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Transcending My Father's Abuse
Seeing My Dad as More than a Monster
Content Warning: physical and verbal abuse
One day, when I was four or five, my dad told me to wash my hands, and I refused. There’s a blank in my memory for the next ten or fifteen minutes. The next thing I remember is my dad saying: “我现在会数到三。如果你不听，我会打你。” I’m going to count to three right now. If you don’t listen, I’m going to hit you.
My dad often said that to me as I was growing up. Whenever I disobeyed, he’d start counting, and I would eventually obey.
But this time, I wasn’t willing to wash my hands, so my dad hit me after he reached the number three. Afterwards, he apologized to me, saying that he didn’t want to hit me. He just didn’t know another way to get me to wash my hands.
When I was nine or ten years old, I alternated between writing the number 2 with a loop and writing the number with a horizontal bottom. One time, my dad yelled at me for twenty minutes for my inconsistencies in writing the digit.
During high school, I’d be listening to music when my dad would start raising his voice at my mom, and I'd put on headphones and try to drown him out. Or I’d be downstairs at the kitchen table, working on my homework, when my dad barked at me to use a binder. Sometimes I refused, and sometimes I agreed while scowling. Either way, my dad would start yelling at me. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re so disorganized and ungrateful!"
Dad is terrible, I’d think to myself the nights he yelled at me. He's really scary, Valerie, and you need to remember this. But then the next day, I’d find myself confused as to why I’d felt so negatively towards my dad. Did he actually yell at me the day before, or was I just making that up? Maybe I was just overreacting.
One time in May 2020, I was upstairs in my room when I heard my dad erupt at my sister. I ran down to the kitchen and pushed my sister out of the way, taking her place in front of him. I would much rather be the recipient of his anger.
“Why are you being so disagreeable? What the hell is wrong with you?" He yelled at me and started to hit me. "This fight has nothing to do with you, you stupid bitch!”
The fight continued for a few hours. My dad and I kept yelling at each other, and he kept hitting me. As he continued to lay hits on me, I started remembering the realizations I had repeatedly blocked out throughout high school and college, after our fights dissipated.
No matter how badly you want daddy to be a good dad, I promise you he is not. Remember how bad he is, I begged my future self. Please, Valerie, please remember this.
For the next few days, I called my friends and yelled out my frustrations about my dad. Most of my friends just listened, but one of them kept pressing me to leave home. “Valerie, your dad is actually bad. Why are you still here?”
“You’re right,” I told him. “I should leave for good this time. I should cut him off. Don’t let me talk myself out of it.”
But a few days later, I’d completely changed course. Things at home weren’t that bad. Sure, they weren’t ideal, but other people with actually abusive family members had it much worse.
My dad only yelled at us every few weeks, only hit us every few months. Surely he wasn’t that bad, was he? Could I really cut my dad off over something small? He and I were already talking semi-normally and eating dinner at the same table again, and the fight seemed so hazy. I knew I had been extremely upset, and that if I’d tried hard enough, I’d remember the names he screamed at me. But did I really want to rock the boat now, just as we had gone back to normal?
“It's like you can't even see it, Valerie,” one of my friends said during a group call. “Every time you go back home, he does something awful, and you act like nothing happened.”
My other friend chimed in too. “He hit you this time, and you’re making excuses for him. It’s like you have Stockholm syndrome or something, and it hurts to see you like this.”
My friends were right: for years at this point, I’d go back home during the holidays, and my dad would start erupting at the family. It happened during every holiday, so how come, whenever I thought about going home, I didn’t immediately have the premonition that my dad would erupt? Why couldn’t I remember just how bad my dad was, so I could finally cut him out of my life once and for all?
I couldn’t allow myself to remember my dad’s abuse because if I did, I’d view him as a monster. I have always felt awful when my friends called him evil. I love my dad, and it hurt me when people deemed him a monster.
But I didn’t know how to label my dad in a way that contained the nuance that he deserved. If he wasn’t bad, then how could he call me a bitch or hit me when he got angry? Good people certainly didn’t hit their kids, so maybe my dad was evil after all. It hurt too much to continue down this train of thought and admit to myself that my dad was bad, so I had to scrub most of those incidents out, much to my friends’ dismay.
There was another more significant reason that I couldn’t view my dad as a monster. To truly view someone as a monster, you have to believe that you have the moral high ground. No matter how much I wanted to believe that I was better than him, I always had doubts about whether I was really in the right.
In my description of that argument from May 2020, when I’d intervened on my sister’s behalf, I didn’t mention that I’d yelled at my dad, “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
My screaming profanities at my dad did not justify his hitting me, but it did mean that my hands were unclean, and my dad knew that too. Whenever I told my dad that he was wrong for yelling at us or that he had a temper problem, he’d throw my own mistakes back at me. After all, I had no right to chastise him for yelling when I was screaming at him myself. Maybe I had the temper problem, not him.
