Nina is my cousin. She’s probably five. I’m twirling her in the field behind my grandma’s house while my aunt smiles and watches. I’m fourteen, maybe.
I’m forty now. I weigh 197 pounds. I’m just over six feet tall.
In high school, I was the skinny kid—parents would say, you need to eat more. Today, I’m bigger than I’ve ever been in my life. There is heft. But when my wife asks me to move the fridge out to clean the compressor, my hands grasp the side like the wee boy, unsure of how to accomplish the feat. When I push my body into it, however, everything shifts. It’s easy. My body is substantial, though my mind perceives me as small.
At fourteen, I spin my cousin. Little Nina cackles as I hoist her gently onto my back. I hear the laughter of my carefree grandma and aunt, and it dawns on me that they might think I have inappropriate thoughts about Nina. That I might be some kind of predator. I worry that perhaps my aunt is not watching because she is excited by the possibility of a bond forming between her daughter and nephew; rather, she is watching closely because I’m a little rapist.
The thought startles me. I’m no longer myself. When Nina runs forward to be lifted skyward again, my hands reject her. I adjust my rough-and-tumble playfulness and set her down. Whew! I breathe and beg her off for rest and a glass of water.
I know—and perhaps I knew even then—that nobody believed this about me. The thought never crossed their minds, but like the disconnect between my actual heavier body at forty and the non-existent gangly body of my childhood, at fourteen I felt disconnected from my actual body in another way. I perceived myself as a criminal, repentant for my father’s crimes. But in reality, I was merely a teenage boy. We perform our identities, but my performance was colored by this question. What if they thought I could be guilty of some version of the same thing? Unsure of the path forward—of how to exist publicly in the moment if every action is prejudged—it was much better to shut down, to go home and hide, to lift myself above the water onto a raft of solitude.
My father’s father died at forty, at the same age as my newfound heft. A German immigrant, he fought his cancer with treatment, and when I sit in the car at my age and feel my slight pandemic pouch slump over my belt, I know that I’m experiencing something that he never did. When Horst died, my father would’ve been twenty. Grandpa knew I was coming, but he never met me. Mom always claimed that dad didn’t handle this loss well. Who would? Sometimes she pointed to his death as a major cause for what came later, as something that would have helped dad remain more normal, which meant loyal in marriage, diligent in a career, and overall master of a single domain. If Horst had lived, a symbolic order might have pervaded and bolstered his son’s inhibitions.
We lived in Sandusky, Ohio for a short time after my brother was born, in the mid-80’s, and my dad started coming home late. It wasn’t because he was working. The shoe store he’d once started had long since burned down. My parents never went to college, but my father had skills. His dad had taught him many things about construction and he probably could’ve worked as a skilled laborer. I used to think that working a job simply didn’t appeal to him. As I got older, I realized it wasn’t work as much as being a subordinate—of having a boss—that bothered him. It is not clear—even now—that he knows this about himself. His relationships are usually based on a careful hierarchy. In addition, dad was frustrated with the idea of work for other reasons. It’s something that traps you, and it’s based on a system. Men are taught to inhabit this patriarchy as breadwinner, man-of-the-house-now. My grandfather worked as an electrician and filled this role. Then he died young. Dad expressed frustration with people who work too much. They’re missing life, and considering his own father died at such a young age, it makes sense that he might think of work this way.
In any case, whatever the reason for my dad’s hang-ups about work, in Sandusky he had no job, and my mother worked. Eventually, though it took longer than most of his subsequent relationships, he realized that mom was not the woman for him. She was too independent. She probably had to focus on the kids and her work more than other things, just like Horst. This may have stirred some potent mixture of anxiety and jealousy and regret. Or it may have simply emasculated him. He felt like a subordinate. There was something here that he wanted to avoid at all costs.
On these nights when dad came home late, I wonder what he told my mom. Dad told me many tall tales about his life: that he chased tornadoes, that he tried to be a rodeo clown, that he once shared burning barrels among the homeless in a thawing city. When dad watched movies, he could see a person being something, a horse racer for instance, and he could admire or romanticize it to the point that he was that person too. It was a profound empathy; it was a profound lie. He imagined that he understood another person, which could be very appealing to people in his life. Then he usually ruined it by becoming that person and moving on to someone else. Like a character-actor, he inhabited his admiration so deeply that their story—real or imagined—became part of his inner life. Years later, for example, he might tell people that he was once a horse racer. It’s a kind of childishness, and my fear of being seen as my father Just was similar. Regardless of whether or not my dad was guilty or innocent, people thought of him as dangerous, and so I must have been dangerous too. I had a way of empathizing—of mimicry (most children do)—but this personage came unbidden. Later, we knew dad’s stories were fake, for how could a man at twenty years of age with an easily traceable past accomplish all of this?
