Reflections on a Violent Dad

I have been hearing, for years, about violent men. If you include violent acts committed by one’s own hands, violent acts threatened or committed by others at one’s request (or on one’s behalf, or for one’s approval), and willingness to forgive and forget violence against disfavored persons after the fact, I’m not sure men intrinsically favor violence more than women do. I think it is more likely a matter of opportunity — of having available targets who are smaller and weaker, within a society and/or a local context that tolerates and sometimes favors particular kinds of violence.

That may not be quite right. I haven’t explored it in any detail yet. That’s just my general impression at present.

In the case of my own father, being violent within my childhood home, for a long time I believed the fault was almost entirely his. Clearly, he did have issues. But, over time, I have also started to pay attention to the context in which he was acting. What I think about his violence now is not what I thought about it previously. To my knowledge, it is also not what my siblings and others familiar with our domestic situation think.

Recently, I had an opportunity to present my current views on this subject. A relative, a member of the Millennial generation, asked about violence in my childhood home. I was not confident that this young person would, or did, read my long reply. Nor did I feel that I was owed a detailed reading and extensive follow-up discussion. I just took this as a chance to pull together a detailed summary of that aspect of childhood.

This post provides a lightly edited version of my emailed response. I have added section headings and made a few other adjustments, mostly for readability.

This is not the most concise and focused document. I would have written it differently if I had conceived it as a blog post from the start. I am presenting it here nonetheless because this is about as much attention as I plan to give to this subject in the foreseeable future, and because I don’t know of anyone else, among our relatives and old neighbors, who sees or even thinks about these matters in this way. Possibly other members of younger generations (within or outside the family) may find some of this material to be informative or helpful for their own purposes.


Dear X,

Well, you ask some good questions. It will not be easy to answer them. I don’t really know you, and don’t know what you’ve heard or pieced together. I don’t often make this kind of effort in email anymore, but I will try to tell you what I know, and see if that addresses what you’re asking.

I’ll start with a response to your question about what life was like to age 18. I would reframe it to refer to age 23, because that’s how old I was at about the time of meeting my first serious girlfriend. Margie was a Brooklyn Jew, daughter of two concentration camp survivors (numbers tattooed on the inner forearm; couldn’t ever be introduced to them because they would not allow her to date a Gentile; etc.). She went on to become a doctor, predictably, and quite successful at that.

We dated for two years, and have stayed in touch intermittently since. Margie had her drawbacks. But she was the leading edge of my introduction to Jewish culture. In Christian Bible study, memorizing and accepting were the main things. By contrast, in Jewish scriptural study, questioning is one of the main things. It opened a new world, this discovery that it was OK — it was good, it was expected — to question things, to make sense, to revisit things that don’t add up, to dig further into those that seem to. It was OK to be smart, to use big words.

I mean, I grew up among farmers. I learned that you’d get weird looks from people, if not outright laughed at, if you expressed something that wasn’t within the scope of the received wisdom. Margie, and the other Jews I met in NYC, right up through law school and law practice, marked a sharp departure from that.

I suggest age 23, and the beginning of that departure, because that’s where I really started to develop a more informed and inquisitive perspective on what I thought I had experienced as a child, what my siblings made of it, the stories we had been telling each other, who our parents really were, and so forth. I am contrarian by nature anyway, in the sense of being inclined to wonder what the other half of the story is; but now I had the authorization of an entire culture, of the unique NYC/Jewish mix, to proceed in that vein.

So as soon as I tell you something, in response to whatever you might ask or say, perhaps we can agree that there may be more to it. A response is almost invariably tentative, subject to refinement if not rebuttal.

Formulaic Memories as a Shared Defense

In one sense, I do not entirely know what our childhoods were like. Jan was too old to be a regular companion for me. She finished eighth grade, and left the one-room elementary school, just as I was entering it. I loved to hang out with Wade, and he was kind about spending time with me, and pretty decent to me as big brothers go, but he was still six years older and getting into teenage stuff, driving around the countryside and making his own way, and I was still just a little kid. So for me, with many exceptions where Wade is concerned, my childhood was predominantly Dad, Mom, BJ, and me.

I say I don’t entirely know what our childhoods were like because, years later, I noticed that Jan and Wade were suspiciously repeating the same few stories about the behavior of Mom and, especially, of Dad. And I, myself, was recalling only my own few stories. Was this because there really weren’t that many horror stories, or was it because we were somehow forgetting or suppressing them?

An example. In 1968, Wade, BJ, my friend Curt, and I piled into the station wagon, with the folks, and took off on a 6,600-mile, three-week family trip to the West Coast. At a truck stop in South Dakota, I was being my usual mouthy self, or so I assume. Dad threw a cup of hot coffee in my face. This is not ordinarily considered loving parental behavior. Nowadays, of course, it would get you reported.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember it. I was 12. I was old enough to remember it, and it certainly was the kind of thing that a person would remember. I remember other things. Wade remembers it. Mom remembered it. But I just don’t.

So, with the aid of a few years of graduate study in mental health, I wonder whether we had those few formulaic memories of Dad’s craziness and brutality because that’s all there was — or if, rather, we blocked things out. It’s easy to imagine reams of material being suppressed, but in that case you have to ask yourself, why do we remember some instances of terror but not others? I tend to be suspicious of the too-easy claims that there must be a mass of suppressed memories. There might be. There might not.

