One evening in the early winter of 1976, an event occurred that would mark my childhood and forever after stand as a hinge moment in my life. The episode lay bare to my seventeen-year-old mind the threat undergirding the “traditional” arrangement of the sexes. Not just in principle and theory, but in brutal fact.
I was in my room, nodding over a book, when I was jolted awake by a loud crash. Someone was breaking into the house, and then pounding up the stairs with blood-curdling howls. It was my father, violating a restraining order. Six months earlier he had been barred from the premises. I heard wood splintering, a door giving way before a baseball bat. Then screams, a thudding noise. “Call the police,” my mother cried as she fled past my room. When I dialed 911, the dispatcher told me a squad car was on its way.
Yes, the dispatcher said. Some minutes earlier, an anonymous caller had reported “an intruder” at the same address.
The police arrived and an ambulance. The paramedics carried out on a stretcher the man my mother had recently begun seeing. He had been visiting that evening. His shirt was soaked in blood, and he had gone into shock. My father had attacked him with the baseball bat, then with the Swiss Army knife he always carried in his pocket. The stabbings, in the stomach, were multiple. It took the Peekskill Hospital’s ER doctors the better part of the night to stanch the bleeding. Getting the blood out of the house took longer. It was everywhere: on floors, walls, the landing, the stairs, the kitchen, the front hall. The living room looked like a scene out of Carrie, which, as it happened, had just come out that fall. When the house went on the market a year later, my mother and I were still trying to scrub stains from the carpet.
The night of his break-in, my father was treated for a superficial cut on the forehead and delivered to the county jail. He was released before morning. The next afternoon, he rang the bell of our next-door neighbor, wearing a slightly soiled head bandage, trussed up, as my mother put it later, “like the Spirit of ’76.” He was intent on purveying his side of the story: he’d entered the house to “save” his family from a trespasser. My father’s side prevailed, at least in the public forum. Two local newspapers (including one that my mother had begun writing for) ran items characterizing the night’s drama as a husband’s attempt to expel an intruder. The court reduced the charges to a misdemeanor and levied a small fine.
In the subsequent divorce trial, my father claimed to be the “wronged” husband. The judge acceded to my father’s request to pay no alimony and a mere $50 a week for the support of two children. My father also succeeded in having a paragraph inserted into the divorce decree that presented him as the injured party: by withdrawing her affections in the last months of their marriage, my mother had “endangered the defendant’s physical well being” and “caused the defendant to receive medical treatment and become ill.”
“I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” my father had written me. As I confronted, nearly four decades and nine time zones away, my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona. Was I supposed to believe the one had been erased by the other, as handily as the divorce decree recast my father as the “endangered” victim? Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?
Susan Faludi, In the Darkroom, 2016.