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If You Feel Something is Weird, It Is.
The conversation with my daughter—the one I wish my mother had with me.
In the fall of 1998, I had to be in Paris for a retreat organized by the magazine I wrote for. I was thirty-one and Leah, four. Since I was the expat, I’d committed to bringing her at least once a year to keep the connection with our family.
While I was working, my parents took her on a road trip to Cannes for a visit with my mom’s mother, who’d just come back from the fat farm.
That was the first (and last) time Leah traveled alone with my parents.
“Did you have fun with Baba and Chacha, my love?” I asked her enthusiastically when they came back.
I noticed she was withdrawn, but brushed it off, knowing that my parents’ disciplinary style was stricter than mine.
A few months later, when I went back without her, they casually showed me the photos from their trip. She was naked in most of them. In the grass, naked. On the balcony, naked. Around the pool, naked. On a bed, naked. Naked, naked, naked.
I remembered how shut down she seemed after that trip, and I almost threw up.
It brought my blood to a boil in seconds. I’d never felt something so primal: a desire to claw and maul anything that could hurt my cub. If I’d not been trained as the puppet of a narcissist in the way that I was, I’d have done just that. But I was still imprisoned by the rules of my upbringing, so all I could do was run out, faking a bathroom emergency.
I’d be alone soon. They were going to a movie. I sat there after I heard them leave, sobbing in the dark — tears that felt like unexpressed aching that had been gathering for thirty-one years.
When I came out of the bathroom, I covered the entire surface of their communal kitchen table with the photos. It had gone dark outside. I didn’t get up to turn on the light. I just sat there, fierce and scared, waiting for them. Pacing my inner cage.
I’d known for a long time there was something not right in the way my father looked at me. Maybe the way he looked at all women. Like he owned us. Like we were there to provide entertainment and stimulation. How he chose to photograph my daughter was meant to objectify her. These pictures were erotic; they evoked sexual tension, and that made me sick. Is that what he’d done to me?
“All women are whores except my mother and my daughter,” my father used to say. When I turned six, he started saying, “All women are whores except my mother.” At least I made the list for a while; my own mother didn’t even get that.
Something was very wrong with my father; that was obvious from the photos. Sitting in their kitchen for a while, my anger turned to rage, my guilt to shame, and my sadness to pity. It helped to have the time to think about what I wanted to say to him; I knew for a fact he wasn’t going to like it. But not saying anything was not an option.
The time had come to alter the course of my story, and the possibility to do that was about to walk in. I heard the door unlock followed by fragments of conversation in the hallway, getting louder as they came closer; something about the movie they saw. My heart sped up, and stopped, all at the same time.
My mother stepped into the kitchen, switched on the light, marched right back out into the hallway, and announced she was going to the bathroom. I will never know if she saw the pictures, knew what was coming, and chose to not be a witness — or if she really needed to use the bathroom. She didn’t come back to the kitchen, which was evidence of the former.
My father walked in, about to say bonjour, when he noticed the photo display, and stopped in his tracks.
I considered getting up, to match the force he brought into the kitchen, but my legs were shaking. His standing and my sitting didn’t help the overwhelming sense of imbalance I felt in that moment — and my whole life before that.
“Does anything strike you as odd, Dad?” I said, timidly aggressive, having lost a little steam, now that he was actually standing there.
“What are you talking about?” he responded aggressively, not timid at all.
He puffed up his chest and cracked his knuckles, as if to say, “You want a piece of me?”
“I know you think it’s cute taking pictures of us naked; I know you’ve always done it. Taken lots of them. Of me. And now of Leah. I find that upsetting; disturbing, even.” I think I said out loud. It’s possible I didn’t.
I was attempting to bring my father to acknowledge that his behavior was devastating. The fact that he believed his behavior was normal, and that my mother— speak of the devil, where was she? — did not condemn it, did not make that so.
I knew I was putting heat on thin ice by shedding light on something my family had put Herculean energy into keeping in the shadows.
It dawned on me that this scene was happening in the very kitchen that had served as the platform for his offenses, as well as my futile attempts to save myself by stuffing food down my throat on so many nights. He stormed out, stomped down the hallway, and slammed the door to the master bathroom, where my mom, turns out, had taken refuge.
I heard him report the exchange. I couldn’t make out all the words, but knew I was being made the villain. If he was unable to reflect on his behavior, my mother should have pressed him. She was there when he took the pictures; she knew. She should have taken a stand then, and sure as shit should have been taking one now — or at least fucking try.
It was my prosecution that occurred in there. It should have been his.
Eventually, I picked myself up and went to lean against their bathroom door, so I could hear more clearly what a bad daughter I was.
