“I can’t imagine how awful and horrifying it must feel to go through this experience against your will, and to be unable to do anything to stop it. It’s the difference between consensual sex and rape.”
Arguably one of the perks of being a dad is the constant stream of opportunities to give fatherly advice.
Advice columns are one of my favorite guilty pleasures. The best ones are like miniature ethical treatises—perfect for a lapsed philosophy major with a short attention span. And who doesn’t like giving advice? To be human is to be full of opinions about what other people should do.
So my son’s first attempts to talk to the girl he has a crush on? A golden opportunity for an advice enthusiast. But I’m passing it up, at least for now. Here’s why.
It turns out that 99% of what I want him to know before his first date isn’t anything new. It’s the same stuff we have been practicing since he was a baby. Love yourself and be open to loving other people. Be kind. Respect people’s boundaries. Pay attention. Use your words.
If I were to make a list of the absolutely critical information straight boys need about dating and relationships, you could boil it down to one feminist principle: Girls are people. (There are lots of variations on the theme: Girls are people, not prizes. Girls are people, not shiny objects.) Special coaching on “talking to girls” seems to me to violate this principle. Girls are people, not aliens.
Of course, that doesn’t make telling a girl you like her for the first time any less excruciating. My palms get sweaty for him just thinking about it. But that isn’t because girls are “girls.” It’s because liking someone and wanting them to like you back is intensely vulnerable. In this TED talk, Brene Brown talks about vulnerability as risking connection, and the courage to take that risk as the key to intimacy and joy.
The awkwardness is essential, and there is nothing I can say to guide him around it. Even worse, there is no advice he can follow to protect himself against heartbreak. Like all the other times I have watched him leap into the unknown, the best I can do is admire his courage and offer him a place to land.
I was thinking about a man I know. He’s a bully and on a scale of one to ten, he’s a solid ten jerk. You know him too.
He’s been married four times. Has many, many children—mostly boys. And now his children are having children and carrying on their dad’s tradition of being irresponsible fathers.
This man is marching through life burning everything in his path. His reach and influence are deadening to those in his inner circle, maddening to those of us sitting a few rings out—and legendary in the community. This man’s thousands of twins (including his brothers in the NFL) have the same impact.
I’m tempted to focus on the amazing resilience of this man’s families and the others he has impacted, and broaden that to the resilience of the human body and spirit. After all, what happens after a fire? The wildflowers sprout and the trees re-emerge. Right?
But I’m not going there.
Life calls upon us to be resilient enough with unavoidable illness, loss, and death. What I’m calling out is all the avoidable illness, loss, and death. All the damage done by bullies, rapists, batterers is damage of their own making—it is all under their control and therefore they can prevent it from happening. So, why don’t they?
In trying to make some sense out of this, I revisited a “fireside chat” that my boss Nan Stoops gave earlier this year. It’s long, but if you skip to 16:30 you get to the meat of a pretty darned brilliant commentary that sheds some light on why the bully in my circle keeps on destroying.
Briefly, I believe Nan’s view is that for better or worse, the gigantic movement of mostly women working to end violence against women developed ideas that focused on women’s victimization, and not on men’s violence. And we placed the responsibility for ending violence on individuals and families, not on communities.
Imagine what would have happened if my bully was required to go to a shelter, rather than his wives and children fleeing. What if rather than putting him in jail, we had every institution guide—and if necessary shame—him when he behaved in arrogant and mean ways? What if everyone, everywhere just said “don’t talk to her that way.” And “How about you join this group and take this class on being a great dad?” What if my bully had to answer for himself over and over again?
I’m just talking about me here. My experience. Not what I think happened to you. Or what I think you, or your town, or our nation has experienced on the whole. I’m just talking the highlights of my own life. With guns. And it’s all bad.
It’s eerie that I had this post almost done when I caught sight of the picture and story on the front page of the New York Times. This could very well have been about me or one of my siblings in the 1960s. The loaded gun my dad kept in his dresser drawer—artfully hidden a few layers down in his handkerchiefs and boxers—was like a magnet to us kids. We knew we were not supposed to go anywhere near that dresser, never mind the gun. What is it about children’s can’t-stay-away-from-it-because-it-scares-us-so-much? My brother told me he got that gun out and handled it once or twice.
