want to tell you how this unfolded without judgment, but every sentence is an arrow pointing somewhere. Already, this, as if there were one thing; unfolded, past tense, as if it has ended.
The subject of the November 2017 email: your father raped me #me too.
For a while now, I have been keeping notes in a file labeled Collateral Damage. Collateral, a word the internet tells me is from the late seventeenth century, meaning accompanying, attendant. Also, property, etc., given to secure the performance of a contract. Also, a euphemism adopted by the US military in the mid-twentieth century—the damage or death caused nearby an intended target struck. My father is not a target, nor am I a victim of war; still, the damage caused nearby, passive voice, rings true. The damage to the people nearby caused by someone somewhere. The people nearby are not the point; they are somewhere beside the point, or are they beside the point entirely?
I distrust certainty. I endlessly want to be certain.
A father is not a problem to be solved. Or: if only. Or: all of one’s life.
If anywhere in this essay I appear to have answers, I am mistaken.
Check your email, my sister said when she called that morning. I’m forwarding you something. It’s upsetting. Take whatever time you need, then call me back. The November 2017 email was not addressed to me. It was addressed to my sister, my first stepmother, and my literary agent, though the email began Hi Maud, and included my sister and my first stepmother in the salutation. I have three sisters; the other two sisters would later receive Facebook messages with the same subject line and similar content. My second stepmother, killed in a car accident in 2015, was not included, though she was mentioned in the body of the email.
My father was cc’ed, as if he was the boss being looped in. That was one of the feelings I had when I read it: He is still the boss.
I called my literary agent to discuss the email, in which the his in his fingers referred to my father. My father’s fingers. The my in my father; he is somehow mine. My literary agent, someone I’ve known for years, someone who is also a friend, was discreet and kind. The conversation was brief. Later, in the UK press, his fingers in her vagina would be sanitized to digital penetration. It was not an improvement.
There is the danger, the temptation, of weaponizing the details, details both singular and all too familiar, shocking but not surprising. He did what? To whom? When? Her? Her too? I gathered the details to me, kindling for a great and righteous fire.
Several days later, I received an email from a colleague, a friend. Are you okay? I’m sorry to hear about all this stuff with your father. Your father; still, somehow mine.
Wait, say that again? I said, though I had heard the first time when my colleague-friend told me where he had heard about all this stuff with my father. Here goes: An old friend of my family took a screen shot of a Twitter post, a tweet in which a different woman than the woman who sent the email announced she was filing a Title IX claim; the old friend of my family then sent the screen shot of the tweet to another of my colleagues by email, who forwarded it to the colleague-friend. It occurred to my colleague-friend, because he is my friend for whom I am neither collateral nor damage, to check in.
A lot of people want to make me into gossip, and it’s missing the point of anybody to make them into gossip, the writer Leonora Carrington said in a letter to Marina Warner, included in Warner’s introduction to Carrington’s memoir Down Below. A recent New Yorker article about the reissue of Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet and her resistance to the misogynist tendencies of the surrealists is accompanied by a photograph of her with her lover, the German Surrealist Max Ernst, twenty-six years her senior. In the photograph, she is naked from the waist up, basking in the sun, eyes closed, a cigarette between her fingers. Ernst leans against her, his head against hers, his arm around her shoulder, cupping each of her breasts in his hands. The photo caption reads “Carrington and Max Ernst. She rejected male Surrealists’ views of women.”
Later that November, I receive an email from a Washington Post reporter. In it, the reporter refers to a recent Post story about the investigation involving my father at the University of Virginia. That investigation, the reporter assures me, pertains directly to him, not to you. The reporter encourages me to reach out should I have anything relevant to add to the case as my father is not yet able to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation. In the interest of offering my father’s side of the story, the reporter tells me, he is reaching out to his family.
His family. The possessive continues to confound, particularly alongside the claim that this doesn’t pertain to me. One of the definitions of confound, the internet tells me, is to mix up (something) with something else so that the individual elements become difficult to distinguish.
