Over the rest of my time at Christendom I came to several painful realizations. One was that my father was never going to change. I did not have the vocabulary to say, “my father has Narcissistic Personality Disorder” and more than I could have been able to know and say to Uncle Tim, “I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” I sensed what I could not yet name.
The other painful realization was that my uncle and aunt were not going to help me. They had no intention of doing anything to help me escape this abusive relationship or protect me from the dangerous situation. Moreover, they had every intention of leveraging my attempt to be a good niece to them as a hook to keep me in my father’s clutches. As long as I would accept their hospitality, they would pressure me, shame me and silence me into accepting the unacceptable. They would force me into physical proximity with him, even though they knew that he was a violent, unreasonable person that I did not feel safe with. They made it clear to me that it was my responsibility to tame the beast. I would make it obvious that I did not feel safe or comfortable around him. That I felt trapped and used. They in turn, made it obvious that my mental health and safety were less important than that my father retain all appearances as head of his broken family. That I should be ashamed of my pain and feelings of being unsafe.
If it is the wife, sister, mother or daughter’s job to please and submit to man, it doesn’t matter much which man, or how he demands to be pleased or how he punishes those who fail to please him. It is always the woman’s fault. Because she always somehow could have been sweeter, meeker, more quiet, more submissive. She must be less, less, less anything but what he wanted. Anything more was a “bitch”, the catchall term my father used for any woman whose existence, breathing, posture, laughter, voice or speech displeased him. I truly had become a “bitch” to him (just like my mother). Because I was a woman that he considered his own and I was not pleasing him.
To my father, I was an ugly, snarling, sometimes sullen dog without a home or pedigree, howling in garbage cans, or whimpering away from his verbal kicks.
The ideology that I had heard in the office of the president had not been a thoughtless blunder of inexperience on the part of my uncle. He truly believed it. It informed his world view. According to him, the Paul Fords of the world were a menace only to women who deserved it. Hence, it did not matter to Dr. O’Donnell that he knew that Paul Ford had abused his sister–Uncle Tim’s own wife–when they were children. It did not matter that he knew me, his niece, to be an honest, people-pleasing, scrupulous to a fault, quiet character. His ideology trumped his common sense to the point that he could not add two plus two.
I would tell Uncle Tim when he asked that I never knew what to expect of my father when he visited because he was so volatile and lied chronically.
“You have to be more grateful to him. He is paying for your tuition.”
“What has that got to do with what I was talking about? How can you believe in or trust a chronic liar? How can you even have a relationship with a person that dishonest? There’s no trust possible.”
“He paid for your education and he gave you life.” He preached with solemn disapproval.
“If you think that that means that he can use me as he likes, you are gravely mistaken,” I said, as gently as I could.
He fell silent and avoided my eyes.
In his view, in accepting my father’s money in order to get the education that I wanted so badly, I had effectively sold myself to be the trophy of my mother’s unrepentant rapist and my own abuser. So if he mistreated me, that was what I got for trying to get an education. I wish that someone, anyone, could have gone to my younger self and pointed me to a women’s shelter, a community college program, driving lessons…but I went from extremely sheltered child slave straight into another bubble. A pretty little bubble, where I was happy…until my abuser visited it or threatened to take it away and leave me to the heartless outside world I had been warned about.
In the ideological landscape of men like my father, all women ultimately are whores to be bought.
Daughters make even better slaves than wives or sisters or mothers to control because you, as the father, caused their coming into being and no matter how hard they work to gain your love or appease your wrath they can never repay you that “debt”. No matter what you do to them after they are born, or even while they are still in utero, you can gloat that if you hadn’t enslaved their mother, the little bitch would not even exist. It is perfect, really, if you think about it. It is the perfect setup for a violation of the human person with no consequences. The perfect method to systematically destroy the human psyche. There is no escape from the relentless, immeasurable, soul-crushing “gratitude” for her existence. Even if he forces her to exist solely for him.
Dr. O’Donnell once witnessed a publicly humiliating outburst from my father in a restaurant. I say outburst because it was not a fight. I had no opposing point of view and did not return his screams and character attacks. Instead I rose silently from the table to the bathroom to cry. Dr. O’ Donnell saw this and did not say anything to console me afterward or see if I was alright. He saw and he said and did nothing. Well, except to make a point of remarking to me when my father picked up everyone’s dinner check, “Your father is a very generous man.” Aunt Cathy only expressed concern once I returned to the table to say, “You know that your Dad still loves you, right?” Poor Aunt Cathy. She is under the impression that men who emotionally abuse, gaslight, namecall, silence and publicly insult with screams, “still love you”. Who knows what growing up with my father taught her about “love”.
Another time, the O’Donnells drove me out of state for a wedding. I had known that my father was going to attend but I did not know until we had reached the hotel that I was arranged to share my father’s room. I was stunned. How, after all that the O’Donnells knew, did they think that I would feel safe or comfortable with him? I gathered my courage and tried to make the best of it.
