Even though I had long ago said my goodbyes to you, somehow I still wasn’t ready to receive the call. How do I say a final goodbye to the monster who had been investigated for owning child pornography? To the father who said he loved me while failing to do anything to protect me? I hadn’t seen you since I was twenty five, and I’d blocked you on social media a couple of years ago. I thought I was done with you. But your death made it otherwise. It has summoned me to face you in the horrific entirety of your life.
You were, after all the daddy who taught me how to tie my shoes and took me to watch roller derby. You showed me where to move my knight on the chessboard in order to protect the queen. You taught me how to ride my first two wheeler like a grown up girl, despite the fact that the bike was a bit broken. The handlebars were too loose so I never had full control of the bike, especially not on a sharp turn into our gravel driveway. I neatly sliced my thigh open and it was you who took me to the hospital for stitches. You were always there to save me.
Except that you didn’t. You never abused me. There was only one handprint across my cheek when I had startled you out of nap, only one time your belt hit the small of my back rather than my butt. My mother said you were never allowed to spank me again after that. There were rules to delivering pain. She would take out my loose teeth with pliers. We were a family of quiet, measured violence. Nothing extraordinary.
Except that nothing was normal. I remember the strange look in your eye at the hospital when the doctor said I would have to take off my shorts. I told myself I was just imagining the quick gleam of something I couldn’t name. I was nine. At twenty-seven I read the letter you wrote to my grandfather, telling him how you had suspected him of molesting your brothers’ friends when growing up. You still left me alone with him when I was five. I learned that pawns are expendable when the king needs to be saved, and our family was all about salvation. Grandpa was a well known and loved missionary in the Christian community. You, too, worked for the ministry.
Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous monsters believe in redemption and mercy; they can show you a version of kindness that feels like communion. We spent hours playing boardgames and Pik-up Stix until I am sure you wanted to fall asleep. You took me to the pool so I could swim laps and together we explored the forest behind our house, looking for turtles and bunnies. When you found out about what your father had done to me and other kids, it was you, not Mom, who told me about sex, described it in lurid detail because you thought I needed to know about such things. You did other things before I was twelve that the world does not need to know. At times we had a particular kind of contact that couldn’t be classified as evil, but nor was it innocent or good. Those actions defied language, were calculated moves that didn’t show up on a game board. Perhaps this is why I was drawn towards the grotesque in my teaching, the one aesthetic that paralyzes language, because there are still some things I cannot say, that will be unspoken forever.
And yet, you used language as a weapon. When I was sixteen your second wife, my stepmother, referred to me as the other woman. You felt the need to tell me this repeatedly, perhaps because deep down you knew it was true, knew that part of you was as broken as that bike you bought me. You told me how the semester after I graduated college you drove an extra four hours out of your way to see me, but then thought better of it and camped in your van on my street for the night. You left the next morning and even waited to get out of the city limits before refilling the gas tank, lest the receipt show you were in my city. I was caught between being an imaginary mistress and a little girl, as you always referred to me. Is this why you gave me The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with the Silmarillion? Was it so I could understand the cost of battling the darkness all around me; how it would forever make me an exile from any sense of “home”? You lived in a fantasy life where you were a good Christian father caught up in circumstances beyond your control. But you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, save me from the monstrous self you had become and so those stories showed me how to escape you and the family you both hid behind and controlled.
What you couldn’t see, not even in the years leading up to your death, was how I had to transform myself into a dragon, a cyborg, a witch who could spell her way out of this prison. I went to therapy and studied the monstrous and grotesque after graduate school. I found myself trying to understand monsters—not the nameable ones like werewolf and vampire—but rather the broken yet charming grotesqueries found in Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. You were always the charmer. Are not all monsters charming to some degree so we fall prey to the false hope of redemption? How else would there be so many novels, songs, and movies made concerning them, how else could a man who talked about grabbing women “by the pussy” be elected president?
A monster’s story is always shifting: I didn’t touch you. I might have touched you accidentally. I only looked. I only kissed, not licked. I was only trying to help. Shameful words no one wants to hear and so the headlines hold it for a day or week at most, and then it is forgotten, or somehow spun into a false story of redemption. But do monsters who prey on the young and vulnerable ever really repent? You registered as a sex offender the very month you died. Only one year before this you texted my stepsister a picture of a visa issued to an attractive blond woman living in Ghana. “My wife,” you had written, with no other information. She was thirty-three, fifteen years younger than me. You were never going to stop. No matter which fantasy life was shut down, you found a new one to create. Monsters are self generating like that, reinventing a narrative where they can still have power, a Neverland where their actions are innocent despite all accusations. But no longer am I just one voice, Dad. We’re an army now, still scattered and often ignored, but we will not stop bearing witness for one another. We can no longer care more about your redemption at the cost of our own.
Nancy Hightower has published work in Joyland, Spry, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Longleaf Review, Entropy, and Sundog Lit, among others. Her novel Elementarí Rising came out from Pink Narcissus Press in September 2013 and her first collection of poetry, The Acolyte, was published in 2015. From 2014-2016 she was the monthly science fiction and fantasy reviewer for The Washington Post. Currently, she is working on a memoir about growing up in the evangelical South and teaches at Hunter College.
Cagibi Issue 6