After the email from the Washington Post, many things happened, many things were revealed. I want to give you the barest bones: eventually four Title IX claims were filed against my father, by three students and a faculty member, accompanied by other, anonymous allegations of sexual harassment. The my in my father; still, and always, mine. Bones, it turns out, are never completely bare. The Harvey Weinstein case had set in motion, made possible, other high-profile cases involving sexual harassment, including sexual harassment at universities. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, these included, but were not limited to, Southern Connecticut State University, Michigan State University, Dartmouth College, University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, Berklee College of Music, San Jose State University, Lehigh University, Oxford University, Columbia University, Princeton University. That list is from 2017. In December 2018, my father retired after the Title IX investigation recommended termination. In other words, he retired before he was fired.
When? What? Where? Her? Her? Her? What happened felt exceptional, but it was not. A quick Google search will tell you whatever else you want to know. Even as I didn’t want to know, I wanted to know. All that kindling. The hope for a great and righteous fire.
The photograph of Max Ernst cupping Leonora Carrington’s breasts makes me think of the Surrealists’ manifesto on the fiftieth anniversary of the diagnosis of hysteria in the March 1928 issue of La Révolution surréaliste. In it, André Breton and Louis Aragon declare hysteria a supreme means of expression alongside reprinted photographs of one of the most famous patients of Jean-Martin Charcot. Augustine, age fifteen, half-naked in a bed, performing the various stages of hysteria. What I mean is I was confused in the same way. I am reading about Carrington’s novel while looking at a photograph of Ernst cupping her naked breasts. I am reading a manifesto by the Surrealists about the glorious expressive nature of a disease, alongside the same photographs taken fifty years earlier of a half-naked fifteen-year-old girl; a disease invented in the nineteenth century by a renowned male neurologist in Paris to explain the problem of the female body. Though the photographs have been reclaimed under a different heading, here we are, still looking. Hyster for womb, a womb untethered, floating around a body, wreaking havoc as a womb will when the female body makes men feel powerless, angry, untethered; in other words, when men wreak havoc.
Once the news broke and continued to break, I created a Google alert to gather news in one place that I might read only once a day. I wanted to avoid being knocked sideways, out of my day. Inevitably, because his is a common name, I received news of other people with his name. I saved them in a file labeled Fantasy Father. Here are a few:
You could choose your omen Sunday morning when the door opened to the weigh-in station for the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby at 8 a.m. sharp. . . . The crowd didn’t have to wait long for the first excitement of the day. Caitlyn Parkhurst of West Tisbury walked in with the first fish just five minutes after hall-of-fame weighmaster Roy Langley rang the opening bell. It was a 12.23 pound striper, the first fish she has ever weighed in the derby. “I went out with Ned and John Casey in their boat,” Ms. Parkhurst said. “Started at midnight, got it at about 4 a.m. It was cold, but it was perfect. The water was like glass. It was a perfect night. There’s all sorts of fish out there.”
There was a quiet but bold demonstration at Tuesday night’s Baltimore City Public Schools meeting. Parents and staff of Callaway Elementary school in northwest Baltimore wore protective masks with a warning and reminder for commissioners about the mold outbreak in their building. . . .teachers at Monday’s board meeting told commissioners the situation is not only unhealthy, but they said it also hurts learning. “It’s very, very difficult to instruct the class of small children when there are so many people in one room,” said John Casey, a representative at the Baltimore Teachers Union.
Mr. John Casey, Clinical Adviser for Organ Transplantation in Scotland, said: “This is an important step in the treatment of diabetes in Scotland. . . . We need more people to sign up to the NHS organ donor register so that more lives can be saved and turned around.”
I considered redacting his name just then, but why?
I’m really asking. Why?
In the Collateral Damage file, a note—a snippet of something the writer and photographer Wright Morris said during a National Gallery of Art panel in the 1950s called “What Is Photography?”: the holiness of privacy. Is there privacy in writing? I think so. Still, the privacy in writing is different than the privacy of saying nothing, of making no shapes on the page. It is different than the privacy of one’s mind. Here I am, skittering around.