One possibility is that we remember those particular stories because they became an opportunity for mutual support. If we all agree that Dad pulled Jan’s hair, broke her bottles of Coke on some rocks outside, and sprayed her with the hose (all because, I think, he rejected the loss of discipline represented by the youth culture of the 1960s, to the extent she personified it) — if we all saw that (and Wade may not have; I don’t think he was there) — then we have a touchstone, a bit of hard truth, to use against Dad’s repeated (and, given the influence of the father’s position, to some extent persuasive) claims that we were all crazy, that the problem was with us, not him. If we have these shared stories, we can justify our membership in Jan’s “Hate Dad Club.” We can feel more confident that it’s really *not* us; it’s him. I could then feel justified in imploring Mom to divorce him; I could arrive at the conclusion that I was happiest by just avoiding him. And, in adulthood, I could have the less-than-ideal consequence of relying largely on Mom as role model: Mom, the housewife, with little use for stereotypical male preoccupations and, to a fair extent, a fear of the workplace.

I say we have only a few stories — Jan, Wade, and I. That’s not precisely true. I’m sure we could fill a book with our “few” stories. It’s more that we tended to gravitate toward a few exemplars of the worst. What, exactly, was the worst? I guess pulling Jan’s hair was pretty bad. But Dad was never oriented toward sexual abuse. I also don’t think he had any kind of powerseeking urge. I think he was driven primarily by anxiety. He was blustery, he was a bully, because he wanted to put down, shut up, and drive away anything that would cause him to lose sleep or otherwise upset his desired domestic equilibrium. To add to what I just said about Mom and the workplace, I don’t think Dad, either, ever felt that he had a career, per se, a vocation worth taking pride in, beyond the general belief that men like him, on the railroad, were the ones who prevented his more no-account colleagues from driving the trains off the tracks.

So when Wade tells me that Dad hit him in the stomach hard enough to drive his head back and crack the plaster in the upstairs hallway, I have a couple of thoughts. One is that I don’t think it works that way. If you get hit in the stomach, you double over. Also, Dad was pretty big. If he hit Wade hard in the stomach, I think Wade would be in the hospital. Nevertheless, I do think Dad would hit Wade in the stomach, very hard, and that was probably the key point. This was the kind of father we had, and that is what we were reaffirming, in the stories we shared.

One possibility, then, is that I don’t remember the instance of the hot coffee because maybe I felt I deserved it. Maybe it was like those events you never called the cops or filed suit for, because you realized you would probably lose or get in trouble, in one way or another, if the full truth came out. Maybe what you remember is the few instances of Injustice, as you see it, where you really had a good case and yet nothing came of it. That rankles. Within our family context, maybe a competent and suitably empowered judicial authority could have compelled acknowledgements on both sides sufficient to relax the constant distrust and fear of what the other represented. We didn’t have that. We just had our perpetually nursed resentments.

If my mental health training is to be trusted, evidently it is not uncommon for families to close themselves to outside eyes, as if sharing a conspiracy to conceal their own misdeeds and, thus, to prevent and defeat any beneficial intervention. On Dad’s side, there was the prospect that, if people knew how he carried on at home, his status as a cool dad (as my peers saw him, given his propensity to load up a station wagon full of kids and haul them off for roller or ice skating or tobogganing or swimming) would be seriously degraded, not to mention that he’d become more a target of gossip than he presently believed himself to be. (Back then, there might not have been much legal intervention against Dad, except possibly in the worst cases, if one of us had taken it upon ourselves to call the police.)

Meanwhile, on our side, basically, we were gaslighted. It was all too easy to believe that we were as crazy or goofy as Dad claimed. For example, from a child’s perspective, Mom radiated weakness. That’s not going to inspire a kid. Kids are driven to thrive. They value strength. Thus, ironically, Jan, who most strongly intended to reject Dad’s example, became worst at copying it, in her own way. She just didn’t have a lot of alternative role models. I detested Mom’s ineffectual pleading with Dad, to the effect that could he please just stop being so crazy; but it seems I had to have my own experiences with nutty girlfriends to really understand how powerless she might have felt, when it came to direct confrontation with him.

It was certainly easy to believe that Jan was nutty. She was a bit eccentric, even as a child, and also somewhat bitter. I mean, she was a gas. She would come up with the funniest stuff. But that’s how it works, with those types. Stand her up against this big man, a pillar of the community in his own way, a veteran with years of stable work experience, and yeah, you’ll be inclined to think he is indeed saddled with a bunch of snot-nosed whiners. I’m sure Dad, himself, did believe his own propaganda.

The Extent of Obvious Abuse

The situation would have been simpler if Dad had been consistently brutal or crazy. He wasn’t. I wish I had logged the events. All I can say is, I remember thinking, at least once, that his episodes of erupting in anger, often over some seemingly trivial event, seemed to occur monthly. It would not be impossible that the full moon triggered him sometimes. So, to illustrate, I remember his reaction when I left him a note, around age 16 or 17, asking if I could buy a motorcycle. (As you surely know, he worked on the railroad, and thus came home at all hours of day and night, punctuating absences of one, two, maybe three days.) He got the note and called me downstairs at, I think, 3 or 4 AM, and proceeded to yell at me about this idea of buying a motorcycle. I’m not complaining about his rejection of that proposal. If I’m right in the impression that motorcycles and skiing are two primary reasons for knee problems, my status as a runner at age 61 actually leaves me rather grateful. It was just the craziness of waking me up at 4 AM, and ranting endlessly in response to a simple note, that seemed so bizarre. But, I don’t know, maybe he was afraid I’d go ahead with it promptly, that very day, while he was sleeping. Suffice it to say that he had not exactly built a relationship in which he would feel confident that a simple note conveying disapproval would suffice. He was largely but not entirely to blame for that.

