When Forgiveness Is Impossible

— by Cathy O’Neil

My first memory is of my father throwing a plate of eggs at my mother’s head, like a Frisbee. His eggs hadn’t been cooked well enough, and this was his way of expressing that to my mother, who had cooked them.

My mother had to duck to get out of the way, and the plate exploded on the wall behind her. Then he punched his hand through a glass window. Blood and glass fragments were everywhere.

I was 4 years old. I remember running to my bed and crying, and the already-familiar feeling of hiding in fear.

My mother was a battered woman who did not leave her abuser, and that meant many of things for her, and for me and my brother. I cannot explain her reasoning, because I was a small child when most of the abuse occurred. But I can tell you it is quite common, and it is not even that hard to understand.

One of the aspects of the decision to stay with your abuser or not, that I have not been hearing a lot of recently, in the Ray Rice-inspired nationwide conversation about violence against women, is the economics of it.

The worst of my father’s behavior happened when he was unemployed, and desperately unhappy with how his life was turning out. I imagine that is typical, but it is extra-hard to imagine managing a second household, with small children, on one salary, when it is already a huge struggle to manage one.

Once my father got on his feet again, he did not take anger out on his wife as much, or as often. Even so, the abuse did not completely stop, and it is not like my mother never considered leaving him.

I remember I went away for a month, to communist Budapest, when I was turning 13. When I came back, my mother told me that my father had pushed her down the stairs. Then she asked me if she should leave him. I said yes, but then she did not do it.

I will probably never really forgive her for asking me that, for putting that kind of responsibility on a child, and then not following through. Especially now, that I have kids of my own that age, it seems outrageous to put that kind of decision on their plate, or even seem to.

It was my last day of childhood: the day I realized that no responsible people were in my family, and that I would have to step up and be the person who negotiated reasonable boundaries, or failing that, call the cops. From then on, I was my mother’s and my brother’s protector.

If anyone ever asks me why I am not intimidated by anyone, I think of that moment. When you are a 13-year-old girl who has decided to stand up for your mother and brother against a large and very strong man, who often became an enraged and unreasonable bully, you forget about fear and intimidation, because you just cannot think about them.

Many years later, after I left college, my father engaged me in a series of ritualized revisionist history lessons: Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, maybe even on the 4th of July, he would bring up the bad old days.

He would mention how much I had hated him when I was a teenager, and how he had not deserved it; and how even when he had been abusive to my mother, she had hit him first, and he had not really wanted to do it, but there it is. He often distorted facts, and never explained why he was doing this.

It always sounded bizarre to me: How could it matter that my mother had hit him first, not to mention that it was unbelievably hard to imagine? How could that be an excuse for what kind of fear and rage he had manifested on her body and on our family for so long?

These inaccurate family-history lessons in sermon form were very confusing. They made me so angry that I never could do anything except stay silent. I did not even correct him when he lied about the details, because he was evidently saying all of this more for him than for me.

It took me years to figure out why this conversation kept happening, but I think I finally know now: He was working through his guilt, with me as his chosen audience.

He was, in a sense, asking for my forgiveness. I never gave it, but what those conversations did accomplish for him was almost the same: He made it my problem for being so unkind as to not forgive him. After all, my mother had forgiven him, so why could not I?

Looking back, I felt increasing pressure to forgive, but I never gave in. I did not even really know how.

The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson conversation, which I have been listening to on sports radio, has gotten me to thinking about this recently. I was listening to football guys, these pinnacles of macho masculinity, talking about men who abuse women and children, and describing it as unforgivable.

Thank God for those men: It really is unforgivable, but until now I had not realized that I was allowed to think so. I have been feeling so guilty for so long at not being able to forgive my father, that I never realized that I could just be okay with it. But now I realize, I do not forgive him, and I never will.

I am not writing this to hurt my father or my mother. I am writing in hopes that by reading this, people will realize that this kind of thing happens everywhere, to all kinds of people, and that it is always very wrong.

We need to create stronger laws around this, that do not buckle when the women refuse to press charges. We need to know that, the NFL needs to know that, and policy makers need to know that.

If this happened to you as a kid, it was not your fault, and you do not have to forgive if you do not want to. and even if you do not forgive your parents, you will probably still love them. Human beings are very good at conflicting emotions.

My proudest accomplishment is that I have not perpetuated the cycle of violence on my own family.

Originally published in Math Babe.


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