Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

Twenty Years after Dad Died, I Discovered He’d Abused Us

When we were kids, we thought violence was normal.

Dawn Downey
11 min readFeb 1, 2020


At my grandmother’s, I played with a tin doll house, painted cream with green shutters and roof, the chimney planted dead center on the peak. It was a two-story model. Downstairs a living room, kitchen, and pantry. Upstairs, a bedroom opened onto a cobblestone patio. I rearranged the furniture according to my shifting moods, but always positioned the bed under a window, headboard facing the patio. I longed to shrink into that tin house, curl up on the plastic comforter, in front of windows that did not shatter.

I bent over my bed, packing for a weekend meditation retreat. Clothes were strewn on top of the covers, a suitcase open amid the clutter. My mind wandered. From the anticipation of pulling into the retreat center driveway toward the porch that overlooked well-tended gardens … to a hope that the cook had improved his vegetarian fare … to the taste of veggie burritos my sister Leslie had once fixed for me, adding so many jalapeños I had begged for antacid. And hadn’t Wayne mentioned her the last time we talked long distance? I straightened, cocked my head, and dropped a tee shirt mid-fold. What had he said? Dad smacked Leslie?

My brother had related the incident on many occasions, but the words had aroused no curiosity. I was inured to exaggeration and to the violence embedded in the stories. Our family language was peppered with “snatched her from here to Sunday,” “like to wring her neck,” and “just wanted to kill that boy.” Especially when cousins and siblings reminisced about growing up around Dad. I contributed little, my memories scant beyond fragments about visits to our grandmother’s house. But the stories were meant to be funny, so I snickered on cue.

As I was packing my suitcase, a figure-ground shift occurred. Unexpected, unplanned, and as effortless as releasing my grasp on a tee shirt. Smacked wasn’t exaggeration. It was fact.

I grabbed my cell phone from the nightstand. Touched green after finding Leslie’s number in my contacts. “Hi, honey. How’re you doing?” Good start, Dawn. What do you say now?

“Were you trying to get me a minute ago?” she asked. “Stupid cell is dropping calls. Thinking about switching to — ”

“Dad ever hit you?”

“He gave me a black eye in fifth grade.”

Oh my God! I covered my mouth, squelching an impulse to press her for details, although I prayed she would elaborate, explain why her tone of voice was telegraphing that the black eye was as mundane as a phone bill.

She said, “I’ll probably stay with AT&T. It’s a hassle to change.”

Dad had died a dozen years earlier, but maybe it was still too soon for her to talk about it. Whatever it was. Maybe too soon for me to hear. I let it drop and the call plodded toward our goodbyes.

“Let’s keep in touch.”

“Don’t wait so long.”

I felt hollowed out … and puzzled by the numbness. How could the enormity of her statement be squeezed into my limited worldview? The cell phone lay open in my hand. I set it on the nightstand, then folded the tee shirt and placed it in the suitcase.

At the retreat, I stretched out in bed, done in by a day of sitting on an unforgiving chair while trying to meditate. My mental chatter had ground to an intermittent murmur, absorbed into the steady cadence of the breath and the hourly sounding of the bell. The process was familiar, yet each retreat unfolded in its own unique manner. Sometimes, an epiphany slipped into the quiet. Always, it surprised me that sitting still brought on such deep fatigue. By bedtime, every muscle ached as it uncoiled, eased deeper into the mattress. One more breath would surely bring sleep.

Dad gave Leslie a black eye. It trailed across my consciousness like a banner.

A gasp lurched me upright. Dad gave Leslie a black eye.

I buried my face in the pillow and howled. Sickened by heartbreak. Pummeled by outrage I’d never felt. Tormented by a vision I couldn’t make sense of. I bawled, when the howling subsided. Sobbed, when the bawling let up. How? I interrogated the empty room. How does a six-foot man black a schoolgirl’s eye? Did he have to bend over? I staggered to an armchair, dragging blankets along. One punch? Two? I rocked and whimpered until exhaustion collapsed me, but I dozed for only a few minutes. Leslie’s black eye haunted my sleep, jerking me awake, a cycle that repeated until breakfast. The final day of the retreat, with its twin lullabies of breath and bell, restored a measure of calm.

Back home, phone messages had to be returned, emails answered, postponed obligations met. The black eye and its implications receded.

Scouring powder swirled into foam as I scrubbed the kitchen sink. Water from the sprayer spiraled the bubbles down the drain, leaving behind a faint scent of bleach and the gleam of porcelain. Lost in daydreams, I turned off the faucet, patting it dry with a sponge. Someone — Wayne? Michael? — at some family gathering or another, had repeated an old story. That after Wayne, in junior high at the time, had gone to bed, Dad went in to check on him. Startled awake, Wayne had yelled, “Don’t kill me, Dad!”