I would say, generally, that the problem with Dad was not the physical abuse, but rather the psychological. For instance, he would freak out if we used his tools and failed to return them to their proper place in the rack in the backroom. So I remember, one time, when I was maybe 8 or 10, when he believed that I had taken his hammer out of the rack and had not put it back. I told him I hadn’t. He was sure I had. He walked me out to the backroom, next to the rack, and asked me again if I had taken the hammer out and had failed to return it. I said no, I hadn’t. He lifted his big hand and held it out, ready to slap me across the face, and said he was going to ask me one more time. So — and I still remember the sick feeling — I said yeah, I had taken the hammer and didn’t put it back. Here, again, I don’t know how many instances like that there were. I have a sense that there was more than one, but there might not have been.

At some point — again, I think, in the 1990s — I had both Mom and Dad on the phone, on separate extensions. We were talking about what it was like when he came home from the war. He described himself as having been “an emotional basket case.” I think he was always pretty fearful, yet conscious of the expectation of bravery. I think he mastered that fearfulness with the aid of bluster and caffeine (which, I suspect from my own chemistry, played a huge role in his aggressivity). I think his fearfulness was aggravated by his experiences in the war, perhaps more at the end than in the middle. I don’t know how much he was engaged in clearing the caves of Japanese soldiers, but at least in that context he would have had the backing of fellow soldiers. I think what really freaked him out may have been working as a military policeman at war’s end, guarding the Manila harbor against thugs and thieves (or something to that effect — I don’t have the details at hand), where it was just him versus a knife he’d never see.

So, you know, when you’re trying to reason with someone who’s responding more to an inner fear than to any actual external threat, it becomes difficult to know what will help. We had no clue. I basically adapted to it. Moving significantly away from the pure avoidance that Jan had taught me, I actually did come to the point where I would sit at the kitchen table and read while Dad likewise sat there reading, or caught up with paying the bills and other paperwork. I would read the strange conspiracy magazines he subscribed to, right there at the same table; I regularly consumed his copies of “True: The Man’s Magazine,” whose contents could not have seemed entirely decent to Mom, as well as the rather risque novels with which he passed his hours on the railroad. I bought him a copy of “M*A*S*H” as a present for, maybe, his birthday; I remember him lying in bed and laughing as he read it. He actually took me fishing once, which was a big stretch for him, I think; it had always been clear that he felt ashamed of Wade and me, compared to the solid and stable farmers’ sons, FFA members, whom he took on annual weeklong fishing trips to Canada. Neither of us were ever invited to participate in one of those.

Our Parents’ Legacies

Without denying or at all minimizing the beneficial influences and contributions of a father who was a steady breadwinner, a generally fair and honest person, a good example in terms of being trusting and gregarious, a civically minded individual who did more than his share to build a community, and in other ways a positive character, I would say that Dad did what he could to wreck my childhood. It’s an overstatement, but perhaps it captures the general impression.

The gist of those remarks is that I wouldn’t place as much emphasis as my elder siblings do, on Dad’s occasional eruptions, strange and scary and sometimes horrible as they were. I think the worst factors were more subtle. Dad yielded way too much domestic power to Mom, for one thing. Moreover, he did not want me there. I don’t think he could help himself. It was like a kind of craziness came over him. I think he felt inferior to me, and couldn’t stand it. That, I think, is why he never praised or encouraged me. He seemed to prefer my failure. Especially after the mid-1980s or so, it became less feasible for me to visit with Mom and just enjoy the feeling that I still had a home. That wasn’t minor. I would say the inability to replace my childhood home has been an enduring problem throughout my adult life. I really never wanted to leave there; I just had no alternative.

So, in another ironic turn of the wheel, we rejected Mom’s weakness, and yet her legacy has been the more enduring one, at least for me. She was more the kind of person who had the potential to create a loving home. I have actually wept over the realization that her project failed — that all of my siblings have unthinkingly chosen the Woodcock path of treating their brothers and sisters as optional accessories. The worst example of that: Dad’s treatment of Brian, which I’ve written up elsewhere ( Among Dad’s siblings, it seems like half of them were forever not speaking to each other. Meanwhile, Mom and her three siblings never lived more than ten miles apart. All were nice people — except that, at the end, with Brenda’s support, Aunt Jean turned dotty and mean, just in time to betray my parents’ trust in making her the administrator of their affairs.

About the contrast between Mom and Dad, I had a funny experience. I went into a Village Inn restaurant in Denver. In the waiting area, I noticed an Employee of the Month plaque for Ginger Woodcock. I sat down and, what do you know, Ginger is my waitress. We talk a bit. She indicates that her husband is the Woodcock; her maiden name was something else. Yeah, his family came from back East — from Illinois or Indiana or somewhere. “You know,” she said, “I just don’t think they know very much about love.” She hit the nail on the head. Dad’s influence was that, in the end, we were at odds; Mom’s influence was that, in the end, we weren’t. And Dad’s influence won out, in practice and in attitude. Among my siblings, there just isn’t an orientation toward ultimately patching it up and making it work.

