The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
My Father was an Alcoholic, and the Scars Remain
I am still unsurprised when men walk away from me without looking back, exactly the way my dad did, because, deep down, I know that’s what men do.
(Content warning: domestic abuse)
“I was born of violence and dissonance; it was not love that made me.” –1976
My father didn’t come to the hospital to visit when I was born.
It’s not as though he had anything better to do; he had probably been drinking the night before, and he’d probably been drinking his breakfast when they told him that I’d made a less-than-triumphant entrance into the world. (I was a forceps baby, and I had to be yanked out of my mum; it’s almost as though I knew what was waiting for me on the outside, and like a clinging limpet, I simply didn’t want to let go.) He just decided not to bother to come and see me because I was a girl. Despite what science says, it was my mum’s fault that I was a girl, of course. Everything was.
He first held me when I was three months old. I don’t remember anything about that meeting, but there’s a lot about my father that I do remember.
It was not love that made me. I was not born out of it, but out of terror and violence and duty. I was wanted by neither parent; my mother had never wanted to be married, and she had never dreamed of motherhood. She had been forced into marriage in her teens with someone she barely knew, and I was born when she was 17. I was neither planned nor prepared for; I was not dreamed of or wanted; I just was.
I don’t know what my father dreamed of; I cannot ask him. But he must have dreamed of a son.
The “Mostly Upstairs” House
I referred to the house where I lived with my mum and my dad — and, later, my baby sister — as the “mostly upstairs” house. That’s because it was mostly upstairs. Downstairs was where you entered the house, via the front door, into a dank, dark living room that had a green vinyl sofa set, a coffee table and a stereo. I hated the living room because it was downstairs and poorly lit, and because it had a truly terrifying poster of the shark from JAWS on one of the walls. I don’t know whose idea the poster was, but it was probably my dad’s.
Upstairs was where we lived in the “mostly upstairs” house; the landing was also the dining room, with a dining table that seated six; there were also two bedrooms, a large kitchen and pantry, and a balcony where my toys were kept and where Goldie – my father’s goldfish – lived in a little glass bowl. It wasn’t much, but it was home for the first five years of my life.
I learned to read when I was very little; I don’t remember the exact moment when letters became words, and words began to make sense, but I was reading entire books when I was three. I know now that I began reading to escape the world I was living in. It was the world in which I watched my mother get beaten every day; the world in which my father would come home reeking, angry at the world and everything in it; the world in which my mum and I would retreat into my bedroom for safety. We were lucky some days, and not so lucky on others; it was mostly my mum who bore the brunt of my father’s rage; it was my mum he used as his punching bag; it was my mum he screamed and cursed at. I learned to repeat the words my father said until my mother told me never to say them. I learned to get out of my father’s way — because I didn’t one day and he moved me by picking me up by the straps of my romper and flinging me out of the way. I learned that not everybody lived this way.
I began hiding under things; my mum noticed and made me a “tent” of my own into which I could disappear; it was the table with a very long tablecloth around it. Sometimes she forgot I was still there and I would hear her crying, begging; I would hear the thump-thump-thump of my father’s hands on her body. I wanted to save you, mum, but I was too afraid.
Later, after my sister was born, I would carry my sister away to safety. One day, I couldn’t make it to the balcony — my preferred hiding place — and went downstairs to the living room, that dank, dark room with the poster of the shark on the wall. I nearly dropped her down the stairs. I was four and a half. She was nearly one.
“I am worthy only of being left.” –2017
We went to live with my maternal grandparents when I was five. My memories of the day are very clear; my dad disappeared in the morning as he always did, and my mum swung into action. She had been waiting for that moment, and we were packed completely and out of the house in a few hours. I was unsurprised that we were moving out, but I was angry at my mum for refusing to bring Goldie. I still think of that fish sometimes; I wonder what happened to her. I hope my dad remembered to keep feeding her, but he didn’t really remember anything. For years, I used to dream of her body floating in the water upside down and wake up crying. It felt incredibly unfair to me that we got to escape, but Goldie had to stay.