There is an image I’ve had in my head since this began unfolding. The image is a funeral pyre piled high with the bodies of the canceled. I imagine the people of the canceled, the people of the people, we collateral damage, standing around the pyre after everyone has moved on. Out of familial, filial, duty? In the name of what remains of love, or the inability to shake those possessives—your, my?In the end, it is a choice, sticking around. Not everyone sticks around. There are days when I respect the choice of others to cut ties more than I do my own. I am that eldest child who imagines herself to be exceptionally dutiful, deferential, but I am not alone or exceptional in the bone-deep feeling that I want in some way to help see my father off this earth. Am I also there to watch the funeral pyre burn? Am I hoping for that great and righteous fire whose light will illuminate how right I am, how right I’ve always been? Right about what, exactly?
On this page, I want to make the shape of the expression of the hawk perched that February day in 2018 on my neighbors’ porch rail, head swiveled toward my kitchen window, asking What are you people doing? Of course it wasn’t asking that. What is civilization? It wasn’t asking that either. The hawk’s expression was its own.
One night in February 2018, I spoke with a childhood friend on the phone. She had taken to calling herself the collateral damage hotline. She had just gotten off the phone with another friend whose husband, a university professor like my father, was under investigation for sexual harassment claims. This woman’s husband would, eventually, be fired from his job. My friend and I drank wine and laughed at men and their rods of blood, arrows growing out of them, pointing nowhere. Neither of us actually said that; it is a riff on a line from J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, a book, one of the many books, my father has given me. (My inheritance is rich with books my father has given me.) Our laughter was the kind of laughter that physically hurts, the kind that steers you away from the abyss toward the absurd. It felt manic or, as I sometimes say without thinking of the etymology of the word, hysterical. When I got off the phone, I slipped out into the night to furtively smoke a cigarette underneath the overhang of my kitchen. I don’t like my neighbors to know I smoke, even the one cigarette a day I allow myself. They totally know I smoke. It wasn’t until early the next morning when one of my two beloved sister cats woke me with her concerned meowing that I noticed the other beloved sister cat had escaped, slipping out the door, furtive as me. She was missing for three weeks. For three weeks, I wandered the February alleys of DC with a bowl of warmed-up cat food, which the internet told me was the best way to lure a cat home. The alleys are filled with ramshackle garages and piles of wood. Everywhere is a place a cat might hide. I was swarmed by alley cats I was sure had done my cat in. Kind people responded to the lost cat posters a friend helped me make. People I encountered in my alley wandering told me stories of their long-lost cats, some who had returned, some who had been eaten by raccoons or rats, some who had been run over by cars. Is she spayed? one man asked. I nodded. Good, he said. Did he step closer? Otherwise, they’d be all over her.
If I had been paying attention, if I hadn’t had the second glass of wine, if I had properly cared for the small, precious mammals in my charge. The morning after my beloved sister cat disappeared was when the hawk appeared on my neighbor’s railing, not asking What are you people doing? Not asking: What is civilization? I didn’t want my cat to be collateral damage. Three weeks later she returned, rail-thin but without a scratch.
Not long ago, a friend suggested I watch episode 9 of season 5 of The Affair. Episode 9 of season 5 is from the perspective of a daughter (played by Julia Goldani Telles) whose father (Dominic West), a novelist, is accused of sexual harassment. Of course I watched it. It’s not turning into some kind of #metoo story, is it? the wife (Maura Tierney) asks her husband. Are people looking? she wonders, as she drives her youngest child to school. They are. They have, of course they have, made gossip out of her. We humans love stories and gossip is a kind of story. She gets fired from a job she hasn’t even started because of the allegations against her husband. More and more women come forward. What those people are saying, she says to her children, aren’t who your father is. The second half is from the perspective of the older daughter who has an older boyfriend. Not Max Ernst older, but close. You have been the most diligent, dutiful daughter, he says. Your father is a massive prick. There’s something about the way he says this that suggests his own massive prick. In a particularly painful moment, the father doesn’t recognize his daughter in a hot tub at a party, and almost makes a pass at her. I saw the way you look at women, she says to him later, like they are prey. On a plane, the daughter encounters the woman who has been the most vocal about the father’s sexual harassment. She, too, is a writer; the show suggests she is gaining a certain amount of notoriety and attention for her writing from being as vocal as she’s been. The daughter makes her way to her seat, jostling people with her bag, apologizing and apologizing and apologizing. She spots the woman, works up the courage to approach her, then does, slipping into the conveniently empty seat beside her. Did you ever stop to think, she asks, how this would affect other people besides my father? Is it the woman the daughter approaches or the daughter who asks, When you sleep with these older guys, what is it you want to sleep with, them or their power? Do you want to fuck them or do you want to be them?
