My father spent half my childhood in jail. But it took me a long time to cut him off.
Content Warning: Sexual Violence
by Denarii Monroe
When I was 11, my father was relatively fresh out of prison, and I had recently written a song called “I Can.”
Thinkin’ ‘bout my future, all I want it to be.
Gettin’ my education, gettin’ my college degree.
He’s a life-long singer and musician; he can play the piano and guitar. He’s recorded albums — although, like most indie artists, most people don’t know his name. He’s an ordained minister and has multiple degrees.
He was really proud that I seemed to be following in his footsteps and he liked the song.
He is my father and, when I was about two years old, he was convicted on multiple counts of rape of minors.
When I saw him again, he’d written his own version of my song. It sounded very … old. He was born in 1946.
I already had pretty eclectic taste in music at that age — The Beach Boys and Metallica, The Backstreet Boys, Brandy, and Michael Jackson — but I wasn’t a fan of my dad’s music. I don’t recall whether or not I told him that at the time.
It took me years to appreciate the sound; now I like his version just as much as I like mine.
By the time he was released, my mom, brother and I had already moved out of my childhood home. My parents were still legally married, though long separated: by his sentence, by the time that had passed, by his crimes.
I remember receiving birthday cards.
I remember visiting him in prison.
I remember hearing his voice on the phone. He moved to New York from North Carolina at about the age of 17, but his Southern accent held on.
There’s a gap of a few years where I don’t remember seeing him at all. If I recall correctly, he re-entered my life at some point when I was in high school.
He met my high school choir director and some classmates, all of whom found him amusing (and still do). For my younger brother’s 16th birthday, my father bought him a five-foot-tall blue bunny. You read that right.
He attended my graduation and caught the kiss that I blew into the audience. It was intended for my mother. She and I still chuckle about that.
That summer, before I went off to Rutgers University, he took me to see Destiny’s Child in concert — one of those Good Morning America summer concerts in New York.
He still lived in my childhood home and, because we had to be up super early to get there, it made more sense for me to spend the night with him. Alone.
My mom asked if I was sure I wanted to go. I kinda wonder if maybe she wasn’t so sure, but I was fine with it. We had a good time, though I recall him low-key questioning the authenticity of Michelle Williams’ Christianity.
It’s supremely difficult to escape the kind of scandal that results from the arrest and conviction of a minister and community member for such heinous crimes — against children no less. I was too young to remember the initial experience, but we didn’t leave our neighborhood until I was about 10 and a half.
For the most part, I had great experiences with our neighbors. I have fond memories of playing with the many children in our Queens neighborhood, most of whom I considered good friends, most of whom were Black like me. We played myriad variations on tag: freeze tag, TV tag (that was always fun), boys vs. girls tag. Then there was jump rope, double dutch and various others that my mind won’t let me remember all these years later.
But I also remember the looks we would sometimes get from adults who had a much better grasp of the gravity of my father’s crimes than I ever could have at that age. Not that we deserved scorn for the consequences of his evil deeds.
I knew that jail was a “bad” place and that my father had done a “bad” thing to deserve being there, but not fully understanding the context just contributed to my confusion.
When he was initially released, I don’t recall really feeling anything other than general indifference. He hadn’t been around and I don’t think I ever felt like I was missing anything.
Then I entered my teen years and suddenly I began to long for something, for what society told me I was missing. I imagined myself at his home, my childhood home, engaging in domestic activities, helping him around the house. That fantasy brought me a lot of joy and hope. There was a sense of completeness, even if we weren’t a traditional nuclear family, especially after my parents finally divorced.
But when he re-entered my life, that fantasy was broken.
He was … odd, a “corn ball” as we used to say in middle school. To this day, I’m not really sure how to put it into words.
It just didn’t work for me. But there was still a part of me that longed for that fantasy. The golden sun shining brightly as I prepared dinner in our spotless kitchen.
Eventually, his insistence on seeking me out — almost an obsession — drove me away, though I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I don’t think I fully understood it myself.
By the time I attended my college graduation, I just couldn’t shake this feeling. Before heading to the College Avenue Campus green, where chairs were set up for us to receive blank pieces of paper symbolic of our diplomas (which I wouldn’t actually receive for another two years), he talked to me in my dorm room.
He didn’t understand, once again, why I wouldn’t speak to him, why I wasn’t answering his calls. He went on, as usual, about family, about how, of his four children, he always believed I’d be the one to stick around. I was special.
It wasn’t a conscious decision at first, but I haven’t spoken to him since, except for the few times when I’m forced to share space with him, like my brother’s wedding and niece’s christening. It’s always awkward for me and he always gives the same spiel. You daughter. Me father. We family. Me make mistakes. You move on. Me forgiven by Jesus. You no communicate. Me don’t understand.
Maybe it means something that in those fantasies, I was always alone.
Denarii (rhymes with “canary”) is an aspiring screenwriter and freelance writer who’s written for BlogHer, Black Girl Dangerous, Ravishly, and Everyday Feminism. Follow her on Facebook and find her on Twitter and Instagram.