27 May 2009

Mind-body resonance: The opposite of cognitive dissonance

It occurs to me that I don't know whose idea it was to live in the town where we landed after the blitz of losing my sister 40 years ago, just before I turned six. We had left California within days of her death for Colorado, to settle in the liberal enclave of Boulder, which would be better than the cowtown that Denver was in the 1970s since the Beats had all hightailed it for the coasts. Now I see the wisdom of it. I see it could be in part my father's way of handing down something he was himself given even though the values he espouses have always tended to involve total freedom from the strictures of money and status. His gift, the gift of growing up in a safe and secure enclave, a place where I could - and did - sink roots, came at no personal cost to him, an added benefit in his eyes I am certain.

But growing up in idyllic places didn't necessarily shelter me from the evils of the world. I lost a sister and a substantial portion of my innocence to the brutality that plagued us from His Favorite Chair throughout my childhood in my laid-back college town. The times I tried to bring my grievances to the perpetrator of this violence in my life, he's pulled a Ronnie Reagan on me and disclaimed any memory of alleged events. He's never seemed particularly contrite or sorry about not knowing how to parent and not trying hard to do it when he had the chance. In recent years he has asked me to paper over all that – what he calls forgive – but I haven't felt the love that would inspire me to forgive. That's what it comes down to. I've felt the obligation conferred by family roles, but I have not felt a deep and unconditional love for who I have been and who I have become, nor for how I have chosen to live my life.

Also, I can't ignore the din of that weird and constant superliminal tallying, his continuous attempt to leverage as much influence as possible so as to claim you on his list of Friends I Drop In On When In Town (FIDIOWITs).

Thing is, you might be surprised at two things about him: the steadfastness of the FIDIOWITs who will see him year in and year out, who will let him sleep in their guest rooms and allow him to commandeer their kitchens to make coffee with great ceremony at various times of the day; you might also raise your eyebrows at the high turnover rate among his FIDIOWITS, as some recognize a certain modus operandi and turn away from its strange fascination.

Many a friend of mine has laughed at me when I yearned for coffee on the sluggish slope of an afternoon, but those times are also when I also recall my father’s rhythms – inevitably accompanied by memories of how he imposed his cycle upon everyone else. On one infamous rafting trip a few years ago, my father stripped to nothing in the middle of camp and proceeded to set a skillet on a stove and roast and hand-grind his coffee beans, then boil water and drip a pot of fresh coffee. I had stopped going rafting with him years earlier, when I'd realized I never again wanted to be dependent on him, especially in a car with him at the wheel. (If you’re going on rafting trips, there are always shuttles involved, and so it’s usually unavoidable to share cars a couple of times during the trip.) It helps that my dear husband is shy of whitewater rafting, too, so I figure we may as well all heed those instincts. With every passing year, I feel less of a need to pursue great risks for exciting payoffs, as I feel more invested in my life and loves. (And my acquisition of mountain biking skills in the past five years has suffered grievously as a result.)

To my sister, my father called my adamant feelings toward him a "grudge." There's a kernel of truth there: No, I haven't let go of everything. Especially not if letting go means pretending nothing ever happened. I haven't let go if letting go means ignoring all the scars, those dense, fibrous barriers that exist between us even now.

I'm still pissed off about some of this ancient history to call him "my birthfather" when I talk about him. One of the reasons for the endurance of this anger is the deprivation his presence imposed on the rest of us when I was growing up. There's a long backstory, but he didn't exactly fulfill the potential his parents saw for him (another detail that makes the Gilmore Girls' story familiar, except theirs is ultimately secure, funny, and loving instead of chaotic, violent, and disturbing). So much of the time he seemed to resent us, his family, for holding him back personally and financially. He has been squirrelly about money as far back as I can remember. My mother had to beg him for enough money for the absolute basics to run the household; he used every ounce of his power to persuade her that she should not have a job of her own.

