The Terrible Things I Learned About My Dad: On Abuse and the People We Love -The Toast

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These are some of the things I found when cleaning out my dad’s house after he died: his rainbow of karate belts and black belt certificates (1st and 2nd degree), a framed picture of us dancing together at a black-tie gala, the 387 type-written pages of his memoir, one 3 x 5 index card and one small square of paper etched with his handwriting, and almost a hundred letters from women my dad met on

My dad had been corresponding with—and in some cases, actually meeting – the Russian women for thirteen years. I don’t know if he was looking for love, or just sex, or something more enigmatic (as if love and sex are so simple). In my dad’s four-thousand-square-foot house in Denver, I found dozens of file folders and binders containing hundreds of webpage printouts featuring a woman’s picture, her name, her height and weight, her location, maybe her profession, and her catalogue number. I found receipts from Western Union, showing my dad had wired money to several women — $200 here, $150 there – and sent gifts from Victoria’s Secret. I found nearly a hundred letters written to him on wispy airmail paper and accompanied by photos: some simple headshots, many garish poses intended to look sexy, and a few so dour that you’d have to wonder not just about the sorrows of the woman pictured, but the sorrows of any man who would look at the photo and say, “That’s the mate for me.”

Nothing about my dad, my exterior dad – the son of poor Italian immigrants who was a rags-to-riches story, buying up barren parcels of land near highway interchanges in the Sixties and then selling them to gas stations and hotels and Stuckey’s, my exterior dad with a big, bright smile that made you feel like nothing had ever made him happier than you just walking in the door — would make you think he was desperate or pathetic or lonely. My parents divorced when he was in his early fifties and my dad always had female companions – he was a good-looking enough guy, and friendly, and liked to spoil the women in his life (myself included). However, when I was a teenager, I found stacks of letters from women responding to his personal ads in The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News. So, there was precedent, sort of, for his correspondence with the Russian wannabe-brides.

When I cleaned out his house, I also found copies of my dad’s own letters to the Russians. On one day he sent the same introductory letter to nineteen different women. He fudged the facts of his age – claiming to be 65, even though he was 70 – and his interests – professing a deep love for literature, even though his real-life library had that Gatsby-esque quality of being populated by unopened volumes – and his marital status. My parents had already been divorced for fourteen years when my mom died, but my dad told all these women, “My wife of many years died several years ago. Only in the last two years have I begun to consider a new life with a new partner.” In fact, since he and my mom split, my dad had been with many women (see above: personal ads), some who I knew, and some who I found out about because their names were on his list of people he’d had sex with.

I didn’t actually find The List while cleaning out my dad’s house. I found it four years after he died, in the cardboard box marked “Russians” stored in my garage in Portland. I’d saved these odd artifacts to and from the Russian women, thinking someday I would write a funny and insightful essay about this predilection of my dad’s, hoping they would help me understand something about those women and my own father and, maybe, something about the human heart and the ways in which we get broken then try to get unbroken again. That’s why I was going through the cardboard box of letters and photographs, when I unexpectedly found The List.

It was a sheet of white paper on which my dad had hand-written two columns of women’s names: his first girlfriend, a woman he almost married, my mom, several women he dated after they divorced who I knew, a handful of Russian names – some he’d mentioned to me, others who he had not. I didn’t know every name on the list, and, more disturbingly, neither did he: Girl in Boulder; Girl at Congress Park; Girl on Marion Street; Mexican Girl.

My husband assured me that the word “girl” was just generational, the way all women were once referred to as girls by men who wore hats to work and enjoyed a stiff drink when they came home. Still, it was not entirely reassuring that my dad was meeting – and quite possibly cruising — women in these random places.

And then, at the bottom of the list, my dad had written: (over). As in “turn over.” As in “this list continues on the other side.” So, I turned the list over. There were only two names on the other side. One I didn’t know, and one I did. My brother. Steve.

