I'm sitting in a psychotherapist's office in Kansas City. It's been a harrowing session, one of a series where I recount the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse father inflicted on me throughout childhood.
I feel feverish, face aching from crying so hard. I pull myself to a seated position on the therapist's couch, look at her after fifty minutes of avoiding her eyes, and ask: "Was my father evil?"
She doesn't answer immediately, and I think, yes, she's going to tell me he was evil, and yes, she's going to confirm that it's OK for me to finally, blessedly, hate him.
"You'll have to answer that for yourself," she says.
I'm furious. The answer is obvious, isn't it?
That was twenty-five years ago. Looking back, I realize she gave the only answer that can be given. I m not saying there is no right or wrong, but allowing someone else to answer the question for me would have put my understanding of my father, myself, and of evil (and good) in a box. I may have never found my way out.
For the past year, I've undertaken a journalistic quest to understand morality. I've interviewed clergy, poets, and philosophers. I've read books. I've blogged. I've tackled the abstract ideas in detail, but I haven't talked about why this topic is important to me. Until now, I haven't confessed to my own wounds.
I took my first tentative steps to understanding as a student at Michigan State University. Shaken by an impulse to suicide, I went to the university's mental health clinic. Short-term counseling kept me alive, but resolved little. Later, a job as a reporter gave me the income and insurance to pursue in-depth psychotherapy.
I began by reliving the past, sweating through those moments when I thought I was going to die at my father's hands and then didn't. (Always such a surprise.)
Later I cried through my shame of having been so mistreated. Still later I realized I was like a combat veteran who couldn't shed memories of war. I, too, raged at the people I loved the most.
The more I relived the past in the calm of a therapist's office, however, the less control my emotions had over me. I began to be able to breathe. I began to be able to love.
Was my father evil? My father was a man who believed in integrity. The sanctity of a man's word was important to him. He hated his job as an advertising art director because doing right was the last thing the agency worried about. My father cheered the civil rights movement. He taught my brother and me to hate racism. Are these not the attributes of a good man?
Shortly after I started therapy, my father was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. Although I had barely begun to cope with my feelings, I knew I'd lose my chance to confront him if I didn't see him immediately.
When I call to set up a visit, all I say is I need to talk. We agree to meet at the apartment where he lives alone. My mother divorced him years before.
He smiles as he opens the door. …