REPORT A PROBLEM
Iím not sure where to begin. Iíve rehearsed several openers but none of them seem right so Iím just going to jump in and start writing. This month is about you, by the way. Youíve been dead a long time now but itís weird how I still have conversations with you in my head. Itís weirder still to think youíd have been turning 99 this year. What do I want to say? Nothing I havenít said before, or at least thought of saying. And to anyone else reading this, Iíd better warn you up front: some of itís not pretty.
My earliest memories of you are generally positive. You were the person I called Daddy. You worked in a bank. You rode a scooter to work. We lived in a big house on the Isle of Wight. You were married to Mummy and you were also Daddy to my older sisters. You used to mow the lawn with a big, green lawn mower. You used to tickle my feet when you were putting on my socks in the morning. And at Christmas we all had to wait outside the sitting room until youíd helped Santa Claus back up the chimney.
Iím guessing we used to get on together. I remember when you used to go driving and sometimes Iíd tag along. I canít remember what we used to talk about but I suppose we must have talked about something. You were nearly 49 when I was born, just a little younger than I am now. Who was I to you? What did it feel like to have another child at such an age? Not to mention the fact that I was your first son! And even though Mum had planned me, you hadnít. You were duped. What was that like?
My happiest memories of you are: helping you with the wallpapering; watching the way you used to get along with Uncle Bob and Uncle Les; going for drives in the car; watching you do the tarot cards; watching the funny faces youíd pull while shaving in the mirror; helping you make rum butter with the Kenwood Chef; listening to the conversations you and Mum used to have about psychics; going along with you to the Spiritualist Church; helping you to put up with Christmas tree and standing with you in front of a roaring bonfire at Ashcliff on Bonfire Night.
For a long time I always used to think you didnít take much interest in me but that's probably a little unfair. Towards the end of your life there were so many issues surrounding you that anything that went before has become impossibly muddied by what came later. And while you may not have been the most affectionate of fathers you nonetheless did take an interest in some things. My writing was one of them. You would patiently read everything I wrote and you always managed to find something positive to say. You made me believe I could do it.
I remember how excited you were at the prospect of moving to Australia. Once there, you dyed your hair, came out of retirement and had a whole new lease on life. There was humour too, like the time you fell asleep with your head in the freezer because it was so, so hot. Mum seemed happy too. And when I started high school I remember how proud you were of me when you saw me in my school uniform. Mum insisted on taking a photo of us in the back garden to mark the occasion: father and son, grinning together.
Iím not quite sure how I felt when I discovered you were a paedophile. Shocked certainly but also numbed. It was my sister who told me about it, a dark secret that no one was willing to discuss openly. I was 14 at the time and it was one of those defining Ďbefore and afterí moments after which nothing can ever be the same again. The very idea of my own father interfering with little girls completely threw me. And where did Mum fit into all of this? It all seemed so awful. At a stroke, all innocence was gone.
One would imagine that finding out about such things would change everything. It did, but not all at once. Denial probably played a part. Itís not the kind of information one easily digests in a day or two, if at all. You looked the same as you did before. You went to work; I went to school; Mum continued to cook the dinner. Perhaps my sister had been mistaken. No one else in the family seemed to be saying anything about it. Once the knowledge had been imparted it was as though a veil of silence settled over the issue.
Itís all too difficult to deal with within a linear narrative. Those years between me finding out and you dying were messy ones: so much crap going on within the family; so much heartache and mistrust; so many conflicts large and small, not to mention the growing pains of having to come to terms with my own sexuality. My creeping dislike of you was tempered by the genuine acts of kindness you still bestowed on others from time to time. Indeed, there were days when I forgot about it all and you were just Dad and not a sexual deviant.
Letís take your death as an illustration of this confusion. I was living away from home at the time. Weíd had a major falling out a couple of weeks before. It was only because you picked up the phone on New Years Day that our last conversation was a conciliatory one. Not an apology but a civil interaction nonetheless, and one that proved to be our last. Within a few short days you were dead. And I grieved. We all did, even your victims. We grieved because thatís what one does. It wasnít until later that the rage took hold.
For all that you repeatedly betrayed her, Mum was completely devastated when you were gone. The irony was that in death, you became larger than life. Anyone would think sheíd been living with a saint all those 39 years.
Even so, she could never really bring herself to talk about it. Iíve often wondered how it was for her.
