Funny, I just finished writing out a reply on a Facebook thread about Chris Brown, the singer who is famously known for having beaten the holy hell out of his girlfriend. My response was greatly about appreciating the art despite knowing the artist is/was a terrible person.
On one hand, if we discounted all art because the artist was a terrible human being, we’d be living in a silent, artless world for the most part. On the other hand, when you have full visual evidence of who that artist was and the wreckage they were a part of, it’s hard to separate the two in your head.
Then I looked down at the date displayed in the lower right hand of my monitor and realized it was my father’s birthday. And, though not an example of an artist, he’s a perfect example of separating the good from the bad about a person, acknowledging both without denying either side.
My father was good to me. He treated me well, he was funny, he made pancakes that were shaped like Mickey Mouse, and he sang silly songs. He drew pictures with me, we played board games, and, when my mother went to BINGO, we baked cakes. He took me fishing, he taught me how to play blackjack, and we spent afternoons watching Bugs Bunny on his days off. I look just like him.
My father was a terrible person. In fact, he was a monster. He physically abused my mother and my siblings. He brutalized my sister, Roxanne. So badly that, one time while she was still in junior high, she was kept home from school for an extended period to heal from the injuries he inflicted upon her face and body, and I’m mostly certain that my father is responsible for her early death at the hands of drugs and alcohol, her preferred method of escapism.
My brother, Craig, in a rare, candid moment years ago when we were out for our birthdays, told me in great detail about how he was treated by our father, also beaten regularly, and that all he wanted was his approval, which he never got. And, after he came out of his coma after his accident a not long ago, he had several episodes of “recollection,” pure, grief-drenched breakdowns about our father.
The youngest of my three siblings got the least of it, due to being the established “baby” for so long before I came along later on down the road, but one of my first vivid memories from when I was about 2, making my sister probably just shy of 17, was of our father beating the crap out of her for back-talking him. As he went on his rage-fueled attack, my mother shuttled me out of the room and hid me in our bathroom.
He never touched me, not in anger anyway. I know now, of course, that there were “reasons” for this. I came along later in his life. My siblings were mostly grown, I was the “new baby,” he was retired from the service, and he was a different animal than he had been for their childhoods. My siblings moved out as early as they could, and my mother seemed to be the only target he needed.
My father was a monster, but he was the sweetest monster to me before he died.
I have guilt over that, which of course is silly because there’s not one thing I did to “cause” his abusive behavior, and there wasn’t anything I could have done to change it. I have three broken siblings: One who has spent all of his life ‘acting out’, one who killed herself with her ‘acting out’, and one who has ‘acted out’, but in a lesser severity, and has protected herself by putting our father on a pedestal. This used to really piss me off, but it doesn’t any longer as I know it’s purely self-preservation and the only method of such she was capable of utilizing.
I have a mother who, despite any positive experiences I’ve conveyed to her from my personal, lived experience, is still convinced that all that exists are monsters. That’s all she’s seen in her lived experience.
I actually feel very fortunate to stand where I stand. I don’t put him on a pedestal; quite the opposite. I do not think about him without thinking of the damage he caused. I can’t. I can’t look at January 26th on my calendar and not think of my mother’s face when he beat her. I can’t hear his name without thinking of what he did to my sisters and brother. I listen to my mother make statements on a very regular basis that make it clear that she spent her entire life living with monsters.
But, at the same time, I can’t forget how he treated me. He was my father, and, for the 10 years he was in my life, I was lucky. I wish my siblings had grown up with that guy. I also feel lucky that I “see him” for who he was. It has armed me with a sense of self. Living with a monster made me, in part, who I am and gave me the ability actually see the monster and the saint without denying either.
So, I guess I can thank him for that, yes? And, as I say every year on January 26th, out loud and to an empty room:
Happy Birthday Dad.