My father had been my ally in the family.
True, he’d done some weird shit. When I was in preschool, my mother’s cat had turned up dead in the storage room where he kept his tools. He never explained how he hadn’t noticed her starving in there.
When I was five, I told him I was exactly the same as a boy, so he took me out into the back yard and ordered me to pull down my pants and piss on a tree. When I urinated all over myself, he laughed, carried me inside, and handed me off to my mother, probably thinking he had taught me a lesson. He had: Don’t trust the dude.
When I was six, I begged him to take me on a father-daughter camping trip. He answered that he would never do any such thing because people would think he was having sex with me.
He regularly berated and humiliated my mother until she folded over her knees and wept.
So yeah, sure, I knew my dad wasn’t maybe the best person in the world. But he hadn’t hit me. With the self-absorption of childhood, what mattered to me was that he let my brother and me play outside past dark on summer vacations. That he fixed us milkshakes when we came back inside. He wrestled us and tickled us, and despite his gender-policing-pee-trick in the back yard, when I said I wanted to be the Karate Kid for Halloween, he was the one to make the headband for me, carefully tracing the lotus flower in permanent marker over white cotton. The floating lotus a symbol of purity and transcendence, rooted in the muck of the world’s brokenness.
But then, shortly after I turned seven years old, he lost his job at Hanford. The government shut down the last reactor when I was still six years old. Soon after, my father was let go.
Six years earlier, they had converted to Mormonism, and my mother promptly quit her job as a software engineer, but now both my parents were unemployed. My father tried to find work in the Tri-Cities. But he couldn’t. The tech jobs were in Seattle, even then. By that time, they had lost their house, and so my parents decided to do the only thing they could think of: they took what was left of their savings, packed up, and moved west.
* * *
For three months, my father went on interviews and mailed out resumes while my mother fixed peanut butter sandwiches and chicken soup out of Lipton’s foil packets. Finally, he landed a job at a software startup, but he was never the same. He never again fixed us milkshakes after dark. He taunted my brother, telling him that he was a doppelganger and the true Allan was out there somewhere else, left behind in Richland, coming to take his place. He started laying into my mother more. My mother lost her rage and hollowed out, bedridden with bronchitis or pneumonia most of the year.
At some point in sixth grade, I got fed up. I loved both my parents, but I’d had enough. I think it was in the spring after Easter. At church, one of the men had given a talk on the father’s responsibility as head of the household. He had stated that leadership did not mean telling other people what to do; it meant setting a good example, comforting others, and resolving problems compassionately and fairly.
So the next time my father started in on how worthless my mother was, how lazy and helpless, how it no longer mattered that they had agreed to her staying home, he needed her to work because how could she be so selfish, doing nothing—I finally had the words to do something about it. My mother had crumpled to the floor yet again, yet again impotently flinging a Kleenex box at my father’s shoes, weeping.
I stepped between them.
“Hey Daddy,” I said. “Can’t you see you’re hurting her? Can’t you see she’s crying because she loves you, and you’re saying such mean things? We all love you. But you’re the head of the household. You’re supposed to set a good example. And this isn’t a good example for Allan or for me. Please stop this.”
I was puffed up with pride over my eloquence, my dignity. My great heroes back then were Dr. King and Jesus Christ, and I felt this was a pretty good approximation of what they might have said to a misbehaving father. I rocked.
But then I looked into my father’s eyes, and the confidence sluiced out of me. The rage I had so often seen slice through my mother’s soul cracked like lightning through his.
I knew he was going to kill me.
Terrified, I turned and dashed to my bedroom. I shut the door. I scanned the room for a place to hide. The closet? The toy chest? But he burst through the door before I had a chance. I scrambled onto my bed, but still, he came. His body all sharp angles and bone, slicing through the air towards me.
He snatched me by the waist. Panicked, I tried to climb the wall, to find a handhold so that he couldn’t pull me down, but there was just plaster. Drywall. Nothing to give me purchase.
He yanked me from the wall and threw me onto my bed, flipped me onto my stomach, and crawled on top of me, pinning my legs.
I was screaming. I wasn’t sure when I had started screaming.
He began to hit me. I had never known terror like this. He was going to kill me. There was nothing I could do. He was so heavy on top of me, I could hardly breathe, my face mashed into my pillow. I tried to kick or land a punch, but he was too heavy. He had me pinned down. The more I struggled, the harder he hit. Pain ribboned along my spine like a red-hot wire. Ricocheted through my skull. The weight of him sitting on me pinched my thighs until they burned. It was claustrophobic. I was so short of breath that white dots sparkled on my pillowcase and the fragment of wall I could see. How long would it take for him to kill me this way? Seconds? Minutes?
I screamed and screamed whenever I could get air. No one came. I don’t know where my mother and my brother were. Somewhere else. In another room, pretending this wasn’t happening.
I don’t remember anything else. I don’t remember when he stopped hitting me. I don’t remember when he got off me. I don’t remember the moment I realized I wasn’t going to die. I don’t remember what happened the rest of that day. If I came when they called me to the dinner table. If I went to school the next day. I don’t remember anything else for a long time.
But I had begun to understand. Every family is a city-state. And for the first time, I understood that I lived not in a democratic republic but in a dictatorship, ruled by an autocrat who brooked no dissent. His punishment was swift. I was living not in a family, but under a regime of terror, and this would be my life now.