In my father’s world of fantasy, life should have been easier than it was. But life with my father was more like a hybrid fairy tale: the Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood then blows down the Three Little Pigs’ house. My father was always the Wolf, and I was whatever character he wanted me to be.
“Keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie,’” my father would say. Whenever anything bad happened — even if he was the one who caused it, and he usually was — that’s what he would say. It was only after my father had been dead for three years that I learned he stole that tagline from Wes Craven’s 1972 debut horror movie.
My father’s hallucinations started the day after my ninth birthday, the day he asked me to kill him.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” my father said while wearing his battle face. “You’re going to sit in the front closet and keep watch. I’m going to leave. A different man’s going to come back in my body. You’re going to kill him. Now, I’m going to teach you to load this rifle.”
He spilled bullets into my hand. All but three slipped through my fingers and pounded into the carpet.
“You can’t let that happen!” he shouted. “The neighbors will hear.”
I collected the strays and held them delicately in my lap. I feared they might explode if I made the wrong move. I watched my father load the gun and unload it.
“Got any questions?” he asked.
I shook my head. I had a few questions but not the kind he wanted me to ask.
The very sight of guns terrified me. In my father’s world, guns were used for hunting humans. I had been the hunted; I didn’t want to be the hunter.
By age nine, I was already well trained in deductive reasoning. When faced with two fears, I knew to always choose the less frightening of the two. At that moment, my father scared me more than the gun did. Thus, I took the rifle.
It was heavier than I thought it would be. I could barely hold it up into the firing position. I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to pull the trigger, even if I’d had the heart to.
Nevertheless, I practiced loading and unloading the gun. My father critiqued me through the process. It was like the time he taught me how to make a cheese omelet; it took several hours for me to get it right, and my hands were sore afterward.
“Leave it loaded this time and hand it to me,” he said. “It’s time for you to get in the closet. I’ll bring the rifle to you. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
No running with scissors. No walking with rifles. These were the steadfast rules of the household.
“Daddy?” I called after him, but he was already nearly gone. I watched his shadow get smaller through the slats of the closet door. “How will I know it isn’t you who comes back in your body?”
He never answered my question.
“Keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie,’” was all he said, and then he walked out.
I gripped the rifle close to my chest. At nine years old I’d already had enough experience as a soldier to know that no matter how many battles you survive, the next one is never any easier.
In the closet, I thought about the Smurfs and their mushroom houses. I thought about their village and how it’s impossible for a human to find it except when led there by a Smurf. For a few hours, I imagined the closet was a magical mushroom house too deep in the forest for any human to find. For a few hours, I felt safe there despite the rifle I was holding. Then I remembered that my father once said Papa Smurf symbolized the central planner of the communist economy. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
When the front door opened, I recognized my father’s silhouette. I couldn’t kill it. He flipped the light switch on and off three times.
“Hi honey. I’m home,” he said in a voice that was not my father’s.
As I crawled out of the fetal position and carefully set the rifle down in the closet’s doorway, he told me he’d gone to Vietnam. He told me not to tell my mother.
I knew it wasn’t true, but I knew better than to challenge him. When dealing with crazy people, always play along. That’s another of the many lessons I’d learned by age nine.
“Why did you have to go to Vietnam, Daddy?”
“There’s a war going on,” he said. He looked me straight in the eye, and I knew he believed it.
In the weeks that followed, the man that was not my father put me through what he called training camp. He taught me what it would be like to be a prisoner of war. He taught me about solitary confinement. He fed me rotten chicken and rice. He raped me. I learned what it meant to be considered a child of the enemy.
Word had gotten around school that my father had lost his mind. I only had one friend, and she was no longer allowed to play at my house. The teacher kept me in the classroom during recess to give me a talk I would learn to become very familiar with: it was me, not my grades, that concerned them.
I couldn’t focus. I cried for no reason. The lights in the classroom were suddenly too bright. But there were no visible scars, no open wounds. I couldn’t tell the truth, and there was nothing they could do. It was only a movie.
Summer came. I began to grow breasts and body hair, neither of which I wanted. I got my period. He watched pornography and drank vodka by the gallon. I started appreciating the times when he passed out. I started sleeping in the closet even when he didn’t make me. I started drinking his vodka. It was only a movie.
On his good days, he taught me how to throw knives and how to shoot a gun. He bought a cork gun and lined up beer cans on the back of the couch so I could practice. I quickly became a good shot. He gave me a pistol and insisted I sleep with it. I took the bullets out and buried them into a hole I dug in the closet wall.
I spent the summer drunk. I had to get sober to go back to school. I started taking my father’s valium for the uncontrollable shaking. I constantly felt like I had to vomit, even when I hadn’t eaten for days.
That autumn, I joined the school orchestra. I learned to play the cello. My father told me I should have picked the violin because it was a more challenging instrument. So I learned that too.
I turned ten. They took him away. Thirty days later, they brought him back.
I turned thirteen, eighteen, and twenty-one.
He died a month and one day after my twenty-third birthday, and I couldn’t cry.
People who had degrees but no first-hand understanding said sometimes the abuser’s death brings closure. They didn’t understand that the man who raped me wasn’t the same man who left me armed with a rifle when I was nine. They didn’t understand that my real father died the day he left me in the closet, even though I couldn’t kill him.
Now the people with degrees are writing books, and they want me to tell them what it took for me to forgive him. I tell them various things. But most of what I tell them is lies. The truth is that I don’t know if what I know is forgiveness. I only know that I’m fine with being my father’s daughter. He was the man who taught me calculus when I was five. He was the man who taught me not to underestimate Wile E. Coyote, because the coyote could catch that bird if he really tried. He was the man who had my eyes.
Now he comes to me in dreams. A familiar voice telephones to tell me he is still alive, that no one would ever really have the courage to kill him. I never see his face. But I feel his features pressing into mine, his soul enveloping me into the kind of darkness it’s impossible to wake up from. As my eyes open, I can feel the warmth of his breath as he whispers “It’s only a movie.”
Originally published Spring 2016 in The Ash