Oppositional and Favored Children

Among the four of us, there seemed to be two alternating pairs. Jan and I tended to be oppositional toward our parents; Wade and Brenda less so. I’ve said that Jan had a Hate Dad club — which actually may have had only one meeting, occurring when she was, like, 13 — but I am not sure Wade remembers or cared much for the concept. I remember being amazed at his ability to play with Dad, not to take him too seriously. Like, Wade would sit there in the dining room, quietly playing the piano. Very nice, lilting music. Then, suddenly, he’d crash the keyboard; a wall of sound pummels the kitchen; Dad jumps and yells, “Wade!” Wade thinks this is hilarious. I would have been diving for cover. Wade has always been an unbelievable comic. The country is the poorer for the fact that he never had the confidence to seek fame. He should have. An absolutely gifted individual.

Unlike me, Wade could have stayed there and, in fact, he did. He commuted to the local college from home. He may be the only person I ever met who graduated from college with $5,000 (now equal to about $28K) in self-earned savings. He worked at least one full-time job all the way through college, sometimes another part-time job as well — and, aside from getting into the occasional fight and stealing car parts in the middle of the night now and then, he made it without getting into trouble, within the prescribed four years. He graduated in 1972, a year before I finished high school, and was still at the folks’ place after I went off to college in fall 1973. He left, later that fall, only because Dad stopped, one time, while they were cutting wood, and said, “Wade, why don’t you get the hell out of here?” Even then, I don’t think that was intended as rejection. I think it was just that Dad felt that this was what a young man should do, and at age 23, Wade had already stuck around a lot longer than either Dad or I had done; I think both of us were 17 when we left home.

I liked to hang out with Wade, and did so to varying extents. But Brenda was my primary playmate for a number of years, especially while Sarah and David Gemmer were still there. (Mr. Gemmer taught the one-room school until they closed it down in spring 1967, when Brenda was 7 and I was 11.) After the school closed, she and I were bused to different schools, and each began developing separate friendships with peers. I’d estimate we were mostly no longer playing together very much by maybe 1969. By about that time, I had begun biking around those country roads on my own, visiting friends and playing in the woods and starting to learn how to get into trouble. I still spent a lot of time at home, but increasingly I was on my own when I did.

Brenda, like Wade a relatively conformist child, was by far the most accepted one. With her, the folks essentially got a do-over. Dad might have scared her sometimes, but I don’t think he was ever brutal to her. Age, distance from the war, and years of relatively placid existence in that house had calmed him down. He and Mom had learned a lot about kids, and about each other. I wouldn’t overemphasize this, but the women’s liberation movement became a topic on the news by the end of the 1960s, and at some point I think Dad began to realize that there could be previously unrecognized limits on his freedom of behavior within the household. It also helped that, by the time Brenda turned 14, the rest of us were gone. Dad no longer had to fear that there wouldn’t be enough money for those hungry mouths. The stress was off. He and Mom could concentrate on having a good, happy daughter, a normal one with the usual scholastic and extracurricular achievements, in place of the variously scared, lost, and/or angry kids who had gone before.

So we have these two different households, a world apart. In spring 1965, Janice was about to graduate from high school, after which she would promptly leave home and, with very rare exceptions, never speak to Dad again. To her, he had been not just physically abusive, but also sarcastic, mean, belittling, and (referring again, here, to Mom’s excessive domestic influence) alienated from his own children, to the point that this elder daughter had actively solicited her junior siblings in permanent hostility to him. He was very much a stranger in his own home. I think he knew that he was the primary contributor to that situation, but in any event he was correct in feeling that we were all in cahoots against him. Now, compared to all that, fast-forward ten years: in spring 1975, all those troublemakers are gone. All that’s left is the golden girl, the one whom he would proudly hoist to his shoulder, when she was a little girl, and announce, “Miss America ’76!” — expressing pride and appreciation that the rest of us had never remotely received. She had normal friends — no, I’d say, her high school friends came more from what we called the “soc” (pronounced “sosh,” short for social, as in “privileged; widely accepted; socially dominant”) clique, very unlike the blue-collar characters and farmer’s sons that Wade and I had hung out with. I mean, of the four boys I biked with circa 1970, one died at age 40, one has spent adulthood with brain damage from an early suicide attempt, and one has lived most of his adult life on disability due to an alcohol-related car accident in his twenties. Not Brenda’s world!

I don’t want to overstate the happy-days tendency of Brenda’s teen years. There was always a lot under the surface. But perhaps that’s the point. Brenda was comfortable with superficiality. If it looked good, let it be good; never mind if it really wasn’t. I was very much opposed to that. I had observed Wade sucking up to Dad; I had decided that he didn’t get much for his money — that, in other words, Dad still mistreated him, after taking away his self-respect; and I had concluded that I would be my own person, dammit, no matter what Dad or anyone else said or felt. So I was open to, and I learned from, that Jewish girlfriend’s influence. I was willing to root it all up and start over if it wasn’t right — not because I believed perfectionism is achievable, but because I felt it was important to be, and to be understood to be, the kind of person who would really try to get it right, not just to fake it. But that, I realize, is not the priority of a person preoccupied with popularity or success.

