.

A pivotal moment in my development came when I was about ten. Two incidents keep coming to mind and I struggled for a long time to figure out what they had in common and why they played such an important role in the formation of my identity.

Number one:

We were frantically preparing for the Grumpy and Mimi’s arrival at our house on Mather AFB. Dad was installing an air-conditioner. Dad and I went to the store to buy a large piece of glass to put in the window.

As we carried the glass to the car I remember being aware somehow that it had been freshly cut and that the edges were razor sharp. Dad told me to get in the passenger seat and handed me the glass. The only way it would fit in the car to put one end of the glass on the dashboard and for me to hold the other end like a table with the edge a few inches from my neck. I realized that dad was going to get in the car and drive home with the glass in that position. I knew that if anything went wrong on the drive, even so much as a quick stop, I was going to be cut-to-decapitated depending on the severity of the incident. I simply stated that I was not going to ride like that and suggested that we put the glass in the trunk. Dad began to protest that the glass might break but I was adamant and the glass went in the trunk. No yelling or drama was involved and I didn’t think about that incident again for a long time.

Number Two:

Sometime in that period the family went on a camping trip to the Feather River. The white water was the big attraction and the other families and their children would ride tubes down after hiking upriver.

I did not want to do this. My dad and I went anyway. I don’t remember how it came about exactly but I am pretty sure it was not my idea. When we tried to get in the water we lost our balance and our tubes got swept into the current. My dad kept a hold of me and I remember being impressed at how tenacious his grip was as we were drug along the rocks in the relatively shallow water. We recovered, got to shore on the opposite bank and found some wild blackberries. I can remember dad being excited about the size and quality of the berries (they were quite good) and me asking “how can you eat at a time like this?” still a little teary from the ordeal. Eventually I came around and began to enjoy the berries myself at which point dad asked “how can YOU eat at a time like this?” and we both laughed.

The significance of these two events is that they caused me to doubt my father’s ability to care for me. I did not reach that decision then but I believe now after much introspection that they were the crack in the parental gloss that I had lived with until that time. This is the moment psychoanalysis would refer to as the realization that one’s parents are not gods and not infallible. From that moment on I could not blindly accept his decisions about my life. I had felt my life to be in peril on two occasions because of decisions dad had made.

When I was thinking about this yesterday I kept focusing on why my dad would make these decisions. In the case of the glass he was stressed about my mom’s parents, and I suspect especially her father, visiting us in the California summer in a house with no air conditioning. In focusing on the task at hand he simple neglected to consider the implications of the glass in such a position. In the latter case I think he just didn’t want to say to the other fathers “no we’re not going down the river, David is afraid, and I have no idea what the hell I am doing so I’m not going to risk our safety because of peer pressure”.

It is really not all that important why these things happened. My dad was certainly not a bad father, the important thing is that they happened and formed a strong enough impression in me that I am writing about them over 25 years later.

So there was no longer any possibility of me doing anything “because I said so”. All rules and authority began to come under strict scrutiny and it wasn’t long before I started to see the holes in most systems. Soon I came to realize the flaws in the religion I was being taught. My friend Steve and I would stay up for hours debating the finer points of Catholicism verses Protestantism. He was even more irreverent about Catholicism than I was about Protestantism and being a year older than me helped increase his credibility in my eyes. So with the help of these debates and a lot of hard questions that my mom (who was the spiritual advisor in the family) could not answer I concluded that Christianity was bunk. The pivotal question was this “is everyone that doesn’t believe in Jesus going to Hell”? I had already decided that if the answer to that question was yes there was no logical way such a religion could be true. Even at that age I was aware that the vast majority of people who had existed in human history did not believe in the divinity of Jesus even if they had heard of him.

So if my father is not looking out for my best interest and the religion I am being coerced into believing under threat of eternal hellfire is false then it is obvious I am going to have to A) Protect myself by making my own decisions, B) Question existing religions until I can find an understanding of God that seems plausible to me.

These conclusions were, no doubt, the source of a great deal of my parents’ frustration with me. I always did well in school but partly I suspect because knowledge of facts was a defense mechanism against those who would attempt to deceive me. To this day I approach every authority figure, institution, religious guru, government, news source, teacher, police officer, judge, bureaucrat, boss, professor, girlfriend, family member, friend, and grocery clerk with the underlying suspicion that they are going to:

1) pretend to know more than they do
2) attempt to deceive me
3) abuse any and all power/authority they have
4) manipulate me
5) and do all this while pretending they are acting in my best interest.

Once such an ideology is formed the vast majority of interaction with the outside world, not surprisingly, serves to reinforce it.

My fourth grade teacher misspelled the word “marathon” on the blackboard (marithon). When I corrected her she attempted to conceal her mistake by telling me that the word I was referring to had a different meaning. So I walked to the front of the class and pulled the dictionary of the shelf and read the definition aloud to the class. Needless to say this behavior was considered disruptive and showy and generally bad. To my parents’ credit they did not punish me but this incident further reinforced my belief that people are generally going through life pretending to know more than they do and fearful they will be found out.