The sure signs of the prism through which he saw the world were the first accusations he hurled at others from drunken lips, just after that slam of the glass of whiskey onto the table signifying the moment his inner alcoholic stew had roiled to a sputter and fume, spilling over its pot. Deceitful! Secretive! Selfish! he would cry, lashing out while we women and children ran for cover. Hours later it would be like sifting through the wreckage at a battlefield, however subtle the revelations of the landscape. We were always on high alert as we scanned for broken things or worse, bruised or broken people. We didn't know who would come back to the house and the chair in the living room and the dinner table and the whiskey bottle that night or the next, whether that man would be angry or contrite, whether the wounds inflicted this time would be visible damage to a face or emotional lacerations. At any given time the odds always seemed about equal, with one option appearing far worse and more potentially destructive than the other.

And everyone wondered why I was falling asleep in my classes after lunch all through junior high and high school. I was finally relaxing a little by then every day, catching up on my rest before I had to steel myself once again to face home.

I find it odd now that our father now appears to think we as his children are interested in what he has, when to me it's only stuff. He has nothing that I feel belongs to me. It feels a bit ironic, though, in that he always accused his father of attaching strings to every gift, requiring hoops to be jumped or barrels cleared for every contribution he was expected to put up for school or anything else. Now my father seems to be grasping for that power himself, but I see him coming up empty-handed again and again, his hooks still baited.

We might have gone on being tolerant of one another for years but I threw the wrench into the works a couple of years back when I realized I did not trust him not to say or do something offensive around me or my child. I told him that his fundamental disrespect for women was incompatible with how I am raising my kid. Nothing I see or hear about him convinces me that has really changed in this respect (or disrespect, as the case may be). And there's the he's-doing-his-best-with-his-limited-set-of-tools argument, but even that's worn awfully thin. I see how far my mother and I have come in our adult lives, and I know many more who have risen above or gone beyond their family's or even their own expectations for themselves and made themselves better and more loving people.

For me, another evening spent propping up a myth of family closeness indicated by the time spent sitting through another recital of a many-times-told travel anecdote is not enough. I deserve more than that from my friends, and I give more of that to my friends.

Furthermore, I don't see an obligation to take care of him someday no matter what simply by virtue of his being my elder. He spent so much of his life trying to disclaim responsibility for me as quickly as he could that I feel not allowing him close enough to me to treat me in that way again is a justifiable and proportional reaction.

The great news from this side of the familial divide: refusing to engage and "forgive" doesn't mean I need to act any differently from how I truly feel. I continue to feel that honoring my own truths has been among the most healing things I have ever done. I give myself a nice pat on the back for this. Thanks, me.

22 May 2009


What a relief. I got a call from the Boulder Police officer last night and she told me that the driver in question is no longer driving that bus. Yesterday was much better then the few days that preceded it. It was traumatic but appears to be over.

I don't know why he is no longer driving that route.

I am very pleased with how seriously this was taken. The last thing the police officer on the case told me, besides the case number, was that the police would be showing the information they had gathered to the DA's office so a decision could be made about whether to pursue harassment charges.

The most difficult part of this experience, besides being forced to think about the worst that can happen, which no one really wants to do, was that as soon as all these questions came up about his behavior with the kids, I wanted action.

And truly, this was pretty fast action, considering all the "We have to go through proper channels"es I heard. It makes me wonder: did the police find anything questionable in his record, something the background check didn't catch? Did he quit? Is he driving somewhere else? Many questions and speculations remain, but I'm glad my daughter and the other kids on that bus don't have to worry about those bus rides home.

And I'm glad she told me how she felt. It meant she had hope in her mind that I could help her solve this problem. I think she was surprised and pleased at how seriously I took it. Our actions formed a circle of trust in each other and ourselves, and in others, too. She took risks in telling me, but I took her discomfort seriously. I took a lot upon myself (confronting the driver directly first, and then talking with the principal), but I also quickly saw that I couldn't decide what was legal and how he should be dealt with and needed help from people who were trained and skilled in that.

The kids are always learning about community in their school lessons, but between the freaky bus driver experience and the past two days of harvest/salad feast/second plantings, this week was positively jammed with real-life lessons in community and relying on one another.

Now I feel like I'd like to sleep for a week.

