I have very little contact with my father. We talk a few times a year, on some of the major holidays, mostly by text. The last time I heard his voice was over a year ago. I often feel guilty about this. Am I being fair to him? Hasn’t he been punished enough? I ask myself if he even did the things that I think he did, the things that make up the reasons why I have so little contact with him.
My guilt looms especially large around the holidays, when families are supposed to be together, when I imagine my father sitting all alone in his dirty little apartment. I know he’s miserable, and I can’t help but feel I’m the reason for it.
So I have a checklist.
The checklist is only in my head — I’ve gone through it so many times, it’s memorized. And yet it’s not really memorized, because I can’t see the whole checklist in my head until I start ticking through the items. The checklist only comes to me when I need it.
It starts with the memories of the inappropriate ways my father spoke to me and my friends. The way his eyes lingered too long on a pair of outstretched pubescent legs. The way he talked about my friends’ beauty. He made his own choices, I tell myself. He knew what he was doing.
Then I remember the time when I was 14 and trying out nude sunbathing on the flat roof of our house (it was the ‘90s, people were still stupid with their skin back then). My father was suddenly overcome with a need to get outside and do some yard work. I felt his eyes creeping around the edges of the roof and knew he was trying to look at me. I finally covered myself and climbed down off the roof. For years, I told myself his curiosity was my fault. What was I doing lying naked on the roof anyway? He tried to peep his own daughter, I tell myself now. He knew what he was doing.
I remember how my older sister whispered to me one night in a panic that her friend had sworn her to secrecy about the time my father did something to her. I never did find out what that something was. I only knew that my sister’s friend wasn’t wearing any bottoms when it happened. Or… that’s what she said. My sister’s friend lied a lot. She was in trouble all the time for lying. So I doubted her. I wasn’t sure how much of what she was saying was true. As a young kid, I couldn’t wrap my mind around my father doing that thing I’d read about and seen reported on the news. But something happened, I tell myself. You know something happened.
And then the two most important pieces of my checklist float to the surface of my memory. The strange thing is, these pieces always come last. They are never there at the top to recall immediately even though they seal the truth about my father. They always come at the very end, after I’ve exhausted the other details of my memory. It’s as though I have to keep certain things stored away in the back of my mind because they are too big to carry around where I can see them.
The first is a memory from when I was about 15. I woke up in the middle of the night to the feeling of pressure and movement between my legs. When I opened my eyes, my father was hovering over me in the dark. “I was just fixing your covers,” he told me, and I thought how strange that was because he’d never fixed my covers for me my entire life. He hardly came in my room at all. My mom had done the parenting, not him. It took some time before I could admit to myself that my father had been trying to touch me while I was asleep.
The last thing on my checklist is my father’s internet browsing history. The internet was still in its early years in the late ‘90s, and the family computer was out in the common area, on a desk in the family room. My father didn’t realize I could click on the URL bar and see the history of all the websites he had been browsing. Page after page of child pornography.
This one piece of information should be enough. It should be all I need to know, all the reason I need to cut him out, the proof of what he was in recorded binary code. And yet it is always the very last thing I think about. I still have to go through my entire checklist, every single time. It is my personal proof to myself that I am allowed to do what I have done.
In speaking with others about trauma, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one with a checklist. One friend of mine has a narcissistic and abusive mother that they had to sever ties with. Their mother regularly sends them long, pleading emails in which she begs for a relationship. These emails are desperate and sad, hard to digest — reading them, you could almost forget how abusive my friend’s mother really is. It makes my friend feel selfish for not being a more forgiving person. But they have their checklist, which they have shared with me, and it’s every bit as convincing as mine is.
Another friend of mine was raped. The first part of her checklist is about reminding herself that she was indeed raped, and then, once she’s settled that in her mind, she reiterates that she didn’t “ask for it” or provoke her attacker. Her instinct is to feel at fault, and she has to walk herself through the reasons why her rape was not her fault.
Self-blame is a well-documented coping mechanism for survivors of trauma, and the checklist is how we talk ourselves out of that cycle of blame. At least a checklist is a healthier coping mechanism than simply accepting blame, but it still always amazes me that I must go through the checklist item by item, every time, as if it’s new, as if I’ve never seen these steps before.
My friends who are trauma survivors say the same — that they must tick off every item of their personal checklists each time, one by one, in order to convince themselves that they are not to blame for what happened to them. That they are justified in cutting out a toxic family member from their life.
When we’re in our logical minds, we know we have done the right thing, but that’s the thing about trauma: It isn’t logical. It casts doubt. It lies. And so we have our checklists.
I’ve just gone through mine, and though I may never be able to shake off the guilt for cutting my father out of my life, in this moment, right now, because of my checklist, I know for sure I’ve done the right thing.
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