My Father Robbed Me of My Dignity as a Woman

When I came to realize how my father not just failed me, but also shattered my spirit, it hit me hard. Much of my life up until that point I viewed him as the victim of my mother’s lunacy. That was the narrative he had me believe. Since she was schizophrenic and he was the ostensible genius who was a ‘mover and a shaker’ I aligned with his version of reality. I needed to believe there was someone competent out there who I could believe in, rely on, emulate.

Easy prey, he exploited my need for him, shrewdly encouraging my adoration and the accommodation of abuse and neglect. Worst of all, he degraded my sexuality.

In fact, it was my father’s wounding of my sexuality that was the greatest source of torment throughout my early adult life.

It kept me from actualizing the love I so desperately sought.

I was relieved when my parents finally separated. The violence between them was unbearable. Although my mother would barricade the front door to prevent me from seeing my father, with the aid of my older sister I would sneak out. Standing on a street corner waiting for our secret assignation, my father would show up in his car, accompanied by one of his many mistresses. We would typically go to the Drift Inn bar, a seedy mobster joint in Brooklyn.

If there wasn’t any food at home we might stop off for a burger at Cousin’s diner before heading to the bar. Naturally, I couldn’t connect the dots that I was being fed by the man, who by virtue of his refusing to pay any sort of child support, denied me food. Ironically this perversity imbued him with tremendous power. As Gandhi wisely imparted, to a starving man God is a piece of bread.

The Drift Inn was like a scene from The Sopranos. There I’d meet his sundry friends like Joey Bull and Louie Pizza, both hitmen for the mafia. I also met a bevy of women who were enamored with my father. The sexualized aggression and sense of danger were palpable and unsettling.

Frequenting bars as a child and normalizing my father’s infidelity became imprinted in my psyche. I was already indoctrinated into my father’s fixation on hard-core porn. His sexual deviance infiltrated my world in debilitating ways.

Barely seven years old, I would sneak into his collection. A Man with A MaidPortrait of a LoverThe Kidnapped Virgin. I remember the titles along with the torture, the rape, and the stimulation. I was aroused and nauseated at the same time. These were the images of women and domination my father desired. The Playboys and Hustlers he kept under the couch paled in comparison. Then there were the other magazines. Much more graphic and demeaning. I saw all of it, and he knew. These narratives informed how I viewed myself. They also activated a pathological relational pattern that plagued me throughout my adult life.

I became the whore seeking redemption from the glorified, callous male.

In hindsight, I also see how he destroyed my sister. She had a gift with music and he promised her a piano and that tantalizing trip to Paris when she mastered the French language. Rewards for serving as his confidant and surrogate spouse. Naturally, he lied. Then there was the money he took from her when she got a summer job at Dunn & Bradstreet. That was after he left us with no money or food and she, just seventeen stood on the welfare line at six in the morning begging for emergency funds so we wouldn’t get kicked out on the street. The welfare office was in a neighborhood populated by prostitution and the men there would solicit her for sex.

She had so much promise. It breaks my heart. It also enrages me.

Yet, truth be told there was a time when I loved him. I admired the marigolds he planted, the freshwater fish tank he maintained, the beautiful oil paintings he created, the poetry, and stories he wrote. I loved listening to the operas he played on the stereo, along with his Beatles and Dylan albums. I was in awe that my father was a chess master.

I was a compliant worshipping muse, and there was no deviating from that role. To do so would mean exile. Eventually, estrangement did ensue. Only it was I who did the banishing.

When I saw my father for who he was I was well into years of treatment with a male therapist, who in many ways offered me a corrective paternal experience. It’s curious that my father actually agreed to participate in family sessions with me. Of course, unbeknownst to me then, he had his reasons. Ironically it was those sessions that put the final nail in the coffin.

My therapist witnessed my father laugh as I wept over his absence of love, over the way I felt defiled and abandoned by him. Those surreal moments captured the magnitude of my father’s malevolence. With a trusted ally observing what I alone tried to desperately comprehend, I was able to accept the horrifying truth.

My father’s malignant narcissism kept him securely ensconced in predation. I never mattered to him beyond being a source of sadistic gratification and supply.

It also became clear that the only reason he agreed to sessions was to sustain his stockpile of emotional and financial assets. I was an investment, whose sole purpose was to accommodate his voracious sinkhole of depraved needs. He saw that in spite of his incessant mockery I graduated from college and was on my way to graduate school. I was ambitious and capable. There was more he could leech off me. If I let him.

Fortunately, his sinister agenda would not be realized. A modicum of self-respect and clarity allowed me to shatter all illusions and face who he was, and all he cost me. It was then that I loathed his presence. In fact, I was consumed by hate.

It was then that I expelled him from my life.

The hate for my father eventually morphed into indifference, but the pattern of being enamored with charming, polished narcissists persisted for many years. The wound to my sexuality was extreme.

Dismantling the ravages of covert incest and complex trauma was the most harrowing challenge in my life. The trauma bond with my father nearly killed me, as it was the most intractable source of my suffering. Although I worked my ass off in academia and in the workforce, supporting myself and traveling the world, my deep yearning for a loving partnership could not be satisfied. I kept gravitating towards hollow self-serving men. Time and time again I repeated the same humiliating crippling patterns that left me feeling alone and broken.

My father was long dead, but his toxicity lived on in my innermost self. In the midst of a five-year hiatus from dating I entered interfaith seminary. I needed the strength of my spiritual faith to sever this trauma bond. It was through a prolonged psycho-spiritual process of complicated bereavement that I finally purged my father and actualized a relationship, unlike anything I’d ever known before.

We are set to marry September 9th, Tolstoy’s birthday.

Condemnation and judgment is a common byproduct of choosing to leave a parent, even when they are diabolical. Hence protecting myself by leaving my father, irrespective of the damage and danger, was viewed as sinful. The adage that ‘family is sacrosanct’ trumps objective reality. The exalting of an illusory ideal of family, at the expense of one’s sanity, is common. In spite of heinous evidence of abuse and malevolence, the onus was on me for ‘abandoning’ my parental abuser.

Clearly, defying this stringent social prescription was fraught with complexity.

The pivotal shift regarding my father and this painful pattern with men reached its apex when I finally confronted and assimilated a level of instinctual aggression that I reluctantly denied and disown. I feared the vitriol of this part of me. It was also especially troublesome to reclaim an aspect of oneself considered culturally repugnant for women to embody. An aspect that I was indoctrinated to believe would further impede my quest to secure abiding love.

Yet, ironically it was my immersion in a spiritual practice that led me towards this reclamation, albeit without years of psychodynamic treatment with trauma therapists, self-defense training, creative expression, extensive travel, and consciousness-raising workshops for women, I never could have faced this challenge.

Truth is, there are no easy formulaic answers. I wish there were. What matters most is the willingness to free oneself and to do whatever is necessary to achieve that end regardless of collective judgments.

When I consider the torturous years of reckless, self-destructive, suicidal behavior, it gives me pause. I am stunned by the peace and stability in my present life and I am beyond grateful. I survived my father. He couldn’t destroy me. It is immensely gratifying to know that I wouldn’t let him.

A big thank you to Sheri Heller for another one of her great articles!

If you would like to read more from this writer you can check out there website here:

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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