There is part of me that wants to go back and watch again in order to find out. There is another part that wants to watch the episode where all the women get together and talk about everything, anything, besides the father.
As if there were ever any getting to the bottom of things. As if there were a math problem to be solved for funeral pyre.
Maybe it isn’t the wrong question so much as it so often becomes the loudest question in the room. There are the legal ramifications, and then there are the fear and the anxiety that surround the question. Who is bad? Who is good? There is, too, an implied desire to lock everything down, to solve the mystery of a human being. I want justice. I am afraid. I am anxious. I believe in the unfathomable mystery of human beings.
I am a good helper, the boy who lives in the row house next door to mine says. While I garden, he comes over to help, which means he tells me about his favorite soccer teams while I weed. His favorite thing in my garden was the French sorrel I planted only once because I liked the name. I am a vague and haphazard gardener. I liked the name but I didn’t like the taste. It was too bitter for me. The boy loved it precisely because it was bitter. When are you going to plant the lemonade plant again? he asks each time I see him. For his birthday, I get him his own sorrel plant. His father ties the planter to the fence that divides our yards. The boy shows me. My father did this, he says proudly. He is an inventor.
When I was a girl, I might have said the same thing. I wanted to grow up to be like my father, an inventor, a writer, and I did. It is impossible to convey how much I adored my father as a child, how much I admired him. I didn’t want to grow up to be like my father; I wanted to be him.
Many years ago, I sat with my mother, who reminds me of Little Richard, Gene Wilder, and Rod Stewart in equal parts, in pre-op as she waited to have surgery on her knee. She had been given the pre-anesthesia medication and, floating a bit, she began to riff. Evolution, she said. I can’t get over having once been a monkey. Then, a story she heard about Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones were on a US tour and they stopped at a diner, shoved into a booth. Was it Jagger and all of the Stones, or was it just Mick and Keith? She’s laughing. Someone in the diner said to Mick, are you a girl or a boy? We’re both laughing now. Mick pulled his cock out of his pants, my mother said, and put it on the table. It’s a funny story, but still, that was his answer: his cock.
From the Collateral Damage file: What does it mean to be a man? And: how does anyone tell me? The performance and visual artist John Kelly wrote this in his essay, “In Praise of Drag,” describing the character he developed for Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, a show he wrote based on the life of Egon Schiele. In the same essay, he describes a semi-autobiographical solo performance, The Dagmar Onassis Story, in which an obsessive Maria Callas fan is compelled to near self-destruction to get closer to Callas by creating an alter ego in the form of Callas’s fictitious punk-diva daughter Dagmar Onassis. When I created Dagmar Onassis, Kelly writes, I wanted an enormous reservoir of rage.
When my sister and I were growing up, my mother kept a book of amusing things we said. Spank me up to God! I allegedly shouted when I was five, while being pushed in a swing in Greenleaf Park. This is particularly amusing as my father is a lapsed Catholic and my mother is a forever seeker (she once nearly converted to Mormonism), who often worried we weren’t receiving enough, if any, religious training at home. She would occasionally, desperately, read to us from the Bible. We are bored! we protested. We are afraid of death! Was it around the same time I wanted to be spanked up to God that I shouted I want to know everything Dad knows right now! I was inconsolable. I don’t want to be a dumb-dumb wife! My mother was, still is, an inventor, a writer, too. Where did dumb-dumb wife come from? There are so many answers to this question, including Mick Jagger’s cock on the table in the diner. Including the title of a book a friend recently told me he was reading: The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.