When I was in college and my middle sister was in high school, I refused to help her prepare for her college interviews out of jealousy of her achievements. Across the years, my dad has brought up that incident as an example of my self-righteousness. Whenever he brought it up, I’d be able to think about it for at most twenty seconds, before I pushed it back down again.
Deep down, I was terrified that he was right. What sort of sister wouldn’t help out her younger sister during an important transition point of her life? That sister must be a bad sister.
Being bad — whether that label was used to describe me as a sister, daughter, or an entirely different role — terrified me. Over the years, my dad and I had fought relentlessly. During every fight, every screaming match, we engaged in a war of wills, with neither of us willing to back down. In this game, either I was bad, or he was bad, and neither of us wanted to lose.
So what were we left with, when this dynamic repeated itself over and over again? Two egos with too much to lose, two people with years of pride and righteousness on the line. Neither of us could afford to lose, not when losing ultimately meant that you’d been a bad person for years.
It was crucial to my ego that I wasn’t the bad one. That’s why I found it so difficult to admit that I had screamed at my dad, or to accept the ways I had hurt my sister.
I remember calling a friend one time explaining that my dad hit me and that I kept taking his hits. “Why do you keep taking his hurt, Valerie?” My friend asked. “Why didn’t you just run away and hide?”
“Because I need to prove to him that I’m strong,” I replied. There was more underneath that answer, but I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time.
What I’d really meant to say was this: “Because if my dad keeps hurting me, and I keep absorbing his anger, that means that I’m in the right. If he keeps hitting me and I keep taking it without hitting him back, that means that I’m not in the wrong. He is. He’s the weak one, and he’s the fucked up one. He’s the bad one.”
These days, I’ve been looking more closely at my own experiences without shying away, even when that entails examining my own mistakes and risking being bad. What’s been revelatory to me is how, even as I come to terms with how deeply I’ve messed up at points, “bad” is one of the last descriptions that comes to mind.
I ask myself why I screamed at my dad during our argument in 2020. It’s difficult to stay on the memory, but when I manage to stay with it, the main label that comes to mind is “hurt”.
My dad hurt us. He was screaming at my sister and calling her a bitch. Regardless of her missteps, he wasn’t even trying to understand her, and he did this every single time my sisters and I were back home. I felt extremely hurt, and I couldn’t stand to see him keep getting away with his behavior. So I kept yelling “Fuck you!” to him, which he would often use against me.
My dad hurt me. He hit me, he yelled at me, he swore at me, he scared the fuck out of me. How could I ever blame myself for screaming at him or trying to win against him in a war of wills? That was the best I knew how to do at the time.
I was in deep pain, and when I actually see how hurt I was, I can also connect with how scared and hopeless my dad feels. My dad is hurt too, not bad. When I think of my dad these days, I also think of him as a little kid. He’s the youngest of five, growing up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. His family is so, so poor. His brothers are desperate to survive and do desperate things, like stealing money from their parents. My dad doesn’t approve and speaks up against them, and this causes rifts within the family.
As a 5-year-old, my dad asks my grandma to buy him meat, but my grandma can’t afford it and hits him. He still craves meat, so one day she caves and buys him some, even though that means less food for the rest of the family. Every night, after his family leaves their wet shoes outside the house to dry off, my dad takes them back inside to keep people from stealing them. His brothers laugh at him; they’re so destitute that no one would bother to steal their shoes.
A few weeks ago, my dad called me multiple times. During high school and the start of college, he used to keep calling me, so that he could start yelling at me once I picked up. I had blocked his number for a few years and only communicated with him through text. Why was he calling so many times in a row? Was it an emergency?
I eventually picked up the phone and asked him what was going wrong.
“Nothing’s wrong, Valerie. I just want to talk for a bit. Did you finally get your power back?”
I had. We talked about the weather grid for a few minutes, and I was about to hang up, when he quickly said something else.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry for mistreating you over the years. I did a lot of stupid things, and I’m truly sorry. I must have hurt you a lot growing up. I’m really sorry.”
I was stunned. Why would my dad just apologize to me out of the blue? Surely there had to be a catch somewhere. Maybe he felt sorry but wasn’t actually willing to change.
We went back and forth for a while. I kept telling him that I didn’t trust any of the advice he’d given to me over the years because he didn’t practice what he preached. He kept trying to justify it by telling me that his intentions were good and that he didn’t have to keep his office clean in order to want me to be neat myself. I didn’t think that was a good enough explanation and told him that he seemed like a hypocrite.
At another point, he said that he’d truly changed and hadn’t hit anyone in the past ten years.
“That’s literally not true!” I responded. “You hit me in 2020.”
“Yes!” I raised my voice and began talking much quicker. “You kept hitting me, and then the next day, you accused me of hitting you first.”
What the fuck was wrong with my dad? I thought to myself. How the fuck can you apologize when you can’t even admit what you did wrong? You locked my grandparents up in a fucking room when I was four!
