“She said no.”
The words pushed past my lips in a hiss of fury. My pulse was beating in my ears and my throat was clenching closed, strangling my breath. There was a wide swath of counter between myself and my father-in-law, gleaming white and shiny. I wanted to jump that pristine distance separating us and rescue my daughter from his arms.
He blinked at me in confusion, his myopic eyes concealed by thick glasses. He said something dismissive, pushing at my insistence as if I was a bothersome gnat. I watched the circle of his hairy, thick arms tighten around my three year old daughter. She had soft, fine hair that looked like a curtain of gold swinging from her head in the sunlight, always in rhythm with her rambunctious skip. At the moment, I could only see a tuft escaping from that smothering embrace. But I could hear her muted protests, a low rumble that enraged me.
“Let go of her. She said no. If you can’t listen to her, you’ll need to leave.” My voice was firm, measured but absolute. A teacher’s tone of voice, one that brooked no argument in the face of a thousand acts of mischief and defiance.
My husband shot me a quick glance, registering the ultimatum. He moved forward to ease our daughter out of his father’s hold, explaining that our parenting philosophy insisted that she be allowed to determine who she wanted to bestow affection upon. That we would never, under any circumstances, force her to hug or kiss anyone. Not even ourselves. The confrontation receded, but the moment stayed with me, nipping around the edges of my thoughts for weeks.
It was natural that I would have found the episode upsetting. As a fairly vocal feminist trying to raise a girl in a sea of conflicting cues about sexuality and consent, I’d run into versions of this confrontation several times before. But I’d never reacted with such unsettled, nerve shattering panic. In fact, if it had been my own stepfather folding my reluctant daughter into his arms, I probably would have let cooler heads prevail and diffused the situation with an apologetic excuse.
And that’s puzzling. Because when it comes to defending the boundaries of my child, my instincts should be razor sharp around my own family. An adolescence spent skirting the line between love and abuse had taught me lessons I would never forget. I learned to read the lines between the silences, sense the danger before it threw a clammy hand on my shoulder. I stayed away from the wet, musty smell of that New England basement, edged my way out of rooms when my stepfather’s breath rolled off him in waves of fermenting alcohol. I avoided outright terror by standing quietly on the edge of it, surveying the storm clouds of his brooding overhead. I grew smart enough to understand that I was never truly safe. Only lucky, from one moment to the next.
And each year, as my legs grew longer and my hips wider, the danger became more pressing. Not just from him. I wish it had only been him. It came from every corner. From boys who lured you away from crowded rooms at loud parties with teasing challenges, pushing hands past barriers of elastic and awkwardness until they cupped your vulnerability. They never asked, always assumed. Your silence was consent, your fear a wall to be scaled, your hesitant protests a gauntlet thrown. The moments of tenderness were few but so intimately complicit that you compromised, gave one more inch just to feel the warmth of that regard.
By the time I met my husband, I’d forgiven my stepfather his faults. I’d known fathers who’d left, men who’d made promises they never intended to keep. He’d committed the worst sort of outrage a child can suffer, but he’d also loved me. He’d taught me to ride a bike by steadying my seat with his strong hand, worked for men he loathed simply to see me fed and clothed. All my life, people left. But he stayed. I could forgive him almost anything for that. For being there. And I knew the dreadful truth of it. I could admit it and say it out loud and live free of its grip. But my stepfather was doomed to struggle with those demons of self-recrimination, live under the weight of all those smotheringly silent secrets. And honestly, he’ll probably step into his grave unable to forgive himself. How can he when he’s never acknowledged what happened out loud, even to me? I feel sorrow for him and the reprieve he’ll never know. I don’t need to hate him. He hates himself. And that’s all the justice I need.
When I was a teenager, I ached for a family that felt familiar. They’d fold me in a welcoming embrace of weirdness and honesty that would overpower me with gratitude. When I met my in-laws for the first time, that dream died with a finality that left me rudderless. Older than my own parents by nearly a decade, my husband’s parents were born and raised in the small pocket of country that they still inhabited. They were deeply religious in a way that was strange to me, coupled with the loud, brusque hostility that seeped from every corner of their marriage. They were an odd couple, both painfully awkward in social situations, with red faces and inappropriately loud. My mother-in-law had a terrible habit of phrasing every comment as a question, as if her head was entirely empty of opinion or independent thought. My father-in-law was the most passive-aggressive person I’d ever witnessed, constantly bemoaning his fate and swinging every conversation back towards his own misfortunes. And always there was someone else to blame. Children who never lived up to his expectations, a father who was never the father he wanted, a bank account that was never full enough, places he’d never had the time to visit.
At first, I assumed my aversion to my in laws was a natural reaction to their obnoxious, embarrassing mannerisms. As time passed and we married, I grew more uncomfortable specifically with my father-in-law. It was the way he stared at my tank top in the morning after I’d tumbled out of bed to go to the bathroom, as if my nipples belonged to his gaze. He’d assess the length of my hemline visually with such an obvious distraction and then turn his head, feigning a wild interest in the pavement or the clouds overhead. Even my husband mentioned it, laughingly, as if it was a source of possessive pride for him the way his father ogled me like a cake on display at the corner bakery. I grew guarded and taciturn when they visited, making excuses to flee the room for the refuge of a book and the comfort of my bed.
