On the Violent Potential of Dads, by Derrick Martin-Campbell

Editor Matty Byloos, Editor's Choice, June 30th, 2014

They will do anything to protect us. And what they do is often terrifying.

violence and fatherhood
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It’s June, still hot just before dinner, I’m sixteen, and my dad and I are fighting.

I’m in my boxers on the couch, homework in my lap, watching as my dad walks a rut in the family room between me and the TV. He is trying to tell me something important and growing increasingly frustrated by my apparent indifference as he does so. As his eldest son, I have only just begun to understand the power I have over him, a power I explore mostly by baiting and then carefully tripping his strongest feelings, winding him up until his tired shows, then cracking him open. Work boots left behind on the garage steps, he paces the carpet in stocking-feet, still wearing his telephone repairman’s vest. His voice gets louder, more manic the more I perform not listening to him. But I am listening.

When his frustration finally overwhelms him, snatches the language from his open mouth and leaves him stalled, muscles tensed, futilely searching the air for his words, the good-dad words he has been chasing all his life in order to pass them on to me, the bully in me cannot resist. I raise my hand, reach out to him. “Dad…” I say.

His eyes snap to mine – wide, desperate, hopeful. Expression blank, my gesture continues, as I indicate the flashing screen behind him. “I can’t see the TV, Dad.”

He yanks the binder from my lap, shouts, “Goddamn it!” and throws it so hard against the wall that my homework tears its hole-punches, flutters like bird feathers in the living room dusk. His anger means I have succeeded, but I cannot say at what, or why.

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Both physically and emotionally, this is probably the most violent story I have about my father, the closest thing to an episode of “abuse,” episodes of which my dad’s childhood contained plenty. Something my younger siblings and I often wonder at when discussing our parents is what we see as our dad’s feat of transubstantiation, his absorption of the many gross indignities of his childhood, followed, if not by their eradication, then at least by their containment within him, a steam engine of trauma he has somehow shouldered and halted in its tracks.

Growing up, my dad professed his love for us at least hourly, supported us all unconditionally in each of our endeavors, hugged and fed us. I’m certain his proudest accomplishment in this life is his success in giving each of his children a childhood very different than his own. Now grown and more familiar with how patterns of abuse work, I am not entirely clear how he managed to do this. Obviously, my mother played a huge role. Her childhood was equally complicated, but also completely different. Much of the way my dad loves us was clearly modeled for him by my mom, a teacher.

It isn’t hard to make my mom cry, but neither is it especially easy. I can make my dad cry just by looking at him.

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There is no violence quite like dad-violence.

Though it takes place around Thanksgiving, a good/weird Father’s Day movie is Denis Villeneuve’s beautiful, harrowing, child-endangerment-exploitation flick, Prisoners, two-and-a-half-hours wherein Hugh Jackman’s character turns his dead father’s abandoned apartment building into a mini-Abu Ghraib in his quest to shout, hammer, scald, and generally savage his way to the return of his kidnapped daughter.

Jackman’s character is an attempt to morally complicate/ennoble a more common archetype of horror-movie fatherhood, one typified by Sean Bridger’s nightmare of a sadistic, misogynistic patriarch who, in Lucky McKee’s The Woman, sees the threats the world has arrayed about his family and similarly responds by building a literal torture-prison in his shed.

Both characters are modern critiques of what was once a ubiquitous cliche: the Angry Dad. Straddling boundaries of class, faith, and race, and turning up in everything from movies to books to hair metal videos, the Angry Dad basically reimagined Ward Cleaver as the shouting, abusive fascist that anyone who has ever feared the adult male sitting at the head of the dinner table has likely suspected Ward of being.

Modern attempts to reconstruct pop culture’s ideas about fatherhood have turned up some pretty cool alternatives to the Angry Dad, including goofy, loving, bad-joke dads like Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy, or even his prototype, Danny Tanner of Full House, an early attempt to disarm the Angry Dad by turning him into a widower. Louis CK’s titular Louie is a dad so wise, so hard-working, and so likeable, that many fans of the show were caught completely off guard when the character sexually assaulted his love-interest Pamela in a recent episode of the show. Writing about that episode, AV Club commentator Todd VanDerWerff began by doing what more than a few male writers did when attempting to parse “Pamela (part 1)’s” troubling climax: he opened (much as I have here) with an autobiographical digression about a time he was horrible.

Returning briefly to Prisoners, A. O. Scott notes, “[when] dealing with people who gratuitously cause innocents to suffer, no retribution seems too extreme, and the history of movies is full of good men driven to righteous brutality against predators, kidnappers and abusers.”

Dads: they will do anything to protect us. And what they do is often terrifying.

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The pictures of Richard Martinez’s and Peter Rodger’s meeting, media event though it may have been, stand as effective documentation of two men enduring – and even attempting to share – the impossible pain occasioned by the loss of their respective children. Lacking any appropriate posture or expression with which to defend themselves, their twinned, naked gazes burn holes in the camera, their hug becoming the desperate clinging of two swimmers who might otherwise drown.

If you didn’t know the context, you might guess the two men were about to tear each other apart. They’re not, though. They have already been torn apart.

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I used to get bullied a lot in middle school and high school, and though I never physically fought back, one of the ways I dealt with it was by taking up boxing.

There are two reasons boxers in a fight sometimes wind up hugging each other. One is because it’s surprisingly hard to hit someone with any force when you are that close together. The other reason is because you are tired.

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Derrick Martin-CampbellDerrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, OR. His work has previously appeared in Metazen and Thought Catalog. More information and links about Derrick Martin-Campbell can be found here.

 

 

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).