Content warning: Violence, abuse, other unsavory stuff.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time…
These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On August 11th, my stepfather killed himself. He shot himself in the head with a handgun, probably the small one he kept in the glovebox but it might have been the one from the black case in the top of the closet or the one from the bedroom. The night before she was set to face him in court, two officers showed up at mom’s house with the news. She was filing a Protection From Abuse order in the state of Alabama so that she could leave him safely, something that I had tried to arrange for a decade. Increasingly concerned for her life, I fretted often, footed the lawyer’s bill, pored over the laws.
At the end of the day, only she could leave him. It took me twelve years to understand that. Apparently, it only took him an instant.
You have to understand that he was a sick person, both in the sympathetic sense of growing up living someone else’s twisted reality from the inside out, and in the sick fuck sort of sense. Mostly the latter. In the days immediately following his suicide, I felt a sort of pity for him for the first time in years. He must have felt so alone. He finally realized what he was and what he had done. The ultimate act of contrition.
As evidence turned up — vitriolic suicide notes to my mother and I, creepy paper trails, insane legal threats, drained bank accounts — it became clear that he executed himself as an act of revenge. He perceived his death as a moment of strength, not weakness. My pity quicky faded back to a muted sort of fear and confusion that this person existed in the world at all. Left with the trauma of all of this on top of everything before, his revenge is at least partly a success. I hope in a year I don’t feel like that any more.
I moved out of our house in northwest suburban Houston when I was 18, as far away as I could get, enrolling at NYU. The anonymity and population density of New York made me feel safer than I’ve ever felt. He could never find me among all of these people. My parents divorced when I was six and my mom and I moved in with him almost immediately. I’m not sure when he began to hate me, hate us, or why. There are many answers that I don’t expect to find.
To him, I was public enemy number one, the one he let escape, the one capable of flattening his house of cards. He wasn’t wrong. I left in part so I could return to retrieve my mom and little sister, take them to a safe new life I would build. Over the last 12 years I tried and failed again and again and nothing in my life has proven as emotionally exhausting.
Remarkably, his obsessive hatred of me didn’t wane over the years. In 2010, I took my mother’s maiden name in the hopes it would make me fall off his radar. I moved to Oakland and prayed he’d be a few steps behind in knowing where I lived, and that worked for a couple of years. A year ago, I began to suspect that he might show up in Portland. He’s followed my family and I before, the one time we got away. Driving through the night, he found us two states over in the rural foothills of one of the poorest coal counties in the country. I still don’t know how he found us.
In 2015, I discovered that he’d begun stalking me online again. After I learned that he was trying to coerce my mother into a suicide pact, one of my best friends helped me lock down all of my accounts, all of my geodata, any way he could find me. But Portland is small and my online presence is larger than ever. Preparing for the worst, I notified my employer (the Daily Dot, which handled the situation with gravity and grace) that he might try to find my address or get me fired. A family friend across the country offered to buy me a gun, and when I demurred, a taser.
Describing him to anyone who didn’t grow up with me is nearly impossible. He was a fearsome 6’8” and kind of looks like Shepard Smith, which is probably the main reason among many that watching Fox News make me feel panicky. Detailing his menacing physical reality paired with his role as my perennial tormentor ends up painting a picture of a cartoon villain, unreal and capable of great evil. If you’re unfortunate enough to have ever spent time in the company of a psychopath, a person wholly and truly without regard for other human lives, you’ll understand me immediately. It’s likelier that you won’t, and I am relieved for you.
As reluctant as I am to name it, he abused my mother, sister, and I for years. I really don’t like that word, the implied power the abuser wields over the abused, but that’s just what it is and I have to deal with that. I don’t think we ever admitted that he abused us. I’m not ready to own that word and the sound of it makes me want to flail around and then be so still and small that I disappear altogether.
Instead, we have always used the language of terror, which resonated much more. He terrorized us; it was systematic. His systems of power and control were calculated. His role as domestic terrorist inspired unyielding fear and unease. We didn’t often fear he would physically hurt us, although he did from time to time, and increasingly in recent years. If anything, his outbursts of physical violence were a comforting departure from the intricate sport of mind games and manipulation, his favorite. At least physical violence revealed something recognizably human.
Instead, we feared he would kill us. As we knew all along, that fear was not unfounded. As the events of August leading up to his suicide make clear, he hadn’t seemed to make up his mind about that part until the last minute. My mom found receipts from two days prior from a gun range in Pensacola, Florida. He hadn’t been to a range in a decade. As a close friend of hers who worked in forensics pointed out, and her lawyer reiterated, “You don’t go to a gun range to practice shooting yourself.”
He was found dead in his Lincoln Blackwood on the side of the road one rural Alabama county over. He left a playing card, the ace of spades, in the center console and two cartons of rotting eggs in the passenger seat, because, like I said, he was sick like that.
The nightmares got worse in my early twenties and didn’t let up. In dreams, he is a constant presence moving toward me while I either fumble to escape or remain silent and still. Either strategy fails. He is a wave swelling on the horizon; I am out to sea. In my worse dreams, he plays himself. Whatever form he takes gives rise to inescapable dread, the impossibility of feeling free or far.
In my waking life, the effect that feeling has on my creative process is just something I’m coming to understand now. I’m sure it’s partially what drove me away from the Internet in the last year and quite literally into the wilderness. Outside, I feel like a powerful creature, steady and strong. I can move over the landscape, I can go off the map, I rely on myself only, sleep on the ground. Outside, I’m not scared of anything except humans. There aren’t many humans outside so maybe that’s why I go there.
When friends comment that I must be “so brave” to go hiking and backpacking alone, I realize there’s something inexpressible here and not a lot of people I know have lived it. In the past month and a half, I’ve felt more distant from most people close to me than any time I can remember. I’m blessed to have many wonderful friends and a chosen family there for me through anything, but I can count the people I’ve spoken to about it on one hand. For two months my best friend, who is a wonderful person, keeps calling me and I keep ignoring him, knowing that if I talk to him I’ll have to talk about what happened, which implicates me and defines our relationship as one of abuser and abused. The idea alone makes me feel strange and weary and very, very still.
There are two worlds and I walk between them, that of the living and that of the dead-adjacent. I hover in a hazy sort of borderland, this time the one between me and normal people whose parents didn’t just kill themselves as a revenge plot. I learned this years ago, doing a stint as the girl with the dead best friend and the girl with a dead dad, among others. I fantasize about the things I could have and how I might lose them.
I don’t know where to put everything yet, but I’m tired of carrying it around. It’s toxic, rotted through. Some nights, my mom calls late and tells me again about the stench inside his truck, thick with death and things rotting from the inside, how she smells it everywhere. I’m ready for her lived nightmare to be over. I’m ready for mine to end too. For now, I’m putting it here.
Thanks to my friend Hannah Hart, who published her intensely personal book Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded today. Sometimes I feel like my stuff is too much, and it’s nice to know other people have stuff that can be too much too. Maybe life is too short, you know?