If he’d been a fiction writer, he would’ve been great.
Still, in those days, I believed. So on those nights that he didn’t return home, I thought dad went out because there was talk of tornado weather in Ottawa County, or a call for stuntmen in Cleveland. The truth is that he was having an affair with a woman with two kids and a big country house in Milan, Ohio. This woman, her husband was already in prison for a different crime. She was kind to me, and I find it maddening to this day that those kids would experience two incarcerated father-figures. But I digress.
Dad was magical to her and many of her friends. He taught new age ideas, believed in the healing power of hands or healing through vibration; he also shared a belief in past-life regression, which was probably an extension of his ability to embody and empathize with those he admired. The name on his credit cards was Robin Locksley. I recall that Robin of Sherwood, starring Michael Praed, was somewhat popular at the time.
He was searching, I like to think, for how his body fit in the world, but he was still young enough and raised in such a way that his ideas appeared as authoritative, completely formed, and true. He was special. And those around him had a special capacity for believing in magic. They believed he was special, too.
When I think back, it was a huge leap! My dad—the man who lived with us—seemed different from my dad with this other woman.
But that came later.
Now, in Sandusky, my mom only suspected. She could probably see the magical thinking and the reality she feared: the end of his interest in her. To this day she expresses a love for him, the man who played guitar at Phil’s Inn, who starred in Bye Bye Birdie in high school, who talked with such fervent belief about heaven and everything. One day during the divorce, on the way to see a movie, she turned the car right instead of left, driving all the way to the house of his new girlfriend to plead with him, stay, stay.
In any case, Dad started returning home late, just before the divorce, because—well—he was Robin Locksley in another life, his energy healed those who would believe, and in that big house in Milan, he imagined a more interesting existence. He’d already discovered the life of a father—of a husband—and was ready to move on.
While my brother slept and dad was out late, mom would invite me to stay up and watch television. This became a ritual. She would say, “You can stay up until your dad comes home.”
Then she locked the doors.
Dad was fun, but sometimes he struggled to balance play with order. He improved upon this problem after the divorce, as a weekend dad, because weekend-dads are often permitted to lean toward play. But before the divorce, he worked hard at the balance. He’d walk me to the school bus every morning and convince me of my luck. “You get to ride the warm school bus and see your friends while I have to walk back in the snow.” Sad face. On other days, we’d walk to the 7-11 to get milk and I would try to match his strides. Dad hummed the melody to my favorite cartoons, singing about the flight of dragons and a city of gold. Then he would suddenly correct the course in rare meta-moments, as if struck by his familial status—the body of the father—and how he might be letting us act, these children connected to that body by blood. Once in the Sandusky Mall, we were cursing in front of a woman he wanted to impress. Dad was liberal with our language, asking for well-timed cursing over profligate gutter-talk as a show of maturity. In this case, it was excessive, so he hugged me and whispered angrily to stop. The forcefulness of his breath in my ear stunned me into silence.
Another time, while pretending to be pirates in the backyard, I whacked him hard on the leg with a stick, I was so wrapped up in my part. The world turned quickly. From then on, the tiny shed contained a special paddle with electrical tape wrapped around it.
Yet another time, I crept hungrily into the kitchen in the early morning hours of slumber to eat some sugar cereal; he caught me and I was made to eat the cereal from the floor.
This seemed so different from the person I knew. His face moved through a filter and an awareness was imposed from outside. What did my body represent to him in those moments? He became aware of a cultural norm and grew worried that he wasn’t fulfilling it. He didn’t necessarily know how to perform the paternal role.
After locking the doors at night, my mom and I would watch television and wait. She liked to watch Star Trek, the old ones with Captain Kirk running from lizard men on a dusty mountaintop.
Eventually dad came home. We heard a light tap on the back storm door, as he tried not to wake the kids. I think he was shocked every time that he found the door locked. Did he not have a key?
“Go let your dad in,” she’d say, ready for this moment. Joyfully, I’d leap forward and go to the door around the corner in the kitchen, out of sight. Through the glass, my dad’s initial recognition was guilty shock immediately followed by a forced smile.
I sometimes see him through that glass in my mind, that performance. This is another filter that has followed me into adulthood, something between us, where I am always playing the part of the child and he is playing the part of the father, but we both know he has broken some rule and I must routinely unlock the door and let him in.
I will stop a moment to say this: There is a part of me that has been trying to avoid being dehumanized by or alienated from the world because of my father’s past, which is also my past. What this really means is “moving on,” or so I’m often told, and hoping that others will let you move on. I think my dad has moved on because once, a year or so ago, I said something that made him reply, “I thought we were past that.” I forget what I said, but I clearly haven’t moved on, and I’m not always certain that this is possible. Sometimes I believe that I’m over it, and that I’m on the other side of something. At other times, when my guilt weighs like an impossible burden, I think of death; I wonder if we can start life over and try again.