When I was swollen with the beginnings of my first pregnancy, we stayed in their home to attend the wedding of my sister-in-law. Every day was a struggle not to wretch and sweat and cry myself through the discomfort. I was pacing around my misery one afternoon when my husband broke through the door of his childhood room in a rush, his face ashen.
I stared at him curiously. He’s a fairly laid back guy and while his calm detachment infuriates me at times but it balances out my ferocity and grounds me in a way that feels safe. I was surprised to see him overcome.
His mouth seemed to have trouble forming coherent thoughts. “I was helping my Dad fix his computer. He has pictures. Of young girls. Really young girls.”
“What do you mean?” My voice had risen and my husband made motions with his hands to quiet our conversation.
“He has files, dozens of them. Of naked girls. Young ones who barely have any breasts. Just little girls.” My husband whispered the words softly but each one fell with a weight like a stone in the quiet pool of silence that stood between us. He shuddered, obviously struggling with disgust.
It all fell into place, pieces of a puzzle whose pattern I should have recognized long ago. On some level as instinctual as a wild animal catching a scent, I’d known. And I was awash in fear, my belly filled with a life that already seemed threatened. My husband begged for my silence, and in that moment still fresh and full of love, I gave it to him. Of course I did.
I had no idea what that quiet complicity would cost me through the years. As we had children and watched them grow, my protective instincts around my father-in-law grew antagonistic. I waged battle against his attempts to drive his religious views into our parenting, watched his interactions with my children with the overbearing hostility of a prison guard. I knew he’d privately complain to my husband and other family members, calling me a “bitch” or a “cunt.” I welcomed his hatred, was grateful that I had incited his disapproval. I was trapped between my husband’s desire to retain a connection to his family and my intense desire to severe it beyond repair.
When our daughter grew into a stubborn toddler who shirked her loud, cajoling grandfather’s attempts at interaction, I silently rejoiced. I had felt utterly helpless, watching her step into the shadow of that threat and holding my breath. Every step I’d taken as an adult, every word I’d spoken had been to dispel the kind of secrecy that had violated my own innocence. And yet here I was — an accomplice to a concession that defied every maternal instinct I possessed. I couldn’t wage war openly, so I threw down resistance at every turn until I’d opened up a large fissure in my relationship with my in laws that felt like a safe distance.
I still straddle that fault line. My husband stands on the other side of it filled with hurt, watching me push his family away with both hands. When they visit, he tries to bridge the distance. Negotiating around my bitterness warily, without ever really understanding its source. I’ve tipped this relationship with my father-in-law on its head, trying to shake out answers that can make some kind of sense. His whining about spurned connections with his grandchildren, his incessant tone that implies that he has a right to collect affection as his due irritates me like steel wool scrubbing against soft skin, abrading and scratching at every contact point. But he’s never actually done anything to make me believe that he’d treat my daughter with the same objectifying sexual manipulation as the girls in those photos. He certainly never treated his own daughter in that way. So I have to ask myself, why do I hold a suggested or implied sexual deviancy against him when I don’t hold my own stepfather to the same standards? I have more reason, more certainty to believe that the real danger lies in that direction rather than at the hands of my harassingly inappropriate father-in-law.
I think perhaps it is that he doesn’t have any currency of affection to spend with me, no shared language of love. We’ve not spent a childhood bearing witness to each other’s mistakes, learning to navigate shared fault lines. Or maybe it’s that instead of spending my fury on a stepfather that I can’t bring myself to loathe, I’ve transferred that ire somewhere safer, to a man I can keep at a distance without any feelings of loss.
The last time my father-in-law was under our roof, he approached me with his camera. He’d taken a picture of his wife, sitting on a swing at a playground. She looked amusingly like a child, feet extended, her glasses askew and short hair gray hair mussed in the wind. He thrust the camera screen in front of me and remarked with amusement,
“Look at my little girl. Isn’t she so cute?”
I think I actually shivered as my stomach flopped over, horrified by the implication in his tone. I turned to face him and looked him in the eye, something I rarely did. Disgust dripped from my words.
“She’s a full grown woman. She’s NOT a girl.”
He shuffled away, probably confused by my tone. I’m sure it had seemed innocent to him, amusing even to take a picture of his wife acting like a child. But I saw more in the gesture, evidence of his sexual attraction to naive innocence in the light of the lens, the lines of the photo. It’s possible he’d never even acknowledged what he felt on any level, to anyone. But I saw it laid out before me, a thousand breadcrumbs that had lead me down a path I could never unwalk, a distance I was unwilling to bridge.
I can’t forgive my father-in-law. It’s unjust, but it’s the truth. I find myself unable to extend the forgiveness I granted years ago to all the other men in my life- stepfather, husband, and father. My father-in-law has never raised his hand to commit one crime against me, but I sit in judgement of him all the same. He has the gift of my silence without ever even knowing he possesses it, but I don’t have to give him my regard. He’s never done a thing to earn it.
This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Deadline for submissions has been extended until Dec 5. Contest Rules.