Content warning: This post contains mentions of abuse and mental illness. It was a hard piece to write and I imagine it might be hard to read as well.
What do you get when you combine flaming intelligence, a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, an undiagnosed mental illness and fundamentalist religion?
You get my dad.
I’ve never been sure whether I love my dad. As a child this bothered me tremendously. I’d wish he would die and then I’d beg God for forgiveness for my savage thoughts. I’d feel sorry for him, when he’d be weeping at the table after reading the Bible for instance, embarrassed on his behalf for his exhibitionism. He cried a lot, and at strange times – when something would strike him as beautiful, or as sad, or when his own feverish mind tipped into momentary despair. It took me a long time to accept my own overabundant tears as a valid way of being. My tendency to weep about every beautiful thing vaguely grossed me out for a long time, like an unfortunate genetic reminder of my dad’s need to be the centre of attention.
Now I don’t think that knowing whether or not I love my dad has much to do with anything. I have compassion for him. I am sad that the choices he made have alienated him from everyone. I’m sad that he shows no signs of developing self-awareness, I’m sad on his behalf and on behalf of everyone whose lives he traumatised, mine included. I also don’t want to be around him, ever again. And that makes me sad too.
An unauthorised biography
My dad’s early life was easy in some ways.
Growing up white, male, and intellectually gifted in a relatively well-off family in 1970s South Africa was no apparent hardship. Yet, the youngest of five children, by the time he was a young boy my grandma was seriously ill, and from my dad’s accounts my grandpa was quite harsh, following the disciplinarian model of parenting that went unquestioned in those days. I imagine my dad felt rather lost: an intense, emotional child, most likely very annoying to his siblings, head filled with grandiose ideas that no one else was interested in.
He built up a long list of grievances early on: his father, who forced them to work endlessly in the garden. His high-school girlfriend, who broke his heart. His twin brother, who didn’t always pick his side. Somewhere unacknowledged: his mother, who loved him fiercely but was always too tired to engage with him as he would have liked. There’s something there, something I don’t think he has ever admitted to himself: a deep sense of betrayal from his mother, the woman who was meant to have his back, but didn’t. This anger became a pervasive rage against all women, something that to me looks like his own anguished attempts at protecting himself against the need for approval he feels towards them. Women are inferior, yet they are dangerous. They need to be disciplined, punished, more so because he feels a helpless yearning for their love.
Somewhere during high school he found Jesus. Back then most Afrikaans people went to the Dutch Reformed Church, abiding by the faith of their forefathers in a lukewarm manner, their lifestyles comfortably sanctioned by the Church. Becoming ‘born-again’ was akin to joining a sect. Being baptised as an adult, and worse, ‘speaking in tongues’, was deeply strange. My dad embraced the strangeness. By now his identity was riding on being different; it was him against the world, and with God sanctioning his every choice there was no way he could go wrong.
When he met my mom he was a young, charismatic missionary. He’d quit conscription halfway through, after what sounds like a genuinely traumatic time in the South African Police Force – this was the early 80’s, when Apartheid riots were rampant and the police reacted extremely violently. My dad objected fiercely, but I gather that he did some things that would haunt him nevertheless. And he was bullied by his teammates, further compounding on his fear of helplessness and his faith in his own righteous ‘otherness’. This was a strange time, a time I hesitate to write about since I know so little of it – I am deeply aware of the wounds in the psyches of so many men who were conscripted then, but even today an almost unanimous silence hangs over the topic.
Women liked my dad; my mom says he was always surrounded by a group of hangers-on. But my mom, shy, beautiful, zealous in her faith yet non-performative, stirred his imagination: here was a woman who was suitably unattainable, who paid more attention to God than to him, who promised intelligence combined with submission, should he win her over.
He won her over. They were married at 21, and left the country soon after to escape his uncompleted conscription.
A year and a half later I was born in France, where my parents would live for eleven years in total; four siblings followed.
We were very poor; my dad had grandiose ideas but very little follow-through. He’d finish a course in agriculture with the idea of starting some profitable commune-type farm, and then do nothing with it. He’d spend his time praying and going for long walks through the forest while growing increasingly excited about the signs that God was giving him. We were the Jewish nation in the desert, he said, and he was Moses, obeying God through these forty years in the wilderness. In the meantime we were living off the state. My mom stayed at home with us, because my dad didn’t want her to work, and also because we were scared of being left alone with him.
