You discover in your 60th year that your father was a molester, had been molested himself. By his father.
Suppose you discover that your grandfather, whom you never knew, was not only a molester but most likely had been molested too.
By his adopted father.
Suppose you learn all this over conversation with your cousin whom you barely knew growing up, being 19 years older than you.
Suppose he asks you if your father had ever hurt you, as you sit at his kitchen table drinking coffee looking out over DC at the sunset-lit horizon through leafless trees. A city with all its history that you love so much.
Suppose you tell him about the two times your father took his belt to you one for sure, but two you think. Leaving welts on your bare six-year-old legs, whippings you haven’t thought of for 50 years, now a vivid 50-year memory. Well stored like preserves in the back of the pantry.
Those words canning/caning practically cousins themselves…
But you can tell as your cousin carefully, thoughtfully stirs his black coffee and watches you that belt whippings are not what he has in mind.
And you’re wondering at that moment over coffee as a 60-year-old man, as a writer, as a teacher, as a father yourself looking back at your 6-year-old, 7-year-old self, what kind of person does that to a kid? What kind of grownup takes a belt to a young child’s bare legs?
Suppose you’re about to find out as your cousin, 6 years younger than your father, tells you that your father molested him, and his sister, one summer when he stayed at their house… stayed, to get away from his own monster dad.
Suppose you’d heard the stories about your dad living with them—but a far different version—how the kids in Española had mercilessly teased him about the name you both would share, calling him Gallo, rooster. One thing your dad could never stand was being embarrassed. Humiliated. Poor man’s pride starts young.
So, he’d left Española at 15, for the summer or so you’d been told, to live with relatives in California, to get away from the gang for a while, and when he returned home hoping for a fresh start, he began going by his middle name, a name you also share being a Jr., but despised.
Suppose you don’t consider yourself a junior. They’d always called you Chip.
But you were no chip off the old block, were you? And if you were an apple, you fell and rolled far away from the tree. Fell and kept rolling.
You are 60 years old now and suddenly your world is rocked and everything you thought you knew, everyone you thought you loved, every poem you ever wrote every story of him you ever put down had another side waiting in the shadows.
You call your one remaining sister. And ask her. No, she assures.
You exhale, and so you tell her what you’ve learned.
You both remember how your older sister spoke ominously of your father’s brother, Uncle Herm, nothing specific but an unmistakable fear, hint of shudder to her tone that you both recall, a pushing away from memory’s table: a warning to never leave your kids. Alone. With Herm.
So close to Harm.
You learn all this in what you hope, is the 3rd quarter of your life…though 63 is the expiration date of those in your family who went before you, the common denominator in your genes. And now, what are you supposed to do with this? Your father, your mother, your older sis…long gone.
Your cousin, 81, is now writing a novel. His first. You offer to help. Because it’s what you do. Because you like your cousin, because you want to help.
Because you feel helpless and can only fall back on what you do best, craft.
Penance? Is that what this is, you wonder, for despicable actions your dead father committed as a teen? So you read. And it’s a story about a distant grandfather five generations back who joins a religious cult led by a charismatic, dogma-filled snake oil salesman, a fake miracle man who collects wives, who attracts crowds, who gathers allies to collaborate in lethal charades. Whose followers ignore the outrageous, the obscene, the barbarous acts of this leader.
Because they want to believe.
And so they do.
He becomes their portal to God, to pleasure and bliss. No matter what he does.
Because he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. The art of the deal with the devil. You read vivid, harsh realistic rape scenes—raping of women, raping of young boys at revivals in the dark.
You try to edit for grammar. Sentence construction. Tense changes. Verb agreement. Point of view. Editing never your strong suit. Editing tolerated as necessary carpentry. Editing safe now. Safe as the side of the pool in the deep end where you never swam. Suppose all you can imagine, as you read these evocative horrible scenes is your father doing this to your cousin and his sister. And having it done to him.
And his father before him…
Grammar seems beside the point. Same with point of view. Verb agreement.
Spelling. Past tense becomes the story of your life.
You wonder about your own DNA. What shadows did you inherit?
What horrible tendencies course through your blood?
When you’re done reading your cousin’s story, all you can say is: Powerful. Moving. Brilliant. An extraordinary novel. First novel, or otherwise.
It came from somewhere deep.
Because it’s true. And thank you. And…I am so sorry. So so sorry.
Because that too, is true.
You wonder how a family doesn’t talk about this…as if secrets untold meant they did not happen. You’ve heard it happens in many families. But you think, we’re not many families. This is/was my family. The way a doctor might say you have a rare disease. The way nothing seems rare when it happens to you.
You wonder what you are supposed to do with all of this, knowing it’s all true, especially the fiction. Once in class the question of truth arose when a new writer said she never wrote fiction because she didn’t like to lie. And you quoted Fellini: “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
You wonder, you wonder, you wonder. As you write, you wonder.
As you talk with your cousin who has forgiven your father, you wonder.
You realize it’s all you can do—wonder—because fiction has taught you how to navigate with uncertainty, surprise, and disbelief on the page as you move forward with your clock-ticking life and this new knowledge.
As you put the pictures of your father away, you wonder about the abuse he suffered as a boy, you wonder what kind of people do this to others.
And you wonder what kind of people rise up and stop the cycle, circle, spiral, horror, and pain.
Watching a sunset 3,000 miles from home, majestic colors of a vanishing sky, you think of the distance craft allows from your history, the chance to create something new from the ashes and ruins and monstrosities of the past, changing the arc, altering the endings of stories still in progress, finding new places to land.
But what kind of people can forgive, how is it even possible, you wonder, as you quietly sip coffee across the kitchen table from your cousin, new old friends, alone with your thoughts, your shared history, your lessons lived and learned.
And at last you know.