I remember eavesdropping on you both arguing one night, crouched by my bedroom door listening while she cursed you and begged you to explain why youíd done it, and you lamely and without remorse defending yourself while she howled.
Itís the cold-hearted, selfish cruelty that I find hardest to come to terms with. Perhaps thatís why Iím so passionate about my job. I work with young people who have in many instances been subjected to unforgivable cruelty, perpetuated no doubt by victims of cruelty themselves. Sometimes I feel as though Iím trying to make up for all the damage you inflicted upon those for whom you should have been an archetypal protector Ė their grandfather.
Itís at such times that I find myself raging against the injustice of it all Ė that you never lived to have your wretched day in court.
I can remember reading Freudís theories about the way we suppress certain memories and why at times we are at a loss to remember a word we know well and frequently use. Right now Iím struggling to recall the word that best describes what you did. Itís on the tip of my tongue, a word Iíve invoked many times but one which I am utterly unable to retrieve right now.
The mind works in strange ways, especially when it comes to protecting us from those acts of pain and cruelty weíd rather not remember.
Ah, now I remember it . . .
I remember you as being, amongst other things, a popular man. You had a way with words. You could be utterly charming. You'd often go out of your way to help someone out of a tight spot. Unlike Mum, who was generally content with her own company, you liked to surround yourself with other people. When I look at old photographs of you (what other kind are there?) you are always smiling out at the world. I know that smile. Itís one of the things Iíve inherited from you; that and your ridiculous bouncing walk.
My Dad: Mr. Nice Guy.
Another word comes to mind: predator. Did it never occur to you the damage you were inflicting? Did you never acknowledge, even to yourself, the criminal nature of what you were doing?
I have in my possession the letters you wrote to Mumís parents during the war. You were a young father at the time and you describe the simple pleasures of parenthood with such sincerity and warmth. What happened to that young parent? When did the transition from protector to predator occur? What was the trigger?
Or was it always lurking just below the surface?
I never got to meet my grandparents. They were all long gone before I appeared on the scene. I wish I had. Iíve always considered the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren to be a special one.
And what of yourself? What would it have felt like to have your own grandfather rape you? Did you never think that one through? What aberration of conscience allowed you to avoid it?
And what of your legacy? Did it never occur to you that you were sowing the seeds of hatred? That you would be reviled and despised by your victims for evermore?
Violence. Violation. Abuse. Rape. Evil. These are the words that come to mind when I dwell on what you did. You didnít live to see the wreckage left in the wake of your actions. I have done. I have listened to those who suffered. I have seen the impact upon their lives. I have witnessed the fury, the anger, the misplaced guilt and all the repercussions of your selfish and sadistic self-indulgence Ė the ripping away of innocent and the trampling of the rights of the innocent. You have such a lot to answer for. Honestly Dad, what were you thinking???
I was angry with you for a long time. I dealt with that anger by trying to dismiss you from my life. But try as I may you wouldnít be dismissed. You kept on seeping back in. I found myself blaming you for everything that wasnít right in my life, even the things that had nothing to do with you. And I missed my father. I missed having that person to whom I should have been able to turn to in times of distress or uncertainty, even if only in memory. But there was no solace to be found there.
It was many years later that I finally got to lay some of your shadow to rest. Before an audience of three hundred or more I read aloud a letter of forgiveness addressed to you. Were you there? Did you hear me? By the time Iíd finished there wasnít a dry eye in the place. People were falling over themselves to tell me how my words had moved them. I wonít pretend it was an end to the matter, nor that it was my place to forgive you. But it helped. It allowed me to move on with my life.
The irony is that I learnt a lot from you; like how not to be around children Ė imposing, lecherous and ultimately ill at ease.
Everything else aside, I cannot recall you ever being truly comfortable around me. When Iím with friends who are themselves fathers and observe their affection, their tenderness and their instinct to love and protect I realize that is something I never felt from you. Caring, yes Ė for all your sins you were never cruel or neglectful, simply ill at lease.
And like a lot of other things that you felt, thatís not what kids need nor want.
You were always so much older than me. I was the same age as those you molested.
Sometimes Iíd catch you staring at me. Youíd be sitting in the chair across from me and youíd be staring at me with such unnerving focus that Iíd squirm and finally say ďWhat!Ē I never did receive a satisfactory response. Perhaps I was nothing more than a visual focal point for other thoughts.