He was scary. Sometimes he could be very funny, dancing like a big Oompa Loompa through the house, reducing us to fits of laughter. Other times he was violent, throwing things, kicking a chair over. Once he hit me so furiously that I peed in my pants. There was a kind of pattern to his moods: Gradually his excitement would build – we’d wake up in the mornings to the sound of him singing in tongues, repetitively like someone chanting a frenetic mantra, walking up and down or swaying back and forth, often weeping. At the table he would tell us about his plans, about God’s plans, voice rising as we sat cowed, scared of what would come next. There was always something: my mom would not be enthusiastic enough about his ideas, or one of us was too noisy, or I broke a glass. His enthusiasm would tip over into rage. He’d rant, usually at my mom, voice rising and rising as we all shrank back. He’d break something, or throw over the table and leave in fury. The next day the house would be in a hush. My dad would sit in bed until late, weeping – nobody understood him. If he’d given me a hiding he’d come to apologise, explaining through tears that he was only disciplining me because he loved me.
We didn’t have many friends. My parents had some from whichever church or prayer group we’d be attending at the time, but usually it didn’t last long. There’d always be a fight, usually about differences regarding an interpretation of the Bible. My dad especially hated opinionated women, viewing them as abominations in the same category as lukewarm Christians, gay people, and anybody, really, who dared disagree with him.
We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music, read fairy tales (Pagan myths) or be close friends with ‘worldly’ kids. Not that the worldly kids would have me, anyway. In primary school my sister Esther, just a year younger than me, made friends a bit easier than I did, her sunny personality and willingness to fall in with others’ plans serving her well. I was too awkward and intense, and easily bored by the games everybody wanted to play. I wanted to act out scenes from my favourite books: dig for diamonds in the front yard, or build a tree house, or start a detective agency. Everybody else got tired of it quickly, even Esther who was my biggest ally and loyal sidekick, while I carried on stubbornly.
In school I was that annoying child who always volunteers an answer to every question; my classmates hated me accordingly. I once threw cow dung at a boy who was teasing me and after that I gained a reputation as the girl who smells of poo. When I tried to fit in it wouldn’t work for long: Esther and I once snuck out to listen to the Spice Girls in the basement of our apartment complex with some classmates, but my dad discovered us and dragged us out in front of everyone, giving us perhaps the biggest hiding we ever got. Kids were understandably wary of inviting us to things again.
We were different from other kids. We were nervous. My mom was depressed, although I didn’t know that then, only that some mornings her eyes would be hugely swollen from crying and we’d gingerly try to be extra nice to her.
By the time I was eight I was twisting and pulling large clumps of hair out of my head, until eventually the bald spots alerted my parents. My dad cried and asked for my forgiveness: it was because he’d hit me as a baby, he said. I was embarrassed by his effusiveness and by the awkward attention I was receiving. I didn’t want to look weird, or weak, so I stopped. I read a lot of books. I daydreamed compulsively. I was very lonely.
One time my mom left my dad, fled with us when he was out of the house, and took us to a shelter for abused women and children. He found us within a few days, standing outside shouting tirades at the staff. Alternatively he cried, begging my mom to come back. It was embarrassing, and re-traumatising for all the other women and children. We went back.
The next time my mom left my dad it was to come back to South Africa. My dad was in China then, teaching English for a few weeks while getting the lay of the land: we were going to be missionaries. He was going to learn one of the many Chinese dialects, an obscure one for which he would then invent a written language, then translate the Bible into it. Meantime, while he was gone my grandparents bought us all tickets to come back to South Africa. I was almost ten by then.
My first memory of South Africa is of my aunt coming flying into my mom’s arms at the airport arrivals, both of them weeping, as us children stood awkwardly glancing at our new cousins.
Our new country was wonderful, even when my mom took my dad back – she’d been convinced by religion, I think, still striving to be a submissive wife, and by the fear of forcing a broken home upon us. Chastened for a little while, soon my dad was exactly the same: moving us from church to church because he disliked the respective pastors, forbidding my mom from seeing her family because they were putting evil ideas into her head. But the people here were nicer. I felt less foreign. I had some friends.
