This morning I read a review of Bad Indians that was very positive; someone had used it in her university classroom, which I love to hear about.
But the reviewer took issue with how she saw me blaming my father’s violence and abusive behavior toward family members on the historical trauma of Missionization, rather than holding him personally responsible. This perception makes me sad, because I worked hard in that book to make it clear that historical trauma was only one part of how I came to understand my father. I don’t “excuse” or “forgive” his behavior on the basis of his personal or historical trauma, I understand his behavior because of what I’ve learned about how indigenous peoples survived genocide so horrific that no language could express it (in fact, I’ve often thought about the fact that even if we all spoke our native languages fluently, we still could not express the experiences of genocide. No language can do that; it is a leap that the human tongue cannot make.)
The difference between forgiveness and understanding is an important one for me. Yes, as the reviewer insisted, my father chose to drink, knowing full well that drinking made him violent and cruel; he also knew that drinking broke him open and flooded him with grief and despair. And knowing what alcohol made him do, my father still “chose” to do it. But this is where the reviewer loses me. Alcoholism, in and of itself, is not a choice. It is a disease. Once someone is an addict, control goes out the window. And when you are driven to alcoholism by despair and trauma, by biological bent, by forces too monstrous to name, that is not a choice.
At times throughout his life, my father tried to quit drinking. I witnessed him go into rehab at least twice during my teens, rehab that included nominal counseling and medical interventions. But he had nothing else to dull the pain if he didn’t have alcohol – no real emotional resources, no understanding of his own grief. Despite knowing that alcohol ruined every human relationship he’d ever had, he still could not break its hold on him.
Finally, in his old age, he did stop drinking – medical conditions and medications meant that he could no longer metabolize alcohol as easily, or as often. My father was more afraid of dying than he was of his demons, I think - so he detoxed, and stayed sober. There was a long period of time when my mother didn’t have to be afraid of the phone ringing late at night (divorced, he still drunk-dialed her regularly), when my dad didn’t wake up in the drunk tank, when he retired and enjoyed not doing manual labor for the first time in his entire life. He was a good grandfather to my two kids, coming down to the house to help me lay new linoleum or add a half-bath downstairs, fix a little plumbing problem or build a deck. It was as if, in his seventies, my dad finally came into his own. He became active in the tribe, attended gatherings, attempted to repair relationships with my older half sisters. He remarried and formed his last family with his new wife and a beloved cat in a modest retirement community of other retired people who had worked hard all their lives. I even went there to share Thanksgiving with my dad and his wife and a few of the neighbors one year. One of my sisters flew up from California. It was, in a quiet way, miraculous. It didn’t last.
No, he didn’t start drinking again – but as his body fell apart, as his pain and limitations increased, so did his old anger, and his old fear, and even older grief. This time he couldn't take to the bottle and drown his demons. This time he couldn’t find a way to run away. Yet even without alcohol, he drove away his third wife, managing to physically threaten and hurt her despite his decrepitude; he ended up alone in hospice care. Only his youngest child, my brother, would visit him. The rest of us kept our distance; we certainly did not want to put ourselves in the line of fire one last time; the man had shot us down so many times, and showed no inclination of easing up as he headed toward his own death. My father wrote hurtful letters to me; he and I didn’t speak for the last two or three years of his life. I don’t think he spoke very often, if at all, to any of his children except his youngest, my brother, who lived nearby and who had his own complex relationship with our dad.
So although alcohol exacerbated my father's violent behaviors, it seems to me that this self-medication was a symptom of deeper damage, damage that returned when he became helpless and wracked with pain.
Did I let my father off the hook in my writings about him? Did I pull my punches? (Why do we use images of piercing or blows to describe the act of choosing not to perpetuate violence?)
No, I don’t forgive my father for the damage he did to our family. But I do understand the larger context of why he did the things he did, and the battles he fought that I knew nothing about. The demons who haunted him. The way he remained alone all of his life, unable to share any of his fears with anyone but alcohol. And alcohol was not a good confidant. Where was it, at the end? Off carousing with some other poor sucker, while my father died mostly alone, as he had lived his life.
I think that was punishment enough. I can spare a little compassion. I’m not sure I can call that forgiveness. But in writing about my father, in telling the truth about who he was when I knew him, I wanted to tell the whole truth: he was good. He was bad. He was loving and lovable. He was hateful and mean. He was not, as the reviewer wrote, “a monster.” He was Al Miranda.
He was a human being who survived inhumane experiences and did not have any resources, either internally or externally, to figure out what to do with the anger and grief he carried. I wish he had managed it all more gracefully. I don't know for sure that he could have. There are times when I'm not all that sure that I can manage my anger and grief with any grace.
But it's something worth working towards, isn't it?