19 May 2009

But you don't have to, and she knows it

Talked to the principal again and called the bus driver's boss today. He said the drivers are subjected to intensive background checks, as I expected, and, "We have to go through our proper channels." The first step, he said, was for him to talk with the driver about the behavior.

Meanwhile, I'm writing all this down, and putting it in a letter.

Today my kid just told me this same bus driver had asked her a few months ago to say something into his phone when it was in recording mode about the other kid he'd paired my kid with, so he could play it back when the other kid got on the bus. She told him, "I'm not going to do that." "But you have to," the driver told her. "No, I'm not going to do that," she said.

She also told me more details about how his seat-blocking game works. Pairs of kids can get to the first two seats, but he blocks the rest of the seats by lying across the second row of seats, while he plays with his iPhone. (Is he taking pictures of them?) So kids who have buddies sit up front, and anyone who wants to sit alone in the back of the bus has to wait for him to clear the way.

See how he isolates kids and creates uncomfortable situations for them? This is predator behavior, friends. This is not someone who cares for children.

18 May 2009

The momentum of ideas

This is what serendipity feels like. It's been so interesting to write my own truths, at last, without wondering what others will think or do if I say the things I remember out loud. And the effects of this experience are traveling like waves and creating actions in other places.

A dear friend said to me, "This is a watershed moment. You'll remember time as before and after this event." So far this is the truth of it.

The little one and I were reading Little House stories the other night and Nellie Oleson's lawlessness sparked a memory for her. My ears had been pricking up lately at her reports about her bus driver. Now she was wishing out loud she wouldn't have the same bus driver anymore. I noticed I had been picking her up more lately.

"He keeps saying stuff to me and to [the other kid], about are we each other's boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't like it."

"You're right," I agreed. "I don't like it either."

She then started telling me what her bus driver had been doing.

I said, "I'll go talk to him on Monday. I will pick you up at school, and I will talk with him after school."

After school, I met my child at her classroom and came back out to where her bus had pulled in, the last one, at the end of the bus circle. I stepped onto the bus and told him my daughter had said he had said some things about her and another kid that were making her feel uncomfortable.

Sitting back and affecting a relaxed slump, he smiled and said, "Oh, I think there's a misunderstanding. That wasn't it at all. This was just something the kids had started playing at, and I was just keeping it going." Winking a little, like he was in on their joke, their buddy, you know.

"OK," I said, in a neutral way (that I learned from watching the show Sports Night and that really means "OK, sure, you believe that, but no, I do not"). I looked him in the eye and told him that I had once had issues with that kid and I absolutely do not want anyone encouraging him in that direction.

"I think you're misunderstanding what happened," he insisted. "This was just a game that the kids had started playing."

Out of the corner of my eye while I was in this scene, I was also observing what my kid was doing. Initially, she had shyly stepped back, away from the intensity of the confrontation. But she stepped in closer and kind of perked up when he started to reiterate that "the kids had started it." This time he looked right at her when he said it.

I felt like the wizened old woman of the fairy tale, the questing hero groveling before her after having come up with the wrong answer. Only he wasn't groveling at all. He was saying, "I'm right. Believe me."

I didn't think my kid was having any of it either.

It was when he showed zero contrition that my hackles went up. I saw no mutual desire to protect our youth from the inevitable but a-little-longer-delayable confusion of hormones and desire and misinformation in equal measures.

"They're little kids," I insisted to the driver. "That kind of talk is inappropriate, and makes them uncomfortable."

He protested a little more, but I made sure I got the final word: "I don't want anyone to encourage any more of that inappropriate talk." He smiled and nodded. I left with my child, who will not ride the bus with that driver again.

"What he said wasn't true," my kid told me as soon as we had walked away from the bus. "The kids didn't start that game. The bus driver was saying that stuff. We weren't saying it." People, kids included, know when they are being lied to.

It kept on rolling forward, this little train we set in motion. We went home, after I'd left a note for my kid's principal to call me. He reached me half an hour later and I told him what I had just said to the bus driver.

"Who's the adult here?" he asked immediately. "Exactly," I said, glad he saw the problem as I did. He apologized for not always being out at the bus circle to see the kids off at the end of the day, and he assured me that he will talk to that driver tomorrow.

