A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

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