When I was able to peel myself off my listening post, I slowly made my way to the front door, giving my mom the chance to come get me, hug me, save me, and finally name this unspoken mess; heck, save herself. She didn’t.
I was staying at a nearby hotel, and have no memory of how I got back there. I spent a few more days in that room, processing what’d happened when I could, and downing food when I couldn’t. Confronting my father was excruciating; to feel my feelings was a skill I hadn’t mastered in Paris. It was hard enough in my LA life, so ravioli delivered from the Italian restaurant next door it was going to be.
I didn’t see my parents again on that trip. As proper narcissists, they would never be the ones reaching out to reconnect, and as a follow up to this particular collapse, I’d decided, neither would I. We didn’t talk for several months. I spent lots of hours debating if it had been worth it. It took time to reap the benefits of piercing their toxic veil, but some indicators started to prove I’d made the right choice.
The photo incident happened just days before I had my fridge epiphany back in LA. I started reorganizing the way I ate; transformation came haphazardly, not sequentially, not easily, but my weight and my waistline were consistently decreasing.
I’d found the missing critical ingredient to get my life back: tell the truth.
Secrets + Truth = Pounds
Keeping a secret is like holding a beach ball under water, it takes a lot of energy; and when I finally let go, pounds and pain started disappearing. My family had held my father’s sins under water to protect him, to maintain his status and avoid being removed from the privileges of his good graces. By disrupting the order of things, I was risking being dis-loved, ostracized, and rejected for calling out the truth; not to mention what it could cost me, literally. When my daughter was born, my parents helped me financially, so I could stay at home — generous, complicated hush money.
A few years later, my bright, beautiful teenage daughter — wanting to improve her French — decided to spend her summer in Paris. The photo debacle had made me painfully aware of my father’s dysfunction — and my mother’s pathological denial.
I’d decided Leah would never spend a night in their house, but they were going to spend some time together. I had to tell her the family secret. It had been difficult, naming this subtle / not-so-subtle way my father’s boundaries were not in the right place. But, when it came to my daughter’s safety, I wasn’t going to be subtle about it.
I booked a session with a highly respected LA therapist that specialized in sexual addictions. I wanted help deciding if I could let my daughter go and be alone with my parents. I described my father’s photo-shoots, him joining me in the shower to scrub my back, way too late into my teens, his falling asleep naked in my bed, and my mom’s complete denial of it all. I gave her what I thought was enough details to tell me what to do. I was hoping an authority would corroborate my perception, once and for all, that my father was dangerous, and we needed protection from his predatory tendencies.
When I was done recounting, she gave me a moment to recover, took a deep breath and said, “Based on what you’ve told me, Sophie, if your father lived in the States, I’d be required by law to have him arrested.”
There it was; I wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t safe growing up in my house; she couldn’t have been clearer.
Though he never raped me, sexually; his abuse was real. It was built one trespass at a time, elusive, silent, but no less destructive. Her findings were the ultimate validation: he was a criminal.
When I came home from that session, I had the tough, complicated, honest conversation a mother should never need to have with her daughter.
“Your grandfather is a complex man, he often misplaces his energy, and his love,” I said, pacing myself, making sure she was with me.
She listened, deeply: she’s that kind of kid.
“If you sense that something is off with him, you’re right; something is off.” I said, checking on her. “If you’re uncomfortable with the way he looks at you, or touches you, you have the right to say: ‘Chacha, stop looking at me that way, stop touching me, you’re making me uncomfortable.’ Can you see yourself saying that to him?” I asked, pausing.
“Yes,” she said, after her own pause, “I think I can.”
“If it happens, I want you to call me immediately, and we can decide if I need to come get you,” I added.
I gave her time to absorb all I’d just said.
“Do you still want to go?” I asked. “We can cancel the trip, now that you know.”
“I want to go,” she said, almost defiantly.
I wondered if her decision to go had something to do with clearing my past; offering me some healing by braving the monster on my behalf. Acting as a stand-in mom to me in some delicate way — the way my mom never had.
Her trip went well. I never got the dreaded call. When she came home, I asked how it went. She mentioned having to use, “Chacha, don’t touch me,” only once.
Not long after that episode, my brother and I begged our dad to start therapy; we needed help having these conversations as a family. It took many years, but he eventually did. On a visit to Paris, his therapist asked me to attend one of their sessions.
After hearing what I had to say, he scratched his budding beard.
“I think this is just a cultural misunderstanding,” he said. “Your father is from a country where affection is manifested in warmer ways.”
I worked hard to stop my brain from spinning out of my skull as I caught up with what he was saying.
“You’ve moved to California, people are more reserved there, less demonstrative; that’s the only problem I see,” he continued, as if to say, ‘everything’s okay, your father did nothing wrong.’ What I felt in my stomach was so jolting, I couldn’t get up.