After this, my kid and I were both feeling good. Then I said, "I really do want to talk to the mom of the other kid the driver had been teasing along with you. I'd think she'd want to protect him just as much as I want to protect you. I want to protect him as much as I want to protect you."

"Okay," she said, totally game. "It feels really good to do this," she added, as we hatched our plan to talk to other parents of kids who ride that bus.

I felt the same way. I had taken my complaint to the instigator first but had not been heard. My kid noticed it too, saying, "I don't think he was really listening to you." (Some of that was going both ways by the end of that confrontation, wasn't it?) Now I had to work my way up the chains that connect him to these children.

We knocked on the doors where the kids live who ride the same bus. We surprised everyone with our story, but everyone to a person exhibited the proper disgust and outrage at the behaviors we described. One kid said she felt the driver had singled her out for teasing "a few times," too. I felt bad for my timing with a fellow mom who was in the eye of a hurricane of houseguests and activities, but she was concerned and said she'd definitely call me in the morning if she couldn't call back tonight.

After I had dropped a one-minute rundown of the situation as we saw it on hurricane mom, the other child whom the driver had targeted in his little "game" came up to me, looked me right in the eye, and said, enunciating every word: "I know exactly what you are talking about."

"Thanks for telling me that. I really appreciate it." I told him warmly, meaning every word.

I was bursting with pride by then, in every one of us. I told another neighbor mom, who was just as disturbed as I but added that her kids wouldn't be affected after this year because they were changing schools anyway and they'd be carpooling. I told her I told my kid she doesn't have to ride this bus ever again. I think she was chewing on that when we walked back home.

The details kept rolling in. The puzzle pieces weren't creating a picture I relished seeing, but it was one clear picture nonetheless. My little one remembered how the driver would act nice to her and say she looked cute, but she didn't feel like he meant it. She said sometimes he would "lie down across the seats" and block a kid from getting to the seats in the back "until it's time for me to drive the bus," he'd say.

She had started feeling anxious about having to ride the bus home, and they are only on the bus for about two minutes. She told me the driver never teased them during the times they were parked on the bus circle with the doors open, when a grown-up might hear him, or when they were getting off the bus where we awaited them at the park. "He always says things when we're driving." During the two-minute ride.

Now I think back to when I came down hard on a neighbor's kid for teasing my kid a certain way and I'm sad that the solution I advocated to her was to "sit up front near the bus driver." Ugh. This is a moment when parenting flat out hurts.

But I have been praising her to the skies lately for being so brave, for trusting her feelings and instincts, and for telling me what she needed me to know so I could protect her. And I didn't give her any special reward (unless you count the popsicle in the afternoon and the ice cream dessert -- it was hot today!). But I didn't associate the sweets with the events of the day. I wanted all that good feeling about doing the right thing and protecting our friends to be its own reward, and I felt like a good, strong mama for that, too.

Of course I also felt a little sorrow at my own loss, at the fact that I didn't always have someone who knew better in my court when it counted. That my mother didn't have anyone in her court either, until she started to see what was right and wrong and aligned with people who had her best interests at heart for the first time in her life. My mother still apologizes to me for what she could not possibly have learned from her own emotionally challenged parents nor my messed-up cookie of a father.

It is great to be all the mama bear I have become, though. I see so much value in protecting my little kid and letting her be little as long as she wants to stretch that out, because there's no going backward once you've left the land of little-kiddom. I see no reason to force her to watch scary, violent films early in her life, nor to make her aware of stuff she can't even conceive of yet. With my own experience and hindsight, I see no value in making her cross lines like these before she's ready, willing, and able. Before it's all about her choices.

One of the reasons I knew she was telling the truth, I told her, was that none of this was coming from her. She's not going around making eyes at the other kid, and the other kid's not doing any of this in her direction (and in fact has said he likes her as a friend). This is why I found it so inappropriate and disturbing that the bus driver was projecting this onto them. During their two-minute ride home. (That's the detail I'm choking on at the moment. Those seem to come in waves.)