Love, Envy, and Closemindedness

Relatively speaking, I came away from NYC poor but insightful. This was pretty much the opposite of what Wade or Brenda would have made of that experience. They aren’t the most piggishly capitalistic people on the planet. But I am pretty sure they would have tried to make friends who would profit them personally; they would have been preoccupied with enhancing their own status and comfort. They would not leave such a haven of opportunity; and if they did, they certainly would not be telling people that the most important thing they got from those years in NYC was an improved insight into their own thoughts and background experiences.

Such remarks may help to explain my reaction to a certain tendency among some of our Woodcock cousins. I met cousin Frank in childhood, and notably re-encountered him during that 1968 trip to California. Frank was the only relative or friend of any description who ever punched me in the face. He was, I believe, the only personal acquaintance who did anything of the sort with no provocation, just because I happened to be a skinny little kid. Frank, I guess you know, killed himself in effect, drinking himself to oblivion (or so I’m told) in the year following his divorce. Obviously, part of me thinks he deserved it. He was always a liar and a sleaze. But part of me reflects that it could have been otherwise, if he had not been so bullheadedly averse to learning. He could have used that year after his divorce as I did — as a time of enormous grief, to be sure, but also as a crisis that one should not let go to waste.

I recently re-encountered that Woodcock unwillingness to be smart, as I perceive it, in another cousin. We had a dispute on Facebook. It was OK — we were just disagreeing about politics. The problem was that, as I had observed in this cousin’s other Facebook interactions, he was unwilling or unable to fight fairly. He could not give the other person credit for anything. His concept of debate was to keep harping on obvious points, keep avoiding inconvenient facts, keep insulting the other side. I fail to comprehend how such behavior amounts to anything more than willfully ignorant self-congratulation. Ultimately, like most of his other Facebook friends, I got tired of it. We won’t be having any more of those debates. I just don’t need it. It’s no fun to talk to someone who is stuck in believing that his answer is the only possible answer.

Needless to say, I am not relating these thoughts because I believe you are particularly interested in the Woodcock cousins. I offer them, rather, as a relatively gentle way of conveying what I most dislike about Brenda. Let me move a bit closer to that topic with an observation about another relative. For our half-brother, as for Dad, conversations had a way of always coming back around to be about him. It is as though the other person is present in order to serve as a mirror in which this individual can admire and discuss various things that he has done well. In these days of Donald Trump, that could sound like narcissism, but I don’t think that’s the diagnosis. I think, rather, it’s just insecurity. For Dad, especially, the other person was always a threat to self-esteem, always a potential source of words or acts that can pierce one’s thin foil of self-protection and make one feel bad.

It might seem that I would be envious when Dad hoisted Brenda to his shoulder and announced her as “Miss America ’76.” That interpretation would misconstrue the nature of our childhood home. I don’t think I ever rose to the point of believing that I could have, or would even feel comfortable in, a home in which anyone would just come out and tell me they loved me. In our often sarcastic home, growing up without words of love was like growing up without caviar: yes, some crave it; some consider it a luxury; but I personally could not see how it had anything to do with me. So my negative reactions to “Miss America ’76” were not primarily envy, at the thought that Brenda was getting something that I deserved. In our emotionally and otherwise relatively austere childhood, my primary reaction was that she was getting something that was not real, not normal, except in fake families, like on TV — and even there, in those days, I don’t think words of love were common.

The point is not that familial love is abnormal, but that it didn’t quite fit in Dad’s case. He could experience compassion for a suffering creature. He was not a monster. I would say he was quite able to empathize with the unhappiness or discomfort of another person — as long as his own interests were not implicated. He cried like a baby, according to Mom, when he accidentally backed the truck over their pet dachshund. But I do not think he would have shed a tear at my funeral. I was a threat, an interference in Mom’s affections, in a way that the poor little dachshund would never be. I think he hoisted Brenda, not from love for her, but rather for her reflection upon him, for the prospect that somehow, despite everything, she might enable him to turn out as a normal, successful father after all. There wasn’t a sense that he was demeaning me by contrast against this prized little daughter. I would have felt uncomfortable if I had been in her place. I wouldn’t have believed that he meant it; I would have been quite sure that this display of pride would be offset by some subsequent abuse. He did not, in fact, give me any such adoration; to the contrary, he made a point of insisting that I was not any smarter than he. It was clear he never thought I’d be much of a man. And that seemed normal. I did think I was smarter, but I was raised to agree with his assessment of my general worth as a male.

Well, but was there not Mom, to convey love, to mitigate Dad’s insecurities, and generally to make the place liveable? There was indeed. But the task was superhuman, and she was burned out. It wasn’t enough that Jan was such a train wreck. Wade turned out OK — or even better than OK, in some important ways, inclined to make life easier for everybody — but then there was the crisis of Brian, and of years of coping with Dad’s sick reaction to Brian, and with my own contrary, caffeinated hyperactivity. She was just done. Mom coped really well. She made all the difference in raising me as someone who could become an intellectual rather than a wood-hauler. She wanted the best for me. But she could never relate to me. She was not alienated from me; she would say supportive things; but she really did not have much interest in my world, nor much motivation to learn about it. For many years, I believed the folks’ protestations that they didn’t want to be seen as meddling, but that excuse was inadequate to explain their very substantial disengagement from their own children’s lives.

Except Brenda’s, I mean. Brenda continued on that separate trajectory, of being in effect an only child, a do-over, where the folks had got it right and could continue to get it right, in the normal grandparentish way. I wouldn’t have handled all these things as they did, but I don’t blame them for finding personal gratification in Brenda’s family.