These are the things I already knew, before my dad died, and before my brother died a year later: My dad was a narcissist. He could not care about anything unless it was directly related to one of his various obsessions: The sinking of the S.S. Franklin in WWII, Notre Dame football, Jungian psychology, some quack in Missouri who claimed he could cure any ailment with some questionable contraption, and my brother, Steve. Steve was an alcoholic and lived at home and worked for our dad his entire adult life. My dad was obsessed with “how to fix Steve,” a project which started requiring more attention when Steve began drinking around age 15. “Fixing Steve” involved, among other things, buying Steve a three-bedroom condo across the street from the bar he frequented – so he wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car – and continuing to pay for it for a good three years, even though Steve never moved in. It involved writing letters to Steve’s therapist to suggest what she should and should not do with him after Steve’s divorce. His obsession involved being so petrified that Steve might die at age 43 if he had both his hips replaced – which he desperately needed, because avascular necrosis had destroyed his joints – that he encouraged Steve to try “alternative therapies” (see above: quack’s contraption) instead of surgery. The avascular necrosis may have been caused by Steve’s drinking, and it may have been caused by his years as a young athlete, and it may have been some unpredictable alchemy of his DNA. Whatever the source, it left Steve in too much pain to even sit upright, much less stand or walk. My brother laid flat in bed for eighteen months and became addicted to morphine and Xanax and Ambien, and died of two pulmonary emboli at four in the morning when he was forty-five years old, a year after my dad died.

I also knew that Steve was diagnosed as bipolar when he was 40, but our dad convinced him to stop taking the lithium, saying, “Those doctors are wrong, and whatever this is we’ll beat it with willpower.” That’s how badly he hated the stigma of a mentally ill son; he thought he could just make it disappear by deciding it was untrue. These are the things I knew.

And I always knew this: My dad loved me and Steve, and tried to give us a good life with a stable home and good schools and Hawaiian vacations and telling us he loved us all the time, the kind of life he did not have as the child of poor, abusive, alcoholic, immigrant father.

It had never, in my most repulsive nightmares, occurred to me that my dad might have molested my brother. I believed their unfixable, codependent-isn’t-even-a-big-enough-word relationship was about addiction and guilt and mental illness and hubris and narcissism. No other explanation was needed. When I read Steve’s name on that list while standing in my study with the Russians at my feet, everything froze: the air, my blood, my breath, my brain. I felt it was true. I believed it was true. And I wasn’t even remotely ready for it to be true.

I remembered something else I found, four years earlier, when I cleaned out my dad’s house in Denver: One 2 x 2 piece of paper with my dad’s handwriting on it that said:

Pedophilia – sexual abuse

Frotteurism – rubbing against a non consenting


And a 3 x 5 index card scarred by my dad’s handwriting:

Vitiate: debase, pervert

            Make legally without force



In his four thousand square foot house there were hundred of scraps of paper. Hundreds of files, hundreds of books, dozens of binders, birth certificates and marriage certificates and death certificates for aunts and uncles and my mother and father and brother, and I had four days to decide what to keep or throw away or sell. I did not have time to stop and get interested in or sentimental about what I found. But when I discovered the square piece of paper and the index card, I stopped. I stopped moving, stopped thinking about what had to be done, stopped trying to not think about my whole family being dead, and if it was really possible for one’s heart to stop . . . it would have happened right then. Because those two scraps of paper were weighted with those two words: pedophilia. Pervert. I put them in an envelope that I did not store in a box in my garage in Portland, but kept in my desk, just in case I ever needed them.

Only a few days after I discovered The List, I unearthed the envelope containing the square paper and the index card. Pedophilia. Frotteurism. I set them on my desk next to The List, and it was instantly obvious how they fit together. Like pieces of a puzzle. Not a complete picture—the center few pieces still missing—but more than just edges. More than a border without a middle.

Something else I found in my dad’s house: the type-written pages of his memoir. It was tucked in a brown accordion file folder in the basement, on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. He’d written it twenty years before he died, when he was 63. In those twenty years, he’d also written and self-published a book of poetry, a handbook of financial advice for women, and an historical novel based on the rescue of the U.S.S. Franklin. He was proud of his books and was even fervently trying to get the novel made into a movie. I had never heard one word about his memoir.