Standard disclaimer: This all happened today; other events recounted occurred within the last two weeks. I stand by every detail. I can verify times, calls made and received, verbal exchanges, etc. My daughter's story hasn't changed since she has started telling it to me. (I told her she was a good detective. She's done a fantastic thing in recalling exactly what it was about him that made her feel uncomfortable.)

Tomorrow: Taking it Upstairs

14 May 2009

Be decisive with an egg

Thought of a good memory today: I was cooking an egg, something I learned to do early in my life. But I must have been dithering somehow, because my father passed along a bit of advice. "Be decisive with eggs." It was good, timely advice he had once been given, and it helped me become a better cook of eggs and many other dishes. Many people's advice and skills contributed to my learning the skills that have turned out to be the among the most important skills, but that advice has helped me many times over.

You do know why this is a skill worth an extra mention, right? If you need to flip a pair of fried eggs, you'll have a better chance of leaving the yolks unbroken if a) you use good, fresh eggs, and b) you firmly and quickly slide your spatula under the eggs and turn them gently in your well oiled and well heated pan. You have commit to cooking your egg because it does not take much time to cook an egg.

Heated olive oil and butter at 7 on the stove dial, untill the butter foams, then the foam begins to subside. You may need to reduce the heat. Cook the egg until it is a little softer than you prefer, for it will keep cooking for another minute or two after you remove it from the heat.

09 May 2009

More on my little sociopath*

Once I had labeled that man by his correct name, in yesterday's blog post, I said I could think of a thousand examples, and I've been mentally listing them ever since. Here are a few things that have come up today.

Learning how to feel deserving came later than I expected, but I am glad I got there eventually. More than ten years ago, a dear friend whom we had followed around the Bay Area moved here, right around the time we decided to move back. She didn’t find her niche here, and during her stay in our home state she decided she wanted to be a screenwriter, so she took herself off to L.A. to make a go of it. Before she moved away, my friend essentially gave me her job. I started doing the work and realized I was well suited to it. I had a great skill set and the technical aptitude for the work. I quickly became an integral part of a team of developers; they liked working with me because I caught on quickly and wasn’t intimidated when I interviewed them about how the product was supposed to work and along the way was able to find out how it really worked and do a better job writing about it as a result.

But after my friend “gave” me her job, it took me a while to feel I truly deserved it. (She didn't really give me the job at all; the company she worked for hired me, after she recommended me and I was screened and interviewed and successfully worked through my first year there as a contractor and they made me a permanent employee. But I still didn’t feel deserving on some level. In part, my salary had nearly doubled over my previous job’s within the space of a year; it grew even more soon after when they raised salaries to achieve pay parity with our Bay Area compatriots at the same company.

So I have long puzzled over why I didn’t keep up with that friend when she moved back to California. For I still love and admire her greatly, but I was uncomfortable with her after that. Just today, with this cascade of thoughts and experiences I have been recontextualizing having read Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door, I finally had an insight about that. I think it wasn’t just that I didn’t feel deserving. I had come to feel I had taken something that didn’t belong to me. That if I had something that good, I must have acquired it by dubious means. On some subconscious level I think I felt I stole that job. Or maybe I felt too indebted to her, that I could never repay her and therefore our relationship would be forever imbalanced (because that job was such a huge gift to me and enabled us to buy our house and live where we wanted to live). And what do we do when we feel we have wronged someone somehow? We avoid them (well, those of us who have a conscience about what we've done). Looking back I see how silly an idea that was, but it fits in with all the other ideas and thoughts that have been coming up since I recognized my father for what he is.

Another “cascade moment” for me, as I this morning dubbed this flow of recollections that like puzzle pieces are all clicking neatly into place and revealing the big, bad picture, was one I came about by a weird little set of associations this morning.

I was listening to the Grateful Dead song “Uncle John’s Band,” which comes up in the random rotation every so often. And I smiled at the line about telling the “fire from the ice,” because this phrase had been a mondegreen for me, a misheard lyric that I had long heard as “the buyer from the price.” I think I was 25 or 30 when I first looked up and said, “Hold on, that makes no sense!” and went to look up the real lyric, or maybe noticed a friend not closing their lips in the same places and ways I was.