Mom, Domestically Dominant

Dad didn’t want kids, and he didn’t have any interest in learning how to raise kids. He wasn’t alone in that; to a considerable extent, kids were understood to be the woman’s job, in that place and time. I’ve said he had the capacity to be compassionate, but we rarely saw that. He took much more pride — consistent with his concept of a real man — in being cold and cynical. He seemed to believe that men should be hard and unemotional, with due exceptions for his own anger and frustration.

I remember, for example, when our first dachshund died. Brenda, a very cute little child, wanted a funeral. So Dad dug a hole, put Frisky in a box, buried the box, and then Brenda put some flowers on the grave. This happened down in “the Pines,” that grove of trees out back of the house. All very nice. But I suspect the truth is that Dad didn’t want wild animals digging up the box and dragging the dog’s corpse around the yard. I didn’t think his hole in the Pines was deep enough to prevent that. So I suspected that he just threw Frisky’s corpse somewhere out in the woods, and buried an empty box. I could be wrong. But that prospect or, if you prefer, my suspicion of it, may illustrate the contrast between Brenda’s experience of Dad and my own.

So, sweet little anecdotes aside, Dad substantially ceded the domestic sphere to Mom. Unfortunately, as they say, power tends to corrupt. We kids may have rejected or modified major chunks of Mom’s concept of marriage and family, in choosing what kinds of people we would become; but at some point,  you run out of alternative influences. You tend to go with what’s right in front of you. It was a lot easier to reject Dad’s worst behaviors, which were relatively easy to spot for being so extreme, intermittent, and erratic, than to recognize aspects of Mom’s style that we should have been rejecting with at least as much diligence.

I have come to that opinion through many years of experiences with adult women — some good, some bad — and with quite a few years of graduate study in social work, where feminists predominate. I think that, like most of her peers in our local Lutheran church, Mom was fundamentally goodhearted, and that she did her best. I have belatedly come to recognize, however, that there truly are quite a few women who entertain a lot of hostility toward men, for reasons good or bad, and that some of them are very willing to indulge that hostility by harming men regardless of culpability. In other words, you’re guilty and deserve punishment (or, at best, important aspects of your personality must be negated) merely because you’re a man — regardless of what you, personally, may have done, and also without regard to your positive aspects.

Consequences of Mom’s Biases

Mom was not a feminist. But she did have many years of very sad experience with Dad, and she was understandably unwilling to let that experience be repeated with her daughter. I could not have expected her to look into the future and see adverse consequences of her behaviors. I am not sure I could even have expected her to see, clearly, what was going on at that very time. I will also say, in her defense, that she did not have the Internet, did not have good self-help books (and would have been hard-put to find a place to hide them from Dad and kids), did not even have anyone to talk to about this, other than a friend in Florida with whom she exchanged letters maybe once a year. She was justly terrified of small-community gossip. As far as I can ascertain, she rarely if ever shared anything about what went on in our home with anyone else, including the minister or even her own siblings. I have been amazed to find that neighbors, likewise, either didn’t know or won’t talk about what went on in our house. So she was really on her own, having to make it up as she went along, in conditions that nobody of her acquaintance seemed to be facing.

In light of all that, let me tell you a personal fact, of which very few have been aware until now. I used to wet the bed. Obviously, I was ashamed of it. Mom had no idea what to do about it. Neither did I. There didn’t seem to be a cure or anything.

Now, the personal fact. The bedwetting was half of it. The more interesting half is that the bedwetting ceased on the day when I went away to college. Think about this: I wet the bed virtually every night, throughout all those years of childhood and adolescence, up to age 17; and then it ceased instantly, overnight, as soon as I left home. What is this about?

I always assumed the explanation was that I was terrified of being in that house with Dad. And that may be true. But I didn’t otherwise act like someone who was living in terror. I wasn’t having nightmares of Dad beating me or killing me; wasn’t afraid to go downstairs to pee, as Janice was, back in the 1960s; or anything like that. By the time I left for college, he had calmed down. Besides, I was good at avoiding him, when I wanted to. I had friends and church activities and other stuff that kept me away from home a fair amount. And his concerns and methods were relatively predictable. Hell, I wasn’t even that afraid of him during that 1968 car trip: I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of the station wagon, as we crossed Arizona and New Mexico, vocally ridiculing his geographical mistakes, and getting away with it.

At some point, within the past five or ten years, it occurred to me there might be a better explanation for the bedwetting. Let me approach this alternative hypothesis by returning to what I just said about feminists. During my years of pursuing master’s and PhD degrees in social work, I had to ask myself: what sort of man would put himself in this kind of academic program, within a profession that’s nearly 90% female, where men are routinely and unfairly accused and belittled? The answer, it seemed, was that this would tend to require a man who was used to being the target of unjust accusations, who substantially accepted them (or at least accepted that he would be victimized by them), who basically went through life being sorry for being a heterosexual white male, and who tried to atone for it by joining the women in attacking other men, especially other straight white men.

Truthseeking in a Hostile Environment

Perhaps most kids could have endured life within our household without becoming bedwetters. I think what’s different about me is that I am atypically focused on truth. That surely sounds self-glorifying. What I mean is that people have to balance their preferred virtues. For some people, the key virtue is being clever, or hard-working, or popular.

