I first heard about my father’s death seven months after his passing, when a notice from a court landed in my mailbox. I opened the letter and saw the words, “To Persons Interested in the Above Estate.”
When I called to ask for more information, the clerk said the death certificate had been impounded, rendering it unavailable to the public. But I wasn’t the public — I was his daughter.
The clerk explained the letter was simply the legal obligation of the surrogate’s court. Nothing needed my attention, the clerk said, unless I wanted to challenge the legitimacy of my father’s will, a publicly filed document that I could access online. In it, my father left everything to his second ex-wife, re-termed as his domestic partner, and further stated, “I specifically, intentionally, and with full knowledge fail to provide for...” and listed my name and my brother’s name. A few paragraphs later, my father noted what should be done in the event all preferred beneficiary choices were deceased: Even then, we were to be excluded.
I was that terrible of a daughter.
A Google search turned up nothing about his death. There was no funeral announcement or obituary, uncharacteristic of the six-figure-salaried vice-presidential salesman my father once was.
Publicly, my father presented as a kind, generous, charismatic man, a person of wit and intelligence. Privately, he imposed his will over others. He abused my mother throughout their almost 25 years of marriage (before divorcing her), threatening her into silence and compliance. Decades later, when she was dying of cancer, she asked me not to print an obituary, because she was afraid my father would see it, show up at her funeral, and harm her beyond the grave.
When I was 12, my father cut off my mother’s access to their checking account. She told me I’d have to ask him to give her money to pay for my school supplies. I sat beside him in front of the mahogany bureau in my parents’ bedroom, where the checkbooks were located. As I stared at the scratched gold-colored handle of the closed drawer, my father bent forward, leaning his arms across his thighs and folding his hands between his knees. He said he’d dispense the funds, but I had to give him something in exchange. I agreed.
When I felt uncomfortable with his hands and eyes wandering to certain areas of my body, he tried to talk me into thinking that what I was experiencing wasn’t reality: “If you love me, you’ll see it my way.”
I loved him.
If the shoe fit, my father was a sociopath.
According to Dr. Martha Stout, sociopaths make up about 4% of the population. In her book, “The Sociopath Next Door,” Stout describes sociopaths as individuals who do not have a conscience: “It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad. It is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. ... Sociopaths, people with no intervening sense of obligation based in attachments to others, typically devote their lives to interpersonal games, to ‘winning,’ to domination for the sake of domination.”
Stout states that sociopaths aren’t capable of real love: “Clinicians and researchers have remarked that sociopaths can ‘know the words but not the music.’”
How does a daughter love a sociopathic father? In her dreams.
I dreamed my father was a good, loving person. He didn’t really mean to hurt me. He always said he was joking.
Every year, on the road to our family vacations on the east end of Long Island, he accelerated the car through steep hills, as if we were at the beach, riding the waves. With each tarred drop, my stomach fell. I felt sick and mad and scared. I saw my father’s eyes on me in the rearview mirror. I asked him to stop driving so fast. He laughed and said, “Beg me.” I did but he didn’t stop, not until I cried.
As a girl, when I asked for a puppy, my father said we couldn’t have one because he was allergic. I kept asking but the answer remained: no. As consolation, he offered to be my dog. He got down on all fours and acted like a dog, barking and panting. I was enamored and enthralled until he pushed me over and lowered his body onto me. There was no escaping. His eyes caught mine: I was his prey.
As a young adult, diagnosed with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, coping with nightmares and memories, self-isolation, and struggles with dating, intimacy and disordered eating, I confronted my father. He replied, “I didn’t do anything you didn’t like. Telling a father that he sexually abused you is like sticking a knife in his chest.”
He wrote me a long letter delineating his logic, citing “false memory syndrome,” a debunked pseudoscience.
I didn’t want to believe my father was bad, but I knew he wasn’t good for me and that not accepting the truth was corrosive. I told him to never contact me again. A few months later, he sent me a birthday card with a check. I brought the card and check to the post office and asked them to “return to sender.” I left the post office crying, because I desperately needed the money ― and a father.
For several years, I grieved the loss of my father, or so I thought, if there ever was a father to lose.
When I was in my early 40s, my father sent a Rosh Hashanah card, asking me to end our estrangement. I didn’t respond. He sent another card a few months later, on my birthday. I burned it in my kitchen sink.
I told my aunt, who wasn’t my biological relative but was better than one. She’d met my father when they were both 14 and introduced him to her best friend, the girl who’d become my mother. My aunt and my father hadn’t spoken in decades. Now, my aunt called my father and told him that she knew everything he’d done to my mother and me and if he tried to contact me again, she’d go to the police. For the first time in my life, my father was speechless. A few days later, he had a debilitating stroke, from which he eventually recovered.
My father warded off the will of death more than once in his life. When I was 26, he was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to his brain. He told me he saw the Grim Reaper at his door in the hospital: “You know, with the hood and the scythe?” he said over the phone. “He just stood there, and then he left.” My father underwent treatment that cured his cancer. More than 10 years later, he went into cardiac arrest in a convenience store and survived that, too.
My father was hard to kill.
Now, he was actually dead, and I wasn’t sure how to feel. My emotions were incompatible: relief, joy — he couldn’t hurt me, or anyone, anymore — freedom, sadness. The father I’d once dreamed of was gone. Then I felt nothing but numbness.
A couple of weeks later, the numbness wore off in a dream in which I was attending my father’s funeral. The service was taking place at the synagogue we’d attended regularly as a family when I was growing up. I arrived, understanding I was there to deliver a eulogy. Amid a crowd of people, I felt alone. I knew no one, and no one acknowledged me, as if I wasn’t my father’s daughter. In truth, I was no longer her: the daughter who loved a fraud, the daughter who lacked self-worth, who was terrified of life, of joy, of men, of dogs, of being seen. My father had torn me down, but through years of therapy, I’d rebuilt myself. In the funeral dream, I felt the death of the good father I’d borne in my heart in order to survive. Sorrow enveloped me.
The letter from the court hadn’t brought me closure in the sense of a resolution, but it had brought an ending.
My father’s will, the court-filed document, wasn’t a dagger but a gift of clarity: He punished those who refused him. He showed the world who he really was. His inner will, the one that had ruled my childhood, no longer had power over my life.
When I first read the court’s letter in my building lobby, for a few moments I was unable to collect my thoughts or my motor skills enough to walk to the elevator. Standing beside me was my first-ever dog, a rescue, a yellow lab mix who had an anxiety disorder caused by a trauma history. As I held the letter in my hand, my dog looked at me steadily, embodying an air of unexpected calm. His gaze was so different from my father’s. My dog’s eyes emanated comfort and safety, and a wisdom that seemed to transcend barriers of communication, time and space. I wasn’t alone. All at once, I felt he knew my past, what was in the letter, what I was feeling. I felt he understood everything.
There was love.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Tracy Strauss the author of the narrative nonfiction book “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life.” Former essays editor of The Rumpus, her writing has appeared in Glamour, Oprah Magazine, New York Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Ms., among other publications. She currently teaches writing at Harvard University and is writing a memoir about her rescue dog, Beau. When she isn’t moonlighting as a Zumba instructor, you can find her on Instagram at @pawfessorbeauandco, on Twitter at @TracyS_Writer and on Facebook at facebook.com/TracyStraussAuthor.