My Sister Thought Our Dad Was Great, My Take Was Different

I knew my dad was brutal, but it took me years to realize he was abusive.

Posted Aug 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Caroline Leavitt
That's not a smile, that's a grimace as I try to get away.
Source: Caroline Leavitt

There it is, a family shot. I’m 10, my smile a grimace because I’m desperate to get away from my father’s vise grip. My sister and my mom have their faces turned away.

My dad’s a bully who uses a strap and screams. He never says "I love you," never shows affection. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room, so I learn to lose myself in books and writing.

We are little girls, but my father never tells us we are darling or smart. Instead, he keeps piles of Playboy around the house, and my sister and I stare at the centerfolds amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. He takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, scrubbing my fingers, and when I come back, he does it again, laughing.

I begin to have nightmares. Sometimes I beg my mother to lay beside me until I fall asleep, a comforting habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “Please do it. His feelings are hurt,” she says.

I am 5, without any power. That night, I curl into my father’s bed, my body facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. We’re all in pajamas. I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. In the morning, I wake as my father is rising from bed, but now, he’s naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I’ve ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell is wrong with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing. All that day I live in terror that he will make me do this again, but he never does. Still, the fear roils inside of me.

Weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine naked. My father’s penis dwarfs him. His balls are balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off as imagination.

I turn 10 and then my sister tells me the facts of life, banging two rocks together in a violent coupling. “Only guys like it,” she says. Then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil, and it suddenly makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad?

And then I turn 17, and while my sister stays the good girl, I begin to rebel and my mom yells along with my dad at me to fix my crazy hair, to lengthen my skirts. My sister dates and my mom warns her not to let any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Is that true?

When finally, a boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad. The boy gazes at me in wonder and when the night is over, I have my first kiss in our doorway, insane with love. But then my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming that he never gave me permission to date. My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think. That summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor. Instead, I sleep with my boyfriend every day, because now I know that it isn’t just boys who need sex.

I keep dating. I go to college, in Ann Arbor, halfway across the country. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with, but I keep score, as if the amount proves my worth: 70. Then 100.

Why don’t I ever confront my family? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated. I’m told this so often, I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure. I come back home and my sister and mother are wailing, but I feel nothing, making my sister snap at me. “Our father was wonderful. Show respect.”

My father leaves my mother nothing, but she has the house, a teaching job, friends, and she blooms. But he leaves a legacy for my sister and me. How are we to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

My sister marries that model. Her husband’s silent, angry, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs. I cry at her wedding, begging her to flee. “Don’t be silly,” she says. When later, I ask my sister why she stands for his screaming behavior, she says, “because I have to.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like that, so I go for the opposite, the bon vivants, and it takes me time to realize they are only interested in their own joy, not mine.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer. He actually wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to rethink my childhood again.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing. “I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she insists and then her whole face fills with sorrow and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking. I try to talk with my sister, but she seems to hate me now. I ask my friends what they remember about my dad, but they say only that he was oddly quiet. When I tell them what I remember, they say, “Oh God, if I had known, I would have done something.”

One day, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and I tell her about my past. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.


There it is, a realization. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to therapists who might help me decode everything. When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories jumble, he insists “You have to feel something.” Then he asks me to consider my father’s dreams, his feelings, what he might have been going through. I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

Then I find a new therapist who tells me that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I write about them enough, I will be able to safely bury the past and get to the real truth.

And so I do. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who played games with me, was funny and who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who hates me. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: This is wrong.

And then I hear it again. CLICK.

I want to go back in time to stand up to my father and ask him how dare he not treasure his little girl. Your loss, I want to tell him. Look at me. I have a loving husband, a wonderful son. A career. No one abuses.

Then I want to go back to that frightened little girl who was me and say, You will be able to leave this behind. You will continue to talk and talk and write about this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power.

You will remember. You will see.

This piece was adapted from a longer piece originally published in The Manifest-Station.