A decade or more ago, when I was feeling especially low at the onset of winter, the sister who forwarded me the email said but remember the winter light. This sister is forever saying wise things and then forgetting she said them. Now, whenever winter comes around and I start to sink, her voice is in my head—the light, the winter light. I notice the light, and its accompanying shadows, and it helps. I began, even, to look forward to the winter light. Sometimes, in the summer, I long for the winter light.
In December 2015, a few days after the death of his wife, I look for the winter light over my father’s shoulder where he sits in the kitchen wearing his ratty bathrobe. You know who was really good at getting me to do things? He lights another pipe, still not getting dressed, the answer still not me. Was my voice gentle as I said, again, you need to get dressed, we are going to the funeral home, we are going to see your wife’s body? The answer to who was really good at getting my father to do things: a former student whose name was often invoked, her many virtues often extolled.
At a certain point, these questions become automatic.
Okay, I say, you can go to the funeral home in your robe. There is a knock at the door; some kind person bringing food. I’ll tell Robin to write them a thank you note, my father says when I put the lasagna down on the kitchen counter. He’s forgotten again that she is dead, as one does when someone is so suddenly and terribly dead. Why don’t you write your own fucking thank you notes, I think, and then feel awful. Goddamn it, he shouts, banging his fist on the table, remembering all over again.
I did not like the funeral director at first. One of the first things she said: I was in a car accident once. My earrings flew off. My judgment was quick; it gathered steam, looking for a target. Your earrings flew off? His wife was killed in a car accident. My face surely said all of this. My father died in a car accident, she continued. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The irony for the mortician is airbags do a lot of good and seat belts do a lot of damage. My father’s grief-contorted face began to untwist. The body was relaxed, she said. This is how she referred to his wife: the body. She said it with reverence and I watched it console my inconsolable father. The body, this thing that was and was not my father’s wife anymore. The body was relaxed, she said, which means she didn’t see the truck coming. My affection was quick; it gathered steam, looking for a target. She spoke of the body’s long bones. There was something about the way she said it that suggested they were sacred and beautiful.
What of the long bones of the living body of the woman who would send the November 2017 email? The sacred and beautiful bones wrapped in living skin? From the Collateral Damage file: lines from a New Yorker article called “Feel Me” by Adam Gopnik. Skin, he writes, is the “line around our existence.” Our skin is how we are “constant selves.” Gopnik speaks to Dachner Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, who suggests that touch is the “primary moral experience.” Wanted touch, unwanted touch, each with its accompanying moral experience; each affecting our sense of self, our very existence.
At the funeral, when it came time to shovel dirt on the grave, my father began to wander off. People were alarmed. Where was he going? Someone started after him. Let him go, the funeral director said. He reached the gravediggers who were standing at a distance, dusting themselves off. My father offered his hand and they, who had lowered the body in its coffin into the ground, received it. Even as it was happening, I thought: remember this. There is this too.
From the Collateral Damage file: If we opened people up, we would find landscapes, the filmmaker Agnès Varda once said. The reality, the heartbreak, and the relief of the human condition: there is no opening people up.
Grief is something we get to have in this lifetime, a friend who has had a lot of it said when I called her, in angry tears, from the back porch of my father’s house. I had been following him from room to room as he trailed smoke and ash from his pipe, sure he was going to set himself and the house on fire. His wife was gone and so were the only requests he honored to not smoke in the house. When I heard my father wailing, though I was not fluent in his grief language, I understood it as proof that he had loved his gone wife.
From the Collateral Damage file: A line from Joanna Klink’s poem series, “Night Sky,” If you have grieved you have loved.
After his wife died, my father said he didn’t dream for a month. Grief, he said, knocked the dreams right out.
In a dream I had once, I embraced my father. I love you, I thought he said, and then I realized he had said, I’d love to.
