feminism · personal narrative · shifting perspectives · women and violence

My radically sexist father

Disclaimer: this is a very personal post, and sort of breaks with our normal format here at Hook & Eye. Trying out something new before breaking for the holidays. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it anyway. Thanks for reading! xx

Anyone who knows me well knows that I had a very complicated relationship with my father, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2006. Memories of him have been resurfacing for me recently, partly because of Trump (more on that below), partly because the holiday season often has me sorting through old papers and feeling nostalgic. A text conversation prompted me to search for his name through the Fordham library databases website, and the articles that produced were like slaps in the face, serving as stark reminders of the childhood he had made so difficult for me. 

From Alberta Report, Nov. 22, 1999
I had posted these on Facebook but removed them after becoming frustrated at the expressions of sympathy in response, which seemed so inadequately linked with the complicated reality of my memories. How could people know, without any context, what these fragments really represent? 
My dad was a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist, and fought for a number of important local causes, such as clean air and sacred land rights. But he also believed that all of Alberta was going to be wiped out in a flash flood originating from the Bennett Dam a few hours northwest in British Columbia, and his conviction that the oil & gas industry in Alberta was destroying the local ecosystem transcended peaceful protest and dissent. He would charge into my junior high school and remove me from class because he’d determined that the local oil & gas flare was particularly bad that day. He routinely posted signs on our lawn expressing incendiary statements in support of Wiebo Ludwig, the cultish local rabblerouser who was associated with vandalizing oil rigs and on whose property the sixteen-year-old girl mentioned in the article was killed. Dad had a fierce case of bipolar I disorder which he refused to treat, and would stay up all hours of the night sending alarmist faxes about pressing but sometimes invented environmental issues to local, provincial, and federal politicians and allies. The small, rural community where I’m from did not like his inflammatory rhetoric and the affiliation with the Ludwigs which he actively maintained (as seen above: “Long Live the Ludwigs!”), and on two different occasions, strangers threw rocks through our windows, once above the bed where my younger sister was sleeping. In response, he boarded up the windows of our house, rendering ever more visible the divide between our family and our town, and consequently spurring more fear and distrust from both sides. That was a horrible year for me, in 9th grade and thirteen years old, dealing with the aftereffects of puberty and just starting out on teenage life–and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year. My schoolmates were acutely aware that my dad didn’t like their dads’ occupations, and were sometimes not allowed to spend time with me. 
Dad was a source of humiliation and shame for so much of my childhood, and his sudden departure one morning in the spring of 2000, ostensibly as a result of growing antipathy between him and the community, had a positive impact on my family. My mom, with whom he had not slept in the same room for years, seemed to grow younger over the next six months.
I didn’t see him too often over the final few years of his life. My attitude toward him in those years oscillated between pity and revulsion: penniless and destitute, he had retreated into the forest as is befitting someone who devoted twenty years of his life to environmentalist causes, living out of a Boler trailer on his friend’s property. Rarely he would call, more frequently he would mail me conspiratorial articles from questionable publications with scrawled notes at the bottom. Once he resigned himself to the fact that I was pursuing an English degree in university rather than physics or engineering, he gifted me a charming copy of W.W. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language which he must have picked up at some local thrift store. During this time I could see him reaching out in what can be understood as oblique acts of affection to close relatives (such as me and my sister, and children from his first wife) whom he hadn’t treated well when it really mattered. Yet his paranoid interventions occasionally resurfaced: during my first year in college, when I played piano on the worship team for a local church, my dad replicated his old routine of showing up to organizations I was a part of and dragging me out of them, humiliating me further by accusing the youth pastor of having an inappropriately intimate relationship with me. 
Moving to New York has gotten me away from this past in many ways. Ten years after his death, I have enough distance to begin to see him more as a flawed, bitter man who led a complicated and sometimes destructive life, and whose primary mistake may have been his persistent refusal to medicate his serious mental disease. His life and his legacy are becoming important for me to process from a more distanced stance– in this post-election world, it seems more important than ever to think through what it means to espouse radical beliefs in a healthy, productive way, rather than a way that incites fear and violence from all sides. I’m haunted by the thought that the #noDAPL protests at Standing Rock are very much in line with much of what he stood for, but my father would also, in all likelihood, have greatly admired and celebrated the rise of Donald Trump. 
Indeed, the two men are not unlike each other. Like Trump, my dad was a man of contradictions–a performer, trained in provocation and wild bandying about of contradictory ideas, an “entertainer” as the article above claims. He believed the world was rigged against him, a product of his deeply ingrained victim complex. He sometimes displayed horrifying racism and applauded Wiebo for shaving his daughters’ and wives’ heads as a visible sign of their inferiority  (though, to his credit, he did try to convert my sister and I to his causes and encourage us to follow ‘manly’ career paths). He liked to lord his power over people close to him, to make incendiary remarks based on negligible evidence, to recklessly ally himself with anyone who was nice to him and uncritically reject anyone who wasn’t. He probably would have seen in Trump someone who stands up to the respectable decorum of the political establishment, isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and caters to populist concerns. My dad didn’t care about business ventures or money-making, but devoted himself to overturning existing structures and stirring shit up. 
Perhaps my reflections on his story have no place in an academic blog. All I know is that for a long time, academia helped me get away from anything that reminded me of him, and now I’m becoming pushed back, through the ghosts stirred up by the election and the ensuing environmental catastrophe it might engender, and the dire current need for as many modes of anti-Trump activism as possible. So I guess I’m here to reassert my dedication to activism, to environmentalism, but also to feminism and other anti-oppression -isms–to the things my dad fought for as well as the things he couldn’t see his patriarchal ideology was working to unravel.  

8 thoughts on “My radically sexist father

  1. Your reflections *do* have a place on an academic blog. I've long wrestled with the unspoken assumption in academia (at least in my experience) that we all come from similar families and backgrounds. Of course it would never be put it like that –on the surface, there is an acknowledgement of difference. But scratch beneath the surface and families of origin that are different in terms of class, education, mental and physical health, etc etc (and our experiences of growing up in those varied circumstances) are not recognized. It's lonely and alienating. So thank you for this.

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  2. Thanks for this valiant and thoughtful article, that offers a non-prescriptive look at how to be an academic with a past that sometimes involves literal/metaphorical shutting out of the world we want to engage with. I confess that I was a slightly flinch-y reader of this, because of the ways Trump's election has thrown into stark relief the ways that my father's support/promotion of anti-feminist, pro-law-and-order ideologies are actively harmful. I confess that I have, in the past, shied away from applying this kind of close, compassionate analysis to family history, but you make a good case for the position that there may be some irresponsibility in trying to treat such histories as only or merely personal.

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  3. Ohh, thanks Lucy. I'm not sure there's any irresponsibility in that at all, particularly if your dad is still alive–your personal associations sounds painful and I'm sorry if I opened any old wounds. I hardly had a real relationship with my dad when alive and it some ways that makes it easier to write about (also I'm perhaps a natural over-sharer). I think the comparison with Trump may be careless in some ways…it's just something I keep thinking about. Maybe I'm entirely wrong and my dad would have viewed him as a fraud, blind to his own comparable deficiencies.

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  4. Thank you for this. While my story, my father, are different from yours, I too find Trump's rise forcing me to think about my relationship to my father and to academia in ways I have avoided for a long time. So thank you.

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  5. Oh, don't apologize for encouraging critical reflection! I don't think the comparison is a careless one, given how allegiance to patriarchal power structures has proved so dangerously potent of late.

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