first person

The Rage My Father Gave Me

As a kid, his anger was as routine as it was devastating. Now, I’m fighting to stop my own rage from running my life.

The writer and her father in 1981. Photo: Courtesy of the author
The writer and her father in 1981. Photo: Courtesy of the author
The writer and her father in 1981. Photo: Courtesy of the author

There were three boys ahead of me in the waiting room at the orthodontist’s. One wore a New Kids shirt, one was blasting Boyz II Men on his Walkman, and the third remained face down in his pocket Game Boy. It was thrilling to be in such proximity to so many boys. I hoped they found me pretty in my feathered bangs and Gap pocket tee. I was 12.

Waiting-room jazz pulsed through the office. Time passed. I got hungry.

It was taking forever for my name to be called. There was a copy of Rolling Stone magazine in the waiting room, and Madonna was on the cover. This was the Warren Beatty and Blonde Ambition era. Her prime. In all the magazines, Madonna’s teeth were shiny and perfect, so the wait, I figured, was worth it.

Eventually, my father appeared, briefcase in hand. His office was down the street, and it was dinnertime.

“Mom sent me to get you.”

“But I don’t have my braces yet.”

I looked back down at the magazine, bracing myself. I knew my father would be angry that I had been waiting so long. Please don’t make a scene, I pleaded silently, thinking about the three cute boys sitting next to me. No such luck.

First, he started screaming at no one in particular: “What the fuck?!” Then at the receptionist, a scrawny college girl with fried blonde hair: “My daughter has been waiting for two hours, two fucking hours!”

His booming voice filled the very small office. The receptionist burst into tears. The orthodontist rushed out, ripping off his rubber gloves. “What’s going on here?”

I remember the terror in his eyes. I remember my father, towering over him at six-foot-five, screaming louder, swearing louder, the tenor of his voice so explosive that one of the boys made earmuffs with his hands.

But that night, we barely spoke on the car ride home, the sound of the evening news from 1010 WINS drowning out my sobs.

“I’m sorry,” I said at one point, “for making you wait.” My father kept his eyes on the road. I didn’t get braces that day, but when I returned the following week, the orthodontist saw me right away. While the brackets were bonding to my teeth, I peeked at my file: The patient’s father exploded in rage, it said, after she’d waited two hours for her appointment. The patient must never wait again.

Afterward, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened because nothing about it was unusual. My dad was a screamer. He had been screaming at me my whole life. “Do your homework!” “Practice tennis!” “Why don’t you understand division?!” Translation, at least in my head: You’re not the daughter I wanted.

My father’s yelling was dark and animal. Something I could feel but not understand. It left my nervous system, to this day, shot to hell. I still flinch any time I hear a man raise his voice.

You forgot to take out the garbage? He’d fling open the door, screaming, in the middle of the night. You forgot to brush your teeth? He’d pull the car over on the side of the highway and scream at you to get out. There’s a recording, from when our family first got our video camera, of my father asking if I understood multiplication. I was in third grade, and I didn’t (I still don’t). He wasn’t yelling so much this time as taunting. Making fun of how bad I was at math. “Stop!” I begged, weeping, into the camera. “Turn it off!” He did.

I always thought my father’s temper was common knowledge, that everyone who knew him received a dose of it often. Very recently, I found out this was not the case. He raged only at home. Inside the house. At me, my siblings, my mom.

“I had no idea,” a family member told me last month when the subject of my dad’s anger came up. “Your father was the most even-keeled, well-rounded man I knew. Everyone admired him.”

It would take me a long time to realize my father’s explosive anger didn’t stop with him — the temper, the stress screaming, the fury I spent my 30s analyzing in therapy — it’s part of the package of our shared DNA. Like his height, his eyes, his love of capers and canned clams. It’s all mine, too. My father’s fury is my fury.

The first time I lost my temper in public, I was in my mid-20s. I had just gotten my dream job as a beauty editor at a fashion magazine I loved. We were in California shooting Zooey Deschanel for a cover when my colleagues took a car to the shoot, leaving me behind at the hotel. I was hungover, and I felt left out. It all seems so silly now, but at the time, it was life-and-death.

I did a lot of drugs back then. I was a “party girl” but not the cool kind; the kind that ended up vomiting in the bar bathroom, then reappeared on the barstool, wan and wobbly and downing another bottle of wine. The kind you found in the back of the club screaming at some guy or vice versa. I couldn’t seem to get life the way others did, didn’t understand how they calmly strolled into work holding their coffee, how they all seemed to feel secure in their future that was all laid out before them like a field of flowers. I’d spent college locked in a room getting high. I needed pills to sleep, powder for class. My father’s voice, booming and enraged, was always bouncing around my brain. I picked boyfriends with big tempers, girlfriends who walked all over me. Chaos is what I knew, what I was used to: feeling the brunt of someone else’s rage, feeling flooded by my own to cope. There was no middle ground. I was either half asleep or lashing out.

I called the stylist from my flip phone, crying. I started screaming.

“How am I supposed to get to the shoot?” I yelled. I was screaming so hard my eyeballs were throbbing. The words came out in jagged spurts.

“We thought you were already on set,” she said calmly.

“Do you know how messed up this is?” I screamed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said the stylist. She started laughing. “You think I’m the one who’s messed up?”

Until that point in my life, I thought if you wanted something from someone, you screamed until you got it. That’s how it was growing up in my house. It was the only form of communication that made sense to me. I didn’t understand how relationships worked, that people aren’t always battling for power. That standing shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye, is the goal.