I know I am not alone in being unable to shake the family traces. I read and reread a friend’s book of poetry, which circles the loss of her mother to cancer. So many of my friends’ parents have died. My father lives and lives and lives. And then, one day, he will be gone. My father caused pain in a kind of effortless way, one friend writes to me. It came easy to him, since he had a lot to spare. While it rings true, I cannot understand it, yet, in the past tense. There is no pre-grieving, not really.
December 2018, a late-night call with my youngest sister, the sister who spent a misty afternoon with my father in the graveyard where our stepmother would eventually be buried. She and my father were looking for a prospective grave site; with characteristic wry grace and imaginative generosity, she lay down in a potential spot so they might see if it was, indeed, a comfortable resting place. In order to make my father laugh, and he did. She and I are twenty-one years apart, with different mothers; we grew up in the same house but not at the same time. During the late-night call, we talk about how sometimes it is as though there is something rotten in us. How has the rot found its way inside us? We agree, my youngest sister and I, on the phone in the middle of the night, we are not rotten, that this is not true, but still, it feels true.
From the Collateral Damage file: “Merce Cunningham says that anything the body does is expressive. I would go one further and say that anything the body perceives is expressive,” writes Susan Rethorst in A Choreographic Mind.
I’m sorry to hear about your father’s troubles at UVa. December 2017, an email from a colleague at the university where I teach, a man I met only once at a reception, standing around rubbery cheese and stale crackers. I suspect the guy meant well, but the email leaves me feeling like a secondary character. I am haunted by the assumption lodged in the email: there are only three options for the people of the people—silent, supportive, outraged.
From the Collateral Damage file: Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous, from an essay by John Berger about Géricault’s portraits of various patients in the Salpêtrière where the women-girls made the shapes that spelled hysteria.
The reference to my father’s troubles makes me think of the Troubles in Ireland. As I altered my syntax, I altered my intellect, wrote that Irish poet W. B. Yeats. I am named for his muse, his almost-lover, Maud Gonne.
I want people to ask me. I don’t want people to ask me. I want someone to say something. I don’t want anyone to say anything. I hate the silence. I hate the noise. It is nothing to do with me. It is everything to do with me.
January 2021, and I am still writing this fucking essay. I write it, it turns to ash, I write it, it turns to ash, I write it, I turn to ash. During the spring semester, I live part-time in Charlottesville, where my assorted parents (mother, father, stepmother #1) live separately. Global pandemic and my enormous good fortune at having my health and a job I can do online allow me to spend half the month here in order to spend more time with my mother who has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia. My mother’s speech therapist says aphasia is the condition of being able to know something without necessarily being able to express it. He says my mother is a good circumlocuter, finding her way around the words she once knew but can’t remember, though he cautions her against digressing too much. He cautions her, but he is fond of her—it is a caution and an appreciation. Tell me all the words I have forgotten, she says to me, circumlocuting us into another sphere.
The apartment where I stay in Charlottesville is a few blocks from where the Robert E. Lee statue stands despite efforts to have it removed after the white supremacist rally and Heather Heyer’s murder in August 2017. In July 2021, the statue will be removed, held in a secure location while the city decides what is to be done with it. In January, it is still surrounded by fencing, tangled in bureaucratic red tape. I am here on January 6, when the mob storms the Capitol; even Robert E. Lee’s exhausted stone horse can see the straight line from here to there.
In an article about what to do with these statues that celebrate Confederate heroes, I read about the statue of the deposed ex-president of Ghana as a possible model. The statue was beheaded during the 1966 military coup; its head placed on a plinth next to its body next to a plaque narrating the history that led to the statue’s decapitation. And the possible model of Soviet-bloc countries who have moved statues of Stalin and Lenin to parks outside of city centers. In this way, Stalin and Lenin no longer reside at the heart of the city, nor is their history entirely forgotten. Though the analogy isn’t exact, this is where my mind goes: statues of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, and the statues of the lesser knowns—the my fathers of the world—their heads on plinths next to their bodies next to a plaque narrating the history that led to their decapitation. In a cemetery outside all of the city limits, well outside the city of my heart.
I give this essay to a friend to read and she points out, rightly, that a beheaded statue of my father, his head on a plinth, might not be outside the city of my heart.