Like most of my father’s belongings that I did not sell or throw away, his memoir was stored in a box in my garage. After looking at that not-quite-complete puzzle on my desk, I retrieved the memoir and sped-read through it on my bed. I didn’t think there’d be any admission of my father molesting my brother in those pages, but maybe there’d be some clue about how my dad became that kind of man. I thought I’d find proof that a Catholic priest had molested him when he was an altar boy, but my dad only wrote high praise for the padre who took him under his wing. Maybe there was some other man – an uncle or grandfather or even his father – who had sexually abused my dad, and he had been unable to break the cycle. But no. There was no evidence of such a defense.

However, there was reams of sadness and loss of a desolate quality that reached beyond his family’s poverty. My namesake great-grandmother, Elizabeth, had come over from Italy to the tiny mining town of Aguilar, Colorado, leaving her two sons behind. My great-grandfather did not accompany her and no one in my family knows why; he had apparently done something so horrendous that it was literally unspeakable. When she first arrived in Aguilar, Elizabeth made money by “singing and dancing for the miners in a local bar.” My dad provided no more details in his memoir and perhaps he knew none, but my mind goes to prurient places. She met and married the man who my dad came to know as his Grandfather, and sent for her two sons in Italy. It’s a melancholy sepia photo in my brain, of my twelve year old grandfather and his older brother alone on a ship, all the way from Italy to Ellis Island, and then somehow to a hamlet in Southern Colorado. My grandfather dropped out of school to help Elizabeth and his new father run a small grocery store. His brother fought in WWI, then died in 1922 of pneumonia. My grandfather met my grandmother, and along came my dad and his sister.

I was skimming through this part of my dad’s memoir, because it seemed like facts, and I was looking for truths. My dad recounted several stories from his childhood (being verbally and physically abused by his dad, climbing a local mountain by himself, losing his virginity), but what loomed large was the omnipresence of death. The backdrop was one of those perfect metaphors that you can’t make up because it seems too forced, too conveniently placed. As part of running the grocery store, my grandfather and great-grandfather butchered cattle and hogs in a slaughterhouse behind their house. My dad would watch the animals go in alive, then come out dead, blood soaking their carcass and the ground.

When my dad was 8, Elizabeth – his protector from his abusive father – died of some unnamed illness. Less than a year later my dad’s grandfather died, as a result of a car accident caused by a violent fight between the three people in the car (the other two survived). My dad himself almost succumbed to Scarlet Fever, although it was not clear at what age. He fell into a coma and last rites were administered, but somehow, two days later, he woke up and survived. When my dad was 12, his father was fatally felled by strep. Next, his cousin died of rheumatic fever, and six months later my dad’s godfather died. Then went both his maternal grandparents and his uncle. It was all capped off when my dad’s mother tried to (unsuccessfully) kill herself with an overdose of pills. This was all before my dad turned 18.

What’s wrong with my family?” he started asking. Is God against us?

What’s wrong with my family? I had asked so many times. Addiction and guilt and mental illness and hubris and narcissism, and I felt my own special inheritance was the one of loss. My mom, dad, brother, aunts, uncles – even friends – dead. My dad’s mother died before I was born, and his sister died when I was 18. My dad knew what it was like to be the only survivor of a legacy of loss. At 18, I had no idea what that meant to him. I’m not even sure I know now, at 47, with my mom and dad and brother gone, and me holding The List and those pieces of paper and the 387 page memoir.

There were no admissions of my dad being molested in those pages. He graduated from high school and served in the South Pacific at the end of WWII and went to college in Boulder, and he wrote about how badly he struggled to escape where he came from. It was hard for him to study philosophy and psychology with middle class men and women, when no one in his family had ever even graduated from high school, when none of the women he’d grown up with were educated or independent.

My dad met a woman in a philosophy class that he would take to Denver for dinner sometimes. She was looking for a kind of intimacy that I didn’t understand and was still incapable of, my dad wrote. I was looking for a piece of ass. One night parked in front of her house, I managed to pull down her panties and have sex with her despite her struggling against me. My experience was that when a woman said no, she was just being coy. For me that struggle was just a way to say yes. For her it was devastating. Today people would call it date rape.

