Writer in Residence · 11/07/2013

RePrint: The Sins of My Father

I wrote this essay in 2009 for a group blog I shared with five other women writers from college. It was first published in PANK 6 and it was the first time I wrote about my father. This is the essay that started the journey toward writing my book. Thank you for reading with me.

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I am obsessed with my father. I think of him multiple times a day each day. On a day when someone asks me about him, the rate of thought quadruples. I’ve written more about my father than any other topic. I gather facts about him the way some people gather useless trivia to spout on dates and in the middle of boring parties. I have learned he’s funny. He went to prison when I was six months-old. He’s written me letters most of my life. I have written him back four times. I do not think I am angry with him. Sometimes I think I miss him, and then I wonder if you can miss something you never had. And then I answer that question with experience. He is an artist and a Christian. For years, I’ve lied to people and told them I don’t know why he is in prison. I do know. He is a convicted (and confessed) rapist. He also happens to be my muse.

How much can a father affect a child in 6 months? How much can his absence affect her in 23 ½ years? If you wrote my name on a chalkboard and had my family and friends list words they would use to describe me beneath it, I can guarantee “funny” would be a recurring adjective. Do I get that from him? My mother says that I’m a dreamer like him. She said he used to go to McDonalds, buy two cheeseburgers, eat them in the park and just daydream. He sketched my face before I was born. It doesn’t look anything like me. I’m not sure what all the daddy issues are but I don’t think I suffer from them. The stereotype for a woman with daddy issues doesn’t seem to match my thoughts or behaviors. I’ve not had a vast array of sexual partners, but I do have an abnormally high sex drive. Of this I am aware. I believe it’s because I find comfort in sex along with pleasure. Yes, the physical act of copulation is outstanding, but it also feels good just to be that close to another human body. I derive more pleasure from a hand on my face than one on my ass. When you touch my face, it feels like you want all of me, especially the places other hands have overlooked. I don’t sleep with men who haven’t touched my face. My mother says my father was always taking me places, so excited to show me off, he’d forget to wash my face. Does that make this a daddy issue?

I’ve visited my father in prison once that I can remember. I was twelve. I know there were other visits before this, but I don’t remember them. This one was the last. Before I knew what he’d done to end up prison. Right before Christmas, my birthday, the first real big snow of that winter, my Uncle Clarence picked me and my brother up from our home. My uncle recorded me singing “Silent Night”. He told me my father would love my singing. I decided I had a terrible singing voice. We spent the night at his house in Elkhart, and went to the prison the next morning. My father didn’t know we were coming.

The prison visitors were crowded into a cramped holding area. It was the space you stood and waited while the door behind you was locked, and then the door in front of you was opened to your loved ones/inmates. It was prison purgatory. Staring through the glass, I found my father. He was already looking at me. He found my eyes and held onto them. He was surprised by our visit, but not by me. He knew me. When the doors opened I walked toward him wordlessly. He opened his arms, I laid my head on him and, in a room of convicted felons, found the only place I’d never be anxious to move on from. How can I explain how it felt? The best I can do is this:

Imagine I bake you a cake. Imagine this cake has many layers. Imagine each layer was a different time someone said I love you/I’m proud of you/You’re amazing/You’re the most important/You are my everything/I can’t live without you/I made this for you/I miss you/You’re beautiful/I will never leave you/ I will always, always, always etc. Now, imagine I slice that cake. Imagine you eat it. Imagine its warm center. Imagine how it makes you full, but not too full, but so full you might never crave another piece of cake ever again. Imagine you never tasted cake like this before, but you heard of it. That others ate this cake so often, they would probably see nothing special about your consumption. Now rub your belly and smile. Think this cake is enough. That it will always be enough.

It was something like that.

I didn’t find out my father was a rapist until I was 14 years-old. My grandmother blurted it out over orange chicken in a mall food court. My lo mein stopped moving past my tongue. I couldn’t show too much emotion. In my family, showing too much emotion got you labeled. I was constantly fighting to have my “too sensitive” label stripped from my headboard and crying between bites of Asian food prepared by white teenagers wouldn’t help my campaign. I rubbed my then fairly flat stomach. I told my grandmother I was full, that I couldn’t eat another bite. I did not lie.