We were in a small private Christian school, where I promptly fell in love with a boy who eventually asked me out on a dare from his friends. My dad got wind of it and stormed the school, shouting at the headmaster for allowing such impurity. The whole school found out. I felt a pariah, crying and begging my mom daily to take me out, which she eventually did to homeschool us instead.
Then for a while she left my dad again, when I was eleven. This time it felt very real, she was even seeing a divorce lawyer. We lived in a little house on a farm, had very little money, got a pet pig, had a vegetable garden. My mom made us smoothies every morning. We took horse-riding lessons and visited regularly with other homeschooled kids.
Sometimes we’d visit my dad in his weird empty bachelor flat. We’d eat fish and chips the entire time, him forcing long mountain hikes upon us while ranting about my mom’s iniquities. It was repetitive, unceasing: his list of grudges, the people who had wronged him, his promises over and over to himself that God would help him triumph. We hated visiting him but we knew we had to. One time he refused to take us back to my mom and kept us with him for a few more days – I don’t know what made him return us eventually, perhaps the fact that we were crying all the time. Strangely, we often begged my mom to take him back. We were sorry for him, he looked so devastated.
One time I even told my mom that I thought God hated us, flinging my frightened accusations in her face, enjoying her resulting tears.
They got back together; a visiting preacher finally convinced my mom to embrace forgiveness. Also, she was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother at the time, and I don’t think she had any idea of how we’d all get by. My dad has started his own translation company by then and was earning lots of money when he was energised, sometimes working through the night for days on end.
We moved a lot. Eventually we ended up on a farm in the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa, where I entered into my teenage years with admirable awkwardness. My dad’s mood swings endured, but they were tempered by the space around us – I would flee often into the surrounding countryside, accompanied by my dog, walking for hours on end. We were still homeschooled but we’d made some friends in Sunday School, some close friends even. I got a horse. I was also profoundly religious, strangely finding sustenance in my time alone with God, who was different from my father’s God although we gave him the same name.
Interestingly, people liked my dad. He was witty, charismatic, chameleon-like in his ability to charm dour farmers, pastors and our friends’ moms alike. After a while of course there’d be a big blow-out and they’d disappear from our life; his secretaries always quit eventually, even the farm labourers didn’t usually last long. But unanimously people would react the same, upon initially meeting him: “But he’s so nice/normal/interesting!”
It’s weird when people – especially your friends – think that you’re overreacting, when they can’t understand why you’re afraid of your dad, or why you think you wouldn’t be allowed to go to a party when clearly your dad is such a nice guy. He wasn’t a ranting lunatic – he was an emotionally astute man, not bad-looking, accomplished and engaging. In comparison, we were a rather rag-tag gang of children: shy to the extreme, clueless about pop culture, nervous. We made him look bad, if anything.
The year that I turned 14, God told my dad to take a Sabbatical. For a year he would renounce his job and focus only on prayer and worship, although we had no other income and a rather expensive farm to maintain. My mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent intensive chemo treatment. I went through a series of surgeries that left me on crutches and in constant, severe pain for a year. Meanwhile, my dad was gradually entering into a strange frenzy. It culminated in him telling us that we weren’t allowed to have our friends anymore, because they were all ‘infected oranges’. He disenrolled me from piano lessons, my sister from guitar lessons, and decided that we’d all learn to play golf with him instead. We weren’t allowed to go to church anymore, which was the only place we interacted with other people.
Something snapped. One day, in a rage about my mom’s ingratitude (we had no fuel left and couldn’t go buy milk and butter from the neighbours like we usually did), my dad climbed on a horse to fetch the butter himself. He promptly fell off – he was a very bad rider. We all laughed, guiltily.
He kicked us off the farm – we left three days later, five kids and my mom in an old Audi, with our clothes packed tightly into the boot, pots and pans on our laps. We moved to my grandparents’ town on the other side of the country. This time it was final. And this time I was deeply, furiously relieved.