I stiffened.

Not: Don’t kill me, you mean-looking stranger who just broke into my room.

Don’t kill me — Dad.

I tossed the sponge onto the counter and raced for the phone. “Wayne. Did Dad hit you?”

“Oh sure.”

Leslie’s matter-of-fact tone again. It floored me. “When? How often?”

“From the time I could first think, until I was a teenager.” His voice level.

I felt faint … slumped into the nearest chair … held the phone to my ear without comprehension. Dad had abused Wayne and Leslie. There were six of us kids; Dad had probably hit the rest of us, too.

Wayne and I talked for an hour. He must have shared other revelations, but after we hung up, our conversation vanished into the phone’s dead air. It had taken decades for me to notice that memories of my childhood were sparse. Years to realize I was blocking out an unnamed truth. Would it take another lifetime before that truth could be assimilated? I was buffeted between a craving for information and an inability to absorb it.

Little by little, in fits and starts, I began to hear what my brothers said.

Michael said, “Dad swatted me so hard, it lifted me off the floor.”

After that call, I carried a load of laundry to the basement, my movements as mechanical as the washer’s. I phoned Michael again a month later. “Do you remember what you said last month?”

“Yeah. Dad hit me so hard it lifted me off the floor.” He told me three more times, in three different phone calls, before it sank in how hard that swat was.

Wayne said, “He threw Leslie against a wall.”

After that call, I started on dinner. Did he see it happen? Stuck salmon fillets into the oven. Did he say she fell? Chopped lettuce, cucumber for salad. Mistook the ketchup for vinaigrette. The stove timer beeped. Was Wayne afraid? Beeped again. I pulled burnt fish from the oven and called Wayne back. “Did you tell me Dad slammed Leslie into a wall?”

Michael said, “I was seven, scared of a bully at school. Dad threw me onto the sidewalk. Ordered me to go fight.”

After that call, I gathered up garden tools, slipped on gloves, and set about my yard work. While plucking weeds with a trowel, I stabbed at a dandelion until it shredded. I called Michael back. “What did you mean — he threw you onto the sidewalk?”

Wayne said, “He whipped me with a razor strap. It was in our garage on Alan Road. My therapist said he should have gone to jail.”

“How did it affect your life?” A safe question. Formality distanced me from mental movies: Dad wielding a strap like a plantation overseer, Dad pacing across a prison yard.

Wayne didn’t seem to mind my therapeutic tone. He said, “I isolate. I’m afraid of relationships. I don’t want to get hit anymore.”

He isolated. The description fit all of us. Scattered across the country, my brothers and sisters seldom spoke with one another. We celebrated holidays with friends instead of family. Phone messages went unheeded or unheard. We moved without providing new addresses. Nieces and nephews knew aunts and uncles only by name. Three of my siblings were married; I had skipped their weddings. They had not attended mine. I hadn’t expected it.

My shoulders slumped under the weight of grief so dense it robbed me of tears. The threat of Dad’s violence had held me hostage. Even after his death, I felt oppressed and powerless. And yet, eventually, relieved to find out what kind of environment had forged my fearful adult self. Disparate elements fell into place:

Night terrors. I had a recurring dream that a monster was coming to kill me. My siblings’ disclosures made it clear the monster was Dad.

Men. I avoided tall men. Had never dated any man whose build resembled my father’s muscular six-foot frame.

Headaches. A doctor labeled them migraines. Another blamed allergies. A feng shui master blamed electrical wires under my bed. Low blood sugar. Barometric pressure. Tension. Of course, tension. Isn’t that what you’d feel if your father was coming to kill you?

Once my life made sense, the forces that had compelled me to dig into my past evaporated. I stopped quizzing Michael, Wayne, and Leslie. I felt at peace.

I snapped the laptop shut and set it on the floor. An email had led to a blog post which led to a website which led to a purchase. My eyes were glazed. I rested on the bed, let the memory foam mattress support my weary tailbone. A razor strap? On Alan Road?

When I was in grade school, a razor strap had hung on a hook in the front closet of our house on East 15th Street in Des Moines. After Dad and Mama divorced, Dad moved into an apartment by himself. From there, children and new wife in tow, to another house in Des Moines. From there, we moved to Altadena, California. To Voluntario Street in Santa Barbara. And then to Alan Road. Six houses. Five U-Hauls. Half a continent. Half a century. Dad held onto his razor strap.

I leaped off the bed, stormed across the room, and pounded the wall. “Asshole.” I kicked the baseboard. “Sadist.”