He then wrote that his next “relationship” ended the same way.

My dad date raped two women – that he admits to. It would be easy (would it?) to excuse his actions by saying that men in his generation didn’t know better, since date rape was not a thing people thought about, talked about, even had a definition for back then. I’m also well aware that in 1950 not every young man with a woman in his car thought it was his right to have sex with her, regardless of how much she struggled or said no. My dad wrote that “for her it was devastating,” but he did not indicate it had been devastating for him, decades later, when he realized what he had done and had the word “rape” to attach to it. He did not profess to guilt or shame or an inner torment about his actions; he merely used it as an example of the kind of man he once was. I think he assumed the implication was he was no longer that man, that he would never fathom violating another human being, again. But he never wrote that, or anything close to it. Not once.

It makes me wonder about the Girl in Boulder, Girl at Congress Park, Girl on Marion Street, Mexican Girl. Were these casual, but consensual, sexual encounters with women whose names he did not remember? Or did he give these women no names because the way he had sex with them required them to be less than human?

After I found The List and the small pieces of paper and the memoir, I told only a handful of people what I had thought I had discovered. What I suspected, what I knew. I was not ready to be that person, the person whose dad was a sexual predator. I was not ready for it to be part of my story. I told my husband, my best friend, my brother’s best friend, my therapist. And here’s the thing: none of them tried to disabuse me of my conclusions. No one told me that I was misinterpreting, that there was some other explanation. No one tried to tell me my worst fears were wrong.

My friend Michelle and I met right after college when we were working at a foundation that raised money for The Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect in Denver. Right after we started the job, the Kempe Center launched a new program researching the effects of childhood sexual abuse on adults. It was originally intended to be a small study with only twenty participants. They announced the new program in an auditorium at the University of Colorado Medical School, where a former Miss America from Denver stood up and, for the first time, publicly admitted that her father, a respected millionaire, had sexually abused her throughout her childhood.

That night over a hundred messages were left on the Foundation’s answering machine, and all five lines of the phone were lit up for weeks. Some people called to express disgust over what they assumed were Miss America’s vicious lies. But most of the calls were from adults who had been raped as children. Where can I get help?

Michelle and I were in charge of answering the phones. We were just the fundraising arm, we tried to explain. The Kempe Center, itself, was also inundated with calls, and was no more ready to deal with the tidal wave of injured souls. The most we could do was recommend help lines and therapists and support groups to the callers.

Sometimes, the callers didn’t want a phone number. Sometimes, they needed to tell their story and launched into it as soon as they heard a human voice on the other end. Michelle and I heard ugliness and evil that we didn’t know existed. Dr. Henry Kempe, the founder of the agency, used to say that most parents didn’t mean to abuse their children. That they lacked certain resources – emotional, financial, etc. – and just snapped, but they were not evil. But I think Kempe was talking more about physical abuse, about hitting, slapping, shaking. Frustration, tempers, fear. Those were not the stories we heard when survivors recounted their own sexual abuses. One story remains forever lodged in both of our brains, about a girl whose father molested her with her own Barbie doll. Michelle and I were held hostage by these horrors, unable to hang up on someone in the midst of reliving such brutal trauma, but also untrained in how to help them or how to shield ourselves.

Somehow, Michelle was able to compartmentalize, but I broke out in hives – almost two hundred hives all over my body, including on my lips and the bottom of my feet – every day for six months. I changed laundry soap and I changed my diet. I endeavored to discover if I had some repressed memory of being sexually abused that was triggered by my job and causing these red, angry welts, but no shadowy memories took shape. Night after night I would get only a few hours of sleep – and that was with Benadryl – because I would wake up at one, two, three in the morning, scratching furiously. I went to an allergist (who made a note in the chart that I was “emotional”) and the allergist found no substance that should be triggering such a dramatic response. He had no suggestions beyond that, and it felt like a failing on my part.

