This is becoming a terrible irony I can’t seem to overcome. I didn’t agree with my father about certain things, but this indigestible thing that he found so maddening I can’t seem to get past either. On his deathbed, when the subject of a family member came up, my father, Irv Widaen, was fixated on an insoluble vexation.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to lead him past it. This single issue seemed to blot out everything else about that family member. My father simply could not get over this one thing, he returned to it over and over. After a more than twenty year wrestling match with the issue, I find myself stopped by the same thing that confounded Irv.
It’s unfair, perhaps, to write anything about this here, but it is burning me daily so I’ll do a delicate dance to set out the dilemma in the abstract. I must describe it without revealing any of the many details that would cause shame. Try that one on sometime, it is a good workout.
This is the larger problem– when you are forbidden to speak of a dark thing there is no way toward the light. You might be totally reasonable seeking to put a troubling issue on the table, but those who feel their very souls will be jeopardized by disclosure will fight you, literally, to the death. Many find it infinitely better to pretend than to face a painful thing, especially if they believe people can’t change anyway.
My father was pessimistic in this regard, always arguing that while people might make superficial changes to their behavior, their innate, fundamental natures could never be changed. If you make strides in controlling a temper that has gotten you in trouble many times, you are only pretending you are not angry, each time you restrain yourself, but you are still prone to it in a way that others, born less angry, are not.
To me that position made little sense, since learning to control your temper is a great stride forward in life. Either you can work to improve something important or not. But many are as pessimistic as my father was about our emotional elasticity, our ability to learn from our painful mistakes and do better. That pessimism itself prevents growth, since the pessimist feels that growth is an illusion.
So, I cannot mention the thing that is eating at me, not here, certainly not with the people involved, not anywhere really. It’s like the “disappearance” of the bulk of my family, on my mother’s side, in August, 1943, all led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town for a bullet in the back of the head in that sloping mass grave. On my father’s side, there is no clue how they were all murdered or what happened to their corpses, all we know is that every one of them was killed. It was always a subject too terrible to discuss. What would have been the point?
My grandfather, the sole survivor of his large family (recently I discovered a younger brother or a nephew who had an amazing, harrowing adventure escaping death over and over as a draftee in the Soviet Army– the reason he was not in town when its Jewish population was liquidated) liked violent movies, “shooting pictures” he called them, and lived a quiet life of fear and prejudice. My grandmother swung between great cheerfulness and despair, drinking sizable quantities of vodka along the way. She lost all six of her siblings, her parents, all but one aunt and uncle, everybody she’d ever loved back home, but never said a word about it.
Again, thinking about it now, what can anyone really have said about such an atrocity, the hideous details of which I only confirmed recently? Maybe they should have been in therapy or something, but I can understand how they never discussed this indigestible horror with their grandson. I get why my parents kept their silence.
The thing that tormented my father as he was dying, the thing that torments me now, is an ongoing situation that nobody is allowed to talk about. Since nobody is allowed to talk about this individual’s long pattern of shameful deception and abuse, done and hidden year after year after year, unrepentantly, the only alternative is to pretend none of it ever happened. We do this for the sake of a loved one, I suppose, not that this pretend really helps anyone.
The price we pay for doing this is participating in a lie — pretending these awful things, real betrayals that have changed lives, never actually happened. The price we pay for continuing to be perplexed by this is that we make ourselves dangerous enemies of those who want to leave others in the dark, out of shame.
I remember sighing when my father kept bringing this situation up as he was dying. I was hoping he had another message I could play back to our family member, who’d had a troubling relationship with Irv — as we all did. I hoped in vain, I could never play the little digital recording to the family member — it would not have helped anyone. Now, almost sixteen years later, I find myself behind the same immovable rock my father was pinned by as he lay dying.
I can say only a few more things about it. My father, by his harmful behavior and his outright emotional abuse, kind of made this outcome inevitable. There’s a fucking irony for you, one I couldn’t go into when I was trying to comfort the complicated man as he was dying. I could have made an irrefutable case of direct cause and effect, but what would have been the point when the guy was trying so hard to make amends, to go in peace, when that was truly all I wanted for him?
We have all met people so damaged that they insist on things that make absolutely no sense. We see national figures making such ridiculous, lying pronouncements in the media every day. Someone I knew told me a few years back that she loved me, and her family loved me, that they considered me part of the family, but that if I didn’t immediately forgive someone who would not yield in his insistence that his many provocations were figments of my easily angered imagination, that there would not be a second chance. Love us now or you’re dead to us all, she told me. And so I was dead, because people who loved me now saw that I was a totally unforgiving fucking asshole, no matter about any actual apology or show of contrition that would have allowed me to do the thing I wanted to do, forgive a childhood friend.
This is a very important piece, often overlooked in the widespread belief that all forgiveness is good and any failure to forgive is a fault– true forgiveness can only happen when the person who has done the damage is contrite, expresses an understanding of the hurtfulness of their acts, promises to try to do better. Without contrition and seeking forgiveness reconciliation is a brittle sham, waiting for the next offense to shatter it. Some are able to empathize and make amends, others reflexively vilify the unforgiving person they were unable to apologize to. I don’t understand this, but it always strikes me as an indication of severe damage when someone tells me they love me, but that they’ll kill me if I don’t let go of all hurt instantly.
These things go back to our upbringing. Some people are raised by emotionally mature parents and they get the benefit of a parent who is able to keep the child’s best interest front and center and not confuse their own needs with the need to show their child the right way to deal with life’s challenges. In my case, sadly, both of my parents, although very intelligent, decent, with good senses of humor, had survived brutal childhoods that left them emotionally unable to not react with frustration and rage at times when a much better reaction would have been silence, more thought, and a reasonable response that actually dealt with the issue in a way that taught the right lesson. It did not help me greatly when I first realized this about my parents, but it helps me now.
Again, pain and fear will stop us in our tracks. “Why didn’t my mother love me?” is a painful question. The answer is bad too: she did, as best she could, in her fucked up, damaged, damaging way. This is hard to understand, hard to make any good use of. The only thing that can lead to any kind of useful insight is understanding how they became this way, what happened to make them monsters. In the case of this family member, that kind of inquiry is strictly forbidden. To even pose the question makes you an enemy, since it presupposes that this person should change, should be able to make amends to the people he hurts. The false image of this person as emotionally whole, and good, and always loving, needs to be fostered at all costs. And maintaining that false image requires lying.
As I was writing the draft of my intended book about my father, I was careful to make no mention of this person, or the dramatic dynamic that illustrated a side of my father so clearly. I did not want to lose any members of my small family by divulging what I knew they kept secret (those who even knew of it) at all costs. We agree to disagree (an odious concept), simply don’t talk about it, everybody knows where everybody stands, it’s fucked up, possibly emotionally indefensible, intellectually dishonest, but it is what it is and no philosophical wiseass fuck insisting on the abstraction of “truth” and its great value in understanding our place in the world is going to make any difference. Forgive and love or, at least pretend to do those things, simply play along with the long con, or else you are the fucking problem, Jack.
I am the fucking problem, no doubt about it. Which leaves me in the same untenable position I often found myself in as a boy– you may be absolutely correct, you may be righteous, your position might even be mature and the most helpful one around– but you are the fucking problem, you sick bastard. In the case of my troubled, damaged parents, I was able to finally come to a helpful understanding. This one, man, it’s just sodomizing me around the clock and trying to make me swear it’s doing nothing of the fucking kind, a demand such things typically make of us.