It made me think of how everything was always being measured and valued and calculated when I was growing up. Trust was one. It was as if there was a finite supply of trust between me and my father that he was always judging to come up short for some reason I had given him to mistrust me: a fib or fudge or lie he caught me in. Some of it must have been lost to evaporation; there was always less than I thought there should have been.

And the valuation of things and people, the continual calculation, meant we, my father's wife and children, were just a drain. He made us feel that way, too, when he doled out little bits of money to my mother for groceries or refused to pay for school activities that I wanted to participate in. My mother said when she had precancerous symptoms, he told her, “You should go to a different doctor. They’re just after your money.” Much later she said to herself, “What money?” We didn’t have any, according to my father. In high school, he was reporting a yearly income of $14,000, probably so those evil colleges I was thinking of attending couldn’t get any of our money.

My sister recently told my mother she thinks the business he owned and operated for years was more or less a front, that he had money independently all along, from his father and from whatever side deals he had going. This fits, too; "The Shop" was a source of stability and identity (look at that man with his own business! Providing for his family!), but it was also his alibi (“I had to work late; Dave didn’t drop his car off until I was about to leave and then I had to shoot the shit with Ben when he came to pick up his car.”), a respectable cover, a place to meet with the guys and do what he wanted behind the shop’s rolling door. Sure, he did some work there and came home with black fingernails and stinking of grease and solvent, but when I started asking him about the reputations of other mechanics and other shops in town, as an adult who had chosen not to buy a pre-fuel-injection Volvo, he’d always say something like, “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them.” Funny how every other mechanic in town was crooked but he was so upright. He always said he was better because he would explain how things worked and why they didn’t to his customers, and this time was his gift to them. In retrospect I think that was more patter, more sleight-of-mouth, so to speak, and I think a lot of his customers were bored to tears by those lengthy explanations and just wished they could pay him for his work and take their cars home. Most of them, unlike him, were probably not avoiding going home to their families; the ones that were avoiding their nearest and dearest often became his fans, his new shop buddies, his new alibis.

Another, more recent, memory of him telling me about his type of woman. "I like my women slender, pretty, and needy," he said. Rich, or at least financially independent, seems to have been a more recent addition to his list. He doesn't want someone who is after his money. He wants someone he can dominate, and who makes him look good.

I am thinking back to when my aunt told me that my father is “heartbroken” about not having us close to him, but remembering how I felt during the last couple of Thanksgiving gatherings I went to at his place, it felt hollow, like we were all arranged there to maintain his ideal image of himself, but not because he really cared for us. (Remember what he said to my aunt when he saw his granddaughter’s picture? “She’s getting away from me.” And I knew I'd made the right decision in excising him from my life.) Now I hear those words from my aunt and I think, “What heart? Because I haven’t seen much evidence of one.”

The advice Martha Stout gave about following the rule of threes was great, but saddened me, too. The rule is if someone lies or hurts you three times, that’s when you know to run, to cut them out of your life. Because once is an honest mistake, and twice, well, things happen. But three times reveals a habit of deceit and tells you who they are. What’s sad is that I can easily come up with ten lies. And if I can so easily come up with that many, it calls everything he ever said and did that seemed genuine or sincere into question.

* Because he is littler and littler, in my mind: not only physically diminished from the big, scary, imposing guy he once was, but as a human being. He's melllllltinnnng! (Say it in your best Wicked Witch of the West voice.)

08 May 2009

My very own sociopath next door

Some days I question my willingness to write about troublesome topics close to me here on this blog, but I keep coming back to the need to tell my side of my story, because my father has never, ever accepted my version, my truths. Having just finished reading a book called The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, I have a new perspective on why that is: I don't believe he has a conscience, and so finally I see why my version of the story will never, ever match up with his. Ever.

One of the questions the book left me pondering relates to Stout's contention that sociopaths have no conscience and therefore never see a problem with themselves that needs addressing or fixing. This fits my experience; when told by people near and supposedly dear to him that he had dangerous behaviors that adversely affected not just him but others around him, he always accused everyone else of trying to manipulate him. He never saw us as trying to help him. Now I see why he couldn't conceive of that. But what I am left wondering is whether there are people without a conscience who believe themselves to have a conscience, in their own limited fashion. I think my birthfather sees himself as a moral and upright man; it's just that he doesn't have much capacity for compassion and so can't have a very well developed sense of obligation to others.