What followed was a sleepless night. The next day, hours of deathly silence was followed by the most violent outburst since the divorce. He usually reserved this level of cruelty and hatred and gaslighting for my mother. I was not a child anymore, I cooly contradicted his lies and refused to raise my voice to his screams or stoop to his name calling. And he hated me. He hated me now more than he had hated my mother. I was a loathsome and terrifying creature to him that needed to be screamed and beaten back to become the gentle, whimpering, terrified child that it once was. Failing that, it had to be goaded into charging like a bull so nobody could blame the matador for the final blow. I kept a safe physical space from him. I’m certain the whole wing heard him. If I did not know in retrospect that the wing was full of my relatives, I would have wondered why nobody called the cops. But he got angrier and he stalked closer. I knew this pattern too well and knew that if I let him get physically close enough he was going to physically attack. Hit me, grab me by the throat or shove me into the wall the way I had seen him do with my mother.
“Come here!” he screamed.
I turned and calmly strode quickly across the room. “I don’t have to take this,” I stage whispered. I was not going to shout. If he charged it was going to be at a retreating figure. He screamed again for me to come close and face him. I looked over my shoulder at him and whispered with disgust, “No.”
Neither of us were in the habit of my refusing or defying him. But if he was going to cross the physical line I had better get in front of witnesses. I got out the door and walked, I didn’t run, down the hallway. “Coward!” He screamed after me. But he did not follow. I did not stop until I was down at the edge of the parking lot entrance. Standing in the wind in my black cocktail dress. I wept at passing traffic.
There I was, out of state, far from my friends, with no money to my name, loitering away from the front of a hotel that I can’t even remember in a city unknown to me at the time, trying to escape the man who beat my brother mercilessly because he enjoyed it. And blamed my mother for pregnancies brought about by his actions that he would not let her refuse. I remember waiting outside, weeping alone but reaching for the Holy Face of the compassionate God who had not forsaken me. He didn’t hate me for my youth or my femininity. He had taken upon Himself a human heart so that it would be broken for us. If for us, than also for me.
Everyone saw my red eyes at the rehearsal dinner. I avoided my father and begged one of my cousins to let me shelter in her room because I did not feel safe with him. She mercifully said yes so that I was able to sleep that night. But still the adults did not help. I avoided him at the wedding and stayed in a different pew. He mockingly apologized with that smile I recognized him using whenever he lied — something he thought a funny joke. It was as if he was not even making an effort anymore to convince me of his sincere intention to make amends. I said that I forgave him, with the fullness of recognition that he was not sorry, would never change and I needed to get away from him.
But he came up to me at the reception and asked me to dance. Not to talk, not to put me at ease. He just liked other people seeing him with me. If I displeased him further he might or might not have another violent outburst. Or he might just conveniently decide afterward that he can’t afford to send me to college anymore. Who knew what he was capable of? He had made threats before. I danced with my mother’s rapist. And somebody took a blurry photo. I don’t have it. I didn’t want to see it. My face is completely turned away from the camera and my six foot six father is gripping me. Everything about my posture is stiff and recoiling. And his face, that I did not look up to see at the time, is strained and frustrated. I thought to myself at the time, if I lose my graduation for this, I lose my education for this. But he will never make a show of his false love for me again. He won’t make me pretend like this again.
I said goodbye to him the next day, and told him it was over. He had lost me. It was done.
I went back to Virginia with the O’Donnells, back to Christendom, and worked harder than ever. My father and I did not speak to each other for a year. I only left messages on his phone every time he was late on payments, wondering each time if this was going to be the time he would drop the bomb on me. I believe he did this deliberately. But graduation day came. I heard from my mother that he planned on coming for it, though he never spoke to me once and I did not expect him to come up and speak to me. Or, if he did, not in a congratulatory way.
So imagine my shock and horror when upon the morning of the Baccalaureate Mass, I get a call from Aunt Cathy to confirm that I had reserved a seat for my father at the Mass, cocktail hour and Graduation Dinner. I had not, of course. My guest of honor was my sister. But my father was staying at the O’Donnell’s house and expected a seat of honor next to the president, his sister, his estranged daughter and his ex wife.
I was reeling from lack of sleep, insufficient caffeine and the stress. So I don’t think I was my emotionally reserved, composed self when I spoke to Aunt Cathy. I had told her before that my father and I had ended our relationship and that we had not spoken for a year. And I was done with the O’Donnells acting like they could not hear or remember crucial spoken dialogue.
“Aunt Cathy I told you that (sister’s name) is my guest. My parents were never going to sit at our table. And since he never asked nor has communicated with me in a year, I had no knowledge of him coming with any such expectation.”
“You mean you’re not going to honor your own parents at your graduation?”
“It is not honoring my mother to ask her to sit next to him. Did you really expect me to ask her to sit beside him? Or to expect that he would behave himself next to her?”
“But he’s here now and he wants to attend.”