It took me a longer time to understand that love is a whisper, not a scream. Sometimes you can’t hear it at all.

When I turned 40, my father was diagnosed with leukemia. We had become close by then. Time had softened our edges. In my late 20s, I called my dad with a knife to my wrist. He boarded a plane the next day and spent the weekend making me smoothies and chicken soup. He was the first call I made when my daughter was born. “All my prayers have been answered,” he said into the phone.

Sitting together in the back seat of a car on the FDR, headed to a chemo appointment, I told him what I thought was good news. “I got you a second opinion,” I said. I’d been working every connection I had to find him help, and I was so proud to present this to him. I thought my resourcefulness would save his life.

“You can’t do that without asking me!” He screamed in the same voice he screamed in when I was 12. “You cannot undermine my medical care without including me in the conversation!”

Has a dying man ever yelled at you? My heart both broke and turned to stone. Even the cabdriver winced.

But after all these years, my instinct wasn’t sympathy — it was fear. Tears sprang to my eyes. I felt like I’d messed up all over again. Handed him the wrong fork. Forgot to do my chores. I felt like a stupid idiot.

My dad put his hand on my leg. He was very weak by then, and his hand was thin and bony. We both stared out the window. The East River flew by.

“I’m sorry we got into it,” he texted later that night. “It’s the fatigue. And the meds.” He most likely would have written more, but typing took a lot out of him.

“Yell at me all you want,” I wrote back. “I’m a very strong woman. I love you.”

The writer and her father in 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the author

My father never raged at me again. A few weeks later, he died during a bone-marrow transplant.

As I was grieving, I was also getting a divorce. There were lots of attorneys and late-night emails and tears, and it went on for a very long time. During those many, many months, I became angry. Angry at the man I was divorcing, at everything that had led to the divorce, that I’d been left with two young children … mainly, I was angrier than I had ever been at feeling both lonely and alone. Maybe I was also just really sad. But isn’t madness just upside-down sadness anyway?

I started to lose my temper, particularly around my kids, a lot.

I screamed at my children when they spit on each other in Starbucks. When they fought over who would clean the cat litter even though we had a color-coded chore chart making the cat-litter cleaning days very clear. When they climbed the tree too high. When they acted like children, even though they were, in fact, just children.

Once, I called my daughter an asshole in a Home Depot parking lot for pushing the cart into my butt. Once, when I was driving upstate in the middle of the night, one of my daughters threw up, and her sister, claiming the smell was so disgusting, threw up on top of her sister. “I can’t handle this!” I screamed, storming out of the car.

What a terrible mother, you’re probably thinking right now. Why didn’t she just take a couple of deep breaths? Doesn’t she know that no one should ever scream at a child?

After my outburst, I leaned into the back seat to make sure they were okay. Both of them flinched. That was it. I realized my kids were scared of me, of my screaming, the same way I’d been scared of my dad. That’s when I knew I had to change.

Now, when I lose my temper, I make amends to my daughters immediately. I tell my daughters I’m sorry. I say I’m having a bad day and it’s not their fault. I say they don’t deserve to be yelled at. I say no one deserves to be yelled at.

“We know, Mom,” they say. “You say this every time you lose your temper.”

“My anger is not your fault,” I tell them again anyway. (Even when I kind of feel like it is their fault — don’t push your cart into my ass in the Home Depot parking lot!) But kids will be kids. I am their mother. Even when my life is shitty or work is stressful or I’d rather be anything but. My job is not sexy — it is to stand still and rooted, to shelter them like a tree.

My father came of age in Eisenhower’s America; he was taught to suit up, show up, and shut up. Shine your shoes, trade your stocks, pound your fist on the boardroom table, jerk off to Hustler at the end of the day. It would be nearly 70 years until Ted Lasso and men’s groups and mindfulness apps and Brené Brown were telling us all that real power is vulnerability. He missed out. But that doesn’t undo the damage he caused. Or the damage he passed down. Rage, I believe, is in my genetic code. It’s in my cells. My blood, my bone marrow.

My dad was a deep, beautiful and flawed man. Anger was a tiny sliver of who he was. It took me a long time to see that. Yelling eclipses almost everything. Age and time have allowed the noise to fade.

My ex-husband tells me my temper is a beast. “I’m doing my best,” I say, because I am. Meditation twice a day. Talking through my feelings in therapy. I try to make friends with the monster, to ask the universe every morning, Help me to harness my temper today.

We have tools in my house. There’s a punching bag in my living room. I named her Ragina. “Go punch Ragina,” I tell my kids when they start acting out. “Take your rage out on her.” Or to scream one swear word, the worst word they can think of, when they’re mad at me or someone else. After they scream it, we usually start laughing.

Recently, one of my daughters was having a real meltdown. She was mad about something that happened at school. Everything is Armageddon when you’re in fifth grade.

I sat in the room. She screamed, she cried. She punched her pillow and flung her LEGOs at the wall.

“It feels really hard to be mad,” I said. “Makes your mind ache. Turns your body to lava.”

I stayed on the other side of the room, sitting, just being there. I could sense her trembling. It’s very hard to watch your child hurt. Not to manage her big feelings, control them, or tamp them down. We all want someone to sit next to us, even in our messiest moments. To bear witness to the pain. To make the fear feel okay. To wait out the end of the storm, shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye. To feel like love. To be the whisper, not the scream.

The Rage My Father Gave Me