I did not remember getting hit with the strap. Did not remember witnessing my siblings getting hit. I didn’t need to. Dad had abused his children. Abused me.

How could I put Dad and abuse into the same sentence? How could I set them down side by side? It was an obscene juxtaposition. Sometimes, after the realization, I was too weary to lift a skillet or push a dust mop, the sadness like a straightjacket. In between, I was furious with my mother and my stepmother for not protecting us. And then, I was afraid of getting into trouble for telling. I worried that Dad’s friends would accuse me of betraying him. But there was no disputing the black eye, the razor strap, the slam of a child’s body against concrete. Dad. Abuse. One sentence.

Wayne confided, “I’m afraid I’m like him.”

By the time he said it, that particular fear had already crossed into certainty for me.

My first husband and I were guardians of my nephew, Anthony. When he was eight, challenging, testing, I spanked him. That’s what I called it.

I grabbed his wrist and dragged him to the basement, where I pounded his backside with a brush designed for washing cars. The thwack of every strike bounced off the cement walls. It was the only sound, because he refused to cry. He protected his bottom with his free hand. Even as he twisted away from the blows, he glared at me. He tried to yank his arm out of my grasp, but I squeezed it tighter and hit that kid with all my strength.

When he was fifteen, me a single mom and him spending the night with a buddy, I woke up at three a.m. Those whippings replayed in an endless loop. I screamed at the memory, stuffing the blanket in my mouth so the neighbors wouldn’t call the police. In the morning, as I leaned against the kitchen sink, the flashbacks returned, and I collapsed onto the floor. As hard as I tried to twist my mind away from it, I could not escape the assault. The dank air of the basement, the thwack of the brush, Anthony’s arm crushed inside my fist.

So, when he returned home from the sleepover, I sat him down at the kitchen table. “I owe you an apology.”

He said, “Huh?”

It must have thrown him for a loop. A willful teenager, he was used to me demanding an apology instead of offering one.

“You were in third grade … I shouldn’t have whipped you … it was wrong.”

He said, “What?” He leaned toward me, his gaze piercing the space between us.

“You didn’t deserve to be hit. Ever. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

His hands, bigger than mine, rested on the table in front of him.

“When you have kids, I don’t want you to think it’s all right to hit them. It’s not.”

“Okay.” Stoicism veiled his feelings, but his eyes continued to bore into mine.

Anthony had inherited a legacy of violence. Could one mea culpa cancel out its effects? Perhaps he’d already learned violence from me the way I’d learned it from Dad.

My father intrudes on my thinking process, until I doubt my brain has ever produced an original idea. If I recite a joke with pitch-perfect timing, it’s Dad’s timing, not mine. His opinions attach themselves to the items tossed into my grocery cart. If you’re behind me in line, and we’ve been trading stories like we’ve known each other since kindergarten, you’re talking to my father. One of Dad’s colleagues chuckles when I peer at her over my reading glasses. “God, you look just like Bill.” I take it as a compliment. He was an author before me, as well as a teacher, and one of his students says of my writing, “The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.” Which one of us is the apple, which one the tree?

On retreat, after my teacher Matthew’s dharma talk, I told him, “All these years, all the teachings you’ve shared … I thought it was you, lecturing me. But it was my own voice trying to wake myself up.”

Acceptance. It sounds so gentle; you foolishly imagine you might try it. As if you could choose. You don’t choose. You plummet into acceptance, because the floor has collapsed beneath your feet. Surrender to the fact of razor strap; from there surrender to shock; from there to rage, to grief, to relief, and back to grief. Always back to grief. To the bruised faces of children across the planet, the faces of the fathers who bruised them and the mothers who turned away. And when you crash into what you presume is the very sub-basement of surrender, a sinkhole opens and swallows you. Surrender to that.

There’s no hitting the bottom of acceptance. There’s a rush of irrational affection for all the voices in your life. They are your own.

At my grandmother’s, we always put away the toys when we finished playing, probably drawn to the kitchen by the scent of pumpkin pie fresh from the oven. I carried the dollhouse back to the attic, holding it in both hands, even though it was light enough to balance in one, keeping it level to prevent the furniture from sliding into chaos. Although my sister or brother might play with it before my next visit, and I might need to return the bed to its rightful spot under the window, I always found the dollhouse tucked into a corner of the attic, near the tea set and the Lincoln logs. The brick chimney always rose from the peak of the roof. Pristine, impotent, because the dollhouse had no fireplace. There are advantages to such an arrangement. No ashes to cart away. No danger of stray embers popping onto a carpet. And yet … no hypnotic flicker. No heat. No crackle.

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