Of course it doesn’t end there. My parent’s divorce took almost another decade, ending in the High Court. He never paid any maintenance money, exhausting lawyers and judges alike – our local magistrate ended up recusing himself whenever a case regarding my dad came up. He filed dozens of complaints against my mom, alleging that she was a neglectful parent. Tens of times he was ordered by a judge to see a psychologist, but it never happened. When we’d visit him he’d tell us about his newest dream: to have many wives, one from each South African culture perhaps, living in houses around him with his children numerous as the sand of the sea, a la Abraham. Women don’t mind sharing one husband, he said, it’s their natural position – as long as they have each other to gossip with they’re content.
Once, he kidnapped my brothers and fled the country with them – he was caught in Mozambique, just before they would have left for Madagascar. It was a hellish time; I barely know how my mom survived it. She fended for us as best she could, putting us through school somehow. Against the backdrop of such insanity, my last few teenage years were relatively normal. I saw my dad as rarely as possible; in any case I often did things that made him cut me off as his child for months on end, like having a boyfriend, like having kissed someone.
A year ago my dad contacted me for the first time in years. It’s strange how his story repeats itself: he is living in France, doing a course in agriculture, estranged from his new wife. They’re in a protracted custody battle for their two little daughters. He is fighting a righteous battle, he tells me, and he’ll win. He’ll win. God is on his side. Soon after we resumed contact his continued attacks on my life choices forced me to break contact again. It didn’t feel healthy. I was getting nothing but a sickening sense of deja vu from listening to his stories.
I thought for the longest time that I should be able to forgive my father. Everybody says so: you can’t move on if you can’t forgive. I felt it a moral failing on my part: even though I did process large parts of my childhood trauma, I could never bring myself to forgive. Every time I tried I knew that my forgiveness was inauthentic.
Then I kind-of got over it. Going back again and again to my most difficult memories to eke out some forgiveness feels counterproductive. And blanket forgiveness feels untrue. More: I don’t think I SHOULD forgive my dad, not right now, perhaps not ever. It doesn’t feel like part of my journey.
I feel instead that I should straddle the line between remembering and letting go, grieving for myself and my family while allowing anger, when it comes, its justified position.
I was reminded of this last night, as I was reading a piece from Jeff Brown’s book Grounded Spirituality. Brown writes: “If forgiveness of others arises organically, so be it. If it doesn’t, there is no issue. We are not responsible for those who wound us. They can take that up with God, or whatever they answer to” (own emphasis). And “Forgiveness of others is not always the appropriate response. There are actually situations where it is more healing not to forgive. That is the genuine and true response.”
I am not responsible for those who wound me.
I am responsible for me. And I decide, I decide, what my path will be. This is true: a tremendous and continuous injustice was done to me by my father. He was not a good person. And he will never apologise – if I am hoping for vindication from him, I will never get it. There will be no reconciliation.
This is also true: Without denying the damage he did me, my father gave me many gifts. Suffering under him taught me compassion. It expanded my faith, although that faith has since morphed away from religion entirely. It opened my eyes to the pain of others. It sharpened my intuition. It gave me self-awareness and sensitivity. It made me band together closely with my siblings, forming a bond that will sustain me all my life.
I am not grateful towards my dad, but I AM grateful towards life. I wouldn’t have my childhood any other way, now. But I am also angry. I am also sad. The landscape of my heart is profoundly uneven, full of peaks and troughs. I stumble upon my wounds when I least expect to, bewildered by the anguish buried within. I still catch myself inhabiting my body with fear and awkwardness, asking for permission to exist, to be loud, to have opinions. I still stumble upon residual anger at all men.
But I have built a brave life. I people it with love. I engage with my own wounds. I recognise myself as more, much more than my own woundedness: If I am broken, I am also whole. I am triumphantly, unceasingly alive.
And although forgiveness might not be my path, I know that compassion is. I have compassion for my father, a terrified and lonely man whose choices drove him further and further away from connection. My heart breaks over the fact that there are so many like him, men and women entangled in their own rampant emotions, undiagnosed, untreated, yet so clearly profoundly ill.
He did the best he could. What freedom, to realise this – not as an excuse, not even an explanation, only as statement of fact. My dad did the best he could with the level of maturity and self-knowledge and faith that he had.
His best was not good enough. He will have to live with that forever, as will I, but I get to have compassion. And I get to move on.