Reading that book gave me about fifty aha! moments. I saw a thousand instances where we, as his family, were arranged and manipulated: to make him look like a good person, to provide a cover for his other actions and activities, to be toyed with: battered physically or emotionally into silence or cowering fear. Meanwhile I was supposed to prove that He was Right about raising his children unconventionally, even though the reality of that included a dead child, and meant abuses like subjecting his children to active (as opposed to benign) neglect and countless dangerous situations.

The aha! moment that clinched the author's premise for me was when she related "Hannah's" story. Hannah's father had been a high school principal in a small midwestern city, married and with a daughter (Hannah) who had been accepted to medical school when he went after an unarmed intruder with the gun he kept in his closet and shot him dead outside their home. Hannah's father was convicted of manslaughter, because the attack had been in the street instead of inside their home, which would have been a self-defense killing. The community was in an uproar, and mostly on his behalf: he had no criminal record or known history of violence, and so folks in his community protested the severity of his sentence. It took Hannah years to understand that in many, many ways, her father had not been the nice person or loyal family member he had presented himself as being.

A few years later, Hannah worked up the nerve to visit him in prison. The thing was, Hannah said, she would have expected someone in her father's situation -- in prison, with little to no contact with family nor friends over a couple of years -- to be dejected and downcast. Instead, Hannah said, she was surprised to see this glint in his eye, as if this was the most exciting thing to happen to him in a long time.

When I read Hannah's story, I remembered how I felt when my father came back from Mexico telling the story of his month in a Guatemalan jail for trying to bring fireworks into Mexico in the back of his car, something that would have never occurred to anyone else I know. To him it was just another adventure, another story for him to tell. With that same glint in his eye, he told us far more than we cared about the guys who make hammocks in jail. He brought back hammocks that he then resold to people -- I wheedled hard to get him to give me one. (They are nice hammocks, after all.) But as he told that story again and again after he returned from that journey, I realized I did not want to hear another one of his stories, ever again, and that was when I made the decision to tell him: Don't call me. If I want to get in touch, I will.

Since then he has asked if we could talk, so that he could share his perspective. But I feel I already know what his perspective is, and it's all about him and how we have wrongly judged him. But I'm just not buying what he's selling anymore.

In some ways it seems unhealthy to keep circling this drain that is my father, but reading this book felt like finding a key piece of the puzzle, and talking with my mother is especially reassuring. We keep telling each other, yes, it really was that bad. He really was that bad. And I do feel sad about it, but for me and my mother and stepmother and sisters and brother, and not so much anymore than for his having inherited a lousy set of tools from his parents, which is the story I had been telling until now. Now I feel I am see him more clearly than ever for who and what he really is.

There were so many little flashes of recognition reading that book, and my sadness now comes in response to my beliefs as a child that this was all good and right and normal during my formative years: the thrill-seeking, the substance abuse, the moving from place to place, the moving from person to person without having true intimate attachments to people, the apparent respect and private disdain for others. I could cite a thousand examples, general and specific.

But I liked this book in part not just because it reinforced some things I've only just started to realize about my father, but also because it validated the idea that I did the right thing in cutting him out of my life. Stout says as soon as you see the patterns -- the excessive charm/allure, flattery, the desire for you to pity them as soon as they are in a tight spot, the I'm-right-and-all-you-idiots-are-all-wrong thinking -- the best way to protect yourself from this person is to run. To cut them out of your life completely. This is what I have done, and it feels like it's helped me start moving on with my own life.

Oddly, I told my mother, the book also gave me more compassion for a college writing teacher of mine, the poet Lucille Clifton, who said she could not believe a father would drive drunk with his children in the backseat, as I wrote about in one of my poems. Now I see that despite all the evils she believed in (slavery, hell, the abuse of women), she couldn't fully conceive of a true sociopath. Lucky her, I said to my mother.