Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Patriarch's View

by Jean Roberta.

My late father, who died in 2009, filled all the requirements of traditional fatherhood: he supported his family, he never beat his wife or children, he never committed adultery (that I know of), he was an academic who helped with homework. A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, he loved boats of all shapes and sizes. He was a generous host who loved dinner-parties and house-guests. He enjoyed repartee throughout his life.

When I first saw the title of Stupid White Men, American filmmaker Michael Moore’s broad critique of the power structure of the U.S. and the myths that sustain it, I immediately thought of my dad.

If the world-view that I was taught in elementary school had anything to do with reality, I would never have come to see men like my father as monsters in disguise.

Born in 1921 into a family with southern roots that owned slaves before the American Civil War, he grew up believing that the U.S. was the home of the brave and the free. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s seemed to him like an overreaction to racial discrimination, although my mom (whose roots and personal history were a whole different thing) persuaded him to join the American Civil Liberties Union and oppose segregation. If not for her, it seems unlikely that he would have noticed racism at all. It didn’t loom large in his world.

I came to learn that the McCarthy Era of the 1950s devastated my mom’s leftist Jewish friends (her old high-school posse from New York). Following her lead, I came to think of the anti-Communist paranoia of that time as a sickening American sequel to the Holocaust in Europe. Dad’s nostalgia for the wholesome innocence of the 1950s gave me the impression that he and my mom were living in different dimensions at the time.

When we moved to Canada, he found it outrageous that some Indians (native/First Nations people) had treaty rights. Dad described them as the “landed aristocracy.” He claimed that the residential school system for native children that was being dismantled in the 1960s was based on an upper-class British model, designed to encourage fortitude and intellectual rigour.

I always knew that my mom had Mohawk blood. Yet when my dad described her ancestors (and mine) as primitive tribesfolk who could benefit from “civilization,” she said nothing. In her world, husbands were entitled to have the last word.

Second Wave Feminism seemed hilarious to my dad. He took it on faith that hordes of young women were burning their bras (despite my denials), and he couldn’t imagine why. He claimed that “consciousness-raising” was another term for brainwashing. I introduced him to the saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” He told me that was a meaningless slogan.

Dad disapproved of day care centres. He thought that if women didn’t want to raise their own children, they shouldn’t have them. To my relief, he vehemently supported reproductive freedom of choice for all, including the right to abortions.

Dad often pointed out that there was no such thing as “real rape” because men’s sexual aggression was always a response to women’s reckless flirting. “Cherchez le booze” could have been his motto whenever he heard or read about sexual abuse. He claimed that women’s accusations of “rape” usually started with hook-ups in bars. If there was no mention of a bar in a printed account of sexual harassment or assault, he would say, “we don’t know what really happened,” then rewrite the plot so that it began in a beer-soaked dive. And he would redraw the victim as a “floozy,” the kind of woman who liked to approach men in bars with lines like, “Buy me a drink, sailor.”

If only the world were so simple.

By the time I went away to university at age 19, I had argued fruitlessly with my dad on most issues of general interest. I found his belief system mildly annoying, but I felt myself lucky to have a father with a more supportive attitude to his children than many I had heard of. And his world-view seemed to be widely shared by most young white men of my generation, even those who considered themselves hip and radical.

The term “date-rape” wasn’t used in 1971, but this was what happened to me in my dorm room in my first year of university. I was already in despair for reasons that would take too long to explain in full. I had several bottles of sleeping pills on hand, and I swallowed them. I didn’t want to live through the aftermath of what had been done to me.

Things turned out even worse than I feared. In the psych ward of the local hospital, a young male psychiatrist pressured me to admit that what had happened wasn’t a “real rape.” He encouraged me to take full responsibility for my own experience. He told me that reporting it to the police wouldn’t accomplish anything. (He was probably right about that.)

At home in my own town, I was taken to several male psychiatrists by my parents, who seemed to hope I could be cured of my hysterical belief that male violence against women was not only real but systemic. I was diagnosed as a “borderline schizophrenic” and was prescribed an antidepressant by a doctor who hadn’t seen me yet. I was never given medication for schizophrenia. (I learned this years later when I followed the paper-trail of my “therapy.”)

At age 21, I gained the legal rights of adulthood and refused to visit any more psychiatrists. Years passed, and I was determined to put the events of my youth behind me. Getting as much education as possible seemed to be the key to a satisfying life, so I returned to university for a first degree, and kept returning after every disappointment on the job or relationship front.

My dad never stopped believing that I had “mental problems,” his generic term for a wide range of conditions including learning disabilities, emotional distress and a tendency to see things that aren’t there. He explained my mental condition as the cause of all my irrational behaviour, including my refusal to take on my husband’s family name when I married. Dad always assured me that people with “mental problems” shouldn’t be blamed for them.

Dad claimed that open discussions of mental illness could lead to greater understanding of the problem. Apparently this was his motive for telling his friends and colleagues about me. For years, I could usually guess which of my parents’ contemporaries had been told about their troubled daughter. Luckily for me, I rarely run into them any more.

I sometimes wonder if my dad still exists somewhere, in the world as he sees it. I am still tempted to say what I said to him many times in life.

Dad, you don’t know everything. Please listen to me. I’m an intellectual like you. (Or maybe not like you, but some kind of intellectual nonetheless.) There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

But I know he can’t hear me now. He never did.

May he rest in peace.


  1. Hi Roberta

    Wow, this is painful stuff. It reminds me of what makes OGG such a different and unique blog from many others I've seen.

    When I read this, I keep thinking that things have changed a lot seince then, and they have definately, and yet your father's way of thinking is still very dominant in the US and especially in other parts of the world. I do bleiev things are getting better though.

    Sometimes when having coffee in a retro diner or watching re-runs of the twilight zone or Mad-Men I start to get nostalgic about the 50s when I was a little kid. But then I realise it was only nice if you were male and white and had a good factory job. It was hard for everybody else.


  2. Part of me wants to label your father's way of thinking as old-fashioned and outdated. Another part of me knows there are far too many men who still feel the same way. Sad. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Holy smokes! What a life to have survived.

  4. Hey Jean,

    I read this on Thursday and am just getting back to comment now. I found it painful to read some of this, and I actually don't know what I want to say in response, except...this may sound odd, but there were times during the reading of this I just wanted to give the you of that time a hug and let you know you were supported. Thank you for sharing this. And, as painful as I found it, I also found it beautifully expressed.

  5. Jean dear,

    Your tale certainly reminds me of how lucky I have been. The sad thing is that I believe your experiences mirror those of many young women. Your father was not a monster - far from it. He was simply a product of his background and his times.

    At least he believed in reproductive choice and was not of the opinion that women are fundamentally baby-makers and that they shouldn't fight this destiny. Furthermore, it sounds as though he supported your educational goals, rather than telling you that a woman doesn't need any education since her primary role is to take care of her husband.

    I hate to say it, but as bad as your experiences were, they could have been even worse.



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