Six months after the hives appeared they mysteriously retreated, returning to me my smooth, calm skin. I’ll never know if it was because my boss decided I didn’t have to field survivor phone calls anymore, or because I dumped the abusive boyfriend I lived with, or because of some other secret that my body and mind had sequestered in its deepest functioning systems was pushed even deeper. Or maybe my body and mind just got exasperated with me for not figuring out what it was trying to tell me, and gave up.

Not long after the hives disappeared, my dad joined the board of the Kempe Foundation. The former Miss America’s husband was an old business colleague of my dad’s, and invited him to join. My dad was enormously proud to participate in and represent an organization that did such important work, and he wanted them to be proud of him being on their board. In the packet we handed out to each member at his first board meeting was his thirty-two page CV, which included newspaper clippings about his biggest business deals, a picture of him in his karate gi, and a statement of his net worth. I was embarrassed, but even then intrigued, about why he felt the need to go to such lengths to convince the other board members he was worthy. “You can take Pete out of Aguilar,” a neighbor used to say, “But you can’t take the Aguilar out of Pete.” It was as if he was afraid these men and women of industry and society would be able to look at him and know, somehow, where he had come from.

After I was amicably laid off from my job, my dad bought two seats to the Foundation’s fancy fundraising dinner. He wore a tuxedo with a crimson bow tie and I wore a little black dress with faux-pearls, and when we pulled up to valet parking in his Cadillac, I felt like royalty. We shared a table with people far above our social and financial station, people for whom I used to work, while my friends still at the Foundation – Michelle – made fun of me for being an attendee, and not a looked-down-upon worker bee.

That night someone snapped a picture of me and my dad, one of my favorite pictures, ever, and also my dad’s. I found it in a pewter frame in his house. We were dancing together to a swing band – I was a terrible dancer, never having gone to cotillion and learned the steps, but my dad didn’t seem to mind. He was in a tuxedo, and I was in a little black dress. We were both smiling. Happy.

When I told Michelle about The List and the index card and the square piece of paper, she just sighed out a long, “Ooooh.” She did not try to tell me that I was wrong, that I’d misinterpreted, that I’d overreacted. She said, “This explains everything that was wrong with Steve.”

“My dad was a monster,” I whispered. “But you knew him . . . he wasn’t.”

“Liz, we know someone isn’t just born as an abuser. Something happened to him. It’s probably why he was so broken.”

When I first looked through the cardboard box marked “Russians,” I wanted to understand something about my dad, and these women, and hopefully something about the ways in which we are all broken and try to put the pieces back together, even in incredibly broken ways. I still don’t know what is true, what is circumstantial, what my actually dad did and had done to him, and whether those hives were about the people I listened to, or about something that happened in my own family that I knew, on a cellular level, but couldn’t face.

But I do know. Because when I first found my brother’s name on The List, I felt broken in a way that could not be fixed. I didn’t think I could live with this knowledge. Everything inside me felt shredded, like my ribcage had been scraped raw.

My father was a monster.


The index card that said: Vitiate: debase, pervert/Make legally without force/invalidate was paper-clipped to a smaller piece of an index card. On the non-lined side, these words were typed:

Hast not thy share
On winged feet
Lo it rushed thee to meet.
And all that nature made they own
Flowing in Air and pent in stone
Will rive the hills and swim the sea
And like they shadow follow thee.

I didn’t know what these words meant when I found them, what they are from, although I assumed the Bible, because my dad believed in God and Christ. A Google search revealed they are from an Emerson poem preceding his essay, “Compensation.” In “Compensation,” Emerson asserts that just like there is polarity in every aspect of nature (light and dark, male and female, hot and cold, the systole and diastole of the heart), there is polarity within humans. “Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.”

A century(-ish) later, Carl Jung’s followers used this poem and essay to support the theory of the “shadow self” – the part of one’s personality, usually the “dark side,” that their consciousness tries to deny. The less someone consciously acknowledges their shadow self, thought Jung, the “blacker and denser it is.” The demon inside that we have tried to banish, exile, murder, still rises to the surface, anyway. We try to compensate for this dark side by bringing in light, but all that does it try to balance it. It does not actually make the darkness go away.