For most of my life, up until the food court confession, I’d wondered what my father had done. I didn’t worry much and rarely out loud to anyone other than my brother. I didn’t know how bad it was or how much I really wanted to know. I just knew I didn’t want it to be rape.

My body started to develop abnormally early. I started menstruating when I was eight and had breast by the time I was nine. Men noticed. Not boys. Men. My mother was extremely paranoid about molestation (with good reason, I suppose) and constantly drilled me with questions about who may or may not have been touching me. She also pointed out the clothes I wore (at nine) and how those clothes could entice the opposite sex. Let me say that I believe with all my heart that my mother intended to make me feel safe, to let me know she was looking out for me. Unfortunately, her interrogations made me feel as if should something happen to me, I had done something wrong. I should have seen it coming or I shouldn’t have worn that dress. So, when something did happen to me, I didn’t tell her. It also happened to be the one time she didn’t ask.

My young adult life was riddled with instances of boys or men commenting on, touching, or ogling my body, and the people who should have stood up for me, shaming me intentionally or unintentionally. There was the time a boy put his hand down my shirt in the sixth grade. I told the principal, the boy was kicked out of school for 3 days, and for 3 days people came up to me and told me I’d made a big deal out of a harmless joke, that it meant nothing. Someone else’s hands on my body meant nothing. When I was twelve and out of town with family, a man stopped me in a hotel elevator, asked me to come back to his room. I told him I was twelve. He asked me what my mama was feeding me to make me look so grown, repeated the offer to come back to his room. I rode the elevator back to our hotel room, changed into baggy jeans, refused to go back down to the lobby. At thirteen, I was chased home from the library by a car-full of teenage boys who attempted to pull me into the car and didn’t stop until they were spooked by another car driving down the road we were on. The other car did not stop. Then there was the time a boy put his tongue in my mouth at the water fountain. I told family. They told me it would be an excuse for the school system to punish another little black boy. They told me to say nothing. These were adults. I was a child. I listened.

There is a very loud voice in this world that tells girls and women there is something about a man and sex that makes it impossible for him to control himself. When we are learning to be women the first thing we’re told to do is cover up. Not for ourselves, our own modesty or comfort, but as not to draw the lingering eyes of men who would seek to hurt us. It is never about us learning about ourselves, only about us protecting ourselves. Protecting what we are raised to think is of the utmost importance; our sexual innocence.

Finding out my father was a rapist was like vomiting up the cake and realizing it was laced with shards of sea glass. All those blues, purples, oranges, and yellows sullied and staring up at me from the space between my fear of men and my love for my father, reflecting a truth I couldn’t know before that moment. It all made sense. My father was a rapist and I was raped. I was familiar with the bible, had even signed one of those abstinence pledges at youth group. I knew about the sins of the father and what that meant for the child. I knew what my father did came back on me. He had hurt those women and I had been hurt. I convinced myself again, this wasn’t the fault of the man who assaulted me. It was my own. My fault by the circumstances of my birth.

These are not things that I believe anymore. I know now that I can not blame myself for the crimes, not misunderstandings or harmless jokes, but crimes, committed against me. No man is without the agency to control his sexual urges, and if I do not give explicit consent for him to touch my body, he is violating my rights as human being by doing so. I know that my father is a rapist. I know that what he did changed the course of my life, but it did not give anyone permission to assault me. I know that he affected me. That I will always love hands on my face and always worry that I’ll meet the women, or children of the women, he assaulted. I know that even though I love him, I can not release him from blame and take that onto myself. I can not have my cake. I’ve already eaten it.

I’ve been thinking about these things a lot because of a New York Times article about the rape of an 11-year old girl in Cleveland, Texas and the level of response to itAll I can think about is this child whose life will never be the same. I wonder how she’ll deal with it. I wonder what I would have done if my tragedy had become such media fodder. I wonder how my family would have reacted had I given them the opportunity to react. I wonder how I address my victimization without living the “victim stereotype” because I don’t have Lifetime Movie flashbacks and I’m not afraid of sex. I wonder if the person who harmed me is really “living with this for the rest of his life”. I wonder if I’m really okay or if one day I will go batshit crazy and all those “daddy issues” and those “victim issues” and those “I’ve-gone-through-something-too-many-women-go-through issues” will come to the surface. I wonder what I’ll do with them all.

I wonder what will protect me then.

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posted by Ashley Ford