When I was in my mid-20s, several friends and I went through a cowgirl phase. Hats and a six-shooter. We drove out to the Capitol Forest outside of Olympia, with some guns we owned or borrowed, and fired at targets on a hillside. I had some kind of semi-automatic handgun. I was baffled by how hard it was to pull the trigger and the kickback was fierce, but the shocker came when I was lowering the gun. About halfway to the ground, the tiny pressure of my finger on the trigger from the weight of the gun fired it again. I remember feeling like I had a bomb in my hand. “Amateur” you think—but check out this story from Christine Gentry (via This American Life), who was a teenager who knew better.
This is the story of a domestic violence murder-suicide that happened in my immediate family. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write about it. It would be traumatizing to tell, and to read. And in many ways, recounting the details of this particular story is unnecessary because the story has been told over and over again.
This took place ten years ago. My two teenage neighbors poached a deer in the woods by my house. It was out of season, so they confessed to their dad. But they said that they shot the deer in the Capitol Forest (yes, the same). Aw, shucks, Dad. But that was the wrong confession. My next-door neighbor heard the shot, and another neighbor saw one of the boys bloodied from the deer. It was clear they shot it in our neighborhood. I was mad, not about the deer but about them shooting guns near my house. And I was unimpressed by the dad’s response, which seemed to be belief that his naughty boys (wink wink) shot the deer in the Capitol Forest. I called on the phone and asked the boys to come over and talk to me. They came over and sat at my kitchen counter. I said, I know and you know that you shot the deer next door, and I know you’ve duped your family with that Capitol Forest story but it’s not true, so let’s just move on. I love you two and I love all my family and everyone around here who wanders around in the woods. And I would not be able to live with myself if I did not talk to you about NOT shooting guns around here. What if you accidentally shot someone? I would just die if that happened. So don’t shoot guns around my house. Heads hang—okay. Hugs all around. Now go.
And we’re back full circle to my dad’s loaded guns. Fifty years later and these guns were still lying around loaded. He kept one next to his bed. Even as he became blind from macular degeneration, and demented from age and alcohol, he still insisted that he had to have these guns to protect my mom. I knew that if I took them away, he would freak out and might muster enough brain cells to buy another. One day, when my mom had him out for the day, I arranged with a gunsmith to meet me in my garage, where I brought the guns. He disabled them. People always say “oh, he took out the pin,” like there’s a pin. Maybe there’s a pin. I don’t know and I don’t care—what I watched him do was take the guns apart and, with a tiny little rotary saw, cut an internal mechanism so the guns would never fire again. I returned them to where I found them.
The day came when my dad broke my heart, along with his hip, and left his home in an ambulance never to return. He had never noticed that his guns were dead. Which is the best this daughter could do for her beloved mom and dad.
When I really stop and think about it, I realize I’ve been dodging bullets my whole life. How about you? Just for a moment, stop talking about laws and theories and rights. Just stop. Wait. Think about it. Your own experiences—not “I heard about a guy,” or “I saw on the news today…” but what actually happened in your life with the guns around you. Let’s start a conversation there.
It’s ironic with Mother’s Day just around the corner, the topic of our blog for last week and this is dads.
Our fathers were the subject of lunch conversation yesterday as three of us regaled one another with tales of our bad dads.
To put it bluntly, they were all jerks. All three drug or alcohol addicts. All verbally or physically abusive to our mothers, and to us. Two of the three died young. Evidently stumbling through life inflicting and suffering pain is bad for your health.
Years after she was grown and gone from the house, one of my co-workers was arguing with her dad about how messed up he was when she was growing up. At one point he defended himself with “well, I never sexually abused you.”
The three of us erupted in shrieks of laughter. That’s setting the bar a little on the low side wouldn’t you say?
Still, as much as our dads were big jerks, they were also smart, funny, hard-working, resourceful. Each of our dads encouraged us, in ways no other man ever would, to try scary things and be successful. Yes, father/daughter land is a maze.
Back at my desk I was left wondering, have we gone down the wrong road to end violence against women and children by thinking we could somehow shove out or wall off all the bad dads? The truth is, even after they die, they still exert an influence. How do we help one another sort this out?