For me, the key virtue is, if not truth, then at least something like it: honesty, maybe, or justice, or fairness. Like any virtue, my own preferred virtue (let’s call it “truth-seeking”) has its strengths and its weaknesses. For better and for worse, I want to get to the bottom of things. So I responded to the Jewish girlfriend by feeling that there was this whole new world opening before my eyes, a world in which there were people who pursued truth very diligently, who believed that things could make sense. This was what law and higher education were supposed to be about. This was where I belonged.

Now, compare that against the situation I found myself in during childhood, in that house in Indiana. It was bad enough that we didn’t have that influence from the Jews, or New York, or whatever it was: we didn’t clearly understand that people do things for a reason, that it is possible to talk about those reasons, that sometimes there are other ways of understanding or responding to a problem situation between two people. In our childhood home, nothing got talked about and sorted out in a rational way. It wasn’t the worst kind of craziness. But, in its own humble way, it was kind of crazy.

I think Mom’s attitude, selectively shared by my siblings, is captured in a quote from Orison Swett Marden (1913), whose books surely reflected the world of Mom’s childhood: “What else in life is more valuable than the art of forgetting, of burying, covering up the disagreeable, everything that has caused us pain and hindered our progress?” My truthseeking orientation may be due, more than anything, to the excesses of Mom’s preference for the exact opposite of truthseeking.

Let’s focus particularly on the situation surrounding Mom, Brenda, and me. Wade was still around. He wasn’t really part of our little triad. But he has written often enough, and if you asked him would probably still confirm, that he regularly observed a certain sequence unfold. Basically, Brenda and I would be playing together; Brenda would do something that she knew would provoke me; I would hit her; and she would go crying to Mom.

Obviously, this would not happen unless Brenda and I were playing together; and as I reminded her some years ago, that largely ceased at a pretty young age. When I pointed that out, she wasn’t interested in talking about it. Being honest about that would have curtailed her lifetime habit of complaining about her childhood experiences of physical abuse. It would have raised the fact that, for the past 40 years, she’s been the real abuser. We’ll get to that shortly.

Mom, the Measure of All Things

If Mom had been a different person, in different circumstances, she would have taken account of Wade’s observation, as well as what Brenda and I were saying, and would have made an effort to disrupt this dysfunctional dynamic. She would certainly not have sought to perpetuate it.

I think Mom was afraid that I was going to turn out violent, as Dad was, and that was as far as her personal experience went. There was nothing further to understand about it. It was just cut and dried. Needless to say, that kind of thinking failed. There was, in fact, something further to understand about it, starting with Mom herself.

In a social work class, one time, the professor showed us a video of a make-believe family that, she felt, illustrated how the members of a normal and highly functional family should interact. This was remarkable. The other male student in the room and I shared the same reaction. As he put it, “Mom is scary.” What we saw, in the video, was that the actress playing the mother role was positioning herself as the pivot around which the entire family turned. Father sat on one side, kids on the other, and their interactions were mediated through her. What she wanted, what she liked: these were controlling the entire family.

So, as I say, Mom had the position of real power in our familial relationships. Paradoxically, the weaker she appeared (and may actually have felt herself) to be, the more power she had. Her behavior would drive Dad to absolute distraction, because he thought she was sincerely meek and weak, to such an extreme that it seemed downright nutty; and his explosive reaction to her victim pose would only confirm, to us, that he was dangerous and should be gotten rid of, while Mom needed our support. Being weak persuaded her children to rally around her.

You can see, in this, the potential for someone to contrive their own sense of self-worth, when they aren’t getting a sense of self-worth from their partner. In the worst cases, it’s called Munchausen Syndrome: the person fakes illness (in him/herself or, by proxy, in his/her child), in order to get attention and support from others. Like that actress in the video, Mom acquired the central role of being needed by everyone. Dad needed her to mediate with the kids for him, because they shunned him (because she tolerated and fostered that behavior, by us, toward him); and we kids needed Mom to protect us from him, because he scared us. She would make excuses for his behavior (e.g., he’s tired), but she did not defend them convincingly, nor did she attempt to make us more comfortable with him. I don’t believe she ever tried to cut herself out of the loop, between us and him. I do think some of his behavior and attitudes were shocking to her, but there are various ways to react to that. Some women are able to avoid dividing their families into two mutually hostile camps.

There were a couple of things about Mom’s victim role that didn’t add up. One was that she didn’t seek a divorce when she could have gotten one. I grant that divorce with a houseful of kids was a challenging proposition in 1963. But the day came, a decade later, when she could leave — and, judging from the examples of other women, I think she would have left, if she had truly been as miserable with him as she led us to believe. Many women have endured until the last kid is out of the house and then — poof! — they’re gone. As far as I could tell, Mom did not even make any first moves of that nature.

Another thing is that I remember her deliberately provoking Dad sometimes. I remember one instance, when it was just her and him downstairs, and she was saying things that made me cringe — things that I was sure would outrage him. That was not the behavior of a truly downtrodden and defeated soul. I had to wonder whether she was more confident with him, more comfortable in her role, than she let us see. I do remember being very puzzled that she didn’t leave when she could have.

Violence as a Distraction from the Core Dynamic

Dad’s behavior was obvious and, as you say, it is what caught everyone’s attention. For Dad, as for me, the big, physical act (e.g., yelling, hitting) completely distracted everyone from asking, what is really happening here, and why is it happening? In my case, the evidence was there. When Brenda provoked me, she knew exactly what she was doing. She deliberately chose to do it. And every time it happened, she became a little more the preferred child, and I a little less.