We settled into our new life easily and quickly; my grandparents lived in a sprawling old house with a large garden, a swing and easy access to my great grandmother’s house (she lived next door) via a small garden gate. I frequently disappeared to hang out with my great grandmother, who was bedridden. She always had mint candy, and that’s my overwhelming memory of her. I can’t eat mint candy now without thinking of her.
My mum eventually went back to college in Chennai, leaving us behind with her parents. I wrote her long, newsy letters about my life, to which she replied. She still has those. A part of me knew that she would be back, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been abandoned by both of my parents. Perhaps this was the moment that it began, that lifelong fear of abandonment that still persists to this day. That fear that everyone and everything will eventually leave me. That I am worthy only of being left.
I constantly asked people when my dad was coming to see me, and I fully expected him to. I waited for years for him to show up, even asking once to be taken to see him. My grandfather finally drove me to my dad’s house, and I hopped out of the car and raced to the front door, which was open. I don’t really remember where the panic came from, but I turned around to see my paternal grandmother emerge from a room. As she came towards me, asking me what I was doing there, I was overwhelmed by utter panic. I turned and fled the way I’d come, chasing my grandfather’s car as it drove away. Fortunately he saw me in the rearview mirror and stopped; I opened the door and scrambled inside, and he drove away.
I never asked to see my father again.
My Father, The Lie
“No, my dad is coming.”
“Liar. You don’t have a dad.”
“I have a dad! I have a dad. I have a dad.” –1984
Nobody in school had divorced parents; I was the only one. I tried to explain to classmates why my dad was never there; he never came to parent-teacher meetings; he never came to pick me up from school; he never came to watch me perform. I got tired of explaining that my parents were divorced, and I got tired of feeling different from everyone else, so I made him up.
For a while, my classmates believed me. I said my dad was too busy; he was working when he should have come to pick me up; he was out of town on parent-teacher days; he was sick when I happened to be performing in something. Making up this phantom father brought me a degree of comfort I had never had from my real father; I could make him do all sorts of things, and my stories improved and got more detailed. I made up lavish scenarios in which he would talk to me, hang out with me, and want to know me; my phantom father hugged me when I was having a hard time, and he asked me how school was everyday; he brought me presents; he told me I was his princess.
One day a group of girls harassed me all day long because they wanted to see my father; I had added some details to his person (he wore glasses), and I was boasting about this new shirt he’d bought, when someone challenged me to produce him at school. I kept insisting that I couldn’t just make my father leave work because everyone wanted to see him, but nobody would listen. It soon became a nightmare of epic proportions, and when the leaving bell rang, I tried to escape. But it was no use. A gaggle of girls followed me outside to the car park. I saw the back of a car that looked vaguely like the one my family owned. I could see that there was a man waiting in it. Even as my classmates pursued me, I scurried to the car, yanked the door open, and threw my bag in before climbing into the car and shutting the door. I watched as the girls looked at me in the car for a minute before wandering back inside, and I turned around to look at the driver, who was staring at me with mild concern.
“Wrong car?” he asked.
He was wearing glasses, and he looked like I imagined my dad would look. I shook my head, apologized and grabbed my bag. “Sorry,” I mumbled as I got out of the car. “I thought you were my dad.”
It took all my strength to shut the door and walk away. Actually, I wanted to say, “Will you be my dad?”
But I was eight and I knew better. I knew I couldn’t just ask someone to be my dad.
Looking for my Father Everywhere
“By the way, I might find myself hitting you, and if I do, that’s your fault, and you’re going to have to leave.” –2009
I have never stopped searching for my father. I have never found him.
I found parts of him in the men that I loved when I got older; the men I chose; the men who were never worthy of me. I heard his voice in their voices as they told me that they could never love me; that I was unworthy of them; that I was ugly. I cowered away from men who attacked me with their hands when their voices were no longer enough. I fought for the love of men who would never have lifted a finger for me because I used to be incapable of leaving anyone, because I was afraid that I would then be with no one. I am still unsurprised when men walk away from me without looking back, exactly the way my dad did, because, deep down, I know that’s what men do.
Men hurt you. Then they leave.