“That was never the plan and he did not clear that with me or purchase a ticket. What did you think I would do? Choose a parent to sit with me and tell the other to stay away? Why did you think it would be Mom? Did you really expect me to break her heart like that and humiliate her at my graduation?”
“Well this is an awkward situation, Maria. What exactly do you want me to do? What am I supposed to tell your father?”
“That’s not my problem. I’m going to get in my cap and gown and get ready. You figure out a way to tell him ‘no’. You might suggest he ask me what I want for a change. Goodbye.”
What Aunt Cathy did was tell my father he couldn’t come to the actual dinner because there was no chair reserved. But she could still invite him to the Mass and Cocktail hour. When I emerged from the chapel and saw him, I knew it was going to be a nightmare. It was worse than I expected though. There was the unavoidable first hug. Sometimes he used to force hugs in public, for appearances’ sake. I would be pushing against his chest trying to release myself but he would pin me and hold me tighter and longer the more I recoiled. Because he wanted me to feel powerless and he wanted everyone to see how lovingly he pressed his eldest child to his paternal bosom. Not this time. Lucky me. Just thinly veiled insults in front of esteemed teachers.
“Let’s take a picture together,” Uncle Tim said with a smile. Before I could blink Cousin Niall was there with the camera and there I was, between my uncle the President of Christendom College and his brother-in-law, my abuser. I plastered on the most strained, fake smile in the world. Tears filled my eyes. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry to someone for help. I wanted out of this insane universe where here I was, trying to make my father look good, because it was what my beloved uncle and aunt wanted of me.
I told myself that the photos were ugly and I was not photogenic. They would not use those photos, I thought. But no. There the photo was in the 2008 graduation issue of Instaurare, the quarterly college publication. Dr. O’Donnell, a cousin graduating with me, me and my estranged abuser. My only claim to recognition at Christendom as far as the marketing team was concerned was that I was related to the President, because I was the daughter of his brother-in-law. His divorced, disgraced, unrepentant, child-beating, wife-battering brother-in-law. Whom he proudly stood beside and smiled. They weren’t just buddies in the handball court or old college pals; Dr. O’ Donnell was proud to be friends with this man.
There was no excuse for the O’ Donnells, especially my uncle, to continue to pretend that pressuring me to talk to or spend time with my father was not revictimizing and enabling. Yet it never stopped whenever I saw them after graduation.
“Aren’t you going back to California?”
“Don’t burn bridges.”
“Why don’t you ask your father for help?”
“So you still haven’t called your father?”
“When are you going to call your Dad?”
I didn’t ever go back to him. No matter what they said, in their indifferent “concern”.
Dr. O’Donnell knew. He knew that his brother-in-law was a violent, unstable man. He knew that he had harmed me in the past. He saw with his own eyes how he tormented me. He saw that I was helpless, in anguish and trying to free myself.
Yet, Dr. O’Donnell had sacrificed me.
It’s possible that he felt sadly about it. Maybe Agamemnon cried when Iphigenia was led to the altar. But ultimately she was tied to the altar whether or not Agamemnon could bear to watch the final moment after giving the order for her throat to be cut. The gods of male headship had to be appeased so that the winds of Christendom College could blow the culture warriors to their battles confident in their fathers and upbringing. If the price of that was letting the odd beast devour an innocent maiden a few times, wasn’t that preferable to all of those young men questioning the authority figures? Having doubts? Or even refusing to die on a particular hill selected for him in the culture war?
No. No it wasn’t worth it. And as I sadly learned, the “human sacrifices” have been numerous. They have been far more numerous than I ever feared. And I fear there were and are more. Judging from my uncle’s continued silence, I have as yet no reason to believe that there will not be many, many more. I’ve learned from experience that, to Dr. O’Donnell at least, appearances are more important than either the truth or the good of the individual. Indeed, they are more important than the good of the family or the community or the Church. Like the Christendom Campus itself. A beautiful chapel with a steeple visible from the highway is of more pressing urgency than cleaning the mold out of the dorms or not pumping sewage into the Shenandoah.
I carried the burden of this secret for over a decade. I tell it now, not for myself, but for the survivors who could not and cannot speak, for those still being victimized and for the future students and their families. Iphigenia will not die so that the wind will blow the sails to ferry the young off to fight and die for petty, indifferent, capricious gods. Instead Christ, who mounted and embraced the cross to slay death, will guard his own. He will break the chains of the captives and guide the exiled home. The survivors are not a burnt offering that Christ desires, but He is always ready to accept a humble and contrite heart. But the Christendom Administration must cease its old ways of sacrificing people, the honor of God, and the teachings of Holy Mother Church to protect their petty power structure. So far, they have refused.
They have tried to silence us and sacrifice us all over again. But we are not going to be led quietly to our own destruction. We will never stop telling the truth. We will not be silenced. We will not be afraid. As God is my witness we will not turn our backs on the vulnerable and fearful. This is the truth. God be with us.