Clearly, my behavior was wrong. Regardless of fatherly influence, I shouldn’t have hit her. But Mom was not responding to that by seeking justice. To the contrary, she was recreating her own self-perception: the female is the meek and innocent victim; the male is the incomprehensible brute. That may be exactly the right thing to assume of a rape. It is decidedly the wrong thing to assume of a son.

Why would Brenda deliberately provoke me, knowing that I would hit her in response? Because often I couldn’t hit her, for one thing. She’d do it with the folks around. One time I tried saving up a list of such provocations, and giving her payback when we were alone, but that only worked once. But why would she do it even then? The first reason was to prove that she wasn’t afraid of me. In that sense, it was common and unsurprising behavior for a child. If she had actually been terrorized, she would have stopped. She wasn’t, and she proved it.

Eventually, though, it became more than that. It became manipulation of Mom’s fears. Brenda was fighting, or fighting back, with what she had. That was to be expected. What caused the longer-term damage was that neither she nor Mom ever got a grip on it. As far as I can tell, throughout Brenda’s adult life, there has been a sense of privilege, of a right to portray men as wrongdoers. I don’t think I have ever heard her take any responsibility for making any serious mistakes in her relationships with men, romantic or otherwise.

I think the bedwetting thing was the result of feeling unsafe in my childhood home, and I don’t think, any more, that it was because of Dad. I think Mom and Brenda engineered a situation, for understandable and yet ultimately sick reasons, in which I was never really out of the crosshairs. For me, life with them was fundamentally unsafe. They were determined to judge me and find me guilty, whenever the opportunity arose. And every time they did, it was one more slap across the face, one more instance of being bad, a loser, unacceptable. Reminder: I am describing the experience of a 12-year-old boy in his own home.

Reconciled to Parental Apathy

Wade and I always wanted to believe that Mom loved and cared about us. Wade was therefore flummoxed to observe, year after year, in the 1980s and thereafter, that she really didn’t display much interest in him and his life. He would complain about this indifference on the part of “the folks” or “Mom and Dad,” as if to say that he still held our childhood belief in Mom’s goodness and Dad’s badness — as if Dad were somehow preventing Mom, many years later, from taking any real interest in him.

For Wade, that vague awareness of parental indifference seems to have been about as far as it went. Mom was always kind, and was supportive in many ways. It was only years later, long after he left home, that it became somewhat more obvious, to him, that something in her behavior did not add up.

I shared, with Wade, that belief in our childhood propaganda, about the undeniable goodness of Mom. I knew that she wasn’t being fair to me, where Brenda was concerned, but the unquestioned assumption — one that has persisted throughout most of my adult life — was that this was all I deserved, or was ever going to get. That fundamental preoccupation with truth or fairness, that core of who I am, was substantially rejected, and that has been pretty much what I have expected and gotten from life.

It may seem odd that I speak this way of my years in that house with Brenda and the folks, and yet I also say I never wanted to leave. I think the explanation is that my bedroom in that house was safe from the outside world. Dad rarely went up there; Mom was almost completely unthreatening; Brenda and I almost never went into each other’s rooms; and so forth. I was also safe down at the schoolhouse, and out in the woods, and out in the road that I walked so often, late at night. That place was my home. Maybe there is a possibility of something like Stockholm Syndrome — of coming to embrace the feelings and priorities of the people who have taken you hostage, to such an extent that you fail to act in your own self-interest. I do realize that it was very good for me to get out of there; it’s just that doing so has left me rootless ever since.

Determination to Perpetuate the Wrongs

I have tried to speak with Brenda about these things. She wants nothing to do with it. There is always some excuse, usually involving some fault-finding remark about me. As far as I can tell, she has gotten a lot of mileage out of her complaints about men.

For example, years after Wade and I moved out, the three of us spent a summer living together in Long Beach — in the summer of 1978, I believe. It was a great summer. We took trips, had a party; it was fun. I got her a job at a printing shop downtown, where I think she stayed for a couple of years. She met a guy whom I hired, at that shop, and dated him for a long time. And yet what did she make of this great summer experience, when we talked about it a couple years later? She didn’t have anything positive to say about it. She actually claimed that she had been afraid of me that summer. Well … if she was afraid, why did she move in there in the first place? And was there any specific event that would actually justify such a fear? She said there had been one time when she had seen an unpleasant look in my eyes. I’m thinking — are you serious?

The explanation, I think, is that there has just never been any drawback for women like Brenda to make such claims. Everyone assumes they’re true. The guy is guilty until proven otherwise. I do understand that false accusations can garner support for the supposedly distressed damsel. That’s what Mom taught Brenda. But it’s still rather reminiscent of Munchausen.

So. That is my attempt to respond to questions that could take a long time to answer well. I have my thoughts and my experiences, and they support what I say, but of course there is always more to learn, and there are always other perspectives. Within a society and a family that tends not to sort things out, or even to understand that it is possible to sort things out, I think this has been a fairly decent effort. Nobody else in this family will attempt anything like this.

I am sorry that I didn’t get to some of your remarks, and I hope I have not gone on too long, on any particular point. As I say, I don’t really know you, what you’ve been told, or what you might have already figured out. I didn’t want to assume that you would be familiar with any of this. It has seemed advisable to try to explain things with some clarity. Needless to say, I welcome disagreement, questions, or comments that might seem germane.

Take care …



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