I wonder: is there ever enough light to make darkness go away? Once you have evil inside you, is there any level of divinity that can abolish your sins?

It’s what my dad was trying to work out, I think. He didn’t join the board of the child abuse foundation to cover up or hide who he “really” was; he did it to try to balance out this dark side of himself. A side he very much wanted to pretend never existed – not just because he knew it was legally or morally wrong. He wanted to pretend it never existed because he didn’t want to be a bad man. He wanted, he tried, to get away from the bad men who haunted his childhood: the alcoholics, the abusers, the men who withheld love.

My dad did not want to be the kind of man who would molest his son.

Steve was more important to my dad than anyone or anything on this earth – certainly more than me. When my brother suffered, my dad suffered. The part of my dad that hurt Steve was dark and shadowy and probably caused my dad nearly as much pain as it caused Steve. I believe he would have abolished it, if he could.

I am sure that most of the time, my dad lived in the land of good and light. He built a play kitchen in the basement for his daughter and a wood Kool-Aid stand for his son, he taught us both to play softball and baseball, he went to all of Steve’s games and for one season volunteered as an umpire at my softball games. He believed in God and studied Jung and wrote poetry about the soul. This is the man my father wanted to be and he got so, so close. But there was never enough light to abolish his darkness. Pedophilia, frotteurism, debase, pervert, invalidate, rape.

My dad was not a monster. He had a monster inside, and although there is probably little difference to his victims, it’s made a difference to me. I don’t condone what he did, but I do feel the one thing I sense you’re never supposed to feel for a sexual violator: compassion. Compassion that his childhood occurred in such dark loss and that he tried so hard to escape, but, no matter what, was never be able to get away. It would always be inside him. I have either the benefit or the burden – depending on how you look at it – of loving my dad. And even though I assumed this newfound information should have made me un-love him, it doesn’t work that way. Not for me, at least. For me, the way it works is that I try to understand. I will never know exactly what and when, but maybe I can form a glimpse into how and why. It would be different if he were still alive – I know that – and not because I could demand the truth from him. He would not tell the truth, he would deny, and that denial would make me hate him as much as the acts themselves. This way, I get to work it through my own framework, which is, of course, distorted and subjective in its own particular way.

I wish I could talk to the women he raped and give them something. What? Would a hug from me somehow make better this decades-old violation? Of course not. But I want to look them in the eyes and say, “I know what he did and it was not okay.” If my brother was still alive, I would not say these words to him out loud. But I would hold his hand and stroke his head and telegraph silently, You sweet, innocent boy. You deserved so much more.

Something else I brought home from my dad’s house, after both he and Steve died: their ashes. My dad’s in an Asian-decorated urn, my brother’s in a heavy green cardboard box. For years, they have sat in my garage. I assumed that one day I would take them to Maui, to the place we used to vacation, and I would sprinkle their ashes together, into the ocean, so they could remain bound forever.

Now I know I can’t do that to Steve. I hope his death has allowed him to finally be free of our dad and all the chains that entailed. I will not, even symbolically, shackle him to our dad again. I will take my brother’s ashes to Hawaii one day and scatter them at sea or into an ancient volcano, and maybe by making him more disperse, I will somehow make him whole.

My dad’s ashes remain a conundrum. I thought of sending them back to Aguilar, to the cemetery where his mother and father and sister and all those other doomed family members are buried. But then I’d be banishing him to what he tried so hard to get away from. Even though I live with the knowledge that he did not ever completely escape the darkness of his family, it feels cruel to resign him to this destiny.

I realize these are just ashes. They are not actually my dad or brother’s soul or self, neither their dark side or light side, just remnants of their corporeal being. Where I scatter their ashes will not change my dad or brother’s destiny. But, maybe, it will change mine.

Liz Prato’s short story collection, Baby’s On Fire, is forthcoming from Press 53 in May 2015. She writes, reads, edits, teaches, watches TV, naps, and searches for grace in people and art in Portland, Oregon and beyond.

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