In Exodus1, we are told that God will:
…visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.2
I don’t believe in a God who can take what strikes me as a monstrous action, but I’ve nonetheless believed the essential dynamic to be true for a long time. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment of my dark epiphany to September 1986.
That was when, in large part because of the shattering feeling that I would forever be like my dad3, I made my first (and second-most nearly “successful”) suicide attempt.
I was a month away from my 16th birthday. I’d seen my dad for what would be the last time in early January of that year, when I finally couldn’t take it—couldn’t take him—any longer, and I chose to live permanently with my mom and step-father.
Thanks to a growth spurt over the previous winter, and an affection for lifting weights, I was a nearly six-foot tall4, well-muscled embodiment of anger. I was constantly provoking fights everywhere: at parties, with friends in private, once in the middle of class, again during basketball practice, even in the middle of a game in which, before being ejected, I threw a folding chair at my coach.
That day in September, I was jogging home from school after a minor altercation, and I realized my dad had done this to me. His demands and abuse had taken hold of me and secreted a psychic venom of poisonous, monstrous, generalized rage.
My dad was constantly engaging in fistfights at slights real and imagined. But that modeling was merely a necessary, yet insufficient, act. What made my corruption real—and my own actions seemingly inevitable—were the things he had done to me.
Slapping me hard across the face when, during our first meal together after my choice to live with him permanently5, I started to eat my pizza with a fork and knife.
Punching me for daring to read a book again, just days after he’d torn it from my hands and told me to go outside.
So many blows for not being enough of a man, for not being good enough with my hands, for making the wrong kind of friends6. An exemplar: in eighth grade I was sent home for fighting. My dad seemed proud of my blood-encrusted nose and swollen lip until he learned I’d been saved from worse by a black classmate7, which sent him into a rage ending with a clap across the side of my head and an order to not bother coming home if that kind of thing happened again.
I learned to believe that my anger was right, my might not only right, but just. I believed the most vital part of me was my anger. I mistook my impulsivity for the misshapen honesty of just getting to business.
Over the years, I’ve attributed my breaking point to a fight with—really a beat down at the hands of—my sort-of uncle8 that ended with my dad catching me running down the hill toward my uncle’s cabin and wresting away the shotgun I’d taken from our house, bent on revenge.
But the incident that compressed the white-hot coals of anger into malignant diamonds, the event whose memory and effects I can’t escape, happened the summer before our final parting.
I’d been put in charge of making sure that one of our dogs, who was in heat, didn’t get out of the house9. Of course she escaped. And of course I took my punishment. And of course she eventually had a litter of unwanted puppies attributed to my carelessness.
So my dad and that uncle I hated took me and the cardboard box of mewling, week-old puppies to a cabin—the same cabin where I’d soon hope to shotgun my uncle—where, together, they drank and smoked and laughed while they forced me to kill every puppy but one with a twist of the neck. My dad saved the last one, named him “Lucky”10 on the spot, and gave him to me.
How could that not warp me? How could I not realize my monstrousness after doing such a thing? After not refusing to do such a thing? I can still feel the heat and hearts in my hand, like a bird fluttering in my squeezing fist. I can still feel the breaking bones because I am still breaking.
And this is where the iniquities of the father are visited upon the son. The Exodus quote, I realize now, isn’t about God’s punishment, or even my father’s sins, but a reference to what supposedly happens if we don’t choose differently, if we don’t choose to not perpetuate the sins of our fathers.
Some want to attribute the “punishment” of what we are in the midst of the whirlwind of those sins to God because doing so provides a potential, illusory, escape from a reality too bleak to face: there is no escape.
We can choose differently, as I (eventually) did. I stopped getting in fights. I never laid an angry hand on my children. I was never knowingly cruel to them and only rarely, perhaps unforgivably but rarely, cruel to anyone else. In this way I have, I must believe, actually have saved my children from myself.
But that’s not me. Whether in despair or otherwise in extremis, the truth of me, the iniquity of my father, shows itself. Beyond the years of fighting and otherwise releasing my anger, I remain capable of serious violence and callous brutality. That potential—which sometimes comes so near the surface others can see it11 like a beast just beneath the water—lives in me, feeding the darkness, the black dog, the passenger…whatever you want to call unrelenting depression. That potential is a parasite that can’t be eradicated.
The hope inspired by all of this is that just as the iniquities of the father are visited upon the children, so is the love, that the mechanism of darkness works similarly with light. As Regina Spektor put it in her song “On the Radio”:12
No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
Then try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again
Look at me, a non-believer, quoting from the Bible. This may be the first time I’ve ever done that.↩︎
I’m simplifying here, using “Dad” to refer to my adopted father. My biological father is a different, very short, story that still demands being told separately.↩︎
Actually 5 feet 6.5 inches, my adult height, but our basketball coach always rounded up to 11 inches, a fiction I still maintain with everyone except my son, who actually is over 6 feet.↩︎
A choice I still don’t really understand↩︎
Generally meaning black, effeminate, or gay, and usually referred to by him using terms I don’t even want to write down here.↩︎
Thank you, Sherrod King Skii Ware, even though you wrongly accused me of stealing something from your locker and we never, I don’t think, spoke again.↩︎
My step-mom’s brother.↩︎
Having pets spayed or neutered—taking them to a vet at all—wasn’t a thing for that part of my family.↩︎
An inapt name given that I would soon witness him get run over by a car and try to drag his paralyzed rear legs behind him before I had to put him down. But at least I didn’t have to use my own bare hands.↩︎
Such as when, faced with a situation involving a puppy that was being treated cruelly, I revealed to my wife my willingness to put it down myself if we couldn’t find a way to re-home him.↩︎
On her aptly named album Begin to Hope↩︎
3 thoughts on “The Sins of The Father”
The whole idea of the sins we pass down, and how they came to be haunts me as well, and my stories don’t even begin to approach the white-hot, diamond forming experiences you relate so grippingly here. I mean I have to say, the subject matter is intense, and there is no question I am inclined to look away at several moments, but that is a testament to how brutally honest you are in the telling. This is some extremely powerful narration here, it seems like part of a bigger work that chronicles a struggle that you are not alone in, and I wonder if the words help anchor some sense of connection so hope can spring and all is not lost? What did they say about hope, spring, and eternity? I am not always sure why others write, but I know it helps me when they can communicate their thoughts and emotions as brilliantly as you have here. I don’t know where you are heading with this, but I want to say when we met in Portland you filled me with hope and a sense of searching for what’s next—I’m here for this.
Yeah, this makes me want to look away too. But there’s a truth here that can’t be escaped. I’m sure we all feel this, to more or less a degree, in our own lives.
“But that’s not me.” Nothing more true in the world.
I don’t feel like anything I can think to say will sound right. But what you share shakes me, and moves me, and I think you are a very courageous person, however it may feel at times.