My dad says he was wrongfully imprisoned, but it may be the case that his two sons believed the verdict. That is another game we play: we pretend it’s not an issue because we believe in his innocence instead of the court’s findings. Given my dad’s tornado-chasing, there are obvious obstacles to trust.
And even if he was wrongfully convicted, was it unjust? My great grandmother—Marilyn— once said, in a fit of frustration during one of our car rides to visit my father in prison, “Even if he didn’t do it, he was involved in something he shouldn’t have been involved in.” It’s hard to not see some truth in her words.
My dad—like many dads—may want me to move on to salvage our relationship, to give another chance for something to grow between a father and son. My dad is my dad, after all. I’ve only got the one.
Still I’m wondering how we can move beyond certain filters, how I can open that kitchen door for the last time and invite him in.
Because even when the guilt isn’t there, which is most of the time, my body performs the guilt and shame of rape. My office door remains wide open when students come to chat with me at the college; I never initiate touch, an embrace—for instance—even with women I’ve known a long time and call close friends, even family! Sometimes if I pray or if I’m confused at work, I won’t ask for help, especially if the chair of the department, or my mentor, is a woman. There is a whipping god I worship, one who pulls me close like my father in the mall and whispers finally and forcefully, stop. Because I do have dirty thoughts, and these thoughts have been inappropriately echoed back to me in my lifelong banter with men in various workplaces. You know the things men say. “Did you, you know? I would.” I have been assured by therapists that these thoughts are indeed normal. But how can I be sure? My worry is so great that my mind produces no muse for fear that she’ll be a victim.
The male gaze is suspicious, even without my past.
Let’s get to it now. Years after the divorce, after my mother remarried and divorced again, my dad was accused of statutory rape. I was in the fifth grade. He was also accused of running a cult group called the Ninth Wave, from a Tennyson poem about the coming of King Arthur: “Wave after wave, each mightier than the last, until last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep, and full of voices, slowly rose and plunged. Roaring. And all the wave was in a flame.”
For most of my life, writing about it seemed impossible, especially since we’ve maintained a relationship. To write it and actually expect others to read it would risk stealing away whatever repentant work he’d done to move on.
Then it occurred to me: it’s my life too. I lived through this time, not as he did but as someone in a small town in Northern Ohio with a father accused and, yes, convicted of a crime. He was sentenced to five years when I was in middle school, which is generally considered the worst time to be in school. Shortly after this happened, I twirled my cousin, Nina, in the field at my grandmother’s house. Then, just like that, I felt incapable of overcoming someone’s perception of me.
This is, incidentally, one of the ways that I’ve come to understand victims of racism and prejudice: the inability to overcome an imposed stereotype, so that every behavior is suspect, and the attempt to be seen for who you are is futile. There are several possible results for the person who lives like this. They can become subdued and alone; they might become enraged; they might begin to believe the stereotype, or to simply accept it and say, “Well if that’s what they think, I might as well perform it anyway.” This is the definition of alienation. And one possible outcome of alienation is surrender, a dark acceptance of any horror that comes your way. “Fine, whatever you say.” I’ve heard people say this line—out of frustration, out of exhaustion—and those people tend to say it elsewhere in life. One escape hatch is annihilation, a removal of self from any equation, so we can be done playing a role that others have set for us.
And what removes self from the equation more than death or, if not death, prison?
My father’s prison number was 270818. Sometimes the guards would refer to him by this number, pronouncing the zero as the letter ‘oh.’ They might say something like, “Visitation is over, Two-seven-oh-eight-one-eight.”
If the goal was dehumanization, then it definitely extended to the family. The problem is that many crimes are based in human impulses. Visiting my father in prison and hearing them refer to him by a number caused me to wonder if most of my impulses were inhuman. Any natural outpouring of emotion became suspiciously aligned with my felonious father. Murder was my anger. Theft was my want. Rape was my power. I should never be angry or want or have power. This is ridiculous, but I was young. I became paranoid about my every emotion.
A prison guard dehumanizes the man—my father—on behalf of society. The guard must enact a ritual whereby the criminal is placed outside of the norm. The criminal must be reminded that their crime negates them.
Further, the guards can inadvertently teach or magnify alienation for those closest to the criminal. They teach the child another requirement for overcoming alienation, a penance that is already the result of their alienation. The guards want a complete retreat; a prayerful humility; a meditative, empty presence. For the criminal, society hopes that the fear of negation is enough of a deterrent to stay out of trouble. But the negation—the alienation—often already happened before imprisonment. When I left these visitations every month, it was as if I was being released from my time in prison. I re-entered society, still alienated but also cowed.
The criminal returns to a society where his alienation still exists, too. No matter his behavior, he is judged.