In December 2021, the Charlottesville city council voted to turn the statue of Robert E. Lee over to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which has plans to melt it down and transform it into a new work of public art.
Be gentle because everyone’s afraid, the sister who says wise things and then forgets them said when I called her in angry tears, my father sobbing in another room, days after his wife died. Where is everyone? I cried. Why am I here alone? My martyrdom had given way to despair, but not suicidal despair because isn’t the prerequisite of martyrdom being killed by someone else?
Be gentle because everyone’s afraid. But is everyone afraid?
Be gentle because I am afraid. During the winter I am in Charlottesville, I drop by my father’s house from time to time to take him on walks around the block. This is, I’ve decided, the relationship I can have with my present-tense father. I prefer the late afternoon, because the winter light, the winter light, the winter light, those attendant shadows. COVID-19 means I don’t go inside my father’s house, the house where I grew up, now a Bluebeard’s castle of photographs of ex-wives and dead wives, books and books and books. On our walk, my father brings the cane he uses to keep people at the correct social distance even though the cane is not, in fact, six feet long. His mask slides off his face, Baby Boomer style.
He points with his cane at the sliver of the moon in the late afternoon sky. Do you know why they say the moon is a liar? I wait for him to go on because that is how it has always been: he will go on. When it makes a crescent D, décroître, it is waning; when it makes a crescent C, croître, it is waxing. Décroître means to decrease, he explains. Croître, to increase. La lune est menteuse, he says.
The moon itself isn’t a liar, I say. Isn’t the moon just being the moon? Doing its moon thing? I think of the hawk saying nothing with that beautiful, wild face I wanted so badly to read. My father says nothing. It is possible he has not heard me. I am a low-talking mumbler and with a mask I am often inaudible. Or maybe his silence means I have a point.
From the Collateral Damage file: a section called “My Life as a Man” from the Swiss writer Max Frisch’s Montauk, a memoir of sorts about an affair he had with a woman thirty years his junior.
“Women: sometimes I believe I understand them, and at the outset they are pleased with my inventions, with my sketch of their character; or at any rate they are surprised when I see in them something my predecessors had not seen. In this way I win them over entirely. WITH NO OTHER MAN HAVE I BEEN ABLE TO TALK AS I CAN WITH YOU—how often I have heard that at parting! Everyone can make use of flattery, but I do not need to. They already feel flattered when they see the efforts I am making to fathom them. And for a while they are convinced by what I am imagining about them; I do not see them simply, but as full of contradictions. NOBODY HAS EVER TOLD ME THAT BEFORE, they say, BUT PERHAPS YOU ARE RIGHT. There is something compelling about my sketch. As about any oracle. I am eventually astonished myself by the way their behavior confirms my speculations. Naturally, I do not produce the same model for every woman. I cannot rest until I know whom I love, and I take care to avoid transferring experiences I had with one partner to the next. If inadvertently, in spite of all my care, I do so, then I know I am in the wrong. If similar behavior patterns emerge—and they often do, to a hair—it must be due to something in myself. But not, I believe, to any lack of imagination, for each partner I invent a new difficulty in relation to myself—for instance, that she is the stronger character, or, alternatively, that I am. The women themselves act accordingly, at any rate when I am present. If I see them in a state of suffering, I will tell them what is making them suffer—or, even if I don’t tell them, I believe that I know. Thanks to my delusions. These never desert me.”
Sorry to send you a shitty email, the email from November 2017 read. You don’t know me, but I know you.
It is these first two lines I have spent the most time responding to in the holy privacy of my head.
I am sorry for whatever happened to you.
We were rotting long before you brought his rot to our door.
I would have helped you file the Title IX claim.
But I do not know her and she does not know me, and would I have helped her?
Friends have told me, I have told myself, the shitty email has nothing to do with me. They have told me, I have told myself, the person who wrote this email was distraught, and unwell, and part of that unwellness had to do with what happened between her and my father, his abuse of power, his recklessness, and all the many other things I cannot know, will never know. Some days, I feel this deeply because I too have been distraught and unwell, part of that unwellness having to do with my father, his abuse of power, his recklessness. I bend and bend and bend, not breaking, though there have been days I have felt I might break. There have been days I have wanted to break and days I have wanted it all to break.