I looked to my dad in a desperate hope that he’d put a stop to this charade, take my side, acknowledge that he had a problem, accept responsibility, and agree to tackle his demons. In that imaginary world, my father would have led the charge, and we would have left this charlatan’s office together.
That’s not what happened. My father just sat there, looking reassured that his “legit” psychologist had confirmed that his behavior was not pathological, that I was mistaken, and that hewas fine.
It’s difficult to own your shit when you’ve done it for so long.
In some way, I felt lonelier than ever — worse than if we’d let the beast sleep. Now, I had to accept the fact that nothing would ever change because that vetted moron had called it a ‘cultural difference.’ By saying so, he’d let my father off the hook, and hung me up to dry.
My legs were finally able to get me up from the chair in which I was being crucified.
“Wow, I can see we have different opinions,” I whispered under my breath as I staggered away, feeling like they’d just hit me with their truck. Thank God the sex therapist in LA had named it, so I could hold onto my sanity as I left this bozo’s office.
On my way out, I noticed my dad was wearing his navy turtleneck. My feelings for him generallyoscillated between admiration and fear; in this moment, it was mostly disgust.
My mother had been worried when Dad had started therapy; what if they discovered that something was actually wrong with him? And now, I was going in too? She had not said anything about it, but as the well-trained pony that I was, I could feel the vibe that morning. The way she hummed, banged dishes, chewed forcefully, and asked me multiple times if I was indeed joining his session — it was impossible to ignore the magnitude of her anxiety.
But after attending that session with him, she was relieved; there was now proof that she didn’t close her eyes to, condone, or even endorse his deviant behavior. That biased jury of one had handed down a verdict of not guilty of all charges in Them v. Me — they were both off the hook.
Years ago, when I was still a teenager, my mom, brother and I, were on vacation in the south of France; my dad worked in Paris all week and joined us on weekends. My mom’s best friend, Gigi, was often with us. One morning, he called the house and Gigi answered. “She just left to get some croissants,” she said to him.
My father never believed that; he was certain Mom had slept somewhere else — with someone else — and Gigi was covering for her. He hung up and arrived the next day. Many loud inaudible conversations occurred behind closed doors that week; that whole summer, come to think of it. I nowwonder if they ever considered a divorce.
Many years later, she came alone to visit me in LA. My dad was going to come too as it was my daughter’s 10th birthday. But he had a last-minute work thing; she decided to travel alone; that was a first.
At the time, Mom and I didn’t have many deep conversations. We either had superficial, weather-type talks, or we had a problem and fought about it. Not much in between. In a heartfelt conversation, I asked how she’d coped with dad’s incessant transgressions. I was now a thirty-six-year-old mother with some life under my belt; I hoped she would shed some light on some of the missing pages in my storybook.
“I had my fun, too,” she said.
“Tell me more,” I insisted. She wouldn’t, as if keeping it unspoken gave her shame a place to hide.
Mom had had affairs? So, was the croissant story true after all? She might as well have said she was a giraffe. I’m not sure if my mother did or didn’t, but with her four little words, “I had my fun,” she reframed my perception of our entire family. I’d always seen her as his victim. But, if she’d had affairs, it explained his behavior, which explained their dynamic; which explained what happened to me.
If she wasn’t his victim, did she retaliate by having affairs of her own? Or did she start the affairs, making her the perpetrator? The plot was thickening. Either way, shouldn’t she have found a way to protect me, and put my oxygen mask on first?
On that trip to LA, she tried calling my dad a few times, without success. One afternoon, a few days later, driving away from the farmer’s market, my phone rang:
“Tell your mother I’m not out there fucking prostitutes,” my dad said. “I was just fetching croissants.”
I handed the phone to her, without saying a word. She chatted for a few minutes and hung up.
“See, you aren’t very nice to him,” she said. “You didn’t even say hello.”
“Would you like me to tell you what he said to me when I picked up?” I asked.
“Oui,” she said, like someone who’d prefer to say, ‘non.’
“Tell your mother I’m not out there fucking prostitutes, I was just fetching croissants.” I repeated verbatim.
“You make such a big deal out of nothing,” she countered immediately and habitually.
I asked her if she’d indulge me in a little experiment. Reluctantly, she agreed.
“Close your eyes,” I said.
“Picture your own revered father saying, I’m not out there fucking prostitutes.”
Her eyes stayed closed longer than I expected.
When she opened them, tears were rolling down her face. She looked at me with what I interpreted to be a bit of an acknowledgement — an apology even. It had taken all of these years of operating in the dark to bring me to this simple but liberating moment; one of my offenders finally owning what they did.
We didn’t say another word about it, but now I knew she knew.
And, she knew I knew.
That made all the difference.
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