Or maybe, just maybe you were wrestling with the enormity of what you had done, which was in such stark conflict with your ongoing instincts and responsibilities as a father.
Itís not that you indulged in such cruel and self-serving fantasies that causes the grief Ė none of us are saints; we are all haunted by our own particular demons; we all have skeletons in the cupboard that weíd prefer remained there. No, itís not that. Itís the fact that you acted them out, time and time again, inflicting yourself upon the young and vulnerable with absolutely no regard for anyone but yourself. It is this abdication of moral responsibility that I find so reprehensible and still cannot forgive, even if Iíve found the wherewithal to forgive you for so much else.
You had four daughters before I came along. What was that like? What hidden desires, if any, were you hiding, suppressing, denying back then? By all accounts you never laid a finger on any of them, yet years later you raped their daughters, some repeatedly, even routinely.
By any definition that makes you a monster.
But were you always a monster? What happened? What was it that changed? And at what point did the doting father become the abusive grandfather? Itís not for want of excuses that Iím asking, simply insight.
Sadly, these are questions that will forever go unanswered.
What would I say to you if you were alive today? Iím at an age and stage now where such a conversation could have been meaningful. More to the point, what would you say to me? Because I would certainly be asking questions. You in turn would need to come up with the answers. And for any such dialogue to have any real substance youíd need to be a lot younger than the 99 years you would now be approaching. Because one thingís for sure: Iíd be posing questions that no doddering centenarian would have the wherewithal to grapple with.
I canít help wondering sometimes about George the boy growing up during the first Great War. Apparently you had no recollection of your life before the age of about ten. Given my own ability to access even my pre-verbal memories of childhood I find this extraordinary. I also find it illuminating. I canít help but feel that an inability to recall what it is to be small and vulnerable is a serious impediment to fully appreciating and valuing what childhood is, what it feels like and how dependent we all once were on the guidance and good will of grownups.
What if it had never happened? What if youíd never committed these sins, these crimes against the innocent? What if youíd simply been George, Dad, Grandpa? What cherished memories might we have collectively shared that would allow us all to miss you, share fond memories about you; recollections of warmth and laughter and fun and trust? There are those in the family who still wonít acknowledge what you did; others still, latecomers to the clan, who are not even aware. For those of us who do remember though, your actions have denied us the ability to remember you with love.
The legacy that could have been . . .
George the man, the husband, the father and beloved grandfather; the writer of stories, the person you could always turn to in a time of need, the one who set the example for the rest of us to follow; the one who for all his imperfections always strove to do his best by the ones he loved; the man remembered with both affection and respect and so sadly missed after all these years. All this and more could have been yours: should have been yours. And, by extension, ours.
If only, Dad.
If only . . .
Why now, you may well ask; why after all these years have I chosen to turn my attention to you again? Well for one thing Iím approaching the age that you were when all of this first kicked off. I have insight into middle age I didnít have when I was younger. When I was younger it was incomprehension and anger that consumed me, albeit buried and largely suppressed, while my work with children over the years has instilled in me a profound respect for their right to protection and respect, and the damage done when these rights are denied.
Sometimes it occurs to me that maybe I never really got angry enough; that in some perverse way I chose to let you off the hook. There are those in the family I know who would gladly have seen you rot in hell for what you did, even put a bullet through your skull with little or no remorse. Much of their rage has been compounded by the fact you died before anyone had an opportunity to seek some kind of recompense. But for me, to have maintained the rage would have been to my own detriment and therefore pointless.
There is no fitting epitaph to conclude all of this. What is done is done. The living go on and move on. The young become the older and the older become the old. In time your name and memory will pass into the realm of the long-forgotten, as will we all. I just wish that while you still remain an entity in the minds of some it could have been as a decent human being. Because if thereís one thing Iíve learned in life itís that there is no greater joy, nor pleasure, than doing the right thing by others.
So there you have it. Youíve been dead a long time now. These are words that you will never read. Itís little more than an intellectual exercise, but a valuable and necessary one nonetheless.
I barely think of you these days. When I do it is rarely with anger: rarely with anything really. I gave up on the anger a long time ago and beyond that there wasnít much else left to feel.
There are others however for whom it will never be over.
And that is the tragic consequence of a life lived without due moral regard for others.
The Tip Jar