I am exhausted by the conversation that is only about the argument.
My father’s initial response to the shitty email was to write an email offering to write for me a truer account of what happened. His delusions had not deserted him. I did not take him up on his offer.
Sometimes it seems the main subject of conversation between my three sisters, my mother, and my stepmother is my father. Sometimes, it seems, he is all we talk about.
This is not true. Still, he takes up a lot of air time. There is endless material. I wonder if we aren’t missing the point of anybody. Maybe I should speak for myself. Maybe it is just me, allowing myself to live beside the point entirely.
Even so, I would like to see the episode where we all get together and talk about everything, anything, else.
A few years ago when I was sweeping up the ash of this essay yet again, a friend said, it would be great if the essay wasn’t only about your father.
I change the name of the file on my desktop from Collateral Damage to Getting Out of the Ring after listening to an interview Katy Hessel did with the artist Celia Paul on The Great Women Artists podcast, in which Paul discusses her memoir Self-Portrait. The book includes a long section on her relationship with Lucien Freud when she was an eighteen-year-old student at London’s Slade School of the Arts where Freud was her fifty-four-year-old teacher and her lover. The book includes the relationship in which he was doting, cruel, supportive, reckless, wielding his enormous power, and then moves well beyond it. In the interview, Paul describes the painters she connects to—Agnes Martin, Gwen John—as those who have decided to quietly step out of the ring of highly competitive male artists and to make something from this deep reserve of stillness. To step out of the ring of great men and to go somewhere else.
As we sit in his room labeled “Speech Office,” my mother’s speech therapist tells her it is important to become comfortable with pausing, with silence, as it will give her time to find the path in her brain that will lead her to the word she wants. Once she finds the word, she will be able to travel the path more often. It sounds as though he is describing desire lines, those unofficial shortcuts, in a field, say, created by someone getting off the prescribed path and striking out across the unmown grass, and then someone else seeing the trampled grass and following the shortcut, and then someone else and so on and so on until there is a well-trod new path. Is it kind of like that? I ask. Yes, exactly, he says.
Maybe this essay is a desire line.
When my mother was waiting to have surgery on her knee, the anesthesiologist asked her, Who do you live with? She answered, I live with myself.
How does my father live with himself?
I’m really asking.
Some days my solitude is a cold and cutting metal. In Anne Carson’s short story “1=1,” the narrator wonders: the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive. It isn’t easy to be in relation; it isn’t easy to be out of relation. You are really nice, the boy from next door who loves sorrel tells me. Can I come sit at your dining room table where you sit and eat dinner all alone? He lives in a house that is the same as mine but with nine other people. I believe in my long sacred bones that no one follows a straight line from there to here. Where even is there and where is here? A friend once referred to my mother—who has had many and substantial relationships with men and women—as a spiritual love warrior. On the best days, I aspire to that. On bad days, I imagine that others make gossip out of me, the math of which is: That kind of father equals sitting at her dining room table eating dinner all alone. But isn’t it narcissistic to believe people are making gossip out of me? My dining room table where I occasionally eat dinner all alone is not a crime scene but just another way we live.
The kindling for the great and righteous fire is wet and it is rotten. It will only smoke and smoke and smoke.
When my father went upstairs to view his beloved’s body in the refrigerated room, the funeral director described something she called talking boxes. As I understood it, the talking box is something you might place in the refrigerated room with the body, playing music or words, to keep the body company until its burial.
What would I want a talking box to say to the body of the man who will always be my father? I wondered at the time. I wonder still.
Quarantine, my mother says. It’s a beautiful word. She asks me to write it down so she can remember it. She is losing language and still her mind presses itself against the world. Seeking, finding, losing, seeking, finding, losing, etcetera. I am going somewhere new, she says.
Let’s go somewhere new.
I want to go somewhere new. ■