“And that’s not even the only time!” I cried. “You just kept hurting us and never admitting it, and you just expect things to be okay now?”
My dad paused for a while. “Valerie, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were right. To be honest, I don’t remember most of our arguments. I just remember being extremely upset that you kept yelling ‘fuck you’ to me. I’m really sorry.
“I know I’ve messed up as a dad.” By this point, he had started crying too. “But I promise you, your mom and I never wanted to hurt you. I thought I was trying my best. I’m truly sorry.”
In the past, the closest I had ever gotten to an apology from my dad occurred last spring, when I had strong-armed one out of him. I wouldn’t allow him to attend my college graduation unless he apologized to me and my family and promised never to hit us again. With that consequence on the line, he swallowed his pride and apologized.
I never suspected that my dad would offer an unsolicited apology to me. If someone told me during college that my prideful dad would apologize to me first, I would have been dumbfounded.
I don’t know how to let in the magnitude of my dad’s apology yet. I know I should feel humbled and amazed. This whole time, he, like me, had been dealing with memory loss. And he, like me, had an extremely difficult childhood. How could I blame him, when I am so similar to him in my hurt and my anger?
I keep hoping for a future where my dad and I call every few days, and I can tell him about the decisions I’m navigating or the opinions I actually hold, without him yelling at me when I deviate from his expectations. I find myself dreaming that one day, my dad will call me and tell me that he connected with his own memories of his parents, and now fully understands the magnitude of the pain I endured. We’ve undergone similar pains, he’ll tell me. He got hit for wanting meat, and I got hit for not washing my hands. I’m sorry for recycling that pain.
But there’s no bow to wrap around this relationship, no guarantee of eventual closeness, no promise that some time in the future, I’ll feel comfortable allowing him to meet my future kids. Only a raw festering wound that may never close. This is the weight I live with. Just because I can see my dad’s pain doesn’t mean I’m ready to be open and affectionate with him. I need to stay vigilant around him, and there’s a long fucking road ahead before I’d trust him to actually honor my boundaries.
I procrastinated for weeks on sending dad a reply in response to our phone call. It felt unnatural to show him any vulnerability, so I avoided sending him any texts, despite a gnawing sense that acknowledging his desire to change was the right thing to do.
Dad doesn’t fully understand why he was wrong, so why should I swallow my pride and offer him a carrot? I’d think to myself. I’ve been burned every single time I thought he changed for the better, so isn’t it more rational to just give up on him?
But then I received a text from him out of the blue:
I have not been a good dad. I want to be a good one. I want to know how to be a better one.
I love you all, my dear daughters
There was no rational reason to think I could reconcile with my dad, but then again, there was also no rational reason to think he would ever send me that text. Unlike before, my dad had put himself on the line and shown me grace. It only felt right for me to reciprocate. With no particular expectations for how things would develop, I replied to him:
I am sorry that I yelled at you the last time you called. I appreciate your apologies to me and am hopeful about a better relationship. One condition for us becoming closer is that you accept my decisions even if you disagree with them.
For instance, if I say I don’t want your input on something, I do not want you to give it, and if you insist on giving it, I will exit the conversation and trust you less in the future.
I can see that you're trying to be a better dad. I am touched and surprised by the changes I'm seeing. I would love to be able to feel close and trusting of you again one day.
It’s been over a week, and he hasn’t responded. I’m not holding my breath for a warm reply, let alone feeling close with him ever again. But for now, I can rest easy, knowing that I’ve done my part in allowing our new relationship to unfold.
I am extremely grateful to the Awaken Your Soul retreat center for helping me release my fear of my dad, connect to his hurt, and see my own shortcomings in relation to him. It was during my second night at this retreat that I learned how to let go of seeing my dad as a monster.
I would like to thank my boyfriend Alex for helping me coalesce my insights from the retreat. He played a pivotal role in helping me structure this piece, and in helping me articulate the core ideas behind it.
I would like to thank Santi Ruiz and Samuel Liu, whose insightful craft suggestions helped turn this piece into an actual literary essay; Qiaochu Yuan, Tasshin Fogleman, and Vivid Void, whose input helped me write an ending that held the complexity of the situation; and Lin Wang, Ben Hsieh, Ranjit Saimbi, Rob Hardy, Rebecca Madison, Loopy, Pranab, Nat Sharpe, Crystal Duan, Hek, Charley Todd, quotidiania, Kai, Frances Kafka, Angie Wang, Bryan, Autumn Christian, Ali Taylor, Chipmonk, Sherry, and Vince Horn, for generously offering feedback on drafts of this piece.
Finally, I would like to thank my father for putting his heart and soul into raising me, and for his commitment to being a good dad. Dad, if you ever read this, please understand that I wrote this to help other people like me mend their relationships with their own parents. I know you may not be happy with how I’ve presented you here, but it’s the truth about how I feel. I hope we can feel close again, and I love you very much.
One of my core beliefs is that acting from as deep and as vulnerable a place as possible is what matters in the long run. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.