When I was homeless many years later a Salvation Army preacher used to let me stay at his house sometimes. I woke up one morning to find him kneeling next to my bed attempting to perform oral sex on me. I remember being relatively amused at how the examples of authority figures not being what they seemed were getting stronger and stronger. As I rained blows down upon him and watched his blood spatter on the walls I thought deeply about the tragedy of the fallen god and how a young mind is so hurt when those it worships turn out not only fallible, but culpable, deceptive, and abusive of power all the while pretending to be good, moral and just.

I didn’t hurt the preacher, I just told him to get out and he complied immediately.

When I was in jail prior to that incident I was always struck that no one bothered me. I conducted myself in the typical, anti-social manner I had grown accustom to using for interaction with the outside world yet I was avoided. One time I got jumped by a couple kids after I told them their gang was a joke and all they ever did was talk shit but I guess there is only so much anyone can take. I actually felt bad for them because I had given them no choice but to act. They didn’t hurt me, after the larger one swung on me five or six times without landing a punch I stepped inside his guard and whispered in his ear “I don’t want to hurt you”. He just kind of stopped moving at that point and then the guards came in and took us away. I always wondered why I talked so much trash to him and goaded him into acting. I think now that he may have been an authority figure in my eyes because he was talking about being in a gang in a jail. Everyone knows from TV and movies that the gangs are the authority in jail so I guess I wanted to challenge the validity of that authority figure just like any other.

I spent a lot of my time in religious discussions in jail. I would sit with the Christians for awhile and poke holes in their doctrine and they would eventually tire of me so I would move on and ask Mustafah (yes he was a big black guy) provocative questions about Islam until he got sick of me and blustered and threatened and used all the intimidation tactics that had clearly worked for him in the past.

The only time I could really relax was playing chess with Carlos or playing spades with the brothers. Both of those activities seemed relatively pure. Carlos would always school me in chess and the brothers were always exasperated by how bad I was at spades but at least there was no bullshit in those environments.

Sergeant Burns wasn’t too fond of me. He just knew I was trouble, very suspicious. He was searching my cell one time when I came back from the shower and had found a bunch of magazines. I didn’t know that magazines could be turned into shanks but apparently Burns thought I was hoarding them to create an arsenal so he took me off work detail. I was mildly amused that he pretended to believe this. It was clear that he had searched my cell to find a rule infraction and when he couldn’t find anything serious he came up with that. Chalk one more up under authority lying and abusing power.

I feel bad for all the good people I have interacted with in my life that have had to bear the brunt of all the suspicion and distrust that the bad people helped me to amass. When I was in law school my therapist helped to understand that people are not all good or all bad. This realization went a long way in my healing process. He introduced me to the concept in reference to my parents but I eventually realized that we are all in a constant state of flux and decision between what we might call good and bad or right and wrong.

I came to this conclusion recently while reading Abraham Maslow’s original ideas about self actualization. The part that really stuck with me was the concept of constant decision making, that life is a never ending series of decisions and every one is a choice to grow and develop as a person or stay still and/or regress.

I had studied the concept of self-actualization briefly in an intro to psych class but only the pyramid. The pyramid has basic needs at the bottom as a pre-requisite to moving to ward the peak which is self-knowledge and a happy well adjusted and productive life. Even now I resent the massive oversimplification of Maslow’s ideas because they are profoundly important and to reduce them to a colorful triangle in a textbook is a crime against intellectual development. But then again I am also aware of my pre-disposition to anger toward authority (in this case the authority is the textbook and its editors and publishers and the professor that chose it for the course) so I know I am being overly harsh.

In any case Maslow’s true ideas of self actualization have led me to write, read, do Yoga, meditate, find and listen to the music I love, exercise, take my dog to the park, be benevolent and caring in my interactions with Stephanie and ultimately to seek peace with my past by writing this letter.

So this is what I want you to do assuming you have made it this far in the letter. I want you to figure out the source of your anger. I want you to ask yourself why the slightest deviation from your expectations sends you into a rage. And if you are unwilling to do that I want you to simply stop directing that anger toward me.

I have thought a lot about our family dynamic lately. I have had to bear the brunt of your anger for a long time now. In our family I am the most vulnerable, you can’t direct too much at mom because you have to live with her, and you can’t direct too much at Tom because you want to be around the kids. So you direct it toward me.

Perhaps I realized this by watching you interact with Jack. I want you to be very aware of how your tension level rises, and you yell or manifest some other indication of anger, very quickly and unexpectedly when you are around Jack. I want you to think about the times you have completely lost control just in the last year. When I told you I was going to Taos for the summer, when we were in Colorado and you were driving with Debbie, Peter and I in the back seat of the Deville, and when you left those terrible, hurtful voicemail messages on my phone. You are angry dad, you are going to have to deal with that anger or everyone that you love is going to have to deal with it for you.
Sit down with someone and figure out the source. You will be glad you did eventually but it is not going to be fun or easy.

No comments: