One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Julia Fierro: Finding Empathy for My Father

Love in the absence of forgiveness.

Contributed by Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth

When I was a young girl, after my father hit me, I’d find him in the kitchen, seated at the table. It was the table that held the food he cooked for our family every night. I’m telling you this because I want you to feel empathy for him, as I did, even as a child. It was a pathetic picture—his face hidden in his hands, his broad back shaking. He smelled good, like soap and home cooking, not the way you’d think a man who grew up so poor, and who spent so much time working with his hands, would.

Maybe he was crying. His voice creaked when he spoke in his thick Italian accent and said, “I’m sorry.”

I told him I forgave him. I patted his shoulder, and made him promise he wouldn’t do something stupid. “Don’t kill yourself, or anything,” I said, in the slow and patient voice of a parent. I know this because it’s the way I speak to my own children now when they need comfort. I took care of my father by forgiving him, and it almost felt as if I was also taking care of myself.

That scene at the kitchen table may be one of the most important of my life, and it repeated itself every month or so—maybe more, maybe less, I cannot know for my When I consider the way I make sense of the world, and wonder when and where my perspective was shaped, I return to those moments I spent standing next to my father, soothing him, absolving his guilt. I’ve reimagined those events in my thoughts again and again, and in my fiction, including my novel Cutting Teeth.

Each of us has our own coping method, an internal salve composed in the most emotionally heightened moments of our childhood. Some of us weather storms with sails made from denial. Or indifference. Or an anger that incinerates the more subtle emotions. My method for “getting by” was born in the kitchen with my father. I felt sorry for him. I imagined what he was feeling as he wept into his arms, and it was so much easier to feel his pain instead of mine. Now, at thirty-seven, I think of that little girl working so hard to forgive her father, and I know she was too generous. She needed to reimagine her father as the most tortured soul in order to forgive him again and again, someone worthy of redemption.

Imagining and reimagining people’s most intimate thoughts would be my method throughout my childhood and into my young adulthood. And my natural predisposition for obsessing—I’d inherited obsessive-compulsive disorder from my father—would make me an active analyst of people. Oh, the young college boys I worked my magic on, convincing myself that each boy-man embodied all that was truth and beauty and love. I yearned to feel, and heal, their pain. The boys, of course, told me I needed to relax. In my sophomore year at college, when my empathy-seeking melded with a spike in my obsessing, I began to see pain everywhere—in the Indian man sweeping up at my college dorm cafeteria (didn’t he look a lot like my father, both with their dark skin and drooping eyelids?), in the tired grandmother on the bus who looked as if she’d break into tears, in the homeless that camped by the subway stop. Who would take care of them?

I bugged my friends by asking them, too often, if they were okay. Were they happy? Social gatherings larger than a few people became exhausting, a cacophony of emotion that broken against me in waves of imagined feelings I couldn’t filter. Why was everyone so sad? Why was there so much pain everywhere? I’d walk home alone, in the welcome silence, berating myself for “displacing emotion” (I was taking Intro to Psych that year and picking up terms left and right), and wondering how I was going to mute the hyper-empathy that had been my invincible shield as a child. My favorite characters in the novels I was reading for my classes were all anxious and angry men on the edge of schizophrenic breaks: Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. I had an unhealthy obsession with Nietzsche’s personal life, specifically the panic attacks and migraines he suffered. One only had to look at the books that lined my dorm room shelves to see that I was studying the male psyche in its most emotionally fragile state. I can almost laugh about it now, the obviousness of my motivation. I was continuing the work of forgiving my father. But now it was interfering with my ability to function in everyday life. To sleep. To eat. When I walked down the street on a sunny day, I couldn’t enjoy pleasant details—the ring of a child’s laugh, the clink of wine glasses from a house porch—not when there was so much noise in my head.

Writing was my salvation, giving me a place to contain that squawking mess of feelings and details and senses and people I absorbed day after day. Just when it was about to crack me in half. My stories, and now my novels, are perfect containers for my observations, and sitting down to write feels like loosing a great burden. I work hard to make sure my writing does justice to the people I glean details from—the old woman behind the counter at the convenience store, the teenage girl yelling into her cell phone, the man (who does remind me of my father) feeding the stray cats in the lot behind my apartment. I am grateful to the people from whom I’ve borrowed, for surely not all the pain and longing and fear I’ve imagined they feel is fiction.

Whatever I may have learned in my childhood kitchen, I’ve passed on to my writing students, teaching them to feel compassion for their character when they reveal his or her flaws, not to leave them in the dark, where they might be pitied, or looked down on by the reader. Invite the reader to experience your characters’ emotions, I tell my writers, and the reader might catch a glimpse of his or her own vulnerabilities and so-called unlikability—the very things that make us human.

Who knows, perhaps I would have developed this method of surviving life via empathy even if my father had never struck me. There are many writers I admire who had happy childhoods. But this is my story, and I do believe this kind of living, of thinking, of looking deep into characters—fictional or real-life—is a way to practice our humanity on and off the page. Will I ever forgive my father? I do not know. He has redeemed himself in many ways—as a caring grandfather to my children, as a wounded survivor of great poverty and tragedy, a story I’ve come to understand only in my adulthood. But I do know that no character, not even a man who strikes his own child, should be able to be dismissed. I must believe, for my own sake, that there is a promise for redemption in every one of us.

Julia Fierro is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which has been a creative home to more than two thousand writers since 2002. Her novel, Cutting Teeth, was included in Library Journal's "Spring 2014 Best Debuts" and on "Most Anticipated Books of 2014" lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, she’s written for Guernica, Glamour, and other publications, and has been profiled in The L Magazine, The Observer, and The Economist. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children. Visit Julia’s website at juliafierro.com.

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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