Prison guards are not the victims, and can hardly be blamed. They are tools for the victims—pawns to a cultural procedure—and their daily task is more scripted than an executioner’s, who can flip, inject, chop, or pull, and it is done. My mom sending me to the door to let my dad in late at night placed me in the role of prison guard, too. I opened the door and my existence in that space at that hour was meant to shame him. I was a body voicing my mother’s verdict: you are guilty. We require bodies to enact our punishment, our view of order as a culture. The correction system uses time and bodies to compel penitence for acting on human impulses that we’ve deemed inappropriate, but whatever it thinks it accomplishes, it certainly doesn’t believe that it acts on the same impulses as the criminal. That is because the action of a prison guard—though based on human impulses—drains through a different filter that renders it righteous. This is the complex nature of meting out justice.
We become aware of this problem when we seek justice at a young age. If I had some grievance against my brother, my great-grandmother said, “Don’t be such a tattle-tale.” What was wrong for her was my desire to see harm done; my desire to do harm to another, even if they caused harm first. Hidden in this exchange is an implication: We must want someone to commit a crime, on some level, so we can punish them.
Therefore, here is a possible definition for justice: punishment that refrains from asking people to repeat the same crime we seek to punish. This is why those with more experience in justice studies talk about attaining harmony and balance. If we continue to perpetrate injustice in achieving justice, using the system to feed our worst impulses, we’re not actually achieving justice.
This is also why stories of vengeance display a downward narrative spiral. A father is murdered by an old sheriff, so his son tracks the sheriff down and kills him. But the sheriff has a son too, and his son tracks down the other son to kill him.
In some cases, the vigilante knows this formula and kills the entire family in retribution. Thus they prove that this sort of justice requires murdering the innocent as well as the guilty. I was innocent. Wasn’t I?
Speaking of guilt.
I was not guilty of my father’s actions, but I felt guilty. To my knowledge, absolutely no one treated me differently based on my father. This thought—this other phantom rape identity that I’ve concocted—exists only in my mind, as shame.
While writing this essay and wondering how to end, I wrote a note in the margins—is this trauma? Does trauma feel like this to some people? Like guilt?
Even a cursory search online yields immediate results. There is such a thing as trauma-related guilt specific to childhood. Of course, trauma-related guilt is most well-known in the form of survivor’s guilt among veterans, or a sibling who escaped abuse while others suffered. Those who experience it often struggle with a near-obsessive guilt complex in other areas of life.
I strolled into the kitchen where my wife was washing the dishes. “Hey, it may be the case that I have trauma-related guilt from childhood. You think that’s possible?” We’ve been married nearly twenty years.
She bent forward to rest her head on the counter as she laughed silently in amazement. “Tell me you’re not serious. Are you just realizing this?”
I laughed. To annoy my wife in a light-hearted argument I say, “Get over yourself,” as if she’s making everything about her. I ask, “You know how I like to say ‘get over yourself’ to annoy you? Well guess who actually needs to be told this?”
“You. You need to get over yourself.”
Obviously you can’t just tell a traumatized person to get over themselves. You can’t simply say that there is no more abuse—that it’s in the past—and the guilt you feel is a new fight for recovery, but it is a fight with yourself. Even my acceptance of trauma-related guilt does not mean the guilt has subsided.
However, I’ve learned to add new filters that help me get over myself, filters that conclude with me saying, “See? Nothing to see here.”
Kids like to be touched. Most kids, anyway. There is a deep desire for safe sensory stimulation. I twirl my niece, Ellie, now. She is five. She loves to be spun with her legs outward, like falling in a circle. There is a compulsion in me to grab her, to run around the house with her in my hands. I’m excited that she’s so excited, and that love can be expressed in play. Sometimes she shrieks in delight and offers a low whoa-ummmmmmmm, and there is a vibrating hum in my arms, a body that completely trusts me to do any number of “horrible” things to her. I do not believe that her mother, who is my sister-in-law, thinks that I am touching her inappropriately, or that she’s taking a chance or being courageous for letting me play rough-and-tumble with her. I can look at Ellie’s face and think, she will be beautiful, like her mom and her mom’s sisters. Thinking this does not mean I am dangerous.
Since my brain at one time believed others thought I was guilty of the word for which my father was convicted, there are still filters, ones that are unnecessary but exist because of my past. I judge myself as if charged every time. It goes like this. I allow myself to think of the possibility that I could think deviant thoughts. I must then point, in my own mind, and say, “Look, Joshua, there are no deviant thoughts there. You’re a safe person.” I must pass through a jury of my own making, receive a verdict.
Then I can twirl her.
Joshua Thusat received his graduate degree in English from Bowling Green State University. His most recent work appeared in Penlight Magazine. He teaches